Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including graphic sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Between 1975 and 1980, the Yorkshire Ripper struck fear into northern England. The Ripper’s streak came to an end on January 2, 1981 when authorities in Sheffield, a city in South Yorkshire, England, arrested Peter Sutcliffe during a routine traffic stop. Sutcliffe fit the description of the Yorkshire Ripper and when investigators returned to the scene of the arrest, they discovered a knife, hammer and rope that he had discarded. He had also been traveling with a sex worker.
After several days of intense questioning, Sutcliffe, suspected at the time of murdering 13 women and attempting to kill at least seven others, confessed to being the infamous serial killer. (The name was an allusion to Jack the Ripper.) “The women I killed were filth. Bastard prostitutes who were littering the streets. I was just cleaning up the place a bit,” he told police.
A&E Real Crime takes a look at the life and twisted legacy of one of England’s most notorious killers.
Sutcliffe’s Questionable Childhood
Although Peter Sutcliffe’s family never would have guessed their son and brother had the makings of a killer, according to psychologists, his childhood might have contributed to his murderous ways. Sutcliffe, born on June 2, 1946 in Yorkshire, England, was one of six brothers and sisters. His father, John, owned a mill, and his mother, Kathleen, stayed home to raise the family.
Said to be a loner and misfit who clung to his mother’s side, Sutcliffe allegedly disappointed his father from an early age. The sports-loving patriarch distanced himself from the boy, and when he did interact with him, according to at least one family member, it was with a heavy hand. “My dad was a drinker,” Sutcliffe’s youngest brother Carl, stated in a November 2020 interview. “He used to belt the hell out of us when we were kids. I remember when I was about four or five, there was a bit of an argument and he smashed a beer glass into Peter’s head.”
There are claims that Sutcliffe’s father beat his mother while she was pregnant with the boy and that the abuse continued for years. The children allegedly witnessed some of the violence, including one incident when John suspected Kathleen of infidelity and confronted her at a motel while several of the kids, including Sutcliffe, looked on.
Dr Keri Nixon, a forensic psychologist, noted in a TV interview that the domestic abuse could have been a trigger for Sutcliffe’s behavior and attitude toward women later in life. “The incident in the hotel is absolutely the most significant figure of what goes on to happen,” Nixon said, explaining that his view of women likely became distorted.
Sutcliffe also endured relentless bullying, which escalated by the time he was in secondary school. He’d often hide at home and dropped out when he was 15.
From Dropout to Grave Digger and Husband
After dropping out of school, Sutcliffe held a series of odd jobs, including a brief stint as an engineer’s apprentice. He then landed a job as a grave digger, often volunteering to wash down bodies and assisting in other ways around the mortuary. He became obsessed with corpses and constantly talked about them at a local pub.
In 1966, Sutcliffe started dating Sonia Szurma, whom he would marry in 1974. Around this time, he also began frequenting the red-light district, although there is controversy over whether he paid for time with sex workers or engaged in voyeurism—watching them on the streets as they interacted with other men. Either way, sex workers became his primary target.
The Yorkshire Ripper’s Attacks and Murders
In 1969, Sutcliffe attacked a woman, whose identity was not revealed, hitting her over the head with a stone in a sock. Police were able to track him down and question him in the incident. “I got out of the car, went across the road and hit her. The force of the impact tore the toe off the sock and whatever was in it came out. I went back to the car and got in it,” he told authorities. Because the victim was a known sex worker, no charges were filed against Sutcliffe.
On the night of July 5, 1975, he attacked Anna Rogulskyj, knocking her out with a hammer and slashing her stomach open with a knife. He repeated the same method of assault when he attacked Olive Smelt on the night of August 15, 1975, striking her in the head several times with a hammer and slashing her lower back.
Not even two weeks later, on August 27, 1975, he attacked 14-year-old Tracy Browne, hitting her in the head multiple times before the lights from a car scared him off. All three women survived.
Sutcliffe claimed his first homicide victim on October 30, 1975 when he killed 28-year-old mother of four Wilma McCann as she walked home. McCann suffered several blows to the head and 15 stabs wounds to her neck, chest and stomach. Despite an extensive investigation, authorities could not initially pinpoint the perpetrator.
In January 1976, Sutcliffe committed his next murder, hitting 42-year-old Emily Jackson with a hammer and stabbing her 52 times. He attacked several more women in 1975 and 1976, before killing again in February (Irene Richardson), April (Patricia “Tina” Atkinson) and October 1977. Sutcliffe was interviewed in the October murder of Jean Jordan, but investigators found his alibi credible.
On December 4, 1977, he attacked another sex worker and was again interviewed by authorities. He murdered three more women in 1978 (Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka and Vera Millward) and two in 1979 (Josephine Whitaker and Barbara Leach). Police questioned Sutcliffe at least nine times. Each time, he was released and eliminated as a suspect.
In 1980, while awaiting trial on a drunk driving charge, Sutcliffe attacked three women, who survived, and killed two others: Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill. Hill’s murder, on November 17, 1980, would be the final “ripper” murder.
The End of Sutcliffe’s Killing Spree
When Sutcliffe was apprehended on January 2, 1981, authorities discovered that he was wearing an inverted V-neck sweater under his pants. He had pulled the arms up over his legs and the V-neck area exposed his genitals in a sexually suggestive way. Investigators also found padding on his knees, which they believe prevented bruising or trauma as he knelt over his victims and masturbated. Sutcliffe confessed to the killings and attacks, saying he heard voices and that God had told him to murder the women.
At trial, Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Although psychiatrists diagnosed Sutcliffe with paranoid schizophrenia, on May 22, 1981, he was found guilty of murder and given 20 concurrent life sentences.
England’s High Court upgraded the sentencing in 2010 to a whole life order (life imprisonment without the possibility of release). Sutcliffe served nearly 40 years, three decades at a psychiatric hospital and more than nine in prison, before dying of COVID-19 on November 13, 2020.