The silencing of Wearside Jack
Delivered in a thick North East accent, they were words that sent a chill through the heart of West Yorkshire. Bragging about his murderous exploits, the Yorkshire Ripper taunted the police force he continued to elude.
“I’m Jack,” he announced in a tape posted to the man heading the Ripper inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, 36 years ago this month. “I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you’re no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.”
Desperate for a breakthrough and coming under increasing political pressure, the tape was played to the media – Oldfield, a broken man after 10 murders in four years, sitting hunched over the cassette player.
A special ‘Dial-the-Ripper’ hotline was set up allowing members of the public to call in to hear it for themselves. There were billboards and full page ads in newspapers. Somewhere in the region of £1m was spent on the publicity campaign alone.
Dialect experts narrowed the accent down to an area of Sunderland, where tens of thousands of men were questioned. Among them was Mark Blacklock’s father.
“I was five at the time and I have no real memory of it,” says Blacklock now. “At that age you don’t have a great deal of awareness of what’s happening beyond your domestic life or the classroom. But I know that for years there was a sense of shame that this man had come from Sunderland.”
Blacklock’s compelling new novel I’m Jack, his first, tells the story of the owner of that disembodied voice, the man quickly dubbed ‘Wearside Jack’ by the tabloids.
He was not, of course, the real Ripper. While George Oldfield was tying himself in knots with his wild goose chase in Sunderland, 80 miles away in West Yorkshire, Peter Sutcliffe carried on killing.
Quizzed and freed because his accent did not match that on the tape, Sutcliffe would claim three further victims before eventually being caught. Those final murders and the sense that the hoaxer had proved a fatal distraction help explain why the mystery of Wearside Jack endured even as the real killer languished in Broadmoor.
It was a riddle finally solved a decade ago, when DNA taken from a small piece of the seal of an envelope sent by the hoaxer was matched with samples in the national database. They belonged to an alcoholic loner called John Humble, who had been arrested and cautioned for being drunk and disorderly a few years earlier.
He hailed from the Ford Estate in Sunderland, right where the Ripper inquiry had been looking. They had quizzed his neighbour, but somehow missed him.
Pleading guilty just before his trial, in 2006 Humble was sentenced to eight years in prison for perverting the course of justice.
But even then Blacklock does not believe the public had full closure. Especially not the generation who grew up in the towns and cities of Yorkshire when that tape and voice had been a source of terror – the bogeyman made flesh and blood.
“The crime itself had been dealt with through the legal channels, but the voice on that tape had a quality all of its own,” he recalls. “Part of the idea of writing this novel was to finally put that voice away.”
To achieve it, he inhabits the voice himself, writing as John Humble as he serves his time at Armley prison in Leeds and contemplates the fallout from a crime he had committed a quarter of a century before.
Blacklock, a 41-year-old university lecturer now living in London, reveals himself to be a masterful melder of fact and fiction in the vein of West Yorkshire author David Peace, whose Red Riding novels he cites as a key influence.
Humble, who pens rambling yet illuminating letters to the now late George Oldfield, proves an unreliable narrator – but then how could he be anything else?
Amid the letters, records and “official transcripts”, you’re never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy. And that, says Blacklock, was the point. To leave the reader guessing where exactly the truth ends and the hoax begins.
This being the Ripper, of course, there are unique sensitivities at play, something the writer insists he is acutely aware of.
“There are definitely some creative negotiations that you need to have in making an aesthetic representation of real traumas of this kind,” says Blacklock.
“It was very important to me that this shouldn’t be entertainment and I really hope I haven’t reduced it to that. The book deals in these grey areas but of course there is also the absolute real – most obviously represented by the victims’ families.”
He made a conscious decision not to speak to them because the book is essentially a work of fiction, but Beryl Leach, whose daughter Barbara, a student in Bradford, was one of the Ripper’s final victims, is quoted directly to give voice to their anger and devastation. “I didn’t feel that could be fictionalised,” he says simply.
A labourer who was obsessed with the Jack the Ripper killings nearly a century before, John Humble’s precise motives for carrying out one of the greatest hoaxes in British criminal history have never been entirely clear, aside from a perceived grudge over a short stint behind bars in 1975 for assaulting a policeman.
Along with the tape he sent three letters, each mocking the police investigation and using research into the murders, coupled with a few shrewd guesses about the Ripper’s behaviour, to convince them he was the real killer.
Eventually aware that his prank had changed the course of the inquiry to devastating effect, Humble phoned the police to tell them it was a hoax. But by then it was too late. Refusing to see it for the red herring it was, they decided his voice wasn’t a match for the one on the tape and discounted it.
Humble tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off a bridge, only to land on a passing boat. Released after serving half his sentence, he is now 59 and thought to be living under an assumed name in his native North East.
Blacklock did not approach him for the book, instead sending a letter to his last known address to tell him it was coming out. He says he has no wish to “inflict further punishment”.
Yet, much like the controversy over Jonathan Maitland’s play An Audience with Jimmy Savile, some may wonder about the justification for using such subject matter as the basis for drama. York-based production company Mad as Birds has already bought the rights to turn I’m Jack into a film.
Blacklock says he’s mindful of the “responsibilities” that come with writing about this dark period in British history, particularly one that continues to cast such a long shadow, but is adamant the past needs to be revisited, if only to somehow try and make sense of it all. He insists it’s the job of literature to deal with the complexities of such stories and look at them in a way the media cannot.
“One of the key things of the story for me, given recent events, whether it be Jimmy Savile or Operation Yewtree, is the idea of the historic crime and the sense that as a society we’re realising everything wasn’t as rosy as we might have assumed it was,” he says.
“I think ‘processing’ is the right word. We look back now at the 70s and 80s with very different eyes. That’s one of the things that makes this story relevant, the idea that we’re only now coming to terms with the past.
“I see this book as a sort of exorcism. I hope it offers some kind of completion of the story.”