For Forteans of a certain age, mere mention of the name of Joyce McKinney sends one careering back to 1977, when the one-time Miss Wyoming ranked among the top three newspaper stories of the year, right up there alongside the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols. Now, three decades and more later, Elizabeth II is still on the throne and Johnny Rotten has declined into a mere staple of reality TV. But McKinney has faded from the memory so completely that none of the people I mentioned her to recently could recall quite how or why they knew the name. It was only when I dropped manacled Mormon missionaries into the conversation – or recalled McKinney's most famous quote ('I loved him so much that I would have skiied naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose if he had asked me to.') – that the rest of the story tended to come flooding back.
McKinney's name – long dormant in my own mind – had popped up as I finished a re-reading of John Michell's ever-wonderful Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions at the beginning of the week. I had been struck – leafing through chapters recounting the excesses of barely-remembered Victorians – by the dearth of modern equivalents to such epic figures as Comyns Beaumont, the British newspaper editor who convinced himself that Jesus had been born in Somerset, or Cyrus Teed, the determined hollow-earther who hand-built a New Jerusalem for his followers at a site near Fort Myers in Florida. True eccentrics, it seemed, no longer flourish these days, if only because we live in a society that becomes more self-conscious by the day, while true eccentricity, remember, is nothing more or less than behaviour that society as a whole deems peculiar, but which appears entirely reasonable to the eccentric concerned. But that was before I thought of checking up on McKinney.
The idea occurred when reading of one John Rutter Carden, Michell's 'dreadfully persistant lover', who first scandalised and then delighted mid-Victorian Ireland by kidnapping his intended bride and racing off with her to his castle in a speeding brougham – a chase that, the author recounts, 'passed into history as the most exciting ever heard of in Tipperary.' Carden was eventually overhauled and apprehended, and the object of his affections, a lady named Eleanor Gough, was freed from his embrace – to her considerable relief. McKinney, it struck me, was very much Carden's modern equivaent. After all, the North Carolina native had not only fallen hopelessly for a straight-laced Mormon who rejected her, but spent her life savings of £9,000 pursuing him to England and, with the help of a strangely-besotted male accomplice, there kidnapped him, drove him to a remote Devon cottage, shackled him to a bed with mink-lined handcuffs, and had her wicked way with him. Repeatedly.
The result was a newspaper scandal of epic proportions. The unhappy Mormon, Kirk Anderson, eventually talked his captors into freeing him. The police were called, McKinney and her friend arrested, and the whole story came out before an enthralled magistrates' court. One recent writer on the case aptly sums up its appeal as follows:
You can probably understand the media meltdown that resulted. You've got most of what you need for a decent tabloid sensation right here: an attractive young woman, a serious young man, kinky sex, and a religious group that might as well have been a cult for all the British hacks knew of the Mormons.
But more than that, Ms McKinney herself was sensational. It wasn't just that photographic evidence of her modelling career began to become available - though the pictures of course were eventually printed - but more that when she finally got into the witness-box during a bail hearing, she revealed herself to be a star. She spoke in a Southern drawl that was fabulously exotic in itself and she had no apparent inhibition, absolutely no sense of reticence at all. Twenty-five years later and social standards have changed in Britain, but in 1977 people simply didn't stand up in court - particularly at a bail hearing in a magistrates court, when there was no need to say anything - and explore the intimate details of their and their partner's sex-lives.
Certainly the determination with which Joyce McKinney had pursued Anderson outdid anything that even John Rutter Carden essayed. The two had met some time after the beauty queen completed her reign as Miss Wyoming and converted to Mormonism. McKinney had gone to college at Brigham Young University, in Utah, where she briefly pursued, but failed to win, Wayne Osmond. After that, though, she fell hopelessly in love with Anderson, a fellow student. The pair enjoyed a brief relationship, which ended when Anderson became disenchanted with the girl's obsessive traits. These were evidently considerable, since Anderson eventually found it necessary to beg his bishop to send him as a missionary to England simply to get away from her. His former lover, undeterred, hired a private detective to locate him, and then followed him to the UK.
Similarly determined planning – according to evidence heard at Epsom magistrates' court in the winter of 1977 – resulted in the kidnapping of Anderson. Acquiring a fake gun and a jar of chloroform, McKinney and her accomplice, one Keith May, forced their victim into a car, and drove him to their rented cottage. There, McKinney chained Anderson to a bed, one limb to each corner post. The evidence produced in court suggested she then forced herself upon the spreadeagled missionary, three times, while wearing a see-through negligee. (McKinney, that is. According to her evidence, when she tore Anderson's blue silk pyjamas off, she discovered he was wearing 'some kind of Mormon chastity garment'– probably a set of the sacred but far from sensual underwear known to Saints as 'the garment of the Holy Priesthood and the New Name'.) What May was doing at the time went unrecorded; he was apparently as obsessed with McKinney as McKinney was with Anderson, and hoped to ingratiate himself with her by helping out.
Now, McKinney's version of events was that Anderson could only enjoy intercourse while restrained (his mother, she explained, had been too domineering an influence during the boy's childhood). The entire affair had been consensual, she said, and Anderson had been 'grinning like a monkey' when she entered the room clad only in her flimsy nightwear. 'How could an 8-stone girl rape an 18-stone, 6ft 2in man?' she asked in her beguiling accent. 'His legs are as big round as mah waist.' For his part, Anderson admitted to having asked McKinney for 'a back rub', but insisted that he had been a most unwilling participant in all that followed – an incident that could then not, incidentally, be classed as rape under English law, since English law had not thought to allow for the possibility that a woman would be capable of forcing herself on a man. 'She said she was going to get what she wanted whether I wanted to or not,' the Mormon (below right) told the court.
The Epsom magistrates evidently agreed with him. The beauty queen and her accomplice were held in prison for several months, then freed on what was for the time a substantial bail – £3,000 each.That was all the opportunity the pair needed, though; McKinney and May promptly skipped bail and fled the country in frankly magnificent style, obtaining false passports and disguises and passing themselves off as members of a deaf and dumb acting troupe. The pair made it to Ireland, then Canada, and finally the USA, where – five weeks later – McKinney was tracked down to a hotel in Atlanta. It will come as no surprise to those who have followed her story thus far that she had been hiding out there disguised as a nun.
The British authorities – faced with the certainty of a sensational trial and newspaper coverage even more salacious than that which had been unleashed so far (the Daily Mirror even published a book on the affair, a piece of pure tabloidese that's now so rare that copies sell for £150 and up) – sensibly declined to press for McKinney's extradition. She was eventually sentenced, in absentia, to a year in jail, but by that time the dailies had more or less lost interest, and after a while she dropped off the radar so completely that even a writer with strong interest in the case could note that 'as far as I know, she has never re-emerged, leaving us with just one day's testimony in court and a handful of contacts with journalists.'
For those in McKinney's inner circle, though, she was still very much around. Her erratic behaviour got her banned from several businesses in her home town, where she still faces at least two charges for 'communicating threats.' And the unfortunate Kirk Anderson was plagued by her for years - returning home, he landed a job at Salt Lake City airport, only to be stalked there, and in May 1984 McKinney popped up in the local press when she was arrested near the airport for harassing him. A search of her car turned up another pair of handcuffs and a rope.
Soon after that the former beauty queen retreated from public view. She went to live alone on a ranch in Newland, North Carolina, where – according to the testimony of those who knew her – she remained unattached and devoted all her love to her animals: horses and a pack of pit bull terriers. This had the virtue of sparing Kirk Anderson from her further attentions, but apparently had drawbacks of its own. 'There was a strong aroma about her,' one lawyer hired to represent McKinney said, 'and I told her this needed to be taken care of before I went to court with her.'
According to the most recent testimony, McKinney's eccentricities have reached new peaks in recent years. 'She is a person of note in our little community," Newland court clerk Julia Henson agreed. According to sundry press accounts, McKinney had, over the years, attempted to sue her own parents for allowing one of her dogs to be stung by a bee, and Stuart Elgrod, the lawyer who defended her in 1977, now shuns her ('Not her again! She always was a nutter,' Mrs Elgrod told The Times. 'Every so often she finds us and drives us mad. Last time she wanted to know what material Stuart had because they wanted to make a film about her. Anthony Hopkins was going to play the part of Stuart.') Then, in 2004, McKinney popped up once again, in Tennessee, where she was charged with aggravated burglary and contributing to the delinquency of a minor after inciting a 15-year-old boy to break into a house.
McKinney's motive this time, it was reported, was bizarre even by her own high standards: she was trying to raise sufficient money to buy an artificial limb for a three-legged horse she owned. ('She loved it dearly,' another of her long-suffering attorneys told the court.)
It was not until the summer of 2008, though, that the one-time kidnapper popped up once again in the pages of the British press, this time as the owner of the world's first commercially-cloned dogs. According to a number of reports, a middle-aged woman named Bernann McKinney had paid a lab in South Korea £25,000 to clone a deceased pet named Booger from cells taken from the dead dog's ear. The story played out for a few days before some veteran on the Daily Mail's newsdesk noticed the uncanny resemblance between photos the 59-year-old Bernann and the Joyce McKinney of 1977. Several weeks of investigation later, the Mail had its modest scoop: the two women were one and the same – 'Bernann' being nothing more than Joyce's middle name. Or, as the British tabloid had it, in one of the stranger headlines of the year: 'Dog cloner admits: Yes, I'm sex slave kidnapper Joyce McKinney'.
Now, it's worth pausing here to observe that it's plainly a lot more entertaining to read about Joyce McKinney than to actually know her. Being part of the life of such a unique person can be more than trying – as the object of John Rutter Carden's unrequited passions discovered a century and a half ago, and as the unfortunate Kirk Anderson could testify today. And it's certainly true that there are double standards at work in the McKinney story; as one reader of the Daily Mail observed, 'If she had been a man, and kidnapped and raped a woman, it would be described very differently.' For all that, though, it's at the very least instructive to discover that such rampantly bizarre behaviour can flourish, even today.
What drove, and drives, McKinney on remains a matter for speculation. 'Weighing the body of evidence,' the Mail concluded its coverage of the cloning case, 'it would seem that 30 years on, the notorious Miss McKinney had once again gone to extraordinary lengths to get her longed-for 'babies'.
'In the end, they were to be the offspring of a dead pitbull ear, rather than that of a bespectacled Mormon trussed in the missionary position in a honeymoon cottage on Dartmoor, next to a pair of ripped, light blue silk pyjamas.'
But perhaps it was The Guardian that summed up the saga best of all:
It reads like the plot of a Russ Meyer sexploitation film, with a plot twist so barking that even the makers of Footballers' Wives would probably have rejected it.
Afterword (21 September 2010): I note that the renowned documentary maker Errol Morris has chosen Ms McKinney as the subject of his latest movie, Tabloid, an award-winner at the Toronto International Film Festival. Morris, perhaps less than scrupulously, chooses to present McK as the loved-up hero of her own story.
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