chapter  11
12 Pages

Neville Heath and the politics of sadism in mid-twentieth-century Britain

WithJoanna Bourke

In 1946, Neville George Clevely Heath murdered and sadistically mutilated two women. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and he was sentenced to death and hanged at Pentonville gaol. This chapter explores the emotional reactions to Heath’s sadistic murders, including the debate that they inspired about morality (viz. sex outside of marriage and consensual S&M) and legal responsibility. I will be arguing that the case occurred at a pivotal moment in the history of sex crimes in Britain. The trial and the media furore that surrounded it can be used to illustrate some of the important shifts in the modern understanding of sex-murder and sadism, including disagreements about the role of morality in questions of legal insanity, public intrigue (then and now) about Heath’s emotional detachment and the nature of “Britishness” in his emotional comportment, and the place of ethics in distinguishing between crime and madness.