R v John Samuel Humble: The Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer Trial
Issue: Vol 13 No. 2 (2006)
Subject Areas: Linguistics
Between October 1975 and November 1980 13 murders were committed by the same man, Peter Sutcliffe, in the northern English towns and cities of Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Manchester. The killings, which became known as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murders, were of women, aged between 16 and 47, most of whom were prostitutes. The astonishingly long time for which the killer remained unidentified and active was undoubtedly at least in part attributable to the activities of a hoaxer. Between March 1978 and June 1979 the hoaxer sent three letters, one to the Daily Mirror newspaper, and two to the senior police officer investigating the case, to whom he also sent a tape recorded message. The originator of the letters and recording claimed to be the Yorkshire Ripper and boasted about continuing to out-fox the police. The envelopes containing the letters bore the postmark of the coastal town of Sunderland, some 120 kilometres to the north-east of the main locus of the murders. The accent of the speaker in the recorded message was also one associated with the north-east of England (one from a range of varieties popularly referred to as ‘Geordie’). The police misjudged the contents of the communications, taking the view that they contained details of the murders that were not known to the general public. They concluded that the sender was the murderer, and therefore that the murderer came from Sunderland. The two linguists most closely associated with the police investigation, Stanley Ellis and Jack Windsor Lewis, then working at the University of Leeds, saw differently. They strongly believed the letters and recording to be a hoax. They felt compelled to put their view to the officer in charge of the enquiry team. They were ignored. The investigation thus became centred on Sunderland, allowing Sutcliffe, born, bred and still living in West Yorkshire, to continue to murder.
Author: Peter French, Philip Harrison, Jack Windsor Lewis