Mysticism and murder

Has the police investigation into the 'torso in the Thames' been led astray by obsessions with witchdoctory?

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

According to Scotland Yard, the young west African boy whose severed torso was found in the River Thames, London had eaten a poisonous bean before he died. This bean is apparently used for witchcraft purposes on the western coast of Africa, and causes paralysis in small doses.

Since the torso was found over two years ago, forensic study has yielded all kinds of information: where the boy was from, what he had eaten, how he was killed. But once there was a suspicion that this was a ritual murder, the investigation took on a symbolic significance. It has gone from being a murder investigation to being a moral fable on the presumed savagery of Africans.

The headless, limbless body was spotted near Tower Bridge in the Thames in September 2001, wearing an orange pair of shorts. It was estimated that the boy was about five years old, and had been in the water for up to 10 days. Parallels were noted with a similar case in the Netherlands, where the dismembered body of a girl was found in a lake. London police were already considering ‘whether the boy could have died in an extreme religious ritual’, although a ‘sexual motive’ for the killing had not been ruled out (2).

The girl in the Dutch case was white (3), which presumably ruled this out as a ritual murder. After all, there are many reasons why a murderer might dismember a body and dispose of it in water – removing appendages disguises the victim’s identity, and water moves the body from the place where it was left.

In the London case, however, the desire to discover sinister rituals seemed to drive the investigation and mould the evidence. A variety of facts – from the colour of the boy’s shorts to the fact that he had taken cough medicine – were given a magical significance. Traditional healers’ speculations about how the boy died were often seized upon uncritically by the police. As a result, it is likely that a difficult murder case has been made even more difficult.

In October 2001, seven half-burned candles wrapped inside a white cotton bedsheet were discovered in the Thames. The officer leading the investigation, Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly, said that ‘these candles would form part of a ritualistic ceremony’. These items were not definitely connected to the murder, he said, ‘but at the moment we are linking them’ (4). In addition, there was a variety of pollen in the boy’s stomach that could not be found in the northern hemisphere – suggesting that he may have arrived in the UK only a few days before his death.

By January 2002, police were convinced that this had been a ‘muti murder’ – in which a child is killed and the body parts are used to make medicinal potions. A South African expert on ritual killings carried out a second post-mortem, and concluded that ‘the nature of the discovery of the body, features of the external examination including the nature of the wounds, clothing and mechanism of death are consistent with those of a ritual homicide as practised in Africa’ (5). Such sacrifices, he said, took place when a small group of people needed to obtain supernatural powers to be successful in areas such as politics or business.

Rather than heading over to Conservative Central Office, Scotland Yard turned its attention to Africa – now believing that the boy was trafficked over to Britain specifically for a ritual killing. In April 2002, two senior Scotland Yard detectives flew 7000 miles to visit Nelson Mandela to ask him to publicise the case because, as one of them put it, ‘he is the voice of all Africa’. Mandela duly told ‘all Africa’ that if any family ‘even in the remotest village of our continent’ was missing a boy of this age, they should contact the London police (6).

The police officers also visited a South African traditional healer, who told them that the killers would have drunk the boy’s blood using a skullcap cut from the severed head – and that his finger joints would have been ground into a paste. This healer said that the killing was ‘a human sacrifice to some sort of water deity carried out by a gang of people strengthening themselves to do some very ugly crimes’ – rather than, as the previous expert had argued, to improve business prospects.

A South African police psychologist, however, disagreed with the ‘muti’ killing theory – pointing out that when people are killed for ‘muti’ their genitals and vital organs were removed. Since this had not happened, he concluded that the boy may have died as a result of sacrifice, possibly Satanic.

By June, this expert’s suspicions were confirmed, when genetic tests showed that the boy was more likely to be from west Africa than south Africa (the region where ‘muti’ killing is practised). Now the theory was that he ‘may have been sacrificed to one of the 400 “Orisha” or ancestor gods of the Yoruba people, Nigeria’s second-largest ethnic group’ (7).

A report in the Observer newspaper showed how every detail of the case was given a magical interpretation. The boy was wearing orange shorts: the Observer reported that ‘Oshun, a Yoruba river goddess is associated with orange, the colour of the shorts, which were placed on Adam’s body 24 hours after he was killed as a bizarre addition to the ritual’. The boy’s limbs had been detached with a sharp knife, first cutting down to the bones then broken with a single blow: the Observer described this as a ‘horrific operation reminiscent of animal sacrifice’, and also reported that ‘the level of expertise involved could show the perpetrators imported a magician or priest to carry out the ritual’. Traces of cough medicine were found in the boy’s stomach: this, according to the Observer indicated that ‘someone wanted him in good health for the day of his execution’ (8).

Of course, some of the evidence in this case does suggest a ritual sacrifice. It was recently discovered, for example, that the boy’s stomach contained a potion of animal bone, quartz and clay with traces of gold, as well as poisonous seeds (9). But throughout the investigation, it seems that facts have been forced to fit the theories, rather than the other way around. Some officers’ and journalists’ desire to discover hocus pocus made them into purveyors of mysticism.

This was no ordinary murder investigation – instead, it became a kind of moral campaign, aiming to expose and exorcise evil practises. The police metaphorically adopted the boy by giving him the name ‘Adam’. Will O’Reilly, the head of the investigation, said that ‘until his family is identified, we will act as his family and his community will be the community of London’. O’Reilly continued: ‘I think it is very sad that he has no family, no one is expressing a sense of loss.’ (10) The police’s role in bringing Adam into the fold, and uncovering the evil that had been done to him, made them appear more like social workers than detectives. To indicate the importance of this case the reward was placed at £50,000 – the highest ever offered for a case of murder alone.

Adam’s case gained another moral dimension because of its link to the issue of ‘child trafficking’ – something that is viewed with particular reprobation by the West (see Trafficking in dubious numbers, by Brendan O’Neill). In July 2003, police arrested 21 people they believed were involved in trafficking people into Britain, and linked this to the Adam case. ‘We are pretty convinced we are into the group of individuals who would have trafficked Adam into the country’, said the officer heading the case (11).

It is this link to child trafficking that prompted the attorney general Lord Goldsmith QC to suggest that he might personally head the prosecuting team. A statement from his office said: ‘The attorney general has expressed an interest in leading for the prosecution in this case, not just for Adam’s sake but – if he was a victim of trafficking – to send a clear message to those who deceive, coerce or force vulnerable people to leave their homes for a life of exploitation and misery, or worse, that they will not escape justice.’ (12) The fact that a case is justified ‘for Adam’s sake’ and ‘to send a clear message’, shows just how charged the issue has become.

At a conference discussing multiculturalism, the anthropologist Adam Kuper said that coverage of this case employed nineteenth century stereotypes that would have embarrassed Kipling (13). There is certainly a lot of truth to this – the assumptions about the savagery of them ‘over there’ looked similar to colonial talk. But today’s moral campaigns, of which Adam was but one, are much more defensive than those of previous eras. There are very few issues on which Britain feels able to assert a kind of moral superiority – they usually involve particularly vicious treatment of women or children, such as in cases of female genital mutilation, forced marriage, or honour killings. Adam’s case may have led to breast-beating about African savagery – but it was hooked around concern about a murdered African boy.

It is still not clear who killed Adam or why. The case is no longer just a murder investigation – it has become an attempt to assert the decency of British society. And it is possible that this moral campaign could possibly has worked against the real murder investigation. A little less time spent in Mandela’s house or talking to spiritual healers, a slightly more rational approach to the interpretation of the facts – and the police might have been closer to solving this case.

(1) Thames torso boy was fed toxic bean, Guardian, 17 October 2003

(2) ‘Dutch link’ clue on headless boy, Daily Telegraph, 25 September 2003

(3) Police seek torso cases link, BBC News, 26 September 2001

(4) Witch doctor link to boy’s ritual killing, Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2003

(5) Ritual killing theory over torso in Thames, Daily Telegraph, 30 January 2002

(6) Mandela plea to identify boy in black magic killing, Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2003

(7) Thames torso boy was sacrificed, Guardian, 2 June 2002

(8) Thames torso boy was sacrificed, Guardian, 2 June 2002

(9) Police are ‘tantalisingly close’ to breakthrough in Thames torso murder, Daily Tepegraph, 24 August 2003

(10) New evidence links torso boy to ritual killing theory, Guardian, 26 January 2002

(11) Torso in the Thames: 21 people arrested in police raids, Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2003

(12) Thames torso boy was fed toxic bean, Guardian, 17 October 2003

(13) See the transcript for the Institute of Ideas conference Attention Seeking: multiculturalism and the politics of recognition, on 16 November 2002

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