The James Bulger case was not the first incident of children murdering other children, says John Hinton
The Devil’s Children
BY LORETTA LOACH ICON BOOKS, £14.99
In the Catholic Church it is still accepted that parents should not delay in baptising a child because the child might die and not be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven. Children must be saved at all costs. For the essence of childhood is innocence, accepted by all as unsullied and pure; they are unique and have to be cared for by all who know them.
Fiction allows distortions of the theme. In the movie The Omen, audiences followed in horrified fascination as a boy in the clutches of the devil brought death and destruction to the lives of his uncomprehending parents.
But there can be no worse horror, nothing that defies the mind more than the real-life killing of an innocent child by another child, the subject of a new book, The Devil’s Children, by Loretta Loach.
Children can, of course, be cruel. Many remember their schooldays and witnessing the teasing of short-sighted boys and girls, those inept at sports or dullwitted in class. Too small or too fat, you could easily become the target of the playground bullies. But when children become unspeakably cruel to other children and their victims die we can want to close our ears and eyes to the news.
The murder of two-year-old James Bulger is the most notorious case in recent times. In 1993 the British public and the news media were horrified when the two-yearold was tortured and murdered by a pair of 10-year-olds.
Ten-year-olds killing a toddler? The hardened Merseyside detective in charge of the case said it was the worst he had ever come across. The author of one letter published in a newspaper supposedly summed up the national mood, saying the two killers must have had a “Satan bug inside”. The murder, newspaper columnists agreed, was a sign of the times, of something rotten in Nineties Britain. This, they said, was a new and awful kind of crime.
But it wasn’t new, as the author in this history of child murders, proves with considerable detail.
She cites 14 known cases of children killing children in the quarter of the century up to the Bulger murder. Two, including an 11-year-old drowning a two-yearold in a puddle of rainwater in 1972, took place in Bulger’s home town of Liverpool.
Reaching back as far as the late Middle Ages we learn of dozens more horrific killings. Indeed, one Victorian murder was almost a carbon copy of the Bulger case. This was the killing of two-yearold George Burgess by two eightyear-old pals in Stockport in April 1861. Like Bulger, he was led away by the two older boys to a wasteland on the edge of town. There he was stripped, beaten with sticks and drowned in a shallow pool. The local newspaper announced that the crime was a symptom of moral decay.
Working-class lads Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the abductors of Jamie Bulger, were no strangers to violence. In Venables’ case, he had been bullied by kids on his housing estate; his school teachers noticed his behaviour becoming increasingly odd as if he was suffering some inner turmoil. He was expelled from one school after holding a wooden ruler tightly against a classmate’s throat. In Thompson’s case, he was one of seven sons whose father bullied his wife and children repeatedly. Caught smoking, he was made to eat a packet of cigarettes.
When Jamie Bulger was led away from a shopping centre – caught on CCTV cameras – he appeared to be an object with which the older boys could have some fun.
When the toddler started crying, they explained to curious passersby they had found him lost and wandering and were taking him to the police station. At some point, they crossed the divide from stupid prank to violence, beating the infant with bricks and bars to stop his insistent cries and disposing of his body on a railway line.
The boys certainly knew what they did was wrong but some experts questioned whether at 10 years old they had the intellectual capacity to know right from wrong.
At the time, the tabloid press attached the label “evil” on the boys, as Loach says, “with repetitive ease, as if cruelty and violence did not belong to a realm that was human”. And the detective in charges of the investigation thought they had deliberately planned the abduction of an infant that day, saying: “It was frightening to see two boys with such strong, evil criminal intent.” Others begged to differ, among them the lawyers involved in the case. In a review on its 10th anniversary one of the leading barristers said he still believed that the English adversarial process was inappropriate for children of 10. “In other countries, social and psychiatric workers would have become immediately involved rather than lawyers. I have always felt that the misery for both accused children was that they were unable to tell anyone what had really happened – their mothers, their families or their lawyers.” It would have been different, points out the author, in Italy, where the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 14 and where Venables and Thompson would have been brought before a tribunal of four judges with specific expertise in children and crime. And it would have been in a private hearing rather than one exposed to the full glare of the world’s media with commentators almost relishing the opportunity to lash out at the “degraded state” of Nineties Britain.
With hindsight, of course, the events that occurred might never have happened at all. The meeting, which was to lead to such a huge amount of coverage and comment, could have turned out very differently. “It’s dangerous to extrapolate lessons for society,” as a lawyer for the Bulger family was to comment.
But one thing is certain: the culprits, now released, will have to live with their guilt for the rest of their lives.