How Serial Killer Peter Sutcliffe, The ‘Yorkshire Ripper,’ Terrorized 1970s Britain

Published May 24, 2018
Updated May 30, 2019

Peter Sutcliffe murdered at least 13 women and evaded hapless police time and again on his way to becoming the Yorkshire Ripper.

Peter Sutcliffe The Yorkshire Ripper

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

During the 1970s, Peter Sutcliffe terrified Britain as he viciously murdered at least 13 women and attempted to kill no less than seven others all while narrowly evading capture again and again. The press called him the “Yorkshire Ripper” — and he more than lived up to his name.

Peter Sutcliffe’s Early Life

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, he earned a reputation among his fellow graveyard workers for his morbid sense of humor on the job while also developing an obsession with prostitutes. He began consistently watching 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, he 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 truck driver job 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 Murders

Starting in 1975 (though some say he’d attacked women previously, going back to 1969), Peter Sutcliffe embarked on the grisly murder spree that ultimately earned him the name Yorkshire Ripper.

He 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.

While the motive for the murders remains unclear — some say he was taking revenge on prostitutes because he’d once been swindled by one; he said the voice of God commanded him to kill — his method of killing remained fairly consistent. He would strike his victims, mostly prostitutes, from behind with a hammer before stabbing them repeatedly with a knife.

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. He killed her at night, while her four children slept inside the 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 stomping 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 — into 1977. But that year, the police finally started the slow process of discovering the identity of the Yorkshire Ripper.

An Ill-Fated Investigation

More than 150 police officers participated in the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, but they weren’t able to catch Peter Sutcliffe for years. What’s more, they were thrown off the 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 note 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 said 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 a serial killer on their hands.

Police Investigating Sutcliffe Home

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

But time and again, authorities (widely taken to task for their bungling of the case later on) couldn’t catch their man — even though they interviewed Peter Sutcliffe nine times in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

Between the five-pound note incident, 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.

But 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, Sutcliffe acquaintance Trevor Birdsall reported him to the police as a suspect in the Yorkshire Ripper case. But the paperwork he filled out vanished amongst the massive amounts of other reports and information they had received on the case.

Peter Sutcliffe Is Finally Caught

Yorkshire Ripper Under Arrest

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

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 a certain 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 soon stood trial for 13 counts of murder. He pled not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, claiming a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and that he was a tool of “God’s will,” claiming to hear voices that ordered him to kill prostitutes.

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

“I personally told Sonia what had happened after my ­arrest. I asked the police not to tell her, just to ring 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 his wife believed the 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.

Peter Sutcliffe was, however, transferred to a psychiatric facility known as Broadmoor Hospital in 1984 after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia — despite being found mentally fit to stand trial earlier. While inside Broadmoor, Sutcliffe faced divorce from his wife (though not until 1994) and 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 ultimately survived his time at Broadmoor as a whole. Two years after the attack, he was found fit to leave Broadmoor and after several years of processing was transferred to a non-psychiatric prison in 2016.

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

In the interim, 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 terrorised the population of a large part of Yorkshire for several years. The only explanation for it, on the jury’s verdict, was anger, hatred and obsession. Apart from a terrorist outrage, it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which one man could account for so many victims.”

The Yorkshire Ripper remains behind bars to this day and the court ruled that he will never be released.

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.