Skip to main content
obituary

Elliott Leyton in St. John's, N.L., November 1987. Dr. Leyton died last month at the age of 82.Steve Payne

It was a book that his wife, Bonnie, was reading that caught Dr. Elliott Leyton’s attention. It was about the serial killer Ted Bundy, and, picking it up, Dr. Leyton found himself absorbed in both the subject and a very big question: Why would a person do such terrible things?

It was the early 1980s, and serial killers had captured the public imagination far beyond the Leyton household. But while there were many books of journalism recounting these killers’ violent crimes, Dr. Leyton, a social anthropologist, saw a need to look more deeply into the factors that fuelled them.

“When I can’t understand the reasons behind things, when I can’t understand the behaviour, that’s the genesis of everything I have written,” Dr. Leyton would say later. “In the act of writing and researching the book, I explain the behaviour to myself.”

Having found his voice with two previous books intended for readers outside academia – and convinced of the importance and relevance of his subject – the popular Newfoundland university professor believed the book would make him an author and expert of world-class stature.

Instead, after it was rejected by publishers “62 times” (this may have been a slight exaggeration), Dr. Leyton accepted that it may be “a marginal weirdo book” that would sell only a handful of copies.

His first instinct had been correct.

Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer would go one to be a bestseller around the world, and Dr. Leyton, who died last month at the age of 82, would become both an expert in the psychology of deviant killers, and a model for those who hunt them.

McClelland & Stewart

Elliott Hastings Leyton was born on Aug. 21, 1939, in the town of Leader, Sask., the first of two sons. His father was a physician, and Mr. Leyton spent the first five years of his life living inside the small country hospital with his family. He saw his first autopsy at age five, possibly setting an early foundation for the grim work for which he himself would one day be known.

The family relocated to Vancouver, where Mr. Leyton spent the rest of his childhood and, in his early teens, met the young woman who would become his wife, at a Jewish Community Centre. Mr. Leyton eloped with Bonnie Averbach while they were still teenagers, defying their families and driving across the American border and into Idaho because it was the closest place they could get married without their parents’ written permission.

They soon became parents themselves, and by the time they were out of their teens, they had two sons, Marco and Jack.

Mr. Leyton studied English and journalism at the University of British Columbia, and spent his summers working as a cub reporter at the Vancouver Sun with Allan Fotheringham. After completing his undergraduate degree, Mr. Leyton earned a master’s in anthropology, and he and Bonnie then moved the family overseas for his PhD research. They lived in London and Belfast, and later moved into a 150-year-old stone cottage in an Irish fishing village, where he studied kinship and family relationships.

While finishing his dissertation, he was invited to a job interview for a teaching position at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and there found his home.

In 1975, Dr. Leyton published his first non-academic text, Dying Hard: The Ravages of Industrial Carnage, about poisoned fluorspar miners in the community of St. Lawrence in southern Newfoundland. That was followed with a book about juvenile delinquency, and then Hunting Humans.

Searching for meaning in the acts of serial killers was not easy work. As he had done with the miners in St. Lawrence, living among them for months, Dr. Leyton immersed himself in his subject, diving deeply into police reports and original interviews, reading their diaries and the autopsy reports of their victims, seeking to find the causes of the violent behaviour and attempting to understand it.

“It was very, very hard and disturbing material, and gave him nightmares,” Dr. Leyton’s son Marco, says. “It gave him no pleasure, but he thought he could do something with it.”

As Dr. Leyton wrote in the text, “I must apologize to my readers around the world for forcing them to read about so much human suffering and degradation. We can only bear it if we remind ourselves that the eradication of a disease requires the intensive study of all its pus and blood and deformed tissue.”

The book combined an intellectual rigour with an accessible writing style, making it a good read for anyone with an interest in the darker side of human behaviour – and they were legion. As The Globe and Mail observed in 1987, Dr. Leyton may have been the only anthropologist “to have a book in every drugstore in America.”

(Mr. Leyton was also a competitive and decorated shooter and, at the time, a provincial trapshooting champion.)

Hunting Humans would become – and remain – a seminal work on serial killers, and set Dr. Leyton on a path to explore myriad other forms of murder and violence from this perspective, including people who kill children, children who kill their families and what he dubbed “murder in everyday life.”

His expertise led to work as a consultant both for police agencies investigating such crimes – including the RCMP, FBI and Scotland Yard – and for television networks making shows and movies about those investigations.

A powerful, mesmerizing speaker with what his son describes as a “devilishly handsome, Marlon Brando-type vibe,” Dr. Leyton himself became an early model for the then-newly-developing character of the brilliant criminal profiler or serial-killer hunter, a TV and movie trope now so common it is a genre unto itself.

In newspaper stories, Dr. Leyton’s name appeared regularly alongside the most notorious – names like Magnotta, Homolka, Pickton, Lépine – the first call for reporters who sought to attempt to explain the explicable, looking for some context for acts that are nearly impossible to comprehend.

Dr. Leyton was an early voice in recognizing the broader societal context and misogyny around the murder of women, and the vulnerability of sex-trade workers to violent predation, which he described as a social disease fed by “the prissiness of our society and the hypocrisy of our laws.”

“I think we have to understand how virulent and malevolent sexist feelings can be,” he said in an interview after the murders of 14 women at the University of Montreal in 1989. “Whenever a social group rejects its subservience, as women everywhere have been doing, it threatens those in power. … No catastrophe is unrelated to major changes in society.”

While he dealt with the most disturbing of subjects, to his students at Memorial University Dr. Leyton was inspiring and warm, the kind of professor who leaves an indelible mark on his students’ lives and their thinking, even decades later.

His class War and Aggression was so popular that it was legendary, routinely filled past capacity and with waiting lists of others hoping to get a seat. It was in that class, Marco says, that he sees the connection within his father’s work, that need to look deep into the darkness and try to understand.

“Like many Jews, he wanted to understand the Holocaust,” Marco says. “There are psychopaths out there, and how do we understand the psychopaths? And then how do we understand the million Germans who were not psychopaths, but did these things? How do we understand that? That was something he thought a lot about.”

After suffering a stroke and a fall, Dr. Leyton died on Feb. 14 at home with his wife nearby. In addition to her, he leaves his sons, one grandson and two great-granddaughters.