In Victorian London, prostitutes feared for their lives as a monster stalked the streets, killing and dismembering his victims. Jack the Ripper was on the loose.
Fast-forward three-quarters of a century and the women of Yorkshire knew just how those Victorian women had felt, as the Yorkshire Ripper’s evil and bloody reign of terror lasted half a decade.
Between 30 October 1975 and 17 November 1980, 13 women lost their lives, victims of one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers, Peter Sutcliffe.
The first known attack by the Yorkshire Ripper was on Anna Rogulskyj, in Keighly, Yorkshire. At around 1.30am, she was outside her boyfriend’s home when Peter Sutcliffe snuck up behind her. With what was to become his signature, he first disabled her by hitting her over the head with a hammer and then lifted her skirt and slashed and mutilated her with a knife.
Anna was to be one of six survivors of Sutcliffe’s sickening attacks. He would attack but not kill two more times before his first deadly attack at the end of October. Wilma McCann’s sexually assaulted and mutilated body was found near her home; the 28-year-old Scottish mum-of-four was attacked after a night of heavy drinking ended when Sutcliffe picked her up as she hitchhiked home.
There then followed more attacks and it became clear that prostitutes were being targeted, although not all of his victims were prostitutes. It was after the death of Irene Richardson, found disembowelled, that the Press nicknamed him the Yorkshire Ripper.
Over the following months and years, Sutcliffe would assault, maim and kill with terrifying frequency, all the while holding down a job as a lorry driver and a marriage to his then wife Sonia.
Shockingly, police interviewed Sutcliffe no less than nine times before he was finally arrested. An investigation that was hamstrung by archaic working practices, initial indifference to the victims from society’s fringes and the distraction of a hoaxer, became a source of ridicule, as the killer continued his reign of terror.
The killing spree was finally ended on Friday 2 January 1981. Sergeant Robert Ring was on routine patrol with a colleague when he saw a woman in a car with a man. Ring thought he remembered her for prostitution offences. When questioned, the man said his name was Peter Williams. He also said he was desperate for the toilet. Ring allowed him to go behind a storage tank.
The police found the car’s licence plates were false, and Peter admitted that he had also given a false name. He said he was really Peter Sutcliffe. Detained overnight, police noticed Sutcliffe’s physical similarity to the Ripper profile which they had built up. His blood test showed he was blood group B, one of the few indisputable forensic details and relatively rare.
On returning to the scene of his arrest, Sergeant Ring discovered Sutcliffe hadn’t emptied his bladder. He’d emptied his pockets of a hammer and a knife.
On Sunday 4 January 1981, Sutcliffe confessed. The Yorkshire Ripper calmly gave a 15-hour statement recounting his crimes. He claimed that back when he was a 20-year-old gravedigger, the voice of God had commanded he kill prostitutes.
At his trial in April 1981, Peter Sutcliffe was deemed sane and was found guilty of 13 murders and seven attempted murders. He was sentenced to life for each murder. He was first sent to HMP Pankhurst on the Isle of Wight, before being diagnosed as insane and transferred to Broadmoor secure hospital, where he remains.