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For half a decade, the Yorkshire Ripper terrorised northern England, attacking and murdering at least twenty women. In the final part of this five-episode miniseries, now that the killer is caught, there is a chance to see whether the linguists were right all along. Will there be regret, redemption, or both? En clair is a podcast about forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries from past to present. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
Credits, sources, and more
Letters and tapes
ITN News report (Peter Sutcliffe trial)
LBC news report (Ronald Gregory memoirs)
Sampson Report (available by emailing the Home Office)
Home Office files relating to the Yorkshire Ripper investigation
Cabinet Office files relating to the Yorkshire Ripper investigation
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 S01E11 – The Yorkshire Ripper, part five of five.
On Wednesday the 29th of April, 1981, standing before Judge Mr Justice Boreham at the Old Bailey in London, Sutcliffe pleads,
Not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
The attorney general, Sir Michael Havers QC, prosecuting, is willing to accept this plea, but after consideration, the Judge determines that the case must go to a full trial by jury. Throughout the trial, Sutcliffe’s defence counsel, James Chadwin QC, argues that he is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – an argument that has the support of four psychiatric experts. In the end, however, on the 22nd of May 1981, Sutcliffe is found guilty and given twenty concurrent life sentences.
In the chaos of Sutcliffe’s arrest in January, and again four months later at his trial throughout May, few people can be persuaded to retain any lasting interest in the letters and tape.
It is important to remember that the Yorkshire Ripper and Wearside Jack have dominated the headlines for six long years now. For many people, the topic has gone on so long, that they have become numb to the horror, and then even become sick of the subject. The nation, and especially Yorkshire, has been saturated with news, often daily, if not hourly, for more than half a decade. This has been news that has actively affected the daily patterns of life of countless women. Throughout the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror, sexual harassment and assault increased. Women walking alone found themselves being taunted and reprimanded and jeered at in the street. At one stage, some officers even began urging women to stay indoors after dark, only go out with chaperones, stay out of red-light districts, dress modestly, stay out of pubs, and more. Rightly outraged by being made responsible for having their behaviour policed and being made responsible for the killer’s actions, women protested and marched and made their displeasure known. The police, too, are suffering from institutional exhaustion and heavily depleted resources. George Oldfield is not the only officer broken by the Ripper inquiry. The past six years of policing in West Yorkshire has been largely thankless and for some, downright brutal.
The Wearside Jack letters and tape may have derailed the investigation at a cost of millions of pounds to the taxpayer, and three further murders might have occurred since they were sent, but the killer is now in custody, on trial, in prison. Few people in the police, the public, or the media, can muster up the enthusiasm for yet another investigation to find some random troubled individual who sent some hoaxes letters. And if a killer is so difficult to find with unlimited resources thrown at the problem for years, with the hellfire of a furious Prime Minister threatening to blaze a trail to Leeds, take over, get the job done herself, then what on earth chance is there of catching some petty hoaxer with only a fraction of the resources, motivation, and evidence?
If few cared about finding Wearside Jack, though, then even fewer cared that the linguists had been vindicated in their claims that the communications were frauds. Ellis describes the moment he heard the news of Sutcliffe’s arrest, as follows:
The next morning, I rang a police contact and asked about the man who had been arrested. ‘He doesn’t have a Geordie accent’, I was told. I couldn’t resist saying, ‘I told you he hadn’t.’
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 linguists are still in disgrace – not quite enough to make them entirely indispensable when their opinions might prove useful, but, as I’ve mentioned, enough for none other than the Chief Constable, Ronald Gregory himself, to make a public statement of his displeasure in 1983, as Ellis’ account so eloquently observes:
A unit in charge of attempting to identify the hoaxer was kept on for several years, and as late as 1984 I was brought a video tape made in Ireland of a voice the police believed might be him. […] Large numbers of people not normally connected with police affairs became involved in the Ripper enquiries. The total sum of money spent was enormous. Many saw it as a public duty to do what they could to help, as I did myself. When letters were sent after the trial to people who had acted in various ways, it seemed an unhappy oversight that nothing came to me or to Jack Windsor Lewis. A year or so later, when yet another recording was brought to me for comparison, I let it be known that I felt rather affronted by this omission and a brief note from the Assistant Chief Constable, Mr Hobson, arrived. Windsor Lewis received no acknowledgement of his efforts. Ronald Gregory wrote a Sunday newspaper article about the Ripper case after he retired, stating that the linguistics advisers had let the police down. The remark left me furious. Windsor Lewis urged that we should write a letter to The Times. There are moments when I regret that I persuaded him that a dignified silence was the best response.
For this three-part series in the Mail on Sunday, grimly entitled The Ripper Files, Gregory faces an intense backlash from fellow officers, the public, and the Press Association. Gregory is said to have been paid some £40,000 for it – around £130,000 in today’s money – and the public is quick to notice that this seems grotesquely like blood money derived from a series of horrific attacks and murders. As if this isn’t bad enough, the articles are also described as unilluminating and repetitive, giving no new or special insight into the case despite Gregory’s primary position of overall command.
But let’s return to Ellis and his final thought on Wearside Jack:
To this day, in spite of various reports, the identity of a man who sent a tape and letters claiming to be ‘Jack’ the murderer has never been discovered.
Ellis wrote this back in 1994, some twenty-five years ago, now, and at first, this sentiment, that the real Wearside Jack has never been caught, holds true. The years after Sutcliffe’s trial pass – first two, then five, then ten, and it starts to look as though the mystery will never be solved. Though the linguists have been proven right in their fears that the communications were hoaxes, the victory is otherwise an empty one. Without a substantive Wearside Jack to pin the communications on, their job is only half complete. Were they correct in their analyses? Did they deduce the right sociolinguistic information from the tape and letters? Finally, in 2003, there are rumours in the press that the police have called off the search. Too much time has passed, and the evidence is likely now utterly compromised, if not entirely lost or destroyed.
It is twenty-five years after Sutcliffe’s arrest, and two years after the police are said to have closed the case, when Wearside Jack unexpectedly returns to the headlines, and linguists, too, find themselves again in the spotlight. But before we can go forward, we must once more go back.
Cold case review
We have gone back to 1974. Sunderland. Kayll Road library. An eighteen year old bricklaying apprentice enters the building and makes his way to the crime section. His name is John Samuel Humble.
Humble hates the police. The year before, at seventeen, he was convicted of burglary and theft. Unbeknownst to him now, next year, at nineteen, he will kick an off-duty police officer in the head and, as a consequence, spend three months at a young offender’s institution. Humble hates the police and he loves the idea of notoriety. Infamy. In the library, things are peaceful. Humble scans over the limited selection of titles on crime that this small community library has to offer. Finally, he takes hold of a green-covered hardback book entitled Jack the Ripper. Humble checks the book out and takes it home. He will keep it for over a year, copying out the letters supposedly sent to newspapers and the police by that most infamous Victorian Whitechapel murderer, Jack the Ripper.
Two years later, the Yorkshire Ripper murders start to dominate the news cycle, appearing in every paper’s headlines and every breaking news broadcast. Now twenty, Humble begins to amass an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the events – dates, names, locations, injuries, officers, and more. Obsessed with it, consuming everything he can read about it, at some point, Humble has an idea. It’s both entertaining and satisfying. Why not take this opportunity to insult the police, to even get a little of that notoriety for himself? Using the Jack the Ripper letters as templates, Humble writes two of his own, and sends them to George Oldfield and the Daily Mirror. But the attempt is a disappointment. Nothing comes of it. No reports. Not even a passing mention.
A year later, he sends another letter, but again, still nothing. At least, not to the outside world. He is unaware that behind the scenes, the third letter is being taken more seriously. Perhaps emboldened by the idea that nothing will come of any of this and that it will just annoy the police, or perhaps craving that infamy that he aspires to even more, Humble borrows his brother’s tape recorder, and sitting in his messy kitchen, he records a message. This, too, he posts to the police.
All at once, the entire machinery of the enormous, sprawling Ripper investigation pivots, turns, and fixes its laser focus onto his part of the world. Within days, multiple police forces and thousands of broadcasters and newspapers are in a feverish race to find Wearside Jack – him. The million-pound media campaign makes it almost impossible for Humble to pass a radio or television or newspaper stand without seeing or hearing some mention of his letters and tape. What was just a bit of fun has mutated into a gigantic, frightening monster. Then the unthinkable happens: another murder. Increasingly panicked, at around 5pm on the 14th of September 1979, Humble calls the Sunderland Police Station to tell them that the letters and tape are a hoax. He refuses to give his name or address and then hangs up. You can hear the transcript of the part of this conversation that the officer managed to record earlier in this mini-series.
Ironically, having determined that his fake communications are sincere, the police now choose this moment to decide that his sincere communication is fake.
Incredibly, throughout this time, despite the marked uniqueness of his voice, none of Humble’s relatives or friends seem to suspect him, or if they do, they make no mention of it. The key factor behind this seems to be that the police continue to frame the letters and tapes as real, and they also describe the killer as someone who likely drives for a living. Humble cannot drive and has no licence or car. Just as Humble’s handwriting ends up being used to eliminate Sutcliffe as the Yorkshire Ripper, so too are Sutcliffe’s inferred characteristics – his ability to drive – probably used by those around Humble to eliminate him as Wearside Jack.
Despite this, the danger of being found out is still very real, and a little over a year later, Humble finds himself unexpectedly facing the double-edged assistance and danger of Windsor Lewis’ article in the Yorkshire Post in December 1980. On the one hand, Windsor Lewis describing the tape and letters as red herrings may help to dislodge them from the centre of the investigation and take the intense focus off of them, but on the other, it may make people around Humble realise that if the letters and tapes are indeed a hoax, then the hoaxer could very well be him. It will take another month, and the arrest of Sutcliffe in January 1981, before the danger seems to truly pass.
With the passage of time, Wearside Jack sinks into the shadowy depths of history, and an angry young twenty-year-old Humble sinks into alcoholism. His drinking, combined with his continued dislike of the police, has an almost inevitable outcome, though it takes two decades to arrive. On the 10th of September 2001, an almost-forty-year-old Humble is having yet another run-in with the police, and he ends up being cautioned for drunk and disorderly behaviour. During that interaction with the police, he gives a DNA sample, but this, too, almost certainly fades from Humble’s memory as the years continue to pass by.
A full quarter of a century after Sutcliffe’s arrest, in 2005, West Yorkshire Police decide to undertake a cold case review of the Wearside Jack case. The announcement prompts a small flurry of renewed media interest which in turn leads to the police locating some of the seal from an envelope that has been in storage in a forensic lab. On the 19th October, 2005, the DNA in the saliva on the envelope seal is tested in and the astonishment of all involved, it promptly comes up with a match in the UK’s National DNA Database. The owner of that DNA? You will not be surprised to find out that it belonged to one John Samuel Humble.
On the same day as the DNA test result – the 19th of October 2005 – Humble is arrested and brought to West Yorkshire, where he is interviewed at Wood Street Police Station in the city of Wakefield. But there is a problem. Just because Humble licked the envelopes, that actually doesn’t prove much. It certainly doesn’t prove that he wrote the letters or that it is his voice on the tapes. After all, he could have simply sealed the packages for someone else, unaware of what they contained. Even a similarity of accent isn’t conclusive. He does come from that very area and he is not the only man of his age with that accent. And initially at least, Humble denies everything. The next step, then, is to get the linguists back in to compare Humble’s voice to Wearside Jack’s, to see if they really do match. Will this investigative cooperation between the police and the linguists go any better than the last one?
That same day, at around 5pm, West Yorkshire Police contact J.P. French Associates – a forensic speech and acoustics laboratory that specialises in analysis of evidential recordings. One can only speculate that they didn’t contact Ellis or Windsor-Lewis at this time because both were 79 years old, but there may have been other considerations, including awkward feelings about unpleasant newspaper articles.
Whatever the case, the police urgently request Professor Peter French and Dr Phillip Harrison to undertake an analysis of the Wearside Jack hoax tape, and they provide various recorded police interviews with John Humble for comparison purposes.
The very next day, on the 20th of October 2005, French and Harrison begin a preliminary analysis and indicate to the police that there are several important points of similarity between the recordings of Wearside Jack and Humble. However, the Wearside Jack recording they are working with is a poor quality recording of a recording, rather than the original tape. A few hours later, French and Harrison are contacted by the police again.
Humble has confessed.
News of Wearside Jack’s arrest breaks, and seeing the headlines, a retired Home Office scientist comes forward with the original cassette tape. Able now to undertake a better analysis, French and Harrison conduct auditory and acoustic-phonetic analysis. This includes looking at voice quality, rhythm intonation, suprasegmental features, computer-based frequency averaging, spectrography, and vowel formant analysis. As part of the investigation, French has Humble read the transcript of his original message out loud. Of course, having Humble do this is far from perfect. As the linguists themselves note, a quarter of a century has elapsed since the original recording and the new one. In that time Humble has smoked and, for at least the previous decade, been an alcoholic. He has also, obviously, aged. However, have a listen for yourself to see what you think of the similarities. Here is a short segment of the sample obtained by French and Harrison in October of 2005, followed immediately by the original recording from June of 1979, some twenty-six years earlier:
[Sample of original for comparison – see reference for Letters and Tape]
[Sample of French/Humble recording – see reference for Letters and Tape]
As the case proceeds towards court, in one of those peculiar twists of fate that sometimes accompany these already unusual scenarios, whilst French and Harrison are retained by the prosecution, the defence decides to hire Jack Windsor Lewis as their expert witness. Those outside of the English legal system might feel especially dubious about this, but the duty of an expert in an English criminal courtroom is to the court itself, not to the legal team retaining them. One undertakes as rigorous and neutral and objective an investigation as possible, and then presents the results, no matter how much they help or hinder the arguments of the counsel by whom one has been retained.
Accordingly, on the 01st of February, 2006, Windsor Lewis goes to Armley Prison in Leeds where Humble is being held. In trying circumstances, at Windsor Lewis’ request, Humble writes out all three letters again and re-records the hoax tape. Windsor Lewis goes on to state that:
My overall impression from intensive examination of the Armley versions of the letters and the recordings was that there was no cogent evidence that could be adduced to claim that the accused had not been responsible for the actions with which he was charged.
And at the conclusion of their investigation, French and Harrison summarise thus:
We were informed just before the trial began that none of our findings on speaker identity or recording method/circumstances was to be subject to challenge by the defence.
In different words, when it comes to their expert evidence for the trial of Wearside Jack, all three linguists find themselves in general agreement that Humble is indeed Wearside Jack.
Six weeks later, on the 20th of March 2006, at Leeds Crown Court, on the first day of his trial, Humble confesses his responsibility for the three letters and the hoax tape. The following day, pleas of extenuation are made on his behalf based on his confession and his history of mental illness, suicidal tendencies, and alcoholism. In the end, Humble is given an eight year custodial sentence on four charges of perverting the course of justice.
But whilst Wearside Jack has been caught and jailed at last, a crucial question remains unanswered. You might remember from earlier in this miniseries that Stanley Ellis undertook an extensive analysis of Wearside Jack’s – that is, John Humble’s – accent. Ellis concluded that the origins of the voice were close to the small villages of either Castletown or Southwick, each on the south bank of the River Wear, only two miles apart. So, was Ellis right?
At the time that he posted the letters and tape, Humble’s address was 15 Halstead Square, in the Ford Estate, in Sunderland. If you were to walk due south from this address for just one mile, you would find yourself standing at the edge of the River Wear. On the opposite side, the north bank, a mile to the left, you would see Castletown. And a mile to the right, you would see Southwick. Ellis had located Humble’s voice to within just two miles of his actual address.
Your friend Peter
It would seem sensible to end the story here, but there is just one more tiny twist.
On the 03rd of April 2006, not quite a fortnight after Humble has been sentenced, a number of newspapers, including The Mirror breathlessly report that the Yorkshire Ripper has written two letters, or more accurately, two notes, to Wearside Jack. I’ve scoured the various articles and tried fairly extensively to corroborate the existence of these notes, in some form or another, but the origins of this story look to have been lost in the intervening decade. Worse, it’s nearly impossible to organise the two notes back into their original forms. By this, I mean that the various papers have irreconcilably jumbled them up. Papers like to quote a little, then interject with some observation or other, then paraphrase another bit, and so forth. The best that I have been able to manage is to simply put all the various elements together into one long paragraph that should, presumably, be split in two somewhere in the middle. This is assuming that the papers haven’t also taken their various quotes out of order. Anyway, what do these notes from the Yorkshire Ripper to Wearside Jack supposedly say? The two taken together run as follows…
I have just heard that you got eight years in prison on Tuesday for the crimes you committed. I am not surprised that you got that length of time because what you did was very bad indeed. You have now had your 15 minutes of fame and you have reopened old wounds again and put me back in the media spotlight. I do not need this now or ever again. The same thing will happen when you are released. You could have saved those three women, John. You have blood on your hands. I was under the influence of voices. What was your excuse John? Drink and drugs, I hear. You have some sort of fascination with my case. Maybe you are responsible for the other bodies which only a few other people know about. Did you kill them others, John? I must know. I want you to write back, John, so we may exchange letters and maybe organise a visit here at Broadmoor. We have loads to talk about. I want you to say sorry for your crimes and interfering in the investigation into my crimes. I am cured of my evil thoughts and you can be cleansed as well. Treatment and drugs will help you, John. I know. I hope you get some treatment for your problems, John, because you are very ill indeed. You could even end up in Broadmoor with me. That is where you belong. It would be very strange, that – the two of us sharing history in the same place.
Be strong, God will look after you,
Your friend Peter.
So, I have to come clean here and say that, honestly, I’m very sceptical. Is it impossible that Sutcliffe wrote to Humble? Not at all, though I do have to wonder what the prison system policy is on inmates contacting each other like this. However, it all comes across rather bizarrely. Let’s take the bit about,
Maybe you are responsible for the other bodies which only a few other people know about. Did you kill them others, John?
This is confusing on several counts, and I can only find two ways to understand this, neither satisfactory.
Interpretation one: Sutcliffe is talking about Humble’s supposed murder victims. But if that’s the case, how could Sutcliffe possibly know about them? Is he supposedly a mind reader? Or is the implication that Humble and Sutcliffe know each other? And who are these “few other people” who also know?
Interpretation two: Sutcliffe is talking about his own murder victims, but ones which haven’t yet been discovered. But if this is the case, given his unwillingness to admit to murders in interviews even in the face of strong evidence, would he really commit such an open confession to paper, and then send it right through the prison system, under the eyes of countless guards? It doesn’t really matter how I try to parse this, it’s just confusing.
And then there’s the other thing that really jars for me in this supposed Sutcliffe letter. See if you can spot it from these six sentences:
You could have saved those three women, John.
What was your excuse John?
Did you kill them others, John?
I want you to write back, John.
Treatment and drugs will help you, John.
I hope you get some treatment for your problems, John.
Why is this noteworthy, beyond the fact that it sounds especially weird when these sentences are presented back-to-back like this? Well, let me quote you from something else in the same way and see if you can see the issue…
I have the greatest respect for you, George.
I reckon your boys are letting you down, George.
They never learn, do they, George?
Well, it’s been nice chatting to you, George.
That, of course, is Humble, from the 1979 tape that he sent to George Oldfield, the Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police who was in charge of the Ripper investigation. As you may remember, in that tape Humble was pretending to be… Peter Sutcliffe.
And there’s one more thing. In the prison notes supposedly from Sutcliffe, there is the question, “Did you kill them others, John?” Notice that dialectal feature, “them others”? You will be shocked to know that Humble uses this self-same feature too. In his March 1978 letters, one to the police and the other to the Daily Mirror, Humble writes…
My purpose to rid the streets of them sluts.
I am telling you to warn them whores I’ll strike again
can’t walk the streets for them whore,
It’s crucial to bear in mind, though, that this feature is pretty common across plenty of dialects, so by itself it doesn’t tell us much.
Anyway, in short, I have a suspicion that the Sutcliffe notes to Humble are, in fact, Humble pretending to be Sutcliffe. Again. Of course, I have nothing that amounts to proof of this. The sum total of evidence here is as follows:
- garbled data extracted from newspapers who have made a pig’s ear of presenting these alleged Sutcliffe notes – that is, assuming they ever existed in the first place
- a pre-existing suspicion that this is a hoax based on Humble’s prior history of doing exactly this same thing, and
- two extremely tentative features – intrusive first-name use, and a very common dialectal variant.
I don’t have a comparable set of data from Sutcliffe. Maybe he’s also a creepy over-user of first names? Also, when you compare these supposed notes to Humble’s letters – that is, to his writing rather than his speech – this exaggerated first-name-use just doesn’t occur. At all. Then again the tape is supposedly a script that is being read out loud. Aaanyway, in conclusion, this is interesting and it’s enough to start an investigation, but since no crime appears to have been committed and it’s almost impossible to find further details about these supposed notes, this will likely remain a minor, unresolved mystery.
Goodbye, Mr Anderson
In one of those strange coincidences, just a fortnight before this final episode in the miniseries was due to air, there has been an unexpected update on the case of Wearside Jack, and the likelihood of solving the Sutcliffe-Humble prison notes mystery has fallen yet further. As ever, to fully contextualise this turn of events, we need a little bit of background. According to news sources, Humble was released from prison in late 2009. If true, he would have served around three years of his eight year sentence. On his release, Humble changed his surname to Anderson, moved into a ground floor flat in South Shields, got himself a dog that he named Jack – a rather unsettling choice, all things considered – and he even appears to have struck up a relationship. However, it would seem that this relationship ultimately failed and that Humble struggled both with alcohol and unemployment. On the 30th of July, 2019, alone in his flat, John Samuel Humble died of heart failure and chronic alcohol misuse. He was aged just 63.
There are many ways to finish this miniseries, so much so that it is difficult to decide which seems the most fitting. Soon after Sutcliffe’s arrest, two reviews were undertaken, one leading to the Sampson Report and the other, later on, to the Byford Report, which ran to almost 150 pages and remains partially redacted to this day. The Government likewise released around 175 pages of interactions between Downing Street, several Home Office departments, and the commanding officers of numerous police forces. These reports and papers all reveal both the incredible scale of the investigation, and dozens of developing schisms and tensions as a lot of different organisations tried to work together on a single objective.
One problem, from a modern perspective, was that the police forces simply had no experience of dealing with a major high-profile incident spanning multiple jurisdictions, and, in turn, triggering evermore, ever louder, ever longer eruptions of increasingly negative publicity. Similarly, there were simply no suitable methods for handling enormous quantities of information, and the police were very quickly buried under interviews, public responses to media appeals, records of numberplates, supernatural predictions, sightings, hoaxes, guesses, tips, and more. In the present day, should a case of this nature occur, there are multiple high- and mid-level strategies for streamlining an investigation, so that all the forces are working to the same purpose and sharing the same information. And, as a direct result of cases like this, in 1985 the Home Office introduced the computer system, HOLMES (as in Sherlock) – the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System – to coordinate officers and information. But in the 1970s and early 1980s, the different forces could find themselves struggling to prioritise and share key information. The commanding officers also appear to have struggled in their relationships with experts like Ellis and Windsor Lewis, especially when it came to valuing their judgements, respecting their independence, and later, acknowledging their efforts. Ellis’ truly exceptional analytical conclusions in placing Wearside Jack within two miles of his home might have been an unassailable vindication of the value of his expertise, but that could have felt like poor consolation for finding himself slighted by the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police in a national tabloid, and then spending the next twenty-five years in disgrace with at least some of the officers involved the Ripper inquiry.
There were yet more issues that hampered this case, however. Egos and politics were at play and the commanding officers of one force could take exception to, disagree with, and even refuse to implement the decisions of another force. Sometimes this was clearly because each was convinced that they were taking the best course of action but at other times the spirit of cooperative seemed to be broken by the competitive desire to be proven right and to be the ones to get the Yorkshire Ripper. The hoax letters and tape should never have been sent, of course, but the way that they were dealt with, the problematic way in which their authenticity and provenance was established, and then the unquestioning faith that was finally placed in them had desperately tragic consequences, to the extent that Sutcliffe was free to carry out at least three more murders, and possibly others besides that have never been formally proven as his.
But there was at least one more pervasive issue, and this belonged to no one person or organisation in particular. It was the prevailing attitude towards sex workers, and particularly women sex workers, in the 1970s. Women in this line of work were seen – and arguably still are seen – as less than human; as victims of their own making; as not worthy of much, if any sympathy if they are attacked or murdered. In just one infamous example, at the trial itself, when describing the victims, the attorney general and prosecuting counsel, Sir Michael Havers, said:
Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.
He is literally saying that the death of a sex worker is not as sad as that of a non-sex worker, and of course, yet again, we have that wearisomely loaded word “respectable”.
The extent of this attitude was so marked throughout the years of Sutcliffe’s attacks that some of the women that may have been attacked by him but were not sex workers, or were not so openly, did not want to be linked to the other Yorkshire Ripper crimes for fear that they might be seen as sex workers too. Before you think unkindly of these women, consider that in this era, a conviction for prostitution, or even just the suspicion of it, could result in losing one’s children, spouse, job, friends, family, home, everything. It means, even now, that the chances of being physically attacked, or sexually assaulted, or even murdered, increase, sometimes dangerously, as that person is marked out as a potential future target by predatory people. And it meant, especially historically, that a police response to such a crime against a so-called “known prostitute” could be diluted, if not altogether negligent. The cases in this investigation demonstrated that difference in public response repeatedly. Whilst the victims appeared to be sex workers, the investigation garnered media interest, but when some of the victims were described as innocent, respectable, middle-class, and so on, the outcry was immediate and intense, and the police stepped up their efforts markedly.
In other words, for some of these women who were possible or actual surviving Yorkshire Ripper victims, avoiding the label of sex worker was not simply about avoiding potential embarrassment. It was a matter of avoiding threats to physical and social safety and potentially even extreme, life-altering consequences. As I’ve mentioned, this also meant that some women did not report attacks against them at first, or even for years. Others may have withheld or altered details to obscure possible links, and still others resisted having their crime linked to the series – an option that we can imagine that the police were sometimes happy to choose. And this once again takes us back to the so-called official timeline of attacks. In plenty of sources on this case, the history of the Yorkshire Ripper is presented as though we now know everything that happened, who was attacked, how many victims there were, and so forth. In reality, this could not be much further from the truth. Whilst Sutcliffe is officially convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder seven other women, we simply do not know for sure how many women Sutcliffe attacked and killed. Sometimes he carried out attacks within weeks or even days of each other, and at other times, it would seem that he did not strike for as long as a year.
If we look at attacks and murders that occurred from the mid-1960s through to 1981 – that is, the period of his early adulthood through to his capture – a pattern starts to emerge towards the end of the murders of someone who is attacking approximately one woman per month. If this were to be extrapolated to a window of around 25 years, then at an unlikely extreme, he may have carried out, or attempted, as many as 300 murders. In reality, it is more likely that with each killing he was becoming bolder, more frenzied, more addicted, and that the pattern by the end is not representative of that at the start. More realistically, when the range of crimes are compared alongside the methods used in the attack, the victim profile, times, dates, locations, accompanying evidence, and so forth, the evidence suggests that Sutcliffe was more likely involved in somewhere around thirty to sixty murders and attempted murders that have not been added to the official list.
As a result of this precise uncertainty, in 1991, ten years after Sutcliffe is imprisoned, Chief Constable Keith Hellawell is asked to investigate any additional murders and attacks that he might have been committed. A list of around sixty unsolved crimes is compiled, and based on factors like driving logs, Sutcliffe is eliminated as a suspect from around forty of these. Of the remaining twenty cases, Hellawell focuses on eight murders and two attempted murders, and he goes to Broadmoor numerous times over the next ten years to repeatedly interview Sutcliffe. In 1992, Sutcliffe admits to the two attempted murders. One victim is fourteen-year-old Tracey Browne of Silsden – the case we looked at in detail close to the start of this miniseries. This is the victim who was literally laughed at by a police officer when she insisted that her attacker was the Yorkshire Ripper.
The other victim is 22-year-old Ann Rooney from Leeds. Sutcliffe continues to deny the other eight murders, and in recent years, the media have reported the police as saying that unless significant new evidence comes to light, they will not pursue any further murder charges against Sutcliffe.
Aged 72 at the time of this recording, Sutcliffe is currently incarcerated in Her Majesty’s Prison, Frankland, in County Durham. This is the same prison that has held, and holds, other notorious killers such as Harold Shipman, Ian Huntley, Michael Adebolajo, and Peter Chapman. Sutcliffe is one of around only 75 prisoners in the UK serving a whole life order. This prison sentence allows no possibility of parole or any form of conditional release whatsoever, meaning that Sutcliffe will spend his few remaining years of life in prison.
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.