The Yorkshire Ripper Letters

From pp 377-87 of Texte zu Theorie und Praxis forensischer Linguistik 1990.

Ed. Hannes Kniffka. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

The paper "The Yorkshire Ripper – A Case History" by Stanley Ellis and the present writer presented at the York Conference on Forensic Applications of Phonetics in June 1989 gave an account of our involvement in that infamous case. It did contain a summary of my investigations into the associated letters but it was mainly concerned with considering the notorious tape recording which received so much publicity. I now propose to give a full account of those letters. The tape received by the Yorkshire police purported to acknowledge responsibility for the murders of eleven women over the previous four years. Posted in mid-June 1979, it was in fact the fourth and last communication regarding the murders sent by the same person and all bearing the same postmark, that of the seaport of Sunderland in northeast England. Previously to the tape, three letters had been received, one a little over three months earlier than the tape, and the other two a full year earlier in March 1978. The envelope in which the tape had been sent was agreed by handwriting experts to have been addressed by the same writer and there was obvious complete harmony in both content and linguistic features between the tape and the letters. Like the letters it harped on certain localities (1) the Leeds suburb of Chapeltown, (2) Bradford, and (3) Manchester. It had the same simple-minded taunting and boastful manner and the same unsophisticated word choices including fairly faded types of slang like copper, knocking about, nicked and top myself.

The first two letters had been discounted by the police as most likely to have been hoaxes so that their existence was not revealed to the public. However, the third one had inclined them to treat them all seriously and it had been decided to let the public know about them.

Even so, their contents were very sparingly disclosed. The main disclosures were made not then but after the tape had been received in June. The only substantial amount of any of them ever officially made public was less than a third of Letter No 1. Apart from that there were only the separate releases of two sentences of 20 and 30 words each and of the four envelope fronts. These last were released at the same time as the tape. The number of words involved amounted to less than 200 out of the total of 700 received. To this day the remaining over 500 words are still officially secret. A request by the writer for copies of the letters to illustrate the present article was met with the fully expected polite refusal on account of their being of an evidential nature in respect of a case which was still officially open.

In fact, as the summary released on the 30th of June 1983 of the secret internal police report on the case (apparently originally presented to the West Yorkshire police authority in December 1981) by Mr Colin Sampson, then deputy to and later to succeed Mr Ronald Gregory as Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire police force, candidly observed, the contents of the letters are common knowledge. Almost complete texts of all three of them appeared in print first in the rather extravagant book on the case by David A. Yallop, entitled Deliver us from Evil, which appeared shortly after the Yorkshireman Peter Sutcliffe was convicted of the murders in the summer of 1981. As was witnessed by the book's numerous extracts from confidential police documents, its author clearly had the services of a police "mole". Internal evidence that suggested that this person might have copied the letters rather hastily was to be noted in the way that the versions contained a number of mistranscriptions including bit for lot in Letter No 1. Also, in Letter No 2, the copyist omitted a dozen words through evident failure to notice that the phrase and dont was repeated. Substitutions of murder for number and week for ones occurrred in that letter too.

When my advice was requested by the police in connection with the case, very early in September 1979, I learned to my considerable surprise that, although various handwriting experts had been consulted, no-one at all had looked at the letters to see whether their linguistic characteristics might yield anything that could be of possible use in the investigations. My suggestion that I should do so was readily accepted. I have never seen the originals, which had been lodged in Home Office archives, but the quality of the photographs of them which I was able to examine was evidently excellent.

The first letter was addressed as follows.

Chief Constable George Oldfield,
Central Police Station
West Yorkshire.

It was undated. The following is a precise representation of its highly idiosyncratic spelling, punctuation and capitalisation:

Dear sir

I am sorry I cannot give my name for obvisous reasons I am the ripper. Ive been dubbed a maniac by the press but not by you You call me clever and I am. You and your mates havent a clue That photo in the paper gave me fits and that lot about killing myself no chance Ive got things to do, My purpose to rid the streets of them sluts. my one regret his that young lassie Mcdonald did not know cause changed routine that nite, Up to number 8 now you say 7 but remember Preston 75, Get about you know, you were right I travel a bit You probably look for me in Sunderland dont bother I am not daft just posted letter there on one of my trips. Not a bad place compared with Chapeltown and Manningham and other places

Warn whores to keep off streets cause I feel it coming on again, Sorry about young lassie.

Yours respectfully

Jack the Ripper

Might write again later I not sure last one really deserved it. Whores getting younger each time. Old slut next time I hope, Huddesfield never again too small close call last one

The second letter, postmarked less than a week later, was addressed

Chief Editor,
Daily Mirror Publishing Office,
Manchester (STD code 061)

It had the same topics as the first and was similarly undated.

Dear sir.

I have already written Chief constable, Oldfield "a man I respect" concerning the recent Ripper murders. I told him and I am telling you to warn them whores I ll strike and soon when heat cools off. About the Mcdonald lassie I did nt know that she was decent and I am sorry I changed my routine that night, Up to number 8 now You say 7 but remember Preston 75. Easy picking them up dont even have to try, you think theyre learn but they dont Most are young lassies, next time try older one I hope. Police havent a clue yet and I dont leave any I am very clever and dont think of looking for any fingerprints cause there arent any and dont look for me up in Sunderland cause I not stupid just passed through the place not a bad place compared with Chapeltown and Manningham cant walk the streets for them whore, Dont forget warn them I feel it coming on again if I get the chance, Sorry about lassie I didnt know

Yours respectfully

Jack the Ripper

Might write again after another ones' gone Maybe Liverpool or even Manchester again, to hot here in Yorkshire, Bye.

I have given advance warning so its yours and their's fault.

The third and last letter was addressed

Assistant Chief Constable Oldfield,
West Yorkshire CID,
West Yorkshire.

(It was the only one which the writer dated.)

Dear Officer. March 23rd 79

Sorry I havn't written, about a year to be exact, but I hav'nt been up North for quite a while. I was 'nt kidding last time I wrote saying the whore would be older this time and maybe I'd strike in Manchester for a change. You should have took heed. That bit about her being in hospital, funny the lady mentioned something about being in the same hospital before I stopped her whoring ways. The lady wont worry about hospitals now will she I bet you are wondering how come I hav'nt been to work for ages, well I would have been if it hadnt been for your curserred coppers I had the lady just where I wanted her and was about to strike when one of your cursen police cars stopped right outside the lane, he must have been a dumb copper cause he didn't say anything, he didnt know how close he was to catching me. Tell you the truth I thought I was collared, the lady said dont worry about the coppers, little did she know that bloody copper saved her neck. That was last month, so I don 't know when I will get back on the job but I know it won t be Chapeltown too bloody hot there maybe Bradfords Manningham. Might write again if up North.

Jack the Ripper

P S Did you get letter I sent to Daily Mirror in Manchester.

This writer, then, was thoroughly functionally literate in the sense that he could perfectly well express himself in writing but really rather illiterate in terms of his ability, or perhaps one should rather say inclination, to conform to the accepted standards of written style. The letters were all written on sheets taken from pads of lined paper, no doubt with a ballpen. The first two occupied two pages each. There were no margins and no paragraphs though each contained a postscript, designated as such in only one case. The handwriting was adequately legible for the most part but frequently clumsily executed. The punctuation was well below the standard that one would hope that Ordinary Level examination candidates achieve. It was very often difficult to judge whether a particular mark on the paper was meant as a full-stop or a comma (or even had any significance!) but there certainly weren't enough of either by the ordinary canons. About a third of the sentences had no full-stop. About a third began without a capital letter, but initial capitals regularly appeared on names (though not internally in McDonald ) and the pronoun I was always capitalised.

Of the three opening salutations, two had full-stops, rather than the conventional comma, and the third was unpunctuated. The placing of apostrophes, where they were bothered with at all, was highly erratic. No use was made of exclamation or question marks (the latter orthodoxly requisite in only two places) or of parentheses, though there was one use of what is in fact apparently (among schoolchildren at least) quite a common so-to-speak punctuational folk usage by which inverted commas (quotation marks) are employed as parentheses. These occurred around a man I respect at the beginning of Letter 2. At the one place where quotation marks were requisite they were not employed. What was very notably idiosyncratic was the frequent tendency to leave a space before completing a contracted spelling with its final nt etc.

The spelling seemed to suggest perhaps rather a contemptuous attitude to orthodox orthography rather than just incompetence. The forms nite and cause (used 5 times with no use of the ordinary spelling because ) are obviously simply defiance of orthodox usage. So also maybe were to some extent I not for I'm not (twice) and even possibly they're learn for they'll learn and to hot for too hot (which last was spelt correctly on another occasion). All of these last three could read back as perfectly normal spoken forms in the English of a speaker of the sort heard on the tape. Indeed, only the weakening to a schwa vowel of the adverb too (in the way general English treats the preposition to) is confined to Northern English dialect among these usages. The extra s in obviously, the superfluous h in my one regret his, the missing r from Huddesfield, the missing final s from them whore, the missing word is from between My purpose and to rid and the failure to use initial capital on Ripper at one point were all no doubt merely slips.

The literary style was in general an unremarkable clumsy mixture of colloquialisms, dialectalisms, slang, telegraphese and journalese but it did contain some strikingly idiosyncratic items.

The most extraordinary of these appeared to be the adjective cursen. This is so completely unattested a form that one would unhesitatingly have dismissed it as a slip of the pen for cursed were it not for the fact that that very word was used in the immediately previous sentence and there spelled curserred. Such a spelling is a quite unsurprising "illiteracy" for cursed whose unstressed vowel could be expected to have the schwa (mid-central) quality such a spelling suggests in the area in question, where eg patted and pattered are not necessarily audibly distinct. (Similarly the orthographical form cursen could as well represent the grammatical form cursing.) If it was a genuine usage it was certainly a very rare and distinctive one.

There was little else that was particularly distinctive, though the rather slangy expression close call (like top myself on the tape) is by no means equally well known in all areas (unlike eg daft, copper, kidding or collared ). The expression lassie(s), which occurred several times, is one which is also far from universal in northeast England. Indeed it is most likely to strike most Englishmen as mainly a Scottish usage. Incidentally, lasses would be phonetically quite distinct from lassies in this area. Some of the grammatical usages suggest the bottom of the social scale, eg them sluts, them whore(s), should have took; others simply the stumbling of an untrained writer as at Its yours and theirs fault. The verbal style was reminiscent in one or two places of a letter attributed to the original London Jack the Ripper in which murders are referred to as work and the expressions [joke] gives me...fits[ and [I gave] the lady [no time to squeal] occur.

The most strikingly distinctive trait in the whole of the letters was, however, not so much linguistic as graphological. They contained four occurrences of the numeral 7. As it happened, the only one of these which appeared in the published extracts was in its normal British form; but at all three other occurrences the numeral was made in the pretty alien Continental way with a horizontal cross-bar halfway down it. This could have suggested residence abroad but it could also have been acquired at school.

In view of that possibility, it seemed to be very well worth communicating to the public of the locality in the hope that it might give some sort of lead in the direction of the person who had written the letters and recorded the tape and whom the direction of the police investigation into the case insisted they were convinced was the murderer. The force used in the killings pointed to a relatively young man as perpetrator. So, if their beliefs were justified, it was most likely that there were teachers alive who had had this letter-writer as a pupil in the Sunderland area within the previous two or three decades. From his speech it could be regarded as certain that he had spent his formative years at no great distance from the mining village of Castletown, a few miles west of Sunderland on the north bank of the River Wear. It seemed entirely probable that a number of the man's past contacts had recognised him from the tape alone and here was quite an amount of useful confirmatory data that might help one of them form a resolve to come forward and identify him to the police.

With that possibility in mind, I prepared a 1400-word report to the police setting out most of the chief observations made above in a form that was intelligible enough to the layman to be able to be used in a local newspaper in the area. I should have preferred it to have been presented with an acknowledgement that the person involved could easily have turned out to be a relatively harmless hoaxer rather than the hated murderer. At that time they were apparently overwhelmed by the enormous response to their nationwide publicity campaign. Some weeks later I had a telephone call thanking me for my report but no action was ever taken on it; and it was clear that I was not free to make any disclosures on the subject myself because the matters involved came under the Official Secrets Act. This British law had been notorious for many years as a regulation under which any information acquired in the performance of official business could, however trivial or harmless, be withheld from public dissemination at the discretion of the administration, which constantly preferred secrecy to openness.

The rather low rating as regards social and educational profile that the evidence on him indicates does not rule out a degree of native intelligence. This could hardly have been very low in view of his success in avoiding detection in the teeth of a million-pound campaign aimed at running him to ground (despite the generally naive tone of the letters and tape and his capability of confusing a post-office address code with a telephone number as on the envelope addressed to the Manchester office of the Daily Mirror ). Of course, when they were so very convinced that he was their murderer, the police would have certainly hastened on past any elderly or infirm person or even anyone with an obvious cast-iron alibi.

Our 1989 paper told the story of how Stanley Ellis and I begged the directors of the police investigation to take seriously our firm conviction that the Sunderland man was a hoaxer. Sutcliffe was apprehended a month after I had spoken out to publicly question what I felt so strongly to be a false assumption.

I should think that, if they really wanted to, and of course after ten years if he is still alive, people could still track down the writer of the letters. He has undoubtedly been protected by one or more persons who were well aware of his guilt. However, it would hardly merit the effort or the cost of the enterprise. After all, he did nothing directly physically harmful to anyone. He merely wasted police time. The pity was in the colossal scale of the thing; and the tragedy was that, had he not been so successful in hoodwinking the police, more productively directed activities on their part might have meant that the real killer would have been caught before he could commit three more murders.