Exhibit / November 15, 2017
Object Name: The “Wearside Jack” hoax recording
Maker and Year: John Humble, 1979
Object Type: Tape recording
Description: (Richard McKenna)
By the summer of 1979, the inhabitants of the north of England were living in a state of barely suppressed terror: for the previous four years, a serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper had been attacking and murdering women in an area centering around the industrial city of Bradford in West Yorkshire. Despite the vast operation underway to apprehend him, the Ripper seemed to possess an almost supernatural ability to strike at will and evade capture. The local and national press and TV followed the case obsessively, and the series of circulated photofits (some by survivors of the Ripper’s attacks) only served to spread suspicion and fear throughout the area. Furthermore, it had become evident that—despite the efforts of some of its more forward-thinking officers—the West Yorkshire police force was ill-equipped to tackle the situation, mired down as it was in retrograde policing techniques and a culture of bullish machismo that, to some extent, reflected that of the local area at the time.
Such was the furor that Willie Whitelaw, the home secretary of the newly elected Conservative party headed by Margaret Thatcher, came to Leeds to reassure the populace, only to be protested by a crowd of angry local women. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group organized Reclaim the Night marches to protest the police’s suggestion that women stay at home during the hours of darkness—a virtual curfew, and no small feat in a part of the world where many women worked shifts in local industry and the sun sets as early as 4:00 pm during winter. Women virtually stopped moving around on their own, however, and some even began carrying “purse alarms”—slim aerosols that produced a piercing screech. There were also calls for the red light districts—where the Ripper usually sought women to kill—to be shut down. There was concern that, because the Ripper’s victims were sex workers, the police were not taking the case seriously enough.
The mood of paranoia was pervasive in a country that was already facing an ongoing campaign of domestic terrorism from the IRA, and where bomb scares were a regular occurrence. To catch the Ripper, roadblocks and police patrols proliferated and, as the number of men interrogated increased and the more obvious suspects were eliminated, worry grew that the Ripper must be hiding behind some unsuspected face—he might be your father, your brother, your boyfriend.
On June 17, 1979, with the number of murders attributed to the Ripper already standing at ten, George Oldfield—then Assistant Chief Constable of Yorkshire Police and head of the Ripper investigation—received an envelope containing a Sanyo C30 cassette tape bearing a recorded message from someone claiming to be the Ripper. Unbeknownst to the public, three letters bearing the same postmark had already been received from the same individual, who signed himself “Jack.” The tape of the purported Ripper’s voice immediately began to dominate the investigation, and its existence was soon leaked to the press. In the recording, the man claiming to be the Ripper taunted Oldfield with details of his future actions, criticized the abilities of the detectives working the case, and signed off with a mocking clip of what the speaker called a “catchy tune”: Andrew Gold’s “Thank You For Being a Friend“ (oddly, the least-successful of Gold’s last four singles, not having made the UK top 40). The peculiarity of the recording was the broad and distinctive accent of the speaker, which linguists soon identified as originating in Wearside in the North East of England, a region whose distinctive dialect has its origins in the area’s original Anglo-Saxon settlers.
What made subsequent events striking was the viral manner in which the voice on the recording immediately began to dominate the imagination of both the public and the head of the investigation: despite being warned by both local linguistics experts and US profiling expert Robert Ressler (the FBI agent who popularised the term “serial killer”) that the tape and letters were certainly a hoax, Oldfield was convinced that it was the killer who was behind them. A fortnight later, popular British “spiritualist” Doris Stokes appeared in the widely-read Sunday People tabloid newspaper to provide paranormal support for Oldfield’s conviction. Vast amounts of manpower and resources were subsequently poured into the Wearside area, with 40,000 men being interviewed by police.
A costly information-gathering campaign called “Project R,” which offered a £30,000 reward, was launched the following October. It included pamphlets delivered to homes across the north and handed out in newsagent’s shops, newspaper adverts and billboards featuring samples of the purported Ripper’s handwriting, and a phone number where the voice of “Wearside Jack” could be heard. The recording was broadcast repeatedly on TV and radio, and was constantly played in local pubs, youth clubs, working men’s clubs, and at football matches (especially Elland Road, home to Leeds’ notoriously brutal local team, Leeds United, whose hardcore fans became infamous for callous terrace chants like “Ripper eleven, police nil!“), until the inhabitants of the local area knew the words by heart and the speaker’s flat, ominous cadences had penetrated deeply into the subconscious of an entire region. Children would frighten one another on the playground with the words “I’m Jack,” emphasizing the plosive ‘k’ sound, and any man with a North East accent was automatically an object of suspicion. The grains of powdered custard found on the cassette casing, suggesting that it had been recorded in the homely surroundings of a kitchen, lent a further grotesque touch to the proceedings.
The influence of the cassette was such that, on the insistence of Oldfield, the attention of the investigations remained focused on Wearside even while the Ripper continued his atrocious crimes in Yorkshire. The hunt only ceased in January 1981—after another three women had been viciously murdered—with the chance arrest of long-distance lorry driver Peter Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe lived near Bradford and had been interviewed multiple times over the course of the investigation, and was finally arrested after a routine check revealed that he was with a prostitute in a car bearing false number plates. A body-builder with a shoe fetish, a love of Marvel comics, and a lifelong penchant for “rooting” through other people’s things, he confessed to the crimes after the murder weapons he had managed to dump behind a bush during his arrest were found. It later emerged that Sutcliffe actually had written a letter—a poem titled “Clueless” that someone identified as “The Streetcleaner” had sent to the Sheffield Star newspaper on the September 6, 1979, and which made enigmatic reference to the inauthenticity of the tape.
26 years later, DNA taken from a fragment of the gummed seal of the envelope resulted in the arrest of ex-bricklayer John Humble, who was charged with perverting the course of justice. Humble could give no clear reason for his actions. It emerged that on September 1979, he had made an anonymous call to the police incident room to deny that the voice on the cassette was not the Ripper, but, ironically, was dismissed as a hoaxer, and soon afterwards made a failed attempt at suicide. After his arrest, he explained that he had carried out the hoax out of a mixture of boredom, a desire for notoriety, and because the Ripper case “was getting on my nerves. It was on the bloody telly all the time.”