This morning I heard the news that Peter Sutcliffe, otherwise known as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, one of the UK’s most notorious serial killers, had died. There’s been a lot of reflection here on the killings which occurred between 1975-80. Much of this has quite rightly focused on the victims and their families. This is an about turn in the attitude of many – the police, the press, and much of the general public – at the time. In an interesting piece of synchronicity, this has occurred while I’m working on a story (Tartan) is based on the Moors Murderers and in particular Ian Brady, who’s still seen as a human embodiment of Evil. I understand why people – especially those old enough to take in the horrific story at the time – would have wished that the pair had hanged. I’m also tempted at times to go along with thinking of both Brady and Hindley as utterly evil humans. After all, Brady especially appeared to have no redeeming features whatsoever and Hindley’s been somewhat unmasked as incredibly manipulative in attempting to gain either sympathy or the possibility of parole. They are both dead but they still haunt us to the point of becoming part of modern folklore.
Today there’s been a few references to Sutcliffe as ‘evil’ but not that many. I was a child when he was carrying out his attacks, living nearly two hundred miles away, but I still found them frightening in the extreme, especially so when the women of that area were urged to stay indoors. This told me that the police were floundering. I remember reading of a victim that was described by the press as ‘innocent’. She was a student, rather than a sex worker like the previous victims had been. It shocked and confused me that the implication was that the other victims were guilty in some way. And while today it has been welcome to hear the current chief constable of West Yorkshire Police has apologised for mistakes made during the investigation and the ‘language, tone and terminology used by senior officers at the time’, they were only reflecting the prevailing attitudes – after all, it was Leeds football fans who sold badges with the slogan, Leeds United – More feared than the Yorkshire Ripper. During one match the chant, Ripper twelve, police nil was heard, as well as one Yorkshire Ripper, there’s only one Yorkshire Ripper. And recent multiple murders of prostitutes in this country have still been met with less than sympathetic attitudes towards the victims. Sutcliffe was a sadistic necrophiliac but Brady and Hindley remain more vilified as their victims were children. Bear in mind that it took some time to find a funeral director who was prepared to deal with Hindley’s body. It would be interesting to know if there is similar angst regarding Sutcliffe’s remains.
But the question Tartan is attempting to ask is whether evil exists in human form and can it ever be eliminated? I’m not of the belief that just anyone could or would have committed the kind of crimes referred to above, but I suspect we are all capable of some terrible deeds in certain situations*. It would, of course, be extremely useful to know why these people did what they did. Sutcliffe’s motives were perhaps easier to identify – massive and hideous misogyny being the root of it (and hatred of prostitutes, or just having been cheated by one as a punter was quoted by the police at the time as being one possible ‘reason’), which of course is still very much with us, so it certainly seems as if we haven’t addressed it at all – but Brady’s absolute loathing of life, along with Hindley’s willingness to comply with his every wish, however appalling, is overwhelming to most of us and perhaps makes us reluctant to try to find out why. And it may be that the perception that some humans are purely evil – born bad, enjoying the crimes they commit with no interest or hope of change – is as far as we’ll get towards understanding. It’s a dark place to delve into, that’s for sure. And all I can really be sure of is that I was glad to hear the news this morning.
All text © Julie Travis
*It’s relevant to note that on a radio phone-in a couple of years ago a woman stated how she’d have loved to have tortured Brady to death. Not only was she allowed to say this without any challenge or question, the presenter described her as ‘lovely’ – without any trace of irony.