Through its back page obituaries, the Economist magazine has invented a more literary and at times philosophical version of the genre. A good example came in the 25 August edition, with this obituary about Winnie Johnson. She would otherwise have been unknown, but on 16 June 1964 her twelve year-old son, Keith, was kidnapped, tortured, raped, strangled and then buried on Saddleworth Moor by the notorious ‘Moors Murderers’, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Her son’s body was never found, though she searched for it for as long as she could. Brady, still alive, sadistically refused to reveal its whereabouts, and now it is too late for poor Winnie. In his autobiographical work, Experience, novelist Martin Amis wrote movingly about the effects of the strange disappearance of his cousin, Lucy Partington. He was accused of co-opting her terrible story (she was abducted, tortured and murdered by Fred and Rosemary West) but anyone who has read his account can measure the self-evident sincerity of his emotions (he dedicated his novel, The Information, to her). A former member of my writers’ workshop, the novelist Alice Jolly, grew up as a neighbour to the Partington family and to this day speaks movingly about the psychological effects on a child of living next door to a mysterious absence. And then, through listening to Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise, I came across the awful story of mass ‘clown’ murderer, John Wayne Gacy. The following paragraph in the Wiki account led me to write The Fifth Body (below). ‘‘(John Wayne) Gacy stated that after he had assaulted and then released Jeffrey Rignall in March 1978, he had begun to throw his murder victims into the Des Plaines River. He confessed to having disposed a total of five bodies in this manner. However, only four bodies were recovered from the river and conclusively confirmed to be victims of Gacy. Given the gap of over four months between the dates of the murders of the first and second victims known to have been disposed in the river, it is possible that this unknown victim may have been killed between June and November 1978.’ ‘It is probably not good poetry, but I was deeply moved by that idea of somebody going missing but not being missed and never being found (though in the poem I imagine that the body might have been found and then ‘lost’)… In any case, the Economist is to be commended for having honoured the memory of a tortured mother.
The Fifth Body
You don’t care; you can’t. But I do.
The naked tumble, stiff arms flailing,
The bridge receding, that dull thump, of something soft
But angular on thick steel plate,
Your clown-faced assassin gazing down
With concern and wonder.
Was the bargeman afraid?
Did he discover you then, straightaway?
A man-boy, raped and strangled,
Cloth gag still pouring from your mouth.
Or did he think nothing of that sudden noise?
Just another river-heavy log nudged away by the prow.
Was he too far away to hear?
Did he find you later, then, sprawled awkwardly,
Bruised pale skin splashed across the deck?
Did he panic and push you into the river?
Watch as your body slunk behind
The barge and bobbed away to nothingness?
Why, then, weren’t you found,
Dawdling in a reed patch or strained
Against the sieve of a dam?
Or did he stash you under canvas,
Biding his time and taking you far away before
Wrapping you in chains and sending you to the bottom?
Did he confide in someone? ‘I was so afraid.
He just appeared like that on the deck. Who
Would have believed me? I had to get rid of him.’
So many were missed, but never found;
Some were found, though they had never been missed;
But you, Gacy’s hidden legacy, were neither missed nor found.
You don’t care; you can’t. But I do.