“My neighbour keeps on using disgusting language within earshot of my family,” Gordon Northcott told the Riverside, California, district attorney. “My nephew is living with me and he’s only 15 and training for the priesthood. All this is very upsetting for him.”

When police investigated the complaint, Northcott’s neighbour was furious. “That fellow Northcott regularly beats up that nephew of his,” he exploded. “You should find out what the hell is going on at his ranch.”

They did, and Gordon Northcott must have wished he’d never started the ball rolling. Police discovered that he was a homosexual sadist who abducted boys, hid them on his chicken ranch, and when he had buggered them rented them out to wealthy southern Californian paedophiles.

When he tired of his young captives he shot them or shattered their skulls with an axe, dissolved their flesh in quicklime, and transported the bones to the desert for disposal.

Only one victim was found – a headless teenage Mexican, discovered near La Puente in 1928. But murder squad detectives identified three others.

The Northcott family was at least dysfunctional. Gordon Northcott’s father died in a lunatic asylum, and an uncle died in San Quentin during a life sentence for murder. His own mother was identified as the killer of one of the boys he abducted, but the evidence suggests she was acting under orders from her paedophile son. She was jailed for life and died in prison.

Northcott fled from the investigation to Canada, his birthplace, but was later extradited. Marking time at San Quentin he alternated between protestations of innocence and detailed confessions to the murder of “eighteen or nineteen, maybe twenty” victims. A pathological liar who loved the spotlight, he several times offered to point out the remains of more victims, always reneging at the last moment.

A prison guard recalled conversations with the prisoner as “a lurid account of mass murder, sodomy, oral copulation and torture so vivid it made my flesh creep.”

Sentenced to hang, he went to the gallows on Thursday, October 2nd, 1930, when he was 22. Before the trap was sprung he screamed, “A prayer! Please say a prayer for me!”