Probably the first Sydney criminal of whom I was really aware, when I was growing up in Strathfield, was the notorious Kingsgrove Slasher. Nowadays, I live not 200 metres from where the Slasher and his wife lived, in Park Street Arncliffe, and along the route he must have taken on many of his nocturnal expeditions. I often walk the dingo along the bush track he followed through the Wolli Valley as he made his escape from pursuing police.
This early exponent of high-octane night-time jogging terrorised south-west Sydney for three years, from March 1956, when I was just six, to April 1959 when I was nine, and his outrages were all over the papers, the radio, and even TV (for the very few who had a set). The Kingsgrove Slasher made headlines all over the world.
The Slasher entered homes during the night and attacked sleeping girls and women. At first, he confined himself to slashing the womens’ clothes with a knife, scalpel or razor blade. At least one victim slept through the intrusion. Over time he graduated to cutting their upper bodies as well. The failure of the police to catch a criminal who struck repeatedly in such a small area made them a laughing stock.
During his reign of terror, the Slasher committed at least 25 offences despite what was very likely the biggest police hunt in NSW since the bushranger days. Nor was the Slasher just a problem for south-west Sydney. He struck twice on the lower north shore, at Lavender Bay (1956) and Greenwich (1958), but the inner south-west suburbs from Kingsgrove, through Bexley, Earlwood, Undercliffe, Arncliffe, Rockdale and Turrella were his home ground.
Not surprisingly, the Slasher’s reign changed the attitude of people in the outer suburbs (as they then were) to personal security. In the early 1950s many people left their homes unlocked at night and on stifling summer nights windows and doors were often wide open. The Slasher changed all that. Especially in the south-west and on the lower North Shore, doors and windows were locked and bars started appearing on windows. Way out in Strathfield, my father drilled holes in the bedroom window sashes so you could insert a four inch nail to prevent the window being raised far enough to gain entry.
Ironically, the Slasher’s home was no exception to these precautions. On the nights he prowled the streets he told his wife he was working back late and to assuage her fear of the prowling madman he dutifully installed new locks on all the doors and windows.
Nobody knew where the Slasher might strike next, and fear spread over the whole of Sydney. People slept with guns, cricket bats, knives, and even fire extinguishers within easy reach. Excitingly, a thousand pound reward was on offer. Locals formed vigilante squads and the police responded to hundreds of false alarms. It was not a good time for shift workers, late night revellers, or indeed innocent athletes out for a night-time run. It is said that milkmen rattled their bottles so that householders would know they weren’t the Slasher.
In retrospect, the failure of the police to catch the Slasher during the three long years of his reign, isn’t all that surprising. The man was a hell of an athlete and he knew his turf intimately. After his first exploits, in 1956, he laid low through the whole of 1957. He struck frequently enough to put the fear of God into the population, but not frequently enough for there to be sustained vigilance. And communications were a problem. Lots of homes still didn’t have the phone connected and there were few police cars. The Kingsgrove cops operated out of a weatherboard box three metres square. They didn’t get their first patrol car until 1957 and when it arrived it didn’t have a radio. By the time the alarm was raised, the Slasher was usually a mile away and the potential search area was enormous.
But by late 1958 the cops – under intense political pressure – had ramped up their effort. A hundred police were assigned to the case full-time. Every night, all over the south-west, there were cops surveilling the streets from darkened cars.
Eventually, on the night of 30 April 1959 – the Slasher struck twice in Earlwood and police hiding in undergrowth near the Henderson Street footbridge, at the foot of Nannygoat Hill, in what’s now Turrella Reserve, nabbed him as he made his way home. They’d chosen their hiding place well, because the footbridge was the only place it was possible to cross from Earlwood to Arncliffe, without sloshing through Wolli Creek.
The Slasher confessed on the spot. “I am your man. I am the Kingsgrove Slasher”, he told the arresting officers. He turned out to be David Joseph Scanlon, a mild-mannered clerk in good standing with his long-term employer. He was much-liked by all who knew him, attended church, was a well-known local harrier and tennis player, and also bred budgies.
Scanlon got 18 years and the story faded very quickly. His wife divorced him. He probably only served 10 years, after which he never came to notice again. He raped nobody, killed nobody, and the injuries he inflicted were comparatively minor. But he brought Kingsgrove, briefly, to the world, and that, by any standard, is an achievement.