The Hoaxer Finally Tracked Down

(This text appeared in the IJSLL ie International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law vol 13.2 2006 255–273)

In September 2005, thirty years after the first of the series of murders by Peter Sutcliffe took place and twenty-four years after Sutcliffe was convicted for their perpetration, an announcement was made in the media that a significant development had occurred in the long-time "cold" police search for the notorious hoaxer who had from June 1979 duped the senior detectives on the case into their unfortunate conviction that he, a speaker with a strong Sunderland/Wearside accent, had committed the crimes in question.

A man, it was reported, had been detained by the Yorkshire police for questioning and been brought from Sunderland to Leeds and placed on remand without bail. This person it became known was a John Samuel Humble who was accused of carrying out the hoax in question but denied the accusation. In October 2005 he was interviewed at Wood Street police station in Wakefield and video extracts from the interviews were, rather remarkably, subsequently released to the press and seen in television accounts of the matter after his trial. It turned out that a trace of saliva from a 1979 letter had yielded a DNA sample that had come up as a match for one taken from a minor offender in the Sunderland area.

In January 2006 I was engaged, by the legal team who had undertaken Humble's defence, to report on my opinion of the case against him. In order for me to pursue this purpose it was arranged that I should interview the accused on the afternoon of the 1st of February at the Leeds prison where he was being held, the gloomy Victorian-Gothic architectural monstrosity known as Armley Gaol. My technical assistant and I took along digital and other professional-type recording equipment and were given for our purposes (without offer of any alternative when we protested) only a small badly lit room (its single fluorescent lamp was not functioning at all which left us with only indifferent daylight to see by) with no availability of mains electrical power. We found Humble to be a willing and good-humoured collaborator who, despite the poor light, laboriously wrote out for me every one of the 700 words of the hoax letters from my dictation and with no reluctance firmly read aloud in two runs half an hour apart the text I supplied him with of the hoax recording.

He also responded readily to questions I put to him. He gave me to understand that he was born, brought up and received his only schooling within the city of Sunderland. This was very much as one had expected in view of his strong regional accent and unsophisticated grammar and style of speaking. My colleague Stanley Ellis of the School of English had, as part of his work as the principal investigator on the Leeds University Survey of English Dialect (1962-71), worked over the Wearside area and had been confident from the start that the hoaxer's accent was attributable to an upbringing at or very near to the village of Castletown on the north bank of the River Wear only a very short distance west of Sunderland. When arrested Humble had been resident on a west-of-Sunderland council estate on the south bank of the Wear.

Humble told me that he had a brother a few years younger than himself and four sisters (two of whom were now deceased). He insisted that neither any of these nor any of his friends or neighbours had ever made any reference to any resemblance of his voice to that of the recording which had received such nation-wide saturation publicity during the period of the Sutcliffe murders. It is a matter of speculation, of course, whether this assertion is to be believed. Any of them would have been likely to have been discomfited at being associated with a man so widely assumed to be connected with the shocking succession of brutal murders so that his denial could have been motivated by a wish to protect them from embarrassment even many years on. In any case his vocal characteristics sound, to the non-specialist, perfectly ordinary given the area and his social background.

None of the people who knew Humble could possibly have ever suspected him of responsibility for the multiple murders committed over a wide area of the north of England. It would have been known to those acquainted with him that he had never driven any vehicle or held any driving licence. When in employment the work he had done had apparently been mainly unskilled labouring on building sites. He remarked to me that at one time he had been taken on by a builder as an apprentice bricklayer but had come to feel that he was being grossly taken advantage of and had consequently withdrawn from the scheme.

In the original versions of the hoax letters there were a variety of idiosyncratic spellings, capitalisations and intra-word spacings. In the Armley dictated versions there were similar but irregular occurrences of such features. It was very likely that the original-letter spelling "nite" was likely to have been relatively jokey because the orthodox "night" was used at Armley. The original two occurrences of "respectfully" now both become "respectively". This suggested poor linguistic judgement as did his apparent lack of realisation that his accent could be identified by large numbers of people with a very narrowly definable area of England.

Among the various points that I noted were the fact that the word "cursed" which in the original letter had been spelt "curserred" was now written with a single instead of a double "r". Its unstressed vowel's spelling no doubt reflected the "obscure" value the region has in such syllables. The form "cursen" of the original letter now had a less archaic appearance as "cursing". Apostrophes and spacings were often employed differently from the ways they appeared in the originals but not with any regular system.

A particularly notable difference between the original letters and the defendant's writing out of them at Armley lay in the fact that on at least three occurrences of the five uses of the numeral "7" in the original letters there was to be seen the mid-height horizontal cross-bar that characterises the widespread Continental but rarely if ever found British usage. None of the Armley five occurrences showed this treatment. Of course such a pattern may simply indicate the subsequent dropping of an earlier habit and it may even have been noticed by Humble that attention had been drawn to this usage in the press so that he now deliberately resisted such a tendency. The pronunciations occurring in his readings of the text of the original hoax message likewise revealed no very significant discrepancies between that original and the newly-made recordings.

My overall impression from intensive examination of the Armley versions of the letters and the recordings was that there was no cogent evidence that could be adduced to claim that the accused had not been responsible for the actions with which he was charged.

Humble's trial began on Monday the 20th of March 2006 at Leeds Crown Court. The general expectation had been that it would take a week to three weeks. However, when Humble appeared in court on the morning of that day he had unexpectedly confessed his guilt. Accordingly he was not submitted to cross-examination and pleas of extenuation were made on his behalf on the following day referring to his unfortunate life circumstances including a history of alcoholism and depression including attempts on his own life. On a charge of perverting the cause of justice he was sentenced to an eight-year term of imprisonment.

He had apparently early fallen foul of the police over some matter of disturbance of the peace and had thereafter borne something of a grudge against them for what he saw as unfair arrest. Although in his letters and tape he had taunted the policeman initially in charge of the "Ripper" investigation, the unfortunate Assistant Chief Constable Oldfield, he insisted that his expressed admiration for him had been not ironic but genuinely meant. A curious mixture of naivety and cunning, he had come very near to entirely escaping punishment with his in-some-ways clever almost complete covering of his tracks. If he had stopped indulging his vanity and his rather strange sense of humour after his first two letters he would no doubt have never been heard of. Oldfield and his team had deemed those letters unworthy of disclosure to the public because they were so likely to have been the work of a hoaxer. The unfortunate wrong turning was taken on the arrival of the tape.

Humble showed himself unable to suppress that sense of humour when, even in the deadly serious situation of his police questioning, asked about the feeble bit of song "Thank you for being a friend" which was to be heard at the end of the tape he sent to Oldfield, he couldn't resist sniggering. But he is hard to dislike completely. When, in a moment of adverse conditions of hearing what he had said, I asked him to repeat a remark, he commented, with what in happier circumstances one might have described as a twinkle in his eye, "Don't you understand Geordie, then?"