The BBC aired the doc-series The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story back in 2019. It was about the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe who killed, as police initially believed, exclusively sex workers in the 1970s. However, the story went viral only after Netflix released a four-episode documentary series called The Ripper in late 2020.
Accordingly, the killer was named The Yorkshire Ripper, alluding to a Victorian murderer who killed London prostitutes in the late 1880s.
The Yorkshire Ripper
Although crime documentaries are significantly represented on Netflix (Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, Murder Mountain, I Am a Killer, etc.), the work of directors Jesse Villa and Ellen Wood is especially eye-catching. This, for starters, is because of the series' emphasis on gender aspects and attitudes towards marginalized groups. The plot expands to portray British society in the late 1970s, taking a glimpse at the vicious killing spree of the Yorkshire ripper.
The Yorkshire Ripper, as the media and police dubbed him, was the truck driver, Peter Sutcliffe. He admitted to killing 13 women, although a suspected number is much higher.
A string of omissions marked the entire investigation. The police ignored the testimonies of women who reported attacks while focusing the inquiry on a letter that the killer allegedly sent. However, the letter later turned out to be a false clue.
This development of the investigation resulted in a five-year search for the killer. It only ended in 1981, thanks to fortunate circumstances rather than a systematic and conscientious approach by the police.
As already mentioned, the series provides a broader picture of British society in the 1970s, especially its marginalities, such as paid workers and prostitutes. The socio-economic difficulties that the UK faced during this period are shown throughout the entire series. The directors showed in wide shots the Yorkshire neighborhoods where sex workers lived and where the police found the victims' bodies.
Tough Women In Difficult Times
The series reminds us that heavy and textile industries were failing due to imports at that time. It led to the number of jobs being halved.
It was a time when some people lost hope while others moved to London, making places like Leeds and Bradford less populated and prosperous. The rise of prostitution was one of the consequences of these circumstances.
The authors of The Ripper state this was most notable in Chapeltown, a district in Leeds known for prostitution. Describing these women in the first episode stated they were "tough women in difficult times."
One of them was the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe, a 28-year-old mother of four, Wilma McCann. She was found in Chapeltown, just a hundred meters from her house. Although it was a brutal murder, it was considered "unimportant" because the investigation showed that the victim was engaged in prostitution.
A similar reaction followed the murder of Emily Jackson. At the time, the police claimed a serial killer was stalking prostitutes only.
However, after the murder of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald, the first victim who was not a prostitute, police realized the killer was not so "picky" but killed women in Chapeltown because they were "easier targets."
The Real Police Investigation Begins
A more comprehensive police investigation started because, as the police said, MacDonald was an "innocent girl" - which implied that the previous victims were not "innocent." The police soon launched a series of "security" measures. One of which was the introduction of a curfew for women, who were advised to move only accompanied by men.
Members and sympathizers of the American Women's Liberation Movement, which was gaining strength, criticized the measures. They were warning of constant attempts to limit women's social independence. The feminists also staged a series of protests under the slogan "Reclaim the Night."
The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group organized the first protest in 1977, arguing that it was illogical to deny freedom to all women.
So, what was happening was precisely what the members of the second wave of feminism were pointing out, and that is that men were placed in a superior position. With this measure, they were considered protectors who provided security to women.
Paradoxically, women were subjected to fear precisely because of men. Therefore, the situation in which women were asked to hand over their security to a man in the form of an escort home, etc., was in extreme contradiction with the fact that the one who terrorized the whole community was a man.
Police also advised sex workers to leave the city. This was a way of depriving women of the right to stay in public and forcing them to seek male protection, contrary to the feminist demands of the time.
At the same time, resistance was created among some women as men went out to bars unhindered while they were advised not to go out. This was especially recommended for the evenings (at least not without a male escort), thus exposing themselves to additional risk.
Women's Emancipation In Dangerous Times
Bear in mind that this was happening during women's emancipation and the strengthening of sexual freedoms. Namely, as Mo Lea, one of Peter Sutcliffe's surviving victims, pointed out, the prevailing feeling in British society in the late 1970s was that everything was allowed.
Women felt free, experimented with clothing and appearance, and the availability of the contraceptive pill gave them greater freedom. The appointment of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister also gave significant momentum - it will be shown later, quite unjustifiably. That, Leo says, thrilled many women because they expected things to start changing for the better. However, the actions of the police in the case of Peter Sutcliffe's murders have shown that this will not happen.
Another critical issue opened by the series, which is still relevant in today's feminist frameworks, is the issue of social attitude towards prostitution.
This problem is already evident at the level of discourse. The British police, like most of the media, had a lot of prejudices about women in prostitution. Although victims of the vicious killer, these women were in some ways considered less valuable.
When the body of Jayne MacDonald, a "completely innocent girl from an ordinary family," was found, police suggested that previous victims were not innocent. Only then did they take the situation seriously and begin a (not very successful) search for the perpetrator.
The Battle Against Stereotypes
One detective revealed the attitude towards women in prostitution. For one of the victims, he said that "she lived quite honestly until ten days before her death, and then she started prostitution." In this way, the victims of Peter Sutcliffe are portrayed as morally questionable women. Many favored the opinion that they, with their way of life, more or less called for something terrible to happen to them.
On the other hand, a narrative was created about "normal young women" ambushed by the killer. They deserved more attention and action, both from the police and the media. That is why Emily Baker, TV editor, concluded that this attitude meant that the killer whose victims are sex workers was not someone to worry about. A true killer "monster" is the one who kills "normal" women.
In that sense, The Ripper points to stereotypes, misogyny, and stigmatization of sex workers. This ultimately jeopardized the investigation itself because the police focused only on the evidence and testimonies of witnesses that fit into their imaginary narrative.
Interestingly, Peter Sutcliffe himself was interviewed by the police as many as nine times in five years before they realized he was the killer. Conducting an internal evaluation in 1982, Officer Lawrence Byford compiled a Yorkshire case report. It lists all the mistakes the police made during the investigation and gives guidelines that are still applied today in investigations of serial homicides.
A Lesson The Police Should Never Forget
Yorkshire police apologized to the victims' families for misconduct and mismanagement of the case. This included the additional stress and anxiety police officers created with the language, tone, and terminology used. The West Yorkshire Police Chief pointed out that such language and ideas reflected the social attitude that prevailed then. But, as he added, such attitude, then and today, was wrong.
The Ripper directors detailed how the police investigation was conducted, marked by prejudice and apparent misogyny. At the same time, the series very clearly departs from such an understanding. A problematic way of working of the police also presents the systemic problems of the British repressive system, the unenviable economic picture, and the way of media reporting at that time.
On that trail, as the famous British journalist Christa Ackroyd said, we need to do everything we can to get this killer back into the shadows and get his victims out of it. Despite certain shortcomings, this documentary does so (for example, at the very end, we can see the names of all the victims).
Who Was Peter Sutcliffe?
In general, Peter Sutcliffe had a completely normal childhood, except for a few small things. In high school, he was a quiet loner. Due to frequent harassment, Peter started skipping school but soon returned. When he finally turned 15, he permanently dropped out of school.
Not to wander anywhere, the boy's father decided to take him to the factory, where he worked. Peter Sutcliffe did not like to work and resigned after nine months. After that, he decided to have more fun - Peter Sutcliffe became a gravedigger. Sutcliffe enjoyed working in the cemetery because he was surrounded by corpses.
It is worth noting that many believe that at this time, Peter Sutcliffe started to develop a tendency to necrophilia. Psychologists still debate how much impact was to be surrounded by dead bodies and whether it affected the killer at all.
All we know is that after a couple of years, the Yorkshire Ripper has suddenly heard the voice of God. It told him from an empty tomb that he needed to cleanse the world from prostitutes.
Based on some research on the life of the Yorkshire Ripper, it was found that he was obsessed with various diseases, mainly sexually transmitted diseases.
As a child and then a young man, he often visited the local wax museum and was only fascinated by the effects of sexually transmitted diseases.
Peter was interested in everything, starting with how the infection originated and what the same person experiences during their illness. Given the nature of Sutcliffe's crimes later, it is quite possible the knowledge from the museum became a dark inspiration to commit murders.
Peter married Sonia Sutcliffe in 1974, before his murder spree. Sonia, like Peter, suffered from schizophrenia. They divorced in 1994.
Peter Sutcliffe had paranoid schizophrenia, which played an important role in the horrific crimes he committed.
Sutcliffe began to hear voices in his youth. Keep in mind that the average age of onset of schizophrenia in men is 18 years, and most of these cases are diagnosed at the age of 20.
Peter Sutcliffe sincerely believed that he heard the voice of God telling him to kill prostitutes. Because of his paranoid schizophrenia, the Yorkshire Ripper thought he was carrying out God's work. Thus, his murder was not just a way to get rid of anger or means to satisfy perverted sexual desire.
Number Of Victims
To the police, Peter Sutcliffe admitted killing only thirteen victims, for which he was sentenced to twenty life in prison terms. However, investigators of the Yorkshire Ripper case are still having a hard time saying how honest he was.
Many criminologists believe that he is responsible for at least 23 victims, including one man.
Most interestingly, Peter Sutcliffe, who at one point began to tell the police about his "exploits voluntarily," persistently denied that the murder of a man was his work. He claimed that God told him he should only kill "dirty women."
Peter Sutcliffe died in November 2020, at the age of 74, after a coronavirus infection exacerbated his existing health problems. He served 20 life sentences for the murder of 13 women and seven attempted murders.