A chill wind rushes down Manchester’s Canal Street, rippling the green slime on the surface of the water. Strings of fairy lights, remnants of the festive season, clatter in the trees as a lone pedestrian turns up the collar of his winter coat.
Overhead, the light is fading. Below, in the murky water, bubbles rise and burst amid a sludge littered with debris from nights gone by: takeaway boxes, empty beer cans, condom wrappers, needles. The walkway is dotted with tunnels, low-hanging and cobwebbed, where shadows lurk beyond the reach of street lights and the air is heavy with the stench of decay.
If the whispers that have surfaced this week are to be believed, this is not a place to be after dark. A serial killer – nicknamed “The Pusher” – is said to stalk these parts. In a plot that could come straight from the pages of the latest grisly thriller from Val McDermid, it has emerged that 61 bodies have been pulled from the city’s waterways in just six years.
A leading academic has suggested that the high death toll may not be coincidental, sparking fears among residents that something more sinister is at play. Reports of the canal killer have been published as far afield as Scandinavia, America and Australia, while stories of near-misses and eerie experiences have been shared under the hashtag #thepusher on Twitter.
Prof Craig Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham University, formed his theory after being presented with the results of a freedom of information request by a national newspaper.
“Having looked at the data, I simply can’t discount the possibility of foul play,” he explains. “I certainly don’t believe these were suicides, because canals are not popular suicide spots. Statistically speaking, the number of bodies is much, much higher than you would expect of one waterway.
"And a lot of the forensic investigations and coroners’ reports on these deaths were inconclusive.” He is meeting with representatives of Greater Manchester Police early next week to discuss his findings.
Many of the fatalities recorded on Manchester’s meandering canal network, which threads its way through the industrial fringes of the city from Salford Quays in the west to the River Irwell in the north, have indeed been mysterious.
Canadian tourist Anthony Muise, 53, was found in the Manchester Ship Canal with a puncture wound to his chest in February 2010. Police said “very little” was known about his final movements and his death was treated as unexplained.
Chris Brahney, 22, was discovered in the same stretch of water 10 days after going missing in June 2012 – and an inquest returned an open verdict. The following January, the body of local student Souvik Pal was pulled from the Bridgewater Canal after he disappeared on New Year’s Eve. He was seen walking away from a club with another man, who was never traced, and another open verdict was recorded.
Manchester - the once gritty heart of the north of England, now transformed into a thriving metropolis - provides fertile inspiration for writers of crime novels and TV dramas, with the likes of Prime Suspect and Scott & Bailey set here.
Indeed, this was the real-life backdrop for some of Britain’s most notorious mass murders – Ian Brady and Myra Hindley carried out their heinous crimes on the Moors surrounding Greater Manchester between 1963 and 1965; Harold Shipman, convicted of killing 15 patients, had a surgery in nearby Hyde; and Trevor Hardy, known as the “Beast of Manchester”, murdered three teenage girls here between 1973 and 1976. But could a modern-day serial killer really be roaming the city’s streets - or is it mere hysteria whipped up by a nation addicted to suburban noir?
Canal Street, the vibrant hub of the city’s gay district, known for its wild party scene and abundance of bars and clubs, shows no sign of being affected by the reports. On a bitter evening in January, rainbow-coloured posters boasting drinks offers (“£2 shots; double up for £1”, “Happy hour wine for £7.95”) flap in the wind and welcoming lights shine out from the windows of the Union Hotel. Revellers gather here in the early hours, spilling out of doorways and piling into taxis, and plastic barriers fence off the waterside to prevent them tripping on the cobblestones and falling in.
But venture further along the canal and it is uninhabited, desolate; an infamous cruising area away from prying eyes. There are few CCTV cameras, only graffitied signs tacked to lampposts, warning in stark capitals: “Danger of falling”.
Some of those who work and socialise on the street are unconcerned by claims that a serial killer may be on the loose. “Everyone’s really friendly and I’ve never heard of it being dangerous,” says Laura Loe, 20, a nightclub worker from nearby Wigan. “People come here for a safe, non-judgemental time,” adds Michael Davenport, 19, a Manchester student. “But people can be quite promiscuous after a few drinks – so I can see how they might seek out more isolated areas late at night.”
Others sense there could be something more disturbing afoot. “The rumours have been around for a while and it’s stopped me walking down the canal on my own,” admits Sian Hayward, 37, from North Wales, who runs a music venue on the waterway. “There are some darker areas and you wouldn’t go down there. But I think it’s more likely that people get wasted and fall in the water than that they’re pushed.”
Faycel Belhourania, 35, works at a takeaway on the corner of Canal Street, where two windows have recently been smashed by partygoers. “You do get some trouble around here, though it’s usually fights,” he says. “For people who don’t know the area, it can be a bit dodgy. There’s a good number of police around, but not enough in my view.”
Prof Jackson isn’t convinced by the idea of a “pusher”, but says the issue definitely requires further investigation. “Serial killers tend to pick on five main groups: gay men, prostitutes, older people, migrants and the homeless. Essentially, they target those who inhabit secluded areas and who might be drunk or high – so Canal Street and its surrounding towpaths make ideal working grounds for predators. There are lots of places where you could have a strategic advantage if you were to surprise or suddenly attack someone you’d befriended.”
He says the decomposition of the bodies that have been dredged up is significant – 48 were so badly decayed as to be unidentifiable – as this links them together. So, too, does the fact that they were all male. “If this was a section of motorway and one person was being killed every month, it would be declared an accident black spot,” he adds. “I do think there has been a lack of action – whether these are accidents or suicides or something more ominous, or a combination of all three. There needs to be increased police presence; more CCTV; perhaps a public safety campaign.”
For its part, Greater Manchester Police has rejected suggestions of foul play. “There is no evidence at all to suggest these deaths are linked or were suspicious,” insists detective chief superintendent Russ Jackson, head of GMP’s Serious Crime Division. “We have worked with Manchester City Council to understand factors which might contribute to people losing their lives in the water… lighting, safety barriers, as well as, in some cases, alcohol consumption. The last thing we want is to cause further suffering and upset to grieving families who may be falsely led to believe there is a linked series of attacks.”
Yet the family of Souvik Pal welcome Prof Jackson’s comments. “We’re not sure about a serial killer, and don’t want to jump to the conclusion that he was murdered, but there is someone who knows something,” says Gemma Hale, a friend who was with Souvik on the night he disappeared and speaks on behalf of his father, Santanu, who lives in India. “It took 22 days to find Souvik and he was just 50 metres away from the club we were in. For his family and friends, it has been really difficult to live, not knowing what happened to him… Hopefully, if we can raise more awareness about the deaths, the police will be forced to reopen some of the cases.”
Research has shown that there are between three and five serial killers operating in Britain at any one time. Though rare, these sorts of mass murders are not unheard of – and connections are often not made until it is too late. But experts are divided over Prof Jackson’s claims about the Manchester deaths. “Sixty-one deaths is a staggeringly high number to simply put down to chance,” says Prof David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham University. “The police hate the suggestion that there may be a serial killer – they look wrong-footed, or slow to act.”
Meanwhile, Prof David Canter, a renowned psychologist who developed the science of investigative psychology from offender profiling, says the suggestion is “rather irresponsible” without further evidence about exactly where the bodies were found and likely causes of death. “This is a very large area near places where lots of people get drunk. A more helpful comment would be to question the safety of canals at night.”
Whatever the truth behind the deaths, rumours about The Pusher abound online and whispers echo up and down the waterway. As darkness falls on Canal Street, two police officers start their patrol, and lingering pedestrians quicken their pace towards home. Though it may have the makings of fiction, what happened here is all too real for the grieving relatives of those who have died; many of them still waiting for answers to bubble up from the shadowy depths of the canal.
“Don’t fall in,” warns a passer-by, as I lean over the black water for a closer look. I jump, steady my footing and turn around – but he’s gone.