In 1981, thirty-five year old Peter William Sutcliffe was convicted of brutally murdering thirteen women and savagely attacking seven others in the northern English county of Yorkshire.
Sutcliffe’s first violent attack on a woman occurred in 1969, and over the course of the next five years he attacked a further six women and killed thirteen, alluding the police in their desperate hunt for the serial killer, dubbed ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ by the media. When Sutcliffe was eventually arrested, it took two days of intense questioning before he admitted to his crimes. After pleading not guilty to all thirteen counts of murder, and despite psychiatrists diagnosing him with paranoid schizophrenia, the jury found him sane and the judge ordered that he serve twenty sentences of life imprisonment in the infamous Broadmoor Hospital, where he remains to this day.
Despite his catalogue of despicable crimes against women, Sutcliffe continues to receive more correspondence from members of the public than any other person in the history of Broadmoor Hospital. The majority of these letters are from females. Most of the thirty or so letters he receives each week are sympathetic in nature, with many being from women who seem to be either obsessed or deeply in love with him.
A female handwriting analyst who worked on the original ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ investigation has exchanged over five hundred letters with Sutcliffe and racked up four hundred hours worth of visits, stating that she continued to do so as there were times when she thought he might confess to further crimes.
Another woman began writing to Sutcliffe back in 1990, claiming that initially she was doing nothing more than extending a Christian hand of support to him. The pair subsequently went on to exchange letters on a daily basis, Sutcliffe referring to her as ‘his sweetness’, while she declared her undying love and sent him erotic pictures of herself. Even going so far as moving house to be closer to him, it became clear from her letters that she had begun to have more than Christian feelings for her murderous pen pal. Believing that she’d found true love in Sutcliffe, the pair discussed future wedding plans, and it wasn’t until she applied to visit him that she discovered just how many other women Sutcliffe was corresponding with, and quickly backed out of the relationship.
Sutcliffe’s letters are said to be full of flattery and rambling romantic ideals, but how do these women even get to the point where they want to engage in an intimate written relationship with a coldblooded killer? Do they begin by believing that they’re simply being charitable, or that by offering their friendship he will somehow confess to further crimes? Perhaps they think that Sutcliffe is the way he is because he’s never been loved in the way that they could love him? Or maybe it’s just a straightforward case of women finding themselves helplessly drawn towards a so-called ‘bad boy’, as so many of us seem to be?
As a teenager I wrote to several inmates on Death Row in various US penitentiaries. I even visited one, an experience I regretted almost instantly. It had made me feel every bit the naive teenager that I was; someone who thought that being in contact with such highly dangerous men was ‘cool’, when in fact it was anything but that.
My penpals seemed interested only in money or making sexual innuendos, not to mention repeatedly asking for my photograph; I didn’t get any of the confessions I was hoping for (ridiculous, I know), and my friends thought I was weird, not cool.
For Sutcliffe, writing to so many women undoubtedly helps to pass the time, and psychologists say, enables him to vent the aggression he feels towards women, allowing him to continue to control them much as he did before his arrest, from behind the hospital walls.
People like Sutcliffe have always captured the public’s imagination, and morbid fascination or curiosity might even make some women want to engage with a man like Sutcliffe, but the alternative is rather more difficult to stomach. To accept that a woman, no matter how vulnerable or naive she may be, thinks it desirable to enter into an intimate, albeit written relationship, with a criminal serving twenty life sentences for the brutal murders of innocent women, is a tricky one for me to digest.