The Sickening True Story Of Peter Sutcliffe, The Yorkshire Ripper Who Brutalized 13 Women In 1970s England

Published May 24, 2018
Updated January 4, 2021

Peter Sutcliffe claimed to be on a mission from God as he killed 13 women and evaded hapless police on nine separate occasions while committing the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

Peter Sutcliffe The Yorkshire Ripper

Express Newspapers/Getty ImagesPeter Sutcliffe, a.k.a. the Yorkshire Ripper, on his wedding day on Aug. 10, 1974.

For five harrowing years, Peter Sutcliffe terrorized Britain as the bloodlusty Yorkshire Ripper.

Claiming to be on a mission from God to kill prostitutes, Sutcliffe viciously murdered at least 13 women, and he attempted to kill no less than seven others — all while narrowly evading capture again and again.

Though he died in November 2020 of Coronavirus while behind bars, Sutcliffe’s skin-crawling legacy lives on and is now the subject of a Netflix documentary about his crimes titled The Ripper.

But before tuning in to the show, here’s everything you need to know about the Yorkshire Ripper.

Peter Sutcliffe Creates A Normal Facade As A Gravedigger

Peter Sutcliffe was born in Bingley, Yorkshire in 1946 to a working-class family. A loner and a misfit from an early age, he left school at 15 before shuffling from job to job, including work as a gravedigger.

Even as a teen, Sutcliffe earned a reputation among his fellow graveyard workers for his morbid sense of humor on the job. He also developed an obsession with prostitutes and began to consistently watch them conduct their business on the streets of the nearby city of Leeds.

Peter Sutcliffe With Police

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesYorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe leaves court under heavy police guard. April 14, 1983.

But while his macabre and voyeuristic interests bloomed, Sutcliffe also began to build a relatively normal life for himself. He met a local woman named Sonia Szurma in 1967 and the pair eventually married in 1974. The following year, Sutcliffe got his license as a heavy goods vehicle driver.

While he now had opportunities for steady employment as well as a wife at home, this job as a truck driver also allowed him to be out on the road for long stretches of time without any questions asked. Soon, Peter Sutcliffe wouldn’t be content to merely watch prostitutes.

The Yorkshire Ripper Embarks On A Quest For Blood

Starting in 1975, though some say he’d attacked women as early as 1969, Peter Sutcliffe embarked on the grisly murder spree that ultimately earned him the name “Yorkshire Ripper.”

Sutcliffe was known to have assaulted at least four young women — one by hitting her over the head with a stone inside a sock in 1969, and three with a hammer and knife in 1975 — before he turned to outright murder.

His motive remains unclear, though some have said that he was taking revenge on prostitutes because he’d once been swindled by one. The Yorkshire Ripper himself said that the voice of God commanded him to kill.

His method of murder remained fairly consistent throughout his spree. He would strike his victims, mostly prostitutes, from behind with a hammer before stabbing them repeatedly with a knife. The Yorkshire Ripper’s victims also remained consistent and were exclusively female, some of them were vulnerable women like prostitutes.

Victims Of The Yorkshire Ripper

Keystone/Getty ImagesSix of the women murdered by Peter Sutcliffe.

He stabbed his first murder victim, Wilma McCann, 15 times in the neck and stomach after hitting her over the head with a hammer in late 1975. The Yorkshire Ripper struck the mother of four at night while her children slept inside their family home some 150 yards away.

Sutcliffe’s next victim, Emily Jackson, suffered more than three times the number of stab wounds inflicted upon McCann. He’d picked her up while she was selling her body on the streets of Leeds in January 1976, then dragged her into a nearby lot and attacked her with a screwdriver and stomped on her so hard that he left a bootprint on her leg.

The attacks continued on with this same grisly signature — hammer strikes followed by brutal stabbings about the chest and neck as well as sexual assault — well into 1977. But that year, the police finally started the slow process of discovering the identity of the Yorkshire Ripper.

An Ill-Fated Investigation Passes Right Over Sutcliffe

Police Investigating Sutcliffe Home

Andrew Varley/Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesPolice search the ground behind the home of Peter Sutcliffe in Bradford following his arrest, Jan. 9, 1981.

More than 150 police officers participated in the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, but they were unable to catch Peter Sutcliffe for years. What’s more, they were thrown off his scent by hoax letters and a voice recording from someone falsely claiming to be the killer.

In fact, the authorities’ first break in the case didn’t come until 1977, when they found a five-pound bill in a secret compartment of the handbag of a mutilated dead prostitute named Jean Jordan. Police figured that a customer may have given Jordan that note and that customer might have information about her death.

Police were able to trace the bill to a specific bank and analyze the bank’s operations to deduce that the note could have been part of the wages received by approximately 8,000 people.

Authorities were able to interview about 5,000 of these people — including Peter Sutcliffe — but they found his alibi (family party) to be credible.

Having eluded police, the Yorkshire Ripper attacked another prostitute named Marilyn Moore just two months later. However, she survived and provided police with a detailed description of the man who had attacked her, a description that matched the appearance of Sutcliffe.

Furthermore, tire tracks at the scene matched those found at one of Sutcliffe’s previous attacks, helping to cement the idea that the police indeed had the serial killer close at hand.

Yorkshire Ripper Under Arrest

Keystone/Getty ImagesPolice lead murderer Peter Sutcliffe, known as the Yorkshire Ripper, into Dewsbury Court under a blanket, Jan. 6, 1981.

Between the five-pound note, the fact that Sutcliffe matched Moore’s description, and the fact that his vehicles were often spotted in the areas where the murders occurred, police frequently dragged Sutcliffe in for questioning. Each time, however, they didn’t have enough evidence and Sutcliffe had an alibi, one that his wife was always ready to affirm.

Authorities interviewed Peter Sutcliffe a total of nine times in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper murders — and were still unable to connect him to them.

Even though police couldn’t nab Peter Sutcliffe as the Yorkshire Ripper, they were able to get him for drunk driving in April 1980. While awaiting trial, he killed two more women and attacked three others.

Meanwhile, in November of that year, an acquaintance of Sutcliffe’s named Trevor Birdsall reported him to the police as a suspect in the Yorkshire Ripper case. But the paperwork he filed vanished amongst the massive amounts of other reports and information they had received on the case — and the Ripper remained maddeningly free.

Peter Sutcliffe Is Finally Caught

A 1980 BBC segment on the Yorkshire Ripper case, including interviews with relatives of the victims of Peter Sutcliffe.

On Jan. 2, 1981, two police officers approached Sutcliffe, who was in a parked car in an area where prostitutes and their customers were commonly spotted. The police then decided to do a check, which revealed that the car had false plate numbers.

They arrested Sutcliffe only for this minor offense, but when they found that his appearance matched descriptions of the Yorkshire Ripper, they questioned him about that case.

Soon, they found that he had been wearing a V-neck sweater under his trousers, with the sleeves pulled over his legs and the V leaving his genitals exposed. Eventually, police determined that Sutcliffe did this to be able to kneel over victims and carry out sex acts on them with ease.

After two days of interrogation, Peter Sutcliffe confessed that he was the Yorkshire Ripper and spent the next day describing his many crimes in detail.

Sutcliffe then stood trial for 13 counts of murder. He pled not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, claiming that he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and that he was a tool of “God’s will” who heard voices that ordered him to kill prostitutes.

This is also precisely what he told his wife, Sonia Sutcliffe, who’d been married to him and never known a thing throughout the entirety of the murders. She only learned the truth when Sutcliffe told her himself just after his arrest. As Sutcliffe recalled:

“I personally told Sonia what had happened after my ­arrest. I asked the police not to tell her, just to bring her and let me explain. She had no idea, not a clue. I never had any blood on me or anything. There was nothing to link me, I was taking my clothes home and taking my clothes off and doing my own washing. I was working all day long and she was working as a teacher so I could only do it at night. She was deeply shocked when I told her. She couldn’t believe it.”

Whether Sutcliffe’s wife believed his mission-from-God story, the jury certainly did not. Peter Sutcliffe was found guilty on all 13 counts and on seven accounts of attempted murder and given 20 concurrent life sentences. The reign of the Yorkshire Ripper had come to an end.

Sutcliffe Dies But His Crimes Live On In Netflix’s The Ripper

The official trailer for Netflix’s The Ripper.

In 1984, Peter Sutcliffe was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and transferred to a psychiatric facility known as Broadmoor Hospital, even though he had been found mentally fit to stand trial.

Ten years later, his wife divorced him, and he faced several attacks from fellow inmates.

One such attack, in 1997, left Sutcliffe blind in his left eye after another inmate came at him with a pen. Ten years later, another inmate attacked Sutcliffe with deadly intent, saying, “You fucking raping, murdering bastard, I’ll blind your fucking other one.”

Sutcliffe survived the attack and two years later, he was found fit to leave Broadmoor. He was transferred to a non-psychiatric prison in 2016.

The Yorkshire Ripper died at age 74 of Coronavirus while imprisoned at Her Majesty’s Frankland Prison in County Durham in November 2020, but his legacy of bloodlust lives on in the new Netflix documentary about his crimes called The Ripper.

The film analyzes the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper and explores why it took police so long to find Sutcliffe.

When he was still alive, Sutcliffe made an appeal for parole, but he was swiftly rejected. In the words of the High Court justice who presided over the appeal, “This was a campaign of murder which terrorized the population of a large part of Yorkshire for several years… Apart from a terrorist outrage, it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which one man could account for so many victims.”

Sutcliffe’s wife, meanwhile, reportedly held a secret funeral for her ex after his death. His family was bothered that they were not included in the ceremony as they were hoping to find some “closure” in his death and put this grisly chapter behind them.


After this look at Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” read up on the five most likely Jack the Ripper suspects. Then, discover the story of Richard Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Ripper.”

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.