Modern day Halifax
“Halifax 310805”. Via Wikimedia Commons –
The city of Halifax, England was tormented for nine days in November and early December 1939 by a razor wielding maniac. The marauder lurked among the shadows of the factory town, lunging out at unsuspecting passersby to slash them with his blade before disappearing without a trace.
At the height of the incident, police received so many calls from victims of the madman that they believed there could be as many as three slashers at large on the streets of Halifax. But when the panic from Halifax began to spread to other towns and cities, as far away as London, the theory that the mayhem was the work of a single madman began to stretch credibility. Clearly, something else was at work. As we will see, the real truth behind the strange happenings in Halifax are stranger than even the motives of a rogue with a razor who got his jollies slashing women’s clothes.
A reign of terror begins
The evening of November 16 was like any other for Gertie Watts and Mary Gledhill. Mill workers, the pair were walking home, no doubt looking forward to an evening of relaxation. But the night had other plans. The next time anyone laid eyes on them, the pair were frantically knocking on the door of a nearby house, blood running down their faces from cuts on their heads. They told the Good Samaritans inside a strange story about a man who appeared out of the shadows and slashed them before disappearing as quick as he came.
The no doubt shaken residents called the police. A quick investigation revealed no physical evidence, other than the cuts, of any attacker. The local paper, the Halifax Courier, ran the strange story the next day.
Five days later the mysterious attacker reared his head again. Mary Sutcliffe was attacked on her way home from her job at Mackintosh’s Queen’s Road factory. She pushed her attacker away, but after the altercation she found a cut on her wrist, which she thought might have come from a razor. While she was able to describe her attacker, it did little good for the police who rushed to investigate the incident. They could find no trace of the attacker, as if he had disappeared back into the shadows that gave him life.
On the 24th, a man named Clayton Aspinall fell under the madman’s razor. Again, the assailant could not be located by the police. The Halifax Courier reported on the attack the next day. Police offered a $10 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the Halifax Slasher.
The odd series of events took a new dimension on November 25, when Hilda Lodge reported being attacked on her way to buy vinegar from a shop near her home. This time, word of the attack spread quickly and a large crowd gathered, eager to take a pound of flesh out of the mysterious slasher. As the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, it turned on one of their own. A man by the name of Clifford Edwards was denounced as the Halifax Slasher. Although the reasons for the accusation remain unclear, the danger to Mr. Edwards was very real. Surrounded by an angry crowd, the innocent man was in serious danger of being lynched right then and there. Luckily, police were able to rescue him before the worst happened. He was escorted home, and his role in the story ended there.
Two nights later, another attack occurred not far from where Hilda Lodge’s home. The victim this time was a nineteen year old woman named Beatrice Sorrell. She appeared at the fire station on Gibbet’s Street with a cut in her sweater sleeve and two shallow wounds in her arm. Oddly calm for a woman who had just confronted a madman, she reported to the flummoxed firemen that a man had jumped out of a dark yard as she was passing buy and attacked her. Another mob gathered, eager to track down the slasher. But, par for the course by this point, neither they nor the police could find any evidence. Despite the show of force, the slasher struck three more times that night.
The next reported attack was out of character for the Slasher because it happened in the morning. The morning of the 28th, Constance Wood was standing by her front gate when a man in a rain coat ran by. He happened to bump into her, knocking her to the ground. She felt a pain in her left arm, and found two small scratches on her arm and a tear in her sweater. She raised the alarm and another mob descended on the scene, hunting for tall men in rain coats. By this point, the results of their search were predictable: they found nothing.
The Slasher changes address
By November 30th, police in Halifax were swamped. The sheer volume of attacks suggested that there might be as many as three slashers at work in the city. Mobs armed with canes, clubs, and just about anything else that could be used to brain someone roved the streets on the hunt for the elusive madman. Put short, the city was in a panic and it was too much for the local authorities to deal with. So the overwrought police department turned to the famous Scotland Yard for help with the case.
Meanwhile, the slasher changed address. Thirty-five miles from Halifax, eighteen year old Winifred Walshe reported that the madman attacked her in her backyard, leaving her with a five inch gash on her left arm. Not long after the Walshe attack, he struck again in Manchester, slashing a fourteen year old four times on the arms after leaping out at her from a dark corner. Another attack occurred in Lancanshire, fifty miles from Halifax.
The most dramatic of the Slasher’s exploits outside of Halifax came from Brentford, five miles outside of London. Marjory Maple, fourteen, staggered into a candy shop, blood dripping from a dozen cuts on her arms.
Taking the attacks in Halifax and those outside together, the Slasher had been responsible for eighteen attacks in eight days. Police in the towns outside Halifax were on the watch for accomplices or imitators which they believed were responsible for the attacks.
Back in Halifax, police deputized eighty citizens. Private citizens cruised the town looking for any suspicious activity, and local stores sold out of canes, bats, and anything else that could be used as a weapon. Halifax was under siege by the invisible attacker, and on the verge of a complete panic.
Confessions roll out, and the panic ends
However, in the first week of December, reports of Slasher attacks took a nose dive. As quickly as it had began, the panic ended. Mostly, this was brought about by a series of shocking confessions from the victims of the Slasher. Many came forward and said that they were not attacked. Worse, many confessed that they faked their wounds.
Hilda Lodge was among the fakers. Her wounds came not from a madman with a razor but rather nothing more threatening than a broken vinegar bottle.
Beatrice Sorrell used a razor to slash her coat sleeve and then she cut her arm until the blood flowed freely. She did the stunt because she was upset with her boyfriend. She had read the reports of the slasher in the paper, and imitated the attacks for the attention.
As for the fourteen year old in Manchester who suffered the five inch gash in her arm? It was caused by a madman with a razor, but rather she suffered the injury in an accident.
However, not all of the “victims’ were fakers. Constance Wood, who was knocked down outside her gate by a running man in a raincoat, genuinely believed that she had been attacked. Her wounds, two small scratches and a tear in her sweater, probably came from falling to the ground. But she and her neighbors were in such a state of paranoia–fueled by the newspaper reports of the slasher and the general panic in the town–that they believed a Slasher attack was inevitable. So, when Constance Wood had a run in with what, under normal circumstances, would have just been a very rude man, she interpreted it as an attack by the madman and perceived her injuries accordingly.
By the end of the panic, police logged between 200 and 400 reports related to the Halifax Slasher. Eighty men were deputized to help investigate the huge influx of reports, while hundreds more took to the streets on their own to hunt down the elusive attacker.
The vigilante mood among the general public made the police’s work that much harder. On at least two occasions, the police had to save a man denounced as the slasher from mobs intent on lynching them.
Once it became clear that there was no attacker, the police turned their attention to the alleged “victims” themselves. In January, 1939, three young women and a young man were convicted of malicious mischief and sentenced to a month in jail for their fake reports. One of the youths sentenced was none other than Beatrice Sorrell, who made her report in a fit of pique against her boyfriend. Hilda Lodge also received a four week sentence for her false report.
If there was not a real attacker on the loose in Halifax, what happened? The first impulse is to label it mass hysteria and call it a day, but the case doesn’t fit the parameters of a mass hysteria outbreak. Most damning for the case of calling it mass hysteria is the fact that there were no reports of illness. Mass hysteria is an outbreak of usually short-lived symptoms with no biological basis. Victims didn’t reports being ill; they reported being attacked. It might seem like a quibbling distinction since there was no real attacker, but it is an important one.
Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler’s saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.
Rather than mass hysteria, the Halifax Slasher case should be classified as a collective delusion. Although it was not truly an outbreak of a conversion disorder, the panic in Halifax had similar stresses underpinning it. The victims were mostly low class women who lived in poverty, working grueling factory jobs. Adding to the stress was the grim news from Europe of German expansionism under the iron hand of Adolf Hitler. Talk of potential war with the German strongman was on a lot of lips. After the horrors of World War I, another massive war was not a pleasant prospect in the least.
So the backdrop against which the victims lived was ripe for an outbreak of mass hysteria or collective delusion. But why did it take the form of a madman with a razor as opposed to, say, poison gas? While it can be hard to tell for certain, in the immediate aftermath of the panic there was speculation that the initial attack that started the panic was genuine, and that all of the others after that were simply a result of panic at the prospect of being attacked.
It is an intriguing possibility, and it sounds plausible. Oftentimes panics and hysteria radiate out from an index case who suffers genuine symptoms of a disease. Or, in this case, a genuine attack. However, police at the time found no evidence for any attacker. The only witnesses were the victims themselves. In the absence of any corroborating evidence, the first attacker hypothesis remains just that, a hypothesis.
If there was a real-life Halifax Slasher who started the trouble that followed that cold November night, he never showed his face again. After the nine days of panic in 1938, no other reports of a mad phantom with a razor blade came out of Halifax.
Bartholomew, Robert E. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, And Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2001. pgs 15-16
The Associated Press. “British Put Three Girls in Jail for ‘Slasher’ Stories.” St. Petersburg Times. January 24, 1939
The Associated Press. “England’s Phantom Slasher Just a Fake.” St. Petersburg Times. December 15, 1939
The Associated Press. “Scotland Yard Thinks ‘Slasher’ is Phantom; New Tales of Attacks.” The Lewiston Daily Sun. December 1, 1938
The Associated Press. “Shadow Slasher Stalks Women in Another Town.” The Milawukee Journal. November 29, 1938
Glover, David. “Terror Reign of Halifax ‘Slasher.’” Halifax Courier. April 24, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.halifaxcourier.co.uk/news/nostalgia/terror-reign-of-halifax-slasher-1-5607760