Dancing with a stranger

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Kenneth Roy

A woman called Jeannie died earlier this month in Crosshouse Hospital, Kilmarnock, at the age of 74. She had been living close to our old office in the centre of Irvine and it seems she never talked to the neighbours about her past.

Kenneth Roy

A woman called Jeannie died earlier this month in Crosshouse Hospital, Kilmarnock, at the age of 74. She had been living close to our old office in the centre of Irvine and it seems she never talked to the neighbours about her past. She was known to the police as Jeannie Williams. Jeannie had several names in her life, but Williams was not one of them. Why the police failed at any stage to correct this error is one of the many mysteries of the extraordinary case that has now, almost certainly, died with her.
     Born Jeannie Gowans, she was the vital witness – to all intents and purposes the only witness – in the greatest unsolved Glasgow murder of my lifetime.
     The body of Jeannie’s younger sister, Helen, was found in the early morning of Friday 31 October 1969, against a drainpipe in a back court near her house in Scotstoun. She had put up a fierce fight, attempting to escape her assailant by scrambling up a railway embankment. She was caught, struck with a heavy instrument over the head, dragged back along the grass to the back court and strangled with one of her own stockings.
     Two young women, Pat Docker and Mima MacDonald, had been murdered in the city a few months earlier after a night at the same ballroom – the Barrowland – where Helen Puttock – her married name – met her murderer. The cases of Pat and Mima faded from the public memory, yet Helen’s never did. It was simply too fascinating to be forgotten.


Thursday was over 25s night – ‘winching night’ – when many of the punters were married – to other people.


     Glasgow in the 1960s was an inky black, unreconstructed city. When, still in my teens, a newspaper paid me to tour the streets by night in a chauffeur-driven limousine, following trouble, I was never short of copy. Some of it we could publish. But when I went into a police station after midnight and saw a suspect being brutally assaulted, we didn’t publish that. There was a complicity between the police and the media – not that the word ‘media’ had been invented. We depended on each other. I thought Glasgow both scary and thrilling.
     The working-class social rituals were different then. Glasgow was dance-crazy with such ballrooms as the Plaza, the Albert, the Locarno, the Majestic and, of course, the Barrowland, a bit downmarket from the others, seedy but popular. Thursday was over 25s night – ‘winching night’ – when many of the punters were married – to other people. Quaintly, as it would seem to us now, alcohol was not available in the Glasgow ballrooms of the 1960s. If you wanted to drink, and most did, you went to the pub and got as much alcohol as you wanted inside you before closing time at 10 sharp; and then you went to the dancing.
     Helen Gowans, 29 years old, slim, attractive, was married to a man called George Puttock, a soldier who happened to be home on leave the night that she and her sister Jeannie went off to the Trader’s Tavern in Kent Street and then on to the Barrowland. There was a row in the house when Helen announced her plans for the evening, but she was a strong-willed girl: she got her way. The next time George Puttock saw his wife was the following morning when he identified her body.
     There were two Johns that night in the Barrowland. Someone of that name invited Jeannie onto the floor. He was an excellent dancer and they stayed together for the evening, enjoying each other’s company. The other John – Helen’s – showed little skill as a dancer. As Jeannie observed him from a distance, he seemed to her to be a cut above the usual crowd. Later, Jeannie noted that he was well-spoken, courteous and attentive, and that unlike most men in the Barrowland he didn’t swear.
      At the end of the night, however, there was a curious incident over a cigarette machine which didn’t work. Helen’s John turned imperious and it occurred to Jeannie that he was the sort of man who expected to be obeyed. ‘My father says these places are dens of iniquity,’ he said as he set off downstairs to confront the manager. Dens of iniquity – the phrase stuck with Jeannie. There was another detail which stuck with her. He reached into his inside pocket and produced a piece of paper – pink, official-looking – to show to
Helen. But when Jeannie asked what it was, he told her to mind her own business.
     Jeannie’s partner – who came to be known as Castlemilk John – left to catch a bus from George Square. He never came forward. He has never been identified. Nor, for that matter, has the mysterious piece of paper.
     That left three – the two sisters and the other John – to share a taxi from Glasgow Cross to Scotstoun, a journey of about 20 minutes. The conversation turned to Glasgow sectarian rivalries. When asked which football team he supported, John replied: ‘I’m an agnostic’. He then quoted from the Bible. Jeannie, although unsure of the exact words at the time, concluded later that it was the story of Moses hidden in the bulrushes from Exodus II.
     And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
     Jeannie left the taxi first, leaving her sister with the Bible-quoting stranger. At 2am, a man with a red mark under one eye, looking dishevelled, boarded a late-night bus near Helen’s home. Even murderers travelled by public transport in Glasgow in 1969.
     When the newspapers got hold of the full story, the killer of Helen Puttock was no longer the ‘dance hall Don Juan with murder in mind’. He was now universally known as Bible John. A massive police investigation yielded surprisingly little, despite Jeannie’s excellent description.


Jeannie was convinced that, if she was ever to see him again, she would recognise him at once. But she never did.


     In 1994, 35 years after these events, Magnus Linklater looked at the case afresh, interviewing Jeannie and the detective who led the investigation. (His superb article on the case appeared in the Scottish Review.) Magnus Linklater found that Jeannie’s memory was still clear, her eye for detail sharp, her ability to recall it direct and to the point.
     ‘She can still see him,’ he wrote, ‘about five feet 10 inches, aged between 25 and 35, with sandy hair, cropped and rounded at the back. He had a fresh complexion, and – a vital detail – two front teeth which overlapped, with one back tooth missing. She remembers this particularly because her eyes only came up to the level of his mouth, so when he talked it was his teeth she noticed. He was dressed in a well-cut brown suit, a blue shirt and a dark tie with thin red stripes, which could have been something military. On his feet he wore short suede boots, and he had a badge on one of his lapels. Jeannie noticed that he kept fingering it.’
     What a description…yet Bible John was never caught. None of the many men who took part in ID parades ever quite fitted it. Jeannie was convinced that, if she was ever to see him again, she would recognise him at once. But she never did.
      Who, then, was Bible John? What was the nature of his diseased psychology? Did he kill Pat and Mima too? Has he killed since? Who was shielding him? We are no nearer to knowing the answers to any of these questions. Will we ever? With Jeannie’s death, it seems doubtful. The inky black city is now bathed in light, the pubs no longer shut at 10, the ballrooms have gone, and drink is available all night long – but Bible John continues to haunt the popular imagination of Glasgow.
     Helen would have been 70 this year. Her murderer may still be alive.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.