The Prostitute-Killing Truck Driver Who Followed in Jack the Ripper’s Footsteps
The new Netflix docuseries “The Ripper” revisits The Yorkshire Ripper, a fiend who terrorized Northern England, killing at least 13 women.
No serial killer is more famous than Jack the Ripper, so when prostitutes began turning up dead in West Yorkshire, England, beginning in 1975—their bodies horrifically bludgeoned, mutilated, and then posed so they might be spotted by passersby—the fiend responsible for these atrocities was immediately likened to the famed Victorian slayer via the moniker “The Yorkshire Ripper.” The similarities between the two cases were striking, and as this new Ripper evaded detection, along the way seemingly taunting police through direct communiques while continuing his spree, his own legendary status grew—which, in the end, was precisely the problem, since by turning this assailant into a mythic figure, everyone failed to see the very real, very ordinary individual they sought.
The Ripper (on Netflix now) revisits the hunt for the Ripper, who after six long years of avoiding arrest, was eventually identified as Peter William Sutcliffe, a nondescript truck driver culpable for the deaths of 13 women and the attempted offing of an additional seven. Sutcliffe doesn’t appear until the fourth and final episode of Ellena Wood and Jesse Vile’s gripping docuseries, and with good reason—the man himself is less important than the women whose lives he took, and the misogynistic culture that bred him. A gripping investigative saga that exposes the sexist ‘70s atmosphere that both gave birth to a monster and then, through horrid police and public attitudes, inadvertently allowed him to commit his dirty deeds, it’s a true-crime effort that doubles as a stinging sociological critique.
When mother-of-four Wilma McCann’s body was found in 1975 on a playing field in the Chapeltown district of Leeds, it was roundly viewed as just a random gruesome murder—this despite the fact that, as forensic pathologist Mike Green notes, the stab wounds were made in a way that indicated the perpetrator had really taken their time pushing the instrument around, and then had admired their work. The notion that this was a one-off homicide, however, was short-lived, thanks to the discovery of three more slain women: 43-year-old Emily Jackson in a muddy alleyway near Chapeltown (felled by 56 stab wounds) in January 1976; 28-year-old Irene Richardson in a park in April 1977; and 33-year-old Patricia Atkinson in her rundown flat in April 1977. All four of these innocent victims were assumed to be prostitutes, and the comparable manner in which their lives were taken suggested that a serial killer with a very particular M.O. was on the prowl.
From the get-go, the police—led by George Oldfield and Ronald Gregory—were at a distinct disadvantage for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they recovered almost no physical evidence from any of the crime scenes, save for a few generic and hard-to-trace tire tracks and boot imprints. Moreover, they had no eyewitness reports regarding the crimes—and even later, when two women escaped the Ripper’s clutches, the best cops could glean from their accounts was a single profile sketch of a white man with dark hair and a beard. Most troublesome of all, though, was that their sleuthing resulted in thousands of leads that largely went nowhere, as when they discovered a brand-new five pound note in the purse of a later victim, and yet failed to trace it to a legitimate suspect. Law enforcement was, to put it bluntly, flying blind.
That situation was partly due to the nature of the era, when forensic science was still relatively primitive, and partly the result of the Ripper’s own canny selection of victims with whom he had no relationship (and was not seen with), and ability to avoid leaving anything behind that might point cops in his direction. The Ripper, however, also makes it clear that mounting pressure on police to find the killer compelled them to focus far too heavily on dead-end avenues of investigation—specifically, a trio of letters purportedly written by the Ripper and sent to law enforcement, and a subsequent audio recording in which the Ripper mocked his pursuers and promised to strike again. Those two clues convinced detectives that the Ripper was from Sunderland and had a “Geordie” accent, which shut down inquiry into anyone who didn’t fit that bill.
The cops’ narrow thinking extended to the Ripper’s supposed hatred of sex workers—an idea promoted incessantly by authorities and the media, even once the scoundrel began murdering women who weren’t prostitutes. Before long, female citizens were being asked to abide by curfews, and to not go out alone at night—advice that, however practical, clashed with the budding feminism of the era, and created the impression that women were being blamed, by men, for their own victimization at the hands of a psychotic male. The climate that emerged was one in which women were preyed upon by the Ripper and marginalized by police and society at large, if not outright dismissed, with detectives deeming the accounts of multiple Ripper survivors unrelated to the front-page case, and thus ignorable.
The Ripper introduces each of the Ripper’s thirteen victims via white text on a black background, often followed by their stark portraits, as a means of making sure that they’re not lost in the sensationalistic shuffle of this sordid tale. Interviews with their families and friends, conducted in the ‘70s and recently, further foreground their tragic plights. At the same time, Wood and Vile’s wealth of archival material not only retraces the police’s steps—and reporters’ efforts to cover them—but creates a powerful sense of life in West Yorkshire circa the second half of the ‘70s, when economic hardship led to rising unemployment, infrastructural breakdowns, and an air of modernity fraying at the seams. It’s in this anxious environment that the Ripper operated, and the directors smartly posit his reign of terror as an outgrowth of a moment in time when poverty, need, desperation and a working-class tradition of violence against women came together to beget a national nightmare.
Sutcliffe’s brutality came to an end with his 1981 arrest and conviction. Yet the scars he left behind remain—visible, most poignantly, in a late interview with Tracy Browne, who claims that she’s let go of her anger at police for not pursuing her case, but whose haunted eyes say something else entirely.