My first involvement of any sort in this case was on Tuesday the 26th of June 1979, the day on which the famous tape was released to the media. Three days earlier, when it had only been in their possession for a few days, some never-identified mole had leaked to the press the fact that the tape had been received. This no doubt forced the hand of the police, who might otherwise have decided to keep secret its existence, as they had done that of the first two letters from Wearside during the previous year. My colleague Stanley Ellis, who had already become involved in the case and had advance knowledge of what was about to blow up, quite understandably chose to remain incommunicado as far as the media were concerned. I found myself having a copy of the tape rushed to me at my home by BBC Television so that I could be ready to give my impressions of it later in the day.
I could not pinpoint the voice geographically as finely as Stanley had, but I could confidently say that it was a kind of 'Geordie' that was pretty distinctive in a number of ways. Stanley prefers to use the term Geordie in the more precise way many do in the Northeast itself, but most of us apply it more loosely, indifferently to a Tynesider or to a Wearsider, as this speaker was. At any rate, such accents are among the most difficult types of all for anyone to assume who has not acquired one on the spot in youth. And this man had one along with some notable personal articulatory peculiarities. So it was a very unusual kind of speech one was considering. Moreover, I was instantly convinced that there was practically no possibility of its being in any way a disguised manner of speaking. No colleague in phonetics has ever questioned this judgement to me since – and I have gathered the views of many including that of Professor John Local of York University who was a Geordie himself and had worked on the Newcastle University Tyneside Spoken English Survey.
If ever a voice was going to be unhesitatingly attributable to an individual when he was found, this surely was, I thought. I was certain that a number of people must have at once recognised him and that we should very soon know who he was and whether he was a murderer indeed or only some sick-minded hoaxer. Stanley Ellis was in complete agreement with this view. I have not ceased to be puzzled that this person should not have been identified. I cannot help feeling that, more likely than not, it could be discovered who that morbid mind belonged to by anyone who was able to put into the investigation the merest fraction of the vast resources that were expended at the time. Certainly the evidence was ample: a clear recording of 257 words involving a quite generous selection of dialectal and personal peculiarities. It was in such a broad local accent in places that certain journalists transcribing it for their newspapers failed to recognise the word 'they'.
In just one place the speaker stammered by making the first consonant of the word 'Sorry' abnormally long. This is something that, it seems to me, almost anyone can happen to do on occasion; so I could not agree with those who insisted that the speaker must be a habitual stammerer in ordinary speech. However, I was very surprised when, a week or so after I had studied the BBC copy, the police gave me one which was a full sixty seconds longer. This was not because it contained any extra speech but because of its containing nine silences of three seconds or more, four of which were at least six seconds long, and one a remarkable thirteen seconds. Occasional stammerers may well be inclined more often than most people to make particularly long pauses between sentences.
Obviously, such a tape could never have been put out over the air unedited. Countless irritated listeners would have gone to their radio sets thinking that some adjustment of their controls was bound to be required. Even so, one could only regard the conviction of two Glasgow colleagues that the police should necessarily be looking for someone with a marked stammer as highly speculative. It was quite some months after this theory from Glasgow was revealed in confidence to Stanley Ellis and myself at the Leeds Millgarth police headquarters, the centre of operations of the whole investigation, that a new man was put in overall charge of the case, Assistant Chief Constable Jim Hobson. When, at the end of November 1980, at his first press conference, his only 'new' idea was to refer to this speculation with moreover to my dismay what was taken by many in the media to be a suggestion that the theory was the 'consensus' among his linguistic advisers, I finally decided that I could no longer go along with Stanley Ellis's policy over the previous twelve months of 'dignified silence'.
The police officers directing the investigations had been not only unwilling to acknowledge publicly our very strong conviction that they were dealing with a hoaxer but even made it clear that we were not to consider ourselves free to speak our minds on the matter in public. We were given to understand that we should have been regarded as 'breaking ranks' had we done so. That had been their invariable line from the time when they first released the tape to the public, as ex-Chief-Constable Ronald Gregory acknowledged in his notorious series of articles in The Mail on Sunday newspaper in the summer of 1983 under the title 'The Ripper File'. On page 32 of the issue of that newspaper of the 3rd of July 1983 he stated that a meeting of senior officers from the six forces involved ... agreed that our 'public' front would be to stress our total conviction that they were authentic – meaning of course the tape and the letters.
At this juncture I decided, come what may, to speak out against what I strongly felt was the folly of the police leadership line. At least I knew I would have the sympathy of many of the less exalted detectives who were putting in such hard work on the case and there was a hope that there might be a wide measure of acceptance of my contention that it was vitally necessary to be on the lookout for a killer who might have any sort of accent and would be perfectly likely to have one from the locality in which he had been active. I had for a long time had an open invitation from the main newspaper of the region, The Yorkshire Post, whose principal crime reporter, the late Roger Cross, wrote the best of the several books that were very soon published on the case, to contribute an article on it. Long after those books an excellent one was published by Michael Bilton: see references below.
I decided to explain in the simplest language possible, as they headlined it, Why I believe [the] Ripper tape is a hoax, taking as starting point the Hobson announcement. I pointed out how that by-then-so-famous voice, while lacking many of the best known Northeastern characteristics, did have plenty which could enable it to be traced to a quite narrowly specifiable geographical area and personal ones, such as slight imperfections of articulation, all of which meant that the number of persons who could share even most, let alone all, of these features could hardly be reckoned even in hundreds. I mentioned the letters too, referring to the 1400-word report on them that I had submitted to the police in September 1979 with the recommendation that it should be made public as soon as possible because it drew attention to some striking features that could well have helped someone to identify the wanted person to the police. My report was, sad to say, simply sat on! Although I gave various reminders of how useful I hoped it might be, I merely eventually got a telephone call from a senior detective on the case thanking me for the trouble I had gone to in providing it. Its main contents eventually saw the light of day in summary form in a short piece I contributed to The Yorkshire Post after Sutcliffe had been apprehended. Its full text was incorporated in a volume of papers on forensic linguistics published in Germany in 1990 under the editorship of Professor Hannes Kniffke of Cologne University. This is now to be seen as 'The Yorkshire Ripper Letters' on this website.
That document had been handwritten for secrecy. I could not disclose
a single detail from it without making myself liable to prosecution
under the Official Secrets Act! The three letters in the case consisted
of about 700 words of which about 145 were released, at various times,
leaving over 550 which have never even yet been officially disclosed to
the public. My enquiry whether I could borrow photographs of the
letters to illustrate the paper for the German learned publication was
met with the expected response. I was told that the file was still open
on the case of the hoaxer, in theory at least, and so anything of
evidential nature in connection with it might not, I was quite
unsurprised to hear, be disclosed. I found it very sanctimonious of
Ronald Gregory, in his so-called 'Ripper File', to remark
anger, the man has still not been caught and hugely ironic that he
had the gall to remark that the Whitehall instinct for less than full
disclosure works against the public interest!
Almost complete texts of the letters actually did appear first in the rather sensationally written David Yallop book on the case, Deliver Us From Evil, presumably leaked to him by another police mole. They contained a few substitutions of one word for another similar one that no doubt betokened hurried surreptitious copying. So also presumably did the omission of a dozen words that came between two occurrences of the phrase "and don't", evidently due to failing to notice that it had been repeated. I never saw the originals though I was able to examine excellent photographs of them but with a police officer virtually standing over me on the first occasion and subsequently only at the Millgarth Leeds police headquarters.
On one occasion in September 1979, in discussing the case in general with a detective who had brought to my home a recording of one of the many minor hoax telephone calls that they were so frequently receiving at that time, I learnt to my surprise that, although they had been studied by handwriting experts, no-one had thought of looking at the letters to see if they contained anything particular of linguistic significance. I therefore offered to carry out such an examination. I had two sessions on them. The first was of two hours on an evening when they were brought to my home. The second was at the police headquarters where I was able to spend a whole day closeted with them and to take home a sheaf of notes to do further work on.
They certainly did have some striking peculiarities and they certainly did match the language of the tape. They contained various rather idiosyncratic types of spellings, punctuation features, journalese, telegraphese, unconventional abbreviations, illiteracies and other stylistic oddities including suggestive echoes of the phraseology employed by the writer of the original London 'Jack the Ripper' letters. One remarkably unusual dialectalism was the adjective "cursen" which of course could easily have been dismissed as a simple misspelling for 'cursed' if that very word had not appeared in the immediately previous sentence spelt differently and dialect-reflectively as "curserred". Also strikingly unusual for a British person was the habit of inserting a cross-bar half way down the numeral 7 in the Continental manner. That in itself was such a curiosity that it alone could have alerted someone who might have been inclined to suspect that a person they knew was involved with these letters.
However, in that Yorkshire Post article of 3rd December 1980 that I have mentioned, I kept my detailed references to the tape alone. I argued that the man's voice was completely undisguised. Incidentally, an additional point I did not choose to give space to then was that, had he been assuming that accent, judging from his other naïve boasts about his cleverness, he would no doubt have been unable to resist declaring the fact. I suggested that the speaker was in all probability living in Wearside. Anywhere else his speech would surely have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. I made it as clear as I could that, cunning as its user had been in avoiding detection, I considered that the voice that had become so well known was not that of a murderer but of a hoaxer -– a 'super-hoaxer', if you like. I was inclined to put it that way because there had been innumerable small-time hoaxers who had feebly attempted to mislead the police by imitating that voice over the telephone, but he had taken a remarkable amount of care in producing that tape in a way that made it impossible to trace its origin other than by identifying the speaker himself.
In conclusion I repeated what should have been clear to the police leadership fourteen months and two murders earlier: "It seems to me that it may well be that the greatest single obstacle to the successful pursuit of the man who has committed these murders is the red herring of the Geordie letter writer and tape speaker".
This obviously deeply embarrassed Assistant Chief Constable Jim Hobson and his colleagues, especially when it was at once taken up by the national news media. I was invited to repeat the charge in radio and television broadcasts which included the BBC principal bulletin of the day, the nine o'clock news, that evening. The police at once made statements insisting that they were '99% certain' (that was according to Mr Hobson; his press officer Superintendent Frank Morritt was only '95% certain'!) that the Geordie voice was that of the murderer they had been seeking unsuccessfully for so long.
One month later two Sheffield policemen arrested a man whom they suspected of involvement in the murders. They had been plainly undeterred by the fact that he was obviously audibly a Yorkshireman. I like to think that they may have been encouraged in their alertness at least to some extent by their knowledge of the fact that there were some of us who strongly disagreed with the convictions of their most superior officers who had been directing those notorious investigations for so long and so tragically ineffectively.
Bilton, Michael (2003) Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. London: HarperCollins.
Cross, Roger (1981) The Yorkshire Ripper. London: Granada Publishing Ltd.
Gregory, Ronald (1983) The Ripper File. The Mail on Sunday 3rd July, London.
Windsor Lewis, J. (1990) The Yorkshire Ripper Letters, 377-87. Texte zu Theorie und Praxis forensischer Linguistik. Ed. Hannes Kniffka. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
Yallop, David (1981) Deliver Us From Evil. London: Macdonald Futura Publishers Ltd.
John Samuel Humble, 49, of Flodden Road, Ford Estate, Sunderland (walking distance from the Castletown area where Stanley Ellis placed the linguistic origins of the Ripper hoax voice) having been apprehended in October 2005, was charged at Leeds Crown Court on the 9th of January 2006 with perverting the course of justice by sending letters and a tape to the police. He pleaded not guilty then but on 23 February changed his plea to guilty. On March 21, 2006, Humble was sentenced to eight years in jail.
Here is a complete (though rather poor quality) recording of the original hoax tape: