Ever since I was very young, I have been absolutely fascinated by True Crime. I’m not the only one, take a quick look at Netflix and there is an abundant range of crime documentaries, from The Staircase to The Keepers. It’s a massive source of entertainment and, in the same way that children terrify each other with monsters, we adults love to terrify ourselves with stranger killers.
What is it about true crime that fascinates us? Why do we dwell on the horror that humans inflict on each other?
Peter Sutclffe, AKA The Yorkshire Ripper, was my first serial killer, so to speak, I vividly remember hearing it on the television news as a child. The Yorkshire Ripper terrorised the North from 1975 – 1980, committing a series of unspeakably violent crimes, attacking women, many of whom were sex workers. It is desperately depressing that sex workers were not viewed in the same way as “normal” women, in that there seemed to be a belief that in their line of work, violence was an accepted hazard. When The Ripper killed a woman who was not a prostitute, the public outcry was deafening.
Sutcliffe killed 13 women usually by striking them with a hammer and stabbing them with a screwdriver. Aside from the sheer horror of the level of violence that was inflicted on these women, it became such a notable case due to the seemingly incompetent West Yorkshire police force, who appeared inept in the face of such a killer. Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times, but the antiquated cataloguing systems for gathering information meant that the police could not keep up with the vast amounts of information that flowed in to the incident rooms and connections that should have been made were not. If they had been, the finger may have pointed firmly in the direction of Sutcliffe years earlier.
The dreadful saga was further undermined by a hoaxer (John Humble, identified, charged and convicted in 2006) who sent the police three letters claiming to be The Ripper. The infamous ‘I’m Jack’ cassette tape arrived in June 1979, and because the speaker had a strong Wearside accident, the whole investigation careered off in the wrong direction.
I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer to catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are letting you down, George. Ya can’t be much good, can ya?
The only time they came near catching me was a few months back in Chapeltown when I was disturbed. Even then it was a uniform copper, not a detective.
I warned you in March that I’d strike again, sorry it wasn’t Bradford, I did promise you that but I couldn’t get there. I’m not sure when I will strike again but it will definitely be some time this year, maybe September or October, even soon if I get the chance. I’m not sure where. Maybe Manchester; I like there, there’s plenty of them knocking about.
They never learn, do they, George? I bet you’ve warned them, but they never listen. At the rate I’m going I should be in the book of records, I think it’s 11 up to now, isn’t it? Well, I’ll keep on going for quite a while yet. I can’t see myself being nicked just yet. Even if you do get near, I’ll probably top myself first.
Well, it’s been nice chatting to you, George. Yours, Jack the Ripper.
No good looking for fingerprints, you should know by now it’s clean as a whistle. See you soon. ‘Bye. Hope you like the catchy tune at the end. Ha-ha!
The ‘catchy’ tune at the end was a recording of Andrew Golds’ Thank you for being a friend.”
The head of the investigation, the beleaguered George Oldfield, plunged all resources into trying to find the author of the letters and the tape, convinced that they had been sent by the killer. £1m was spent on an advertising campaign and billboards everywhere displayed the handwriting, whilst the voice could be heard on a special ‘Dial The Ripper’ hotline. Three more women died while the police followed the “Wearside Jack” lead.
The Ripper was only finally caught when he was picked up by a beat copper who arrested him for being in the company of a sex worker in a car with fake registration plates.
Later, following his confession, it is said that George Oldfield made a trip to the station where he was being held, as he wanted to look at the man who had been his nemesis for so many years. Oldfield is believed to have said “I’m the one you almost bloody killed as well,”
Sutcliffe certainly looked very ordinary and nondescript ….and maybe that’s the key to our fascination. Killers look like us … but somewhere behind that normal facade there lurks a monster.
Ted Bundy, who was operating at a similar time in the US was eventually tried and executed for 36 murders though it is thought that there were probably many more. Bundy used his good looks and affable personality to lure young women into his car. Gary Ridgeway, “The Green River Killer”, killed 49 and managed to operate for twenty years, whilst having a wife at home and a circle of friends who knew nothing about it. John Wayne Gacey was a pillar of the community and volunteered as a clown at children’s birthday parties, while all the time at home he was torturing and murdering young men and burying them in his garden.
I have read a lot of True Crime books over the years. Some are dire and are obviously churned out opportunistically by would-be authors who have little or no journalistic ability. But there are some that are absolutely worth reading and I have listed my favourites below:
1. The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer. A fascinating insight into the life and death of Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was convicted of shooting two people in 1976 and sentenced to death. When the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment, Gilmore fought for the right to die and was eventually shot by firing squad on January 17 1977, at Utah State Prison.
2. Wicked Beyond Belief by Michael Bilton. The investigation into the Ripper murders as detailed above.
3. Green River Running Red by Anne Rule. The story of how Gary Ridgeway evaded capture for over twenty years.
4. The Sleep of Reason by David James Smith. This one is probably scariest of all, as it documents the murder of toddler James Bulger. The subsequent investigation and the conviction of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, (both 10 years old at the time) is truly harrowing.
5. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. One of the first ‘True Crime’ books and a cracker. It documents the murders of the entire Clutter family in Kansas in 1959 by two out of work drifters, the subsequent investigation and their arrest, conviction and eventual death by hanging.
A final word; Apparently serial killers are rarer than hens teeth …and you are far more likely to be murdered by a member of your family. So that’s alright then.
Happy reading and don’t forget to leave the light on.