Forgotten women: The overlooked victims of serial killers

The notorious British serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe died from COVID-19 in prison this month. But he evaded justice for more than a decade because of deep-seated misogyny in the police force which classed his female victims as “good” and “bad”.

Six of the women murdered by Peter Sutcliffe, known as the Yorkshire Ripper. Top left to right; Vera Millward, Jayne MacDonald, Josephine Whittaker and bottom left to right; Jean Royle, Helga Rytka and Barbara Leach [Photo by Keystone/Getty Images]

“When I saw in the papers that MacDonald was so young and not a prostitute, I felt like someone inhuman and I realised that it was a devil driving me against my will and that I was a beast.”
Peter Sutcliffe in his statement to police, January 1981

While some of the victims were prostitutes “perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”
Prosecutor Sir Michael Havers during Sutcliffe’s murder trial, May 1981

In 1969, an unremarkable 23-year-old man named Peter Sutcliffe first came to the attention of the police in northern England.

Sutcliffe, who, according to his friends, acquired a fascination with prostituted women in his teens, subsequently developed a desire to inflict injury upon them. Police recorded two incidents that year, both of which were merely recorded in the officers’ pocketbooks and taken no further. Sutcliffe had attacked one prostituted woman in Bradford with a large stone inside a sock.

He later bragged to his friend Trevor Birdsall about the assault, yet Birdsall chose not to report this until many years later when he eventually admitted he had long suspected his friend of being the “Yorkshire Ripper” serial killer.

A few months after that attack, Sutcliffe was found in the red-light area in Bradford in possession of a hammer. But police decided he was merely about to commit a robbery, not a violent attack.

His head covered with a blanket, Peter Sutcliffe is escorted into Dewsbury Magistrates Court to be charged with murder on January 6, 1981 [File: Jack Hickes/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

In July 1975, Sutcliffe, who was later exposed as the Yorkshire Ripper, attempted to murder Anna Rogulskyj in Keighley, close to Bradford. He attacked her with a hammer and caused extremely serious head injuries, as well as slashing her body with a knife.

One month later, Sutcliffe attacked Olive Smelt with a hammer in Halifax, inflicting grievous head injuries. He also slashed her back with a knife and tore her clothing. It was very similar to the previous attempted murder, but the police didn’t link these attacks or murders until June 1978 following the murder of Helen Rytka, Sutcliffe’s eighth victim who was murdered in January 1978 in Huddersfield.

During the 1970s and into 1980, Sutcliffe killed 13 women and left seven more for dead. Yet from the beginning, the West Yorkshire police were guilty of dragging their feet and bungling the investigation. Complacent officers overlooked vital clues, and inadequate technology was used to collate the thousands of interviews and intelligence.

Amid all this, Sutcliffe just kept killing, with hammers, screwdrivers and knives, and police were no further forward by the time the body of his fifth victim, 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald, was discovered in June 1977.

‘Women of loose morals’

MacDonald’s murder was described by police and press as a “tragic mistake” because the previous victims had all been prostitutes, and therefore, in the eyes of many, were complicit in their own deaths. But MacDonald was a shop assistant and described by police as “respectable and innocent”. Victims had been duly divided into those deserving and not-so-deserving of justice.

In the Inspector of Constabulary Lawrence Byford’s 1981 report of an official inquiry into the Peter Sutcliffe case, released in 2006, because of the 30-year rule imposed by Parliament on some internal reviews by state agencies. Byford said of the murder of 19-year-old Josephine Whitaker, Sutcliffe’s 10th victim, “The new element of this case was that whereas most of the earlier victims had been prostitutes or women of loose morals and the attacks had occurred in areas frequented by prostitutes, Josephine Whitaker was a perfectly respectable young woman who was walking home in the residential area of Halifax not frequented by prostitutes.”

British barrister and Conservative politician Michael Havers was the prosecutor at the 1981 Old Bailey trial of Peter Sutcliffe [File: Hilaria McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

The narrative of “deserving” and “undeserving” victims, or “good” and “bad” women, led to the police disregarding reports from supposedly “respectable” victims because they didn’t fit the profile that he only killed prostitutes – or less “deserving” women.

The majority of Sutcliffe’s attacks took place in the red-light areas of the cities of Leeds and Bradford in the north of England, but some were also in Manchester and several smaller towns in the county of West Yorkshire.

Victims were usually approached from behind and hit over the head with a hammer. They were often slashed across the breasts and abdomen, with their clothing torn apart to reveal mutilated bodies.

Early on in the case, it was assumed that the murderer was a “prostitute-killer” because seven of his victims were engaged in selling sex. Police working on the case would often dismiss Sutcliffe’s victims as “good-time girls”.

Twenty-eight-year-old Wilma McCann was the first woman to be murdered by Peter Sutcliffe. She was killed in October 1975 [File: AP Photo]

Detective Superintendent Dennis Hoban, assigned to investigate the first two Ripper murders, was known as an “old-school copper”. Following the murder in 1976 of Emily Jackson, who occasionally sold sex as a part-time, short-term arrangement to get through some financial difficulties, Hoban said, “We are quite certain the man we are looking for hates prostitution … I am quite certain this stretches to women of rather loose morals who go into public houses and clubs, who are not necessarily prostitutes.”

Police interviewed Sutcliffe a total of nine times during the investigation but failed to look into his previous convictions for violence.

My own close shave with the Ripper

I moved to Leeds from the northeast of England in 1978 when I was 17, and later that year, I joined an uncompromising feminist group campaigning to end violence against women and girls. The group was in battles with both the police and the media about the way the Ripper murders were being investigated and reported.

Three days before Sutcliffe killed his last victim, Jacqueline Hill, I was walking home from a night out with my girlfriend. I was 18 years old and having been involved in feminist campaigning since moving to Leeds, I felt defiant and angry about being told to stay at home at night to avoid the Ripper. I knew that the home was a dangerous place for women and girls, and that most violence from men happens indoors. My girlfriend and I had an argument and she stormed off up the hill, leaving me alone. It was then that I felt the presence of someone behind me and turned around and saw a man standing a few metres away. He said “Hello, love” in a Yorkshire accent, and I could see he had a mop of dark hair and a beard. There was enough light reflecting from the nearby pub for me to see his face.

I began to walk quickly up the hill towards the pub and, by the time I came out with an elderly man who had offered to walk me home after seeing the fear on my face, the bearded man had disappeared.

The police had ignored any evidence from survivors of Sutcliffe’s attacks on the basis that “their man” was not a local but rather from the northeast of England, specifically Wearside. This was because, in March 1978, a letter was received by the West Yorkshire police written by a person signing himself as “Jack the Ripper” who claimed responsibility for the crimes. The letter had been posted in Sunderland. A few days later, a similar letter was sent to the editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper.

The man whom the police called “Wearside Jack” later sent a tape recording of his voice to the police, and dialect experts said he was from the northeast. The tapes were played and his handwriting displayed on billboards from March 1978 right up until the time Sutcliffe was caught. I would be shopping in Leeds market when suddenly we would hear over the radio, “I’m Jack. You are no closer to catching me now than when I first started.”

Of course, “Wearside Jack” wasn’t the Ripper but a hoaxer.

However, the tape and letters formed the basis of a massive publicity campaign launched in the latter half of 1979, involving posters, television test cards and the widespread broadcasting of the hoax tape in pubs, nightclubs, youth clubs and at football matches. It was estimated that 40,000 people a day rang a police phone line to hear the voice on the tape. The media campaign took place during the summer and autumn of 1979, almost four years after the murder of Wilma McCann in 1975 and shortly after the time of the murders of building society clerk Josephine Whitaker in April 1979 and student Barbara Leach in September 1979. The initial offensive media and public response towards victims who were involved in prostitution was replaced by a climate of fear because police had announced that “all women were now at risk”.

But I had heard the voice of the man that followed me up the hill that evening and it was certainly a local accent. I, along with a number of others, considered “Wearside Jack” to be a hoax.

Chief Superintendent James Hobson, who led the enquiry into the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murders, arrives at the Old Bailey for the trial of Peter Sutcliffe on May 5, 1981. Sutcliffe was later convicted of 13 murders and seven attempted murders [File: Simon Dack/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Friends persuaded me to report to the police the incident of the man who followed me.

Millgarth Police Station in the centre of Leeds is not an inviting building. When I asked the desk officer who was in charge of the Ripper inquiry, he more or less laughed at me and I had to really push to get him to call one of the officers to speak with me.

I asked if I could do a photofit description of the man but the officer told me I’d been watching too much TV. I had only recently moved from the northeast of England, and this officer told me that the Ripper had an accent “like yours”. I told him that the man who followed me had a local West Yorkshire accent, and the officer effectively dismissed the possibility that he could be the killer. However, I eventually was allowed to do a photofit, which turned out to be uncannily similar to the one provided by Marilyn Moore, who was left for dead by the Ripper in Leeds in 1977.

‘Girls who play with fire must expect to get burned’

Five years after the Ripper’s first murder, the only solution the police had come up with to protect women was to impose a curfew on them. With the Yorkshire Evening Post used as a mouthpiece, women were urged to “stay indoors” and told, “Do not go out at night unless absolutely necessary, and only if accompanied by a man you know.” Sutcliffe gave the same advice to his sister.

In response, the feminist group I was involved with mocked up police notices and pasted them all over the city. “Attention all men in West Yorkshire,” the notice read, “there is a serial killer on the loose in the area. Out of consideration for the safety of women, please ensure you are indoors by 8pm each evening, so that women can go about their business without the fear you may provoke by simply walking behind her.”

Alice Bondi is a feminist campaigner who was living in Bradford at the time of the Ripper murders. On November 27, 1980, 10 days after Sutcliffe murdered Jacqueline Hill, Bondi took part in a protest against a violent pornographic film being screened at the local cinema. Alongside 40 other women, Bondi stood on the steps of the cinema shouting slogans such as “Women resist male violence” and “Men off the streets”, in reference to the advice from police telling women to stay at home to avoid being murdered.

After about half an hour, during which no one was prevented from entering or leaving the cinema, police arrived and randomly arrested 11 of the women. They were taken to a police station, locked in cells and eventually released at midnight and told to go home.

Bondi recalled: “The buses had stopped for the night, and when we asked how we would get home safely, bearing in mind there was a serial killer on the loose, the arresting officer told us, ‘Girls who play with fire must expect to get burned.’”

“We were challenging the misogyny that helped create Peter Sutcliffe and yet we were arrested and consequently put at risk,” she added.

Chief Superintendent James Hobson who led the squad responsible for arresting Peter Sutcliffe is seen leaving the Old Bailey after the trial on May 22, 1981 [File: Simon Dack/Keystone/Getty Images]

Some newspaper headlines and reports on the murders were atrocious. If the women had been known, or assumed, to be involved in street prostitution, there was a “what can you expect” tone from some of the journalists, almost as though rape, murder and mutilation were occupational hazards for these women. This attitude also hindered the police inquiry, which was botched and inadequate from the start.

Early in Sutcliffe’s killing spree, a 14-year-old girl was struck several times over the head with a hammer, after chatting about the weather to a man who was walking beside her. When the girl reported the attack, she saw the photofits compiled by other survivors and told police it was the same man. They dismissed her because she was “not a prostitute”.

On June 30, 1977, an open letter to the Ripper was written by police officers and journalists from the Yorkshire Evening Post. It said, “Your motive, it’s believed, is a dreadful hate for prostitutes – a hate that drives you to slash and bludgeon your victims.”

The murderer was asked how he felt knowing that he had killed an “innocent, respectable victim” rather than a prostitute. Surely, he felt remorse about mistakenly killing Jayne McDonald, a 16-year-old whom Sutcliffe murdered just prior to the publication of the letter.

“How did you feel yesterday when you learned your bloodstained crusade against streetwalkers had gone so horribly wrong?” asked the letter. “Your vengeful knife had found so innocent a target?”

According to the journalist Joan Smith, who covered the Sutcliffe murders for a local radio station in Manchester, there existed a police dossier on the case containing details of the victims that shows how the police categorised women as “innocent” and “non-innocent” based on class and lifestyle choices such as drinking, cohabiting and “mental instability”.

Many people still wrongly believe, just as they did during the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, that men who harm and kill women in prostitution pose no danger to “respectable women”. The reasoning was that these killers simply have a deep-rooted hatred for prostitutes, despite the overwhelming evidence that they have a pathological hatred for women, in general.

‘She was asking for it’

How much have police practice and attitudes changed since the Sutcliffe murders? I have been a feminist campaigner throughout the four decades, and although there are undoubtedly improvements, some things remain the same.

A combination image shows undated handout photographs of the five murdered women from Ipswich. Pictured are (left to right) Tania Nicol, Paula Clennell, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton and Annette Nicholls [File: Suffolk Police/Handout/Reuters]

In 2006, a man called Stephen Wright, who was known to be a prolific sex buyer, murdered five women who were selling sex on the streets of Ipswich. These women were financially desperate and were prostituting in order to earn enough money to feed their drug habits. Once again, three decades after Sutcliffe’s murderous reign of terror, police decided to tell women to go home to be “safe”.

Hearing the police warn, “If you are out alone at night, you are putting yourself in danger” was like stepping right back to 1977, when police effectively put a curfew on women during Sutcliffe’s killing regime. “It makes us feel as if we are to blame,” one street prostitute in Ipswich noted, “but it’s him who is making the streets dangerous, not us.”

Rape is often justified by repeating the myth that “women ask for it” or “like it”. The criminality of domestic violence is diminished by suggesting that women “provoke” the man into doing it. There have even been cases of judges suggesting that girls as young as seven who have been sexually abused by a male relative “flirted” with the perpetrator. One notorious case back in the 1970s speaks volumes about the attitude towards women at the time. Judge Bertrand Richards in Ipswich crown court in 1982, fined a convicted rapist 2,000 pounds ($2,670), because the judge believed the victim, a hitchhiker, was guilty of “contributory negligence” for being out on the road.

Victim blaming by both police and press neither began nor ended with the Yorkshire Ripper murders. A number of women’s deaths have been overlooked or completely ignored because they didn’t fit the narrative of “innocent victims”.

Jessica Taylor is author of the book, Why Women are Blamed for Everything, and points to research that shows that police officers hold victim-blaming values and rape-myth acceptance at the same rate – and in some cases more – than the general public.

“So, even the officers we trust are likely to use misogynistic beliefs and victim-blaming beliefs when a woman reports male violence to them,” said Taylor. “This then impacts the action they take, if any.”

“Within the criminal justice system, everything from the body type, occupation, and sex life of a woman will be used to discredit her,” says Taylor, “even when it’s shown to be completely irrelevant to the evidence in the case.”

The case of Natalie Connelly, who was brutally killed by her partner in 2016, epitomises the “she was asking for it” myth, even when it comes to homicide. Her partner, John Broadhurst, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for her manslaughter, claiming that she had died accidentally after consenting to violent sex, known as the “rough sex gone wrong” defence. Natalie had 40 separate injuries, including serious internal trauma, she had been sprayed with bleach, suffered a fractured eye socket and facial wounds, and was bleeding heavily.

At trial, the alleged sexual proclivities of the victim, as well as detail of her alcohol and drug use were used in defence of her killer.

As a result of feminist campaigning, the use of the “rough sex defence” is no longer permissible in England and Wales.

There are also stark differences between the way some child murder victims are treated based on class prejudice as well as other variables.

Forgotten children

In 2002, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, both 10 years old, went missing from their home in Soham, eastern Cambridgeshire. Their disappearance attracted international media attention and precipitated the biggest-ever manhunt in Britain. Their bodies were eventually discovered and Ian Huntley, a local man, was charged and convicted of double murder. The girls were white, pretty schoolgirls from a solid, “respectable”, middle-class family.

Candles are lit in remembrance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman inside St Andrew’s Church on August 18, 2002 in Soham, Cambridgeshire, England [File: Scott Barbour/Getty Images]

The following year, a 14-year-old girl named Charlene Downes disappeared from her home in Blackpool. I heard about the case from a police officer at a conference who told me that they had found it impossible to get national media attention, and that the only coverage had been in the local press. Police were concerned that Charlene might have been abducted and taken to another town or city and told me they feared that she had been murdered.

Charlene was from a family that had been under the scrutiny of social services for some time. Violence, neglect and abuse towards Charlene and her siblings had been reported, but nothing was done to help them. Charlene had been sexually abused by multiple men by the time she disappeared, and neighbours and friends of the girl knew that she was being sexually exploited by adult men in restaurants and takeaway businesses in the centre of town.

Until I managed to get a commission to write about the case in a national newspaper, there was very little interest in covering this case. Charlene has been declared dead by police, but her body has never been found.

The legacy of Peter Sutcliffe is a terrible one. During the attacks and murders, it became apparent to women everywhere that misogyny within all facets of society is as rife as it is unspoken. The terrible attitude of police officers reflected that of much of wider society, and the media reporting that divided the victims into “good” and “bad” played into the hands of those that saw women in prostitution as worthless. It also perpetuated the myth that women having a “good time” by flirting with men, drinking alcohol or being out alone are asking to be harmed.

But one thing became apparent during the hunt for this monstrous man. During the investigation, police received more than 8,000 calls from women reporting their husbands, sons, brothers, neighbours or work colleagues as a possible suspect for the crimes. The acts of violence carried out by Sutcliffe were extreme, but many women understood that, when violent men are allowed to act with impunity and hurt women, they could very soon become deadly.

Source: Al Jazeera