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For half a decade, the Yorkshire Ripper terrorised northern England, attacking and murdering at least twenty women. The first of this five-part miniseries documents the early attacks and police decisions. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
Credits, sources, and more
This is a strong content warning. All parts of this extended, multi-part episode contain strong language and/or descriptions of violent murders. Teachers, guardians, parents, and caregivers should listen to every part of this episode first, and then make their own judgement call about whether this content is suitable for younger or more sensitive audiences.
Case S01E07 – The Yorkshire Ripper, part one of five.
We’re in Bingley, a market town in the City of Bradford. It’s the 02nd of June, 1946. Kathleen Frances Coonan and John William Sutcliffe have just welcomed into the world a baby boy. They name him Peter. Born into a working-class household, Peter Sutcliffe soon develops into a loner. He leaves school at 15 and then spends the next few years drifting from job to job.
We move forward two decades to early September, 1969. The weather has been unusually dry and overcast, and the north of the country has been battered by relentless winds strong enough to disrupt air travel. At the moment, it’s late afternoon and the sun is drifting down towards the horizon. Sutcliffe is now 23, and he is sitting in the passenger seat of a minivan. At the wheel is Trevor, one of Sutcliffe’s few friends. They are parked at the side of St Paul’s Road. This is a short cul-de-sac of terraced houses, otherwise unremarkable, but that the dead end terminates at a church, its spire a startling pinnacle that looms down the centre of the road like an accusing finger.
Abruptly, Sutcliffe jumps out of the van and walks up the road, out of sight. The sun continues to sink. All is quiet and still. Ten long minutes pass by, and then, just as abruptly, Sutcliffe returns. He is out of breath and tells Trevor to drive off quickly. As Trevor hastily starts the minivan, Sutcliffe explains that he has just exacted revenge on a sex worker who tricked him out of £10. He has clubbed her over the head with a stone in a sock, striking so hard that the toe of the sock has split.
The next day, two police officers visit Sutcliffe at his home, around five miles from the scene of the attack. The victim is, in fact, not the one who had duped him, but after reporting the incident to the police, she does not want to take the matter further. At different times in the future, Sutcliffe will characterise his motives as follows, and forgive me for switching back to my native Bradford accent which is similar to Sutcliffe’s:
I was out of my mind with the obsession of finding this prostitute. I had been looking out for this particular one and it was getting late. I just gave vent to my anger on the first one I saw.
Another time, he will say:
I got out of the car and asked her the time and hit her with a sock with a stone in it. I had got depressed. I had trouble with violent headaches. I blame prostitutes.
When the police interview him the day after the attack, however, Sutcliffe claims that he only struck her with his hand. Perhaps stymied by the victim’s unwillingness to press charges, the police settle on giving Sutcliffe a severe reprimand, and then the matter is dropped.
A few weeks later, and it is now the 29th of September, 1969. Sutcliffe is in his old Morris Minor. He is driving through Manningham, a red-light district in Bradford, looking for a sex worker. He would later say,
I knew this were the mission I had to carry out. The voices told me it wasn’t good enough just to attack them. I had to do it properly. I had to kill.
He stops his car at the side of the road and gets out, leaving the engine running and the lights on, ready for a quick getaway. Checking around for potential witnesses, Sutcliffe enters a garden, creeps behind a hedge, and crouches down. He has a concealed knife on him, and a hammer, out, ready. We will probably never know how long Sutcliffe hid there, or how many people came close to him that night.
As the darkness deepens, a police officer on routine patrol spots the headlights of the Morris Minor. Coming closer, the officer checks through the screen, and is more than a little surprised. Manningham – in fact, Bradford at large – has some of the highest crime rates in the country. No matter how old and undesirable the vehicle, an unlocked car left running at the roadside on a dark street is simply begging to be stolen. The whole scenario is more than a little suspicious, and the officer promptly begins to search for the driver. Within minutes, Sutcliffe, and his hammer, are discovered, hiding behind the bushes. It’s an awkward position for anyone to be caught in, no matter how innocent they really are. Sutcliffe makes a ham-fisted attempt at an explanation. His hubcap has flown off. He is trying to find it in the bushes. The hammer? Oh, that’s for securing it back in place.
The officer is not convinced, arrests Sutcliffe, and calls a police van to come and collect him. As will happen so many more times in the next few years, Sutcliffe benefits from a misapprehension on the part of the police. The complexion of the arrest – possibly even the course of history – might have changed entirely had the officer searched him, since this would have turned up the concealed, long-bladed knife. Quite how this would have been explained away is a question to which we will never know the answer. Instead, the officer has seen a man hiding in a garden, in the dark, with a hammer, close to a getaway vehicle. Little wonder, then, that he should conclude that he has caught a burglar. Sutcliffe, meanwhile, recognises the danger that he is in – that he will be fully searched back at the police station, and so, the moment he is left unattended in the back of the van, he slips the knife into a gap behind a mudguard cover. The following month, in October 1969, Sutcliffe is convicted and fined £25 for the offence of “going equipped for theft”.
Little could each of the officers know that, for a brief moment, they had under arrest the man who was soon to become one of the most violent serial killers in England: the Yorkshire Ripper.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this episode. And, if you get a moment, leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts from.
The first attacks
In April 1974, Peter Sutcliffe marries Sonia Szurma. They move into her parent’s house in Clayton, West Yorkshire. Two years earlier, she had started treatment for mental illness, and her marriage to Sutcliffe was described as one in which she was domineering. A reporter who had multiple conversations with Sonia described her as “the most irritating, strangest and coldest person I’ve ever met. She’s so incredibly prickly and demanding”.
Seven months later, on Monday the 11th of November, 1974, a 28-year-old trainee teacher, Gloria Wood, is walking across a Bradford school playing field at around 8pm. A man offers to help her carry her bags, and then attacks, striking her in the head four times, probably with a claw hammer. Nearby youths unwittingly interrupt the attack, though it seems that they are unaware of what has happened and do not intervene. Instead, a little girl happens to pass by, finds the victim, and raises the alarm. Gloria is rushed into emergency surgery to remove fragments of bone from her brain. Whilst she is unable to provide a photofit description, Gloria is later able to describe her attacker – five feet eight inches tall, medium build, dark curly hair, short curly beard, olive complexion, smartly dressed, wearing a dark suit. This description matches Sutcliffe. However, this case is never linked to the later Yorkshire Ripper crimes, and Sutcliffe never confesses to this attack. In different words, in official reports on the matter, this attack is not considered part of the Yorkshire Ripper case.
Not quite a year later, in the early hours of Saturday the 05th of July, 1975, there is another hammer attack, this time in Keighley. This victim is Anna Rogulskyj. Sutcliffe strikes her in the head three times with a ball-pein hammer, then as she falls to the ground, he slashes at her with a knife. He is about to stab her in the stomach when someone nearby is disturbed by the noise and shouts out to know what’s going on. Sutcliffe flees. About an hour later, Anna is found and rushed to hospital. She undergoes an emergency twelve-hour operation to remove splinters of bone from her brain, and despite the prognosis being extremely poor, miraculously, she survives.
A month later on Friday the 15th of August, office cleaner Olive Smelt is in a pub in Halifax, enjoying an evening out. Sutcliffe is also there with his friend Trevor Birdsall, and determines that Olive is a prostitute. Close to midnight, as Sutcliffe and his friend Birdsall are driving home, they see Olive walking down Woodside Road. Sutcliffe tells Trevor to stop under the pretence of having seen some other person he recognises and wants to speak to. Instead, however, he tracks Olive into a nearby alley. Catching up with her, he makes a comment about the weather, and then attacks, striking her in the head twice with a hammer, then slashing at her twice with a knife. Car headlights coming down the alley cause Sutcliffe to flee, and Olive survives.
Laughter can kill
This next case we will deal with a little differently than all the rest. It is the only one I will go into such detail about, since, as will become clear shortly, it is the only one where we have the perspectives of both the victim and the attacker.
Two weeks pass by. It is now around 10:30pm on Wednesday, 27th August, 1975, in Silsden, West Yorkshire. On a quiet country road leading to her parent’s farmhouse, Tracy Browne is walking home. Her twin sister Mandy has set off home earlier, so Tracy is alone. That is, until she is passed by a strange man in his late twenties or early thirties. No surprise, this man will later turn out to be Sutcliffe, but for now, of course, no one knows this. Once Sutcliffe gets ahead, he begins to dawdle until Tracy catches up with him, and then they make smalltalk. Tracy gets a good look at him, including his clothes, face, hair, and so on. Occasionally Sutcliffe stops to fiddle with his laces or blow his nose – he has hayfever, as it turns out. And we can speculate that he was probably trying to get behind her in a better position for the attack, but for whatever reason, he does nothing just yet. As they reach the gateway to Tracy’s family farm, he hangs back again, and then perhaps realising that she is about to get away, he suddenly attacks.
Incredibly, Tracy lives, and she is soon able to give a thorough description of her attacker. From it, the police produce an excellent photofit that is unquestionably very like Sutcliffe. But, frustratingly, they do not, and for a long time, they will not link this crime to the other Ripper attacks and murders. Even after he is caught and convicted, for years, Sutcliffe denies his involvement in this attack until at last, already imprisoned for his whole life for his other crimes, he confesses to it in 1992 to Chief Constable Keith Hellawell. In 2017, The Sun breaks an exclusive story, and as part of it, they provide a recording of Sutcliffe talking about his attempt to murder Tracy Browne:
-said only one of them was, that was Tracy Browne in Silsden, I said and I explained why I went to Silsden. ‘Cos me and Albert Hammond were been playing snooker and were coming on Manningham Lane and these two … tarts they looked like were thumbin’ a lift. He said, “Oh let’s stop and give ’em a lift. It’ll be a laugh.” I says “No! Leave ’em to get a bus y’know.” So anyway I pulled up and they got in. They were thumbin’, y’know. [CUT]
We got onto Silsden where they lived, and, er, they said, “Oh let’s go up on the moors for an hour or so.” I knew what they wanted, y’know. And I- I said, “No get lost!” I said “I- I- I brought you here. You should be glad you got a lift.” Y’know. Albert says, “Come on, let’s go up on the moors with ’em, like, have a bit of fun.” I said, “No.” I said, “I’m a married man. Y’know. I’m not … two-timin’ anybody.” [CUT] Anyway we dropped ’em off and … I realised that they were prostitutes and they- they lived at Silsden and had gone onto Bradford to ply their trade, y’know? Anyway, er, that’s the reason I went to Silsden, er, later on, er, to see if I could find any of them, ‘cos it were getting’ a bit hot on Lumb Lane. There were police everywhere and all over Leeds and that, y’know. So I went on there to see if I could see them to bump one of ’em off ‘cos I was on the mission at the time.
And I- I saw, er, this Tracy Browne. She didn’t look, er, fifteen. She looked about nineteen or twenty, y’know? [CUT] She was walkin’ slowly up this lane. I thought, “Oh…” Y’know, erm. “She’s- she’s probably one of these prostitutes.” ‘Cos I had it in me [chuckles] mind that they were- that Silsden must be full of [chuckles] prostitutes. [CUT] Anyway, I hit her with a branch or somethin’, didn’t really injure her, threw her over a wall, and I climbed over the wall, and I was- I was- I- I was thinkin’ of- bumpin’ her off and this voice said, “Stop. Stop. It’s a mistake.” [CUT] She never told the police what I said to her then you know? I said “Oh!” I said, “Oh I’m sorry! You’ll be alright. I’m goin’ now. I’m not comin’ back. I’m goin’ now. You’ll be okay.” So I got over the wall back onto the road and … go down to me car. Then a car came up the- up the road and it- I saw it stop at the top of the road so she must have climbed over the wall, and they took her home, y’know. [CUT] Erm, she can’t have been seriously injured ‘cos she would have still been behind the wall, y’know, er … That’s why the car stopped. ‘Cos she climbed over the wall and- and thumbed it down or stopped [CUT] stood in front of it, y’know.
Anyway that was the reason why, er. [CUT] I told ’em Albert Hammond were with me, he can prove it and all that, y’know.
This audio is one of the very few pieces of evidence out in the public domain in which we get to hear how Sutcliffe himself perceives the events, and whilst there is much that can be said about it, I will only touch on some of the key points that really highlight the way that he thinks about his actions. For instance, he refers to his attempts to kill a child with the flippant, informal euphemism, “bumped off”, twice. He also states that, “She didn’t look fifteen.” Tracy was fourteen. He then adds, “She looked about nineteen or twenty, y’know?” I can only assume here that he means that she was dressed in a manner that he would consider provocative, and that she therefore deserved whatever attention – including murderous attacks – that might bring. Notably he then literally laughs, twice, in the midst of explaining his attempted murder, and then says, “I hit her with a branch or something”.
It’s rather odd that he can remember the full name of the person he was with beforehand – Albert Hammond; exactly what they had been doing – playing snooker; exactly where they met two women – Manningham Lane; things he said to them – that he’s married; the wider context at the time – the police presence in Lumb Lane; his victim’s name; how old she looked; what she was doing; hitting her; climbing over the wall; what he said to her; the car passing him by… And yet, he is unsure about the murder weapon he used to club her. The thing he held in his hands and with which he attempted to carry out a premeditated killing. Aao, this choice of a branch just doesn’t sound all that terrible – not as terrible as, say, “I hit her with a baseball bat” or “a cricket bat” or “a snooker cue butt” – all glorified branches, after all. But when you think of a branch, you’re probably imagining something long, and ungainly, and springy, that’s hard to wield and so not particularly deadly. In fact, the forensic and medical evidence suggests that Sutcliffe actually hit Tracy with a hammer or similar implement. Whatever this is, it isn’t likely something you find at the side of the road, in the dark, by chance, as you’re standing with your intended murder victim. More likely, it was something Sutcliffe carried with him from his vehicle, and indeed given that his weapon of choice for most of his other victims were various kinds of hammers, it makes sense to assume that he’s used a similar instrument here. Also, notice how the description, “I hit her with a branch or something”, makes it sound like he hits her just the one time? He actually hits her five times with something that is less a branch, more a hammer. And he isn’t just hitting her. Tracy later explains that he was putting so much effort in that he grunted with every strike. She likened it to the way a tennis player grunts when they serve in a match. As he is attacking, Tracy keeps saying, “please don’t”, but it isn’t her pleading that brings the attack to an end.
In Sutcliffe’s version of events, he claims that a voice in his head says, “Stop. Stop. It’s a mistake.” So he stops, returns the way he came, and as he’s heading that way, a car passes him. In other words, in his narrative, he decides to be merciful and leave his victim alive, and he departs the scene of his own free will. In Tracy’s recollection, the attack is interrupted by the very car that supposedly passes Sutcliffe. The approaching headlights spook him, and this is why he throws her over the wall – so that the driver won’t catch sight of her in the headlights. In other words, his attack is interrupted, and he is scared off.
The next key moment is that Sutcliffe claims that before he leaves, he apologises to Tracy, but even this is remarkable, for all the wrong reasons. It’s worth listening to again:
She never told the police what I said to her then you know? I said “Oh!” I said, “Oh I’m sorry! You’ll be alright. I’m goin’ now. I’m not comin’ back. I’m goin’ now. You’ll be okay.
Let’s deal with the apology first. Sutcliffe seems to be right. Tracy apparently does not mention this in her accounts. Honestly, I don’t think I could be less surprised, and I can think of three sensible explanations that pretty much cover all the bases. Number one: The apology never happened. This is the explanation I favour, especially when you consider that at the precise moment he’s supposedly saying this, he’s also being scared away by an approaching car. But for the sake of completeness, let’s consider number two: The apology happened – maybe he shouted it as he was fleeing – but however it’s delivered, whether in haste over his shoulder or slowly and clearly to her face, Tracy has just been hit over the head five times with something like a hammer. It would be amazing for her to remember anything, let alone what someone supposedly said to her in the moments directly after this attack. Number three: The apology happened, and Tracy remembers it, but she is in no rush to make her attempted murderer’s apology the centrepiece of her statement to the police. That’s a position I could more than understand.
The inclusion of a supposed apology is, in itself, unsurprising in a way. It ticks the boxes for the appearance of remorse and even the most clumsily impenitent criminal can discern that throwing in an apology somewhere is probably a good idea, no matter how little they endorse it in reality. Any effects of this apology are, however, entirely undone in the words that come directly beforehand, where he says, “She never told the police what I said to her then you know?” As mind-boggling as this is, Sutcliffe appears to be complaining. He seems annoyed that Tracy didn’t tell the police about his apology. If you were to inhabit that perspective for just a moment, it seems that Sutcliffe thinks he’s done something noteworthy. Magnanimous, even. He says that a voice told him he’d made a mistake, and if we believe that, then in his world, he’s been noble, accepted his error, and apologised for it. But it’s more than that. An apology is usually a private matter. The wronged party receives the apology from the wrongdoer, usually one-to-one, because typically we don’t like to broadcast our errors and be embarrassed in front of others for our misjudgements and shortcomings. But he’s annoyed that she didn’t broadcast his supposed apology. The most obvious explanation for him wanting her to tell the police is that he would be trying to mitigate the consequences that might befall him later. But remember, he’s giving this confession aged 71, after spending the last thirty-five years in prison. There are no more consequences to evade. This isn’t helping him, and being honest can’t hurt him. He isn’t going to get more jail time. So why this complaint?
Finally, in one last mitigation of the whole affair, Sutcliffe asserts that she can’t have been badly hurt because he saw the car stop, and it must have stopped because Tracy climbed back over the wall and waved it down. The logic here, is that if she could climb back over the wall and wave a car down, she was obviously okay. In fact, why the car stops, if indeed it did, is a mystery. Tracy doesn’t climb back over the wall. She staggers 400 yards to a nearby caravan, and the people there take her home. She is then rushed to hospital, and neurosurgeons spend the next four hours operating on her, including removing a shard of skull from her brain. Tracy is left with permanent depressions in her skull. Despite her age and the trauma, Tracy is able to give a thorough and detailed description to the police. This description is corroborated by an independent witness who also saw Sutcliffe. However, despite all this – the matching identity, the similarity of the attack, the fact that she’s female – even as more attacks and murders happen that are almost identical to Tracy’s, the police refuse to link her case to the official Yorkshire Ripper investigation. In fact, when Browne sees the photofit provided by a later victim and goes into a police station to insist that her attacker is the same person, that is, the Yorkshire Ripper, the officer actually laughs at her. In desperation, her parents ask a relative who happens to be friends with one of the commanding officers in the Ripper inquiry to take her seriously, and yet, even then, nothing comes of it.
So why don’t the police want to link this attack to the other Yorkshire Ripper crimes? Their arguments are that Tracy wasn’t a sex worker, so that didn’t fit. And they insist that, despite the medical evidence to the contrary, she was attacked with something wooden, so that didn’t fit – never mind the medical evidence that directly contradicted this. And they point out that she was attacked out in the countryside, rather than somewhere in the inner city, like a red-light district, so that also didn’t fit. In the end, it is not until Chief Constable Colin Samspon takes over from Chief Constable Ronald Gregory – a commanding officer that you will hear much more about as this miniseries goes on – almost ten years after the attack before Tracy is finally listed as the fourth official Yorkshire Ripper victim, including the unnamed stone-in-the-sock victim, Anna Rogulskyj, and Olive Smelt.
In reality Tracy Browne is likely at least the fifth, if we also count Gloria Wood, and as this miniseries will also go on to show, the number could be far higher than that. However, for a moment, at the risk of getting ahead of myself, I’d like to pause to make a crucial side-point. As the investigation gathers momentum, and particularly in its historical retellings, the Yorkshire Ripper has been characterised as a killer of sex workers – that is, prostitutes. The very name, Ripper, is derived from Jack the Ripper, the infamous London murderer of sex workers. When we look over the Yorkshire Ripper attacks and killings, however, not all of these first four – or five – known victims were sex workers. And, as we’ll see, many of the later victims are not sex workers either.
It’s entirely possible that Sutcliffe deliberately shifted to sex workers as his attacks escalated. They were out on the streets in the early hours when he was least likely to be disturbed and most able to escape unidentified. The very nature of sex work is that it typically involves going with a stranger to a secluded spot where the likelihood of being disturbed is minimal. It’s difficult to envision a more vulnerable line of work. However, there was another very compelling reason to target sex workers. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, in the UK, when sex workers were murdered, the reaction tended to be – and sometimes still is – “Well it served her right” and “she was asking for it”. I want to be absolutely clear that I consider that attitude disturbingly abhorrent, but my views are beside the point. The issue here is that this was the dominant perspective amongst the police, the media, the public, and the powerful. Consider, then, how the media and the public are likely to react if the killer is suddenly preying not on these scorned and derided sex workers who exist at the fringes of society, but instead, on children. Children who could belong to any one of us. The uproar would be instantaneous and overwhelming. The pressure to catch the killer would mount catastrophically. To put it at its absolute crudest, a fourteen-year-old curly-haired farmer’s daughter as a Yorkshire Ripper victim would be a PR disaster for the police. In other words, as recurs so many times throughout this case, there may well have been other reasons why the investigating officers did not want someone like Tracy Browne added to the list of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims. And decisions like this would go on to harm the investigation in many and untold ways, as we’ll soon see.
But for now, back to the unfolding events, which are about to escalate from attacks to murders.
The first murders
In the early hours of Thursday, 30th of October 1975, Sutcliffe sees 28-year-old Wilma McCann at the side of the road. She is drunk and trying to thumb a lift home. He picks her up, drives her to the Prince Philip playing field, in Leeds, and attacks her with a hammer. One blow lands with so much force that it penetrates the full thickness of the skull. He then stabs her fourteen times in the chest, abdomen, and neck. Sutcliffe will later claim that this was his first murder.
Almost a month later, in November of 1975, Jean Harrison is found dead in Preston. She is a known sex worker, and has been killed by violent kicks to the head and body. Sexual intercourse and sodomy have occurred before her death, and an analysis of the semen reveals that the killer is a blood group known as B secretor. If possible, try to hang onto this detail as it becomes crucial later on. Whilst officers later consider this case somewhat similar to other murders in the Yorkshire Ripper series, for a long time, no official link is made, and Sutcliffe never confesses to this murder. This murder, informally known as the Preston ’75 case, will come up again.
Two months later, in January 1976, Sutcliffe murders 42-year-old Emily Jackson, a sex worker, in a factory yard in Leeds. He initially strikes her down with a violent hammer blow to the head, and then stabs her dozens of times in the lower neck, upper chest, lower abdomen, and back, by what is thought to be a screwdriver.
Four months later, in May 1976, Marcella Claxton in attacked with a hammer in Roundhay Park in Leeds, and sustains serious head injuries that require 52 stitches to close up. She is four months pregnant at the time of the assault, and loses the baby, but survives the attempted murder. However, because she is not stabbed, and is not a sex worker, even though the description she provides of her attacker matches that of previous Yorkshire Ripper cases, the police would not link her case to the others until after Sutcliffe’s arrest, when he finally confessed to the attack.
Nine months pass by in which, supposedly, no further attacks happen. Then in February of 1977, homeless 28-year-old Irene Richardson is murdered in almost the exact same location where Marcella Claxton was attacked in Roundhay Park in Leeds. She is a recently divorced mother of three and the police believed her to be a sex worker. The attacker has struck her down with three hammer blows and then repeatedly and severely stabbed and slashed her abdomen. Again, despite the distinct similarities to previous murders, this case is not at first officially linked to the Yorkshire Ripper murders.
Two months later, in April 1977, 18-year-old Debbie Schlesinger is attacked as she walks home from a night out in Leeds. Her friend happens to be close by at the moment of the attack, hears screams, runs to help, and finds Schlesinger slumped in the doorway of a club. She has been stabbed through the heart and dies within minutes. A witness provides a description of the attacker that closely matches Sutcliffe. However, whilst then-Assistant Chief Constable Hellawell believes Sutcliffe committed the crime, Sutcliffe never confesses to it, and, perhaps because there is no hammer used in the attack, or because the victim is not a sex worker, this murder is never linked to the other Yorkshire Ripper crimes.
Only two days after this, Sutcliffe murders 32-year-old Patricia Atkinson, a sex worker, in her own flat in Bradford. He hits her over the head with a hammer four times and repeatedly stabs her in the torso.
Two months later, in June 1977, Sutcliffe murders 16-year-old shop assistant Jayne MacDonald in what is described as a “prostitute area of Leeds”. He incapacitates her with three severe blows to the head, then stabs her in the back and multiple times in the chest through the same wound. Her murder is linked to the Yorkshire Ripper series, but – and here we see the first indications of this attitude towards sex workers mentioned earlier – Jayne MacDonald’s death receives notably different treatment in the press. She is repeatedly described in headlines and by the police as an “innocent” and as a “respectable woman”. This is explicitly positioned against women who are “prostitutes”. All at once, the public outcry over the ongoing murders and the lack of police progress escalates considerably. In response, the next day, West Yorkshire police begin to circulate information about the murders of Jayne MacDonald, along with that of Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Patricia Atkinson, and Irene Richardson. This is arguably the first time that the series of attacks begins to be seen as something truly heinous and we see some evidence of the first significant, systematic urgency to capture the Yorkshire Ripper. Whatever the motivation, however, actual progress in the case is minimal.
A month later, in July 1977, Sutcliffe attacks again, this time in Bradford. Maureen Long, a former sex worker, is close to her estranged ex-husband’s home when Sutcliffe strikes her in the head with a hammer and stabs her in the abdomen and back. Incredibly, she survives, but she is unable to describe her attacker.
Rise of the machines
I need to pause briefly in the timeline here to give a tiny insight into the events starting to unfold inside what will later become the Major Incident Room at Millgarth Police Station in Leeds, and, to a lesser extent, the peripheral incident rooms following the same case at other police stations. Though the attitude towards sex workers has almost certainly not helped, the police have not been idle. In fact, behind the scenes, they have already embarked on numerous enormous, complex, and resource-intensive lines of inquiry. They have been interviewing suspects. They have also started working through a huge database of the owners of 53,000 cars that match tyre-tracks found at some of the crime scenes. Sutcliffe, as it turns out, is on this list, but as demands for resources mount in other areas of the investigation, after checking 33,000 owners, this line of inquiry is stopped before it reaches Sutcliffe’s front door, and a new one, that will prove fruitless, is started on a different set of cars. For the sake of ever getting through this miniseries, however, it is impossible to do all these efforts justice. For those who want to know more there are now countless books on the Yorkshire Ripper investigation that can give some remarkable insights into these various efforts.
On the streets, police are routinely interviewing potential suspects – kerb crawlers, night-clubbers, manual labourers. In fact, at this time my own father – an electrical jointer for a large electricity company in Bradford who drives a van, had dark hair, and is about the right age and height – is interviewed no less than three times. He described the interviews as surprisingly boring, though that might have been because he kept producing work rotas that clearly put him in all the wrong places at the wrong times. Similarly, our next-door neighbour – also a dark-haired manual labourer of around the right age and height with a small white van – is interviewed twice. Different records state different numbers, and likely the exact figure is long-since lost, but the general consensus seems to be that by the end of the inquiry, around 40,000 men have been interviewed as potential Yorkshire Ripper suspects. According to my dad, bearing in mind that he was a working class manual worker, pretty much every man he knew who was even remotely capable of wielding a hammer and driving, regardless of age, height, hair colour, and so forth, was interviewed. Those, like my dad, who matched the description better, were often interviewed several times, such that at his workplace it even became something of a grimly amusing competition to see who got picked up by the fuzz the most.
Aside from exhaustively interviewing pretty much everyone, the police are also staking out and patrolling high-priority red-light districts such as Manningham in Bradford, Chapeltown in Leeds, and Moss Side in Manchester. They are also undertaking extensive, high-visibility patrols day and night in an attempt to deter further attacks, leading to immense bills for overtime. And they are drowning under ever-increasing avalanches of information. Every interview, sighting, or notable piece of information is being recorded on index cards and in reports, and these documents quickly number into the hundreds of thousands – far beyond anything that can be sensible organised and parsed for meaningful connections. As the investigation gains momentum, the sheer weight of paperwork and filing cabinets becomes so extreme that the floor of the central incident room has to be reinforced to bear the weight.
Perhaps aware that they are beginning to drown under a tidal wave of information that simply cannot be sifted and sorted meaningfully, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Mr Ronald Gregory, contacts the Director of the Police Scientific Development Branch to ask for assistance. He has a conversation with Mr Holt, a senior scientist there. Holt recommends that the records system be computerised. He explains that converting existing records can be done by the Joint Automated Data Processing Unit at a cost of £25,000. This is around £150,000 today. And he explains that maintenance costs thereafter will be £156,000 – just short of £1m today.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that this system would likely have paid for itself multiple times over, if only by bringing the case to a successful conclusion years sooner, thereby stemming the incredible haemorrhaging expense of the investigation. But of course, no one knew, or likely even imagined, that there were going to be so many more attacks and murders, going on for years yet. In trying to persuade the Chief Constable to take up this system, Holt is likely to have found it difficult to point to many examples of computers providing extraordinary benefits worthy of such expense. Remember that it’s 1977. Computers are a weird, nerdy, specialist science that people in labcoats sweat over. Where they do exist, commercial computers are secret, gigantic, backroom machines, like boilers or switchboards or aeroplane cockpits. They are a terrifying complication of flashing lights and bristling wires, and about as accessible to the average person as an alien spaceship.
The first real, commercially successful, mass-produced home computers, the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80 will launch this very year, 1977, but at a cost of thousands of dollars in today’s money, and are the preserve of dedicated hobbyists who have a lot of disposable income to throw around. The sheer saturation of computing as we know it today, our familiarity with it, and our relaxed understanding of it, simply did not exist then. There were no computerised fingerprint databases. Even cornerstone systems like AFIS – the Automated Fingerprint Identification System – without which it is almost impossible to imagine policing, will not come into existence for another three years. In fact, there are very few databases of anything, never mind of car tyre tracks, or material samples, or wound types. Even technology like DNA testing doesn’t yet exist as we now think of it. A primitive version will finally make it to the courtroom a decade later. At best police can request blood or semen tests that indicate blood groups and whether someone is a secretor or a non-secretor, but this is slow and gives limited information. It cannot identify one person at a level of probability into the billions. At the most it can only eliminate people who don’t match, and of course, many people have the same blood group.
Another problem with 1970s computers, aside from costing a fortune to buy in the first place, is that they also cost a lot of maintenance, and in staff. The require people with PhDs in computer science – expensive people – to help with operating them. Even handing off routine, simpler tasks to officers requires training those officers in the first place, which takes time, and not everyone is likely to get that training. Then, if your computer operator is off sick or busy with other tasks that day or week then this creates an information bottleneck. By contrast, anyone from the junior intern upwards can operate a pen, index card, and filing cabinet. Of course, now, we know all the benefits of data storage, search, retrieval, and analysis. Also, we’re now all routinely trained in how to use computers, and our computers are far simpler to use. Back in 1977, however, a 56-year-old Chief Constable is listening to a scientist making wild-sounding claims about frightening machines that are going to cost millions to implement and maintain. Unsurprisingly, Mr Holt’s suggestion is rejected. Instead, the forces continue with their exhaustive accumulation of mountains of paperwork – a decision that will bear increasingly poisonous fruit further as the years pass by.
End of part one of five.
This episode of en clair was researched and fact-checked by Rebecca Jagodziński. And it was scripted, narrated, and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. However this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior effort of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. If you like, you can follow Rebecca on Twitter at RjJagodzinski, and you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.