On the morning of October 9th 1977, the body of 20-year-old woman, Jean Jordan, was found in a patch of overgrown land near the South Cemetery in Chorlton.
Bruce Jones, the actor who would later go on to play Les Battersby in Coronation Street, was the first person to find her body – and like something out of a nightmare, Manchester Police knew that this couldn’t be a crime of passion. It was the fingerprint of a crazed killer who had done this before; and they were right.
Police weren’t dealing with a first time murderer; they were facing a monster who would later be known as one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers; The Yorkshire Ripper.
Peter William Sutcliffe was born on 2nd June 1946 to a working-class family in Bingley, West Riding of Yorkshire.
Growing up, Sutcliffe developed into a shy loner and at the age of 15 and dropped out of school. For several years he indulged in menial jobs until finally stumbling across, what he would describe as ‘The best job in the world’.
During his time at Bingley Cemetery as a grave digger, he developed a dark, macabre sense of humour that would manifest into a disturbing fascination with dead bodies.
Despite this, he met a woman called Sonia Szurma on Valentine’s Day, 1967 and the two of them would go on to marry on the 10th August 1974. For a while, they had a happy marriage but after being told they were unable to have children, things took a dark turn.
Depressed and devastated, Sonia started an affair with an ice-cream driver and Sutcliffe spent most of his time spying on sex-workers or seeking their services.
During one of these occasions in 1969, Sutcliffe was tricked out of money by a woman and was absolutely furious. This seemingly insignificant detail kick-started the transition from fantasy into reality and that same night, he committed his first attack on a sex-worker whom he followed into a garage.
Luckily she lived, but The Yorkshire Ripper was born.
From the 5th July to the 27th August 1975, Sutcliffe attacked three more unsuspecting women, one of whom was 14-year-old Tracey Browne. Though all of the women survived, they were left traumatised and depressed, Tracey requiring brain surgery.
The first woman to lose her life was mother-of-four Wilma McCann from Scott Hall, Leeds, who was struck twice with a hammer and stabbed 15 times on the 30th October. Despite an extensive inquiry involving 150 Police officers and over 11,000 interviews, the case went cold and Sutcliffe was free to continue his reign of terror.
What followed was 4 years of constant fear for the women of Leeds, Bradford, Manchester and Huddersfield, as The Yorkshire Ripper seemingly struck without remorse or impunity.
Police were overstretched, lacklustre and as many to this day still say incompetent. What started out as a (rather slow) search for someone who had a grudge against sex-workers, or “women of low moral standards” quickly turned into an extended period of fear for all women as public (and police) perception shifted with the murder of Jayne MacDonald on 26th June 1977.
Before then the victims had been known to be sex workers, but it wasn’t until the murder of 16-year-old Jayne, who had no links at all to the sex industry, when perceptions changed. This is turn certainly focused the police efforts somewhat in a much more productive direction.
One of the many criticisms aimed at police and authorities at the time was around the treatment of women in society. In light of the murders, 1977 saw women being told to ‘stay out of public spaces after dark’ – a statement that ignited the country-wide ‘Reclaim the Night‘ movement, where women would protest and clash with police with signs such as ‘No Curfew on Women – Curfew on Men’.
After 4 years of terror, Sutcliffe has murdered 13 and attempted to murder 7 other women and 1 man but they miraculously survived.
Up until Jean Jordan, Sutcliffe had been lucky – managing to evade a rather lacklustre police force who were initially reluctant to put their full force behind the crimes knowing that they were concentrated on sex workers.
Police knew of Sutcliffe, but a crucial piece of evidence left at the Jean Jordan crime scene allowed officers to finally connect the dots.Carelessly, he left behind a £5 note which police were able to trace its origin and pinpoint its area of distribution.
Though this alone didn’t bring him to justice, this small breadcrumb allowed police to narrow down the search that ultimately led to his arrest on the 2nd January 1981.
On Monday 5th January, 1981, Peter Sutcliffe appeared at Dewsbury Magistrates Court and pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of murder. He told the court that he was given orders to kill sex-workers by God and was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and advised to spend his time in a secure mental hospital.
Despite this recommendation, Judge Justice Boreham declared Sutcliffe should face trial which commenced on the 29th April, 1981.
The trial lasted a fortnight and after six hours of deliberation, the jury gave a majority verdict of 10-2 finding Peter Sutcliffe sane. As such, he was found guilty of all 13-counts of murder and 7 counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to a minimum term of 30 years.
However, this was increased to a whole life tariff on the 16th July 2010, a very small victory for the families of the victims.
Fast-forward to present day, 73-year-old Peter Sutcliffe remains in HMP Frankland Prison where he claims to be haunted by the faces of his victims. Almost blind, diabetic and suffering from high blood pressure and breathing problems, officials believe he could be dead in weeks.
As he tiptoes towards death, let us hope that his victims continue to torment him and make his remaining time in this world as terrifying as he made theirs.
Very few people were born evil, but Peter Sutcliffe was destined to ruin lives, and so it is with some small relief for the families to know that he spent his final years behind bars where he belonged.
For one of the most detailed documentaries on the investigation surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper I recommend the BBC’s The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story which you can watch on iPlayer here.