Sydney in the 1950s was growing but in many ways it was still like a sleepy town. Doors were not locked and windows were left open.
Finding their feet after the war, families were enjoying the peace and quiet of the suburbs. But one man was about to single-handedly change that…
Reports started with a peeping Tom and break-ins around the Kingsgrove area.
Then came alarming accounts from girls as young as 10 and women who’d been woken by a man assaulting them. Their bedclothes, pyjamas and eventually the women themselves would be slashed with a sharp razor or knife.
Then, just as quickly as the man had appeared in their bedrooms, he’d disappear into the night undetected. Often the father or husband of the women would be close by, and the intruder would watch them sleep in the lead up to his attack.
The weapons were so sharp some weren’t even woken by the assault. One teenage victim rose in the morning to find her nightwear cut to ribbons and neatly placed at the end of her bed.
With the media dubbing the elusive assailant the ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’, fear and paranoia rose in the community. Suddenly young women were prisoners in their own homes.
One woke to a man standing near her bed. ‘What do you want?’ she cried out.
Swinging a heavy piece of wood, he struck her on the forehead and blood poured from the wound.
Another night, a father discovered the stranger outside his six-year-old daughter’s bedroom. He fought with him but the attacker managed to get away.
Police were at a dead end, with fingerprints but no matches.
In 1958, a teenager was attacked crossing a bridge. Then a 64-year-old woman was cut and bloodied in her bed, while one girl nearly choked on her own dislodged teeth – her clothing and bedding shredded.
The fear and lack of an arrest changed the way people lived their lives.
They started sleeping with protection – cricket bats, tennis rackets, bags of flour and pepper.
One night, a group of 2000 people, including children in pyjamas, stood on a street where the alarm had been raised before.
Milkmen making deliveries in the early hours of the morning deliberately shook the bottles for fear they would be mistaken for the Slasher.
Police concluded that the only way to catch him was in the act and the ‘Slasher Patrol’ was formed.
Officer in charge, Detective Sergeant Brian Doyle worked solidly for five months. Stakeouts were set up, with officers hiding in gullies, drains and the bush. Pairs of plain-clothed policemen were sent out into the streets, with one set called ‘Lovers’ – where a male cop dressed in drag to try and catch the attacker.
Finally, one night in April 1959, a woman spotted a sinister hand lifting the venetian blind at her bedroom window.
Later, a man was seen disappearing over a fence of another property. Spotting a dark figure, two officers lying in wait under a bridge gave chase. ‘I’m the man you’re after,’ he blurted, when he was caught. ‘I’m the Kingsgrove Slasher.’
He was telling the truth. But who was the stranger who’d terrorised Sydney for three frightening years?
David Joseph Scanlon, 29, was a meek office clerk who attended church and played tennis on the weekend. Married to Jean, he was in the local sprinters club and kept much to himself.
When DS Doyle asked Scanlon how many houses he’d entered, he replied, ‘Many, many hundreds’. ‘Thousands?’ asked Doyle. ‘Yes, perhaps thousands,’ Scanlon said.
Boasting to police, he admitted there were at least five streets where he had been in every single house. He would get to know the homes, the inhabitants, how often they got up in the night – even where the squeaky floorboards were. Some nights, he said, he prowled around for eight hours without the occupants knowing a thing.
Of one, he said coolly, ‘I got in through a back window… There was a woman in bed with her husband. I remember cutting the buttons on her pyjamas and the cord. I cut the sleeves of her pyjamas and also cut her.’ His excuse? ‘Wanting the thrill of the chase’ from the husbands and fathers,’ he said.
No-one could have been more surprised than Jean, who said David had put bars on their own home after reports of the Slasher nearby. His bewildered wife had to tell his tennis friends that her husband was the Sydney Slasher when he failed to turn up to matches.
That year, he pleaded guilty to 18 offences against women and girls. The Central Court in Sydney heard he lived a ‘Jekyll and Hyde existence’.
A clerk during the day… ‘Yet he performed these bizarre and sadistic acts at night,’ his counsel Simon Isaacs said.
He was sentenced to 18 years in jail. DS Brian Doyle was awarded a medal for outstanding police work.
After the scandal, Scanlon disappeared into obscurity. His eventual release appeared not to have attracted any media attention. Some say he changed his name and went bush to Dubbo, and there is no record of his death.
But, to many Sydneysiders, their town was now a place where danger could be waiting, just outside your window.
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