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Why Do People Pretend to Be Serial Killers?

Examining the human urge to hoax.
August 6, 2015, 12:20pm

Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The day is June 26, 1979 and police detective George Oldfield—a man so tired he resembles an ancient cliff one moment away from collapsing into the ocean—has called a press conference to announce a breakthrough in the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

The breakthrough is this: Oldfield has been sent a tape from the serial killer he has been pursuing for almost half a decade. One year previously, he had received a letter, postmarked from Sunderland, mocking him and his team for their failure to catch the Ripper. The tape is unremarkable in its contents, barring one thing: the speaker's unmistakable accent. The killer came from Sunderland, in Wearside.

Yorkshire is a huge place. In 1974, just one year before the Yorkshire Ripper began his spree, the entire county was separated into three subsidiaries for simply being too large: West, East, and North ridings. Even then, North Yorkshire was still the largest county in England. A passionate and prideful place, accents, cultures, and idiosyncrasies vary from town to town, sometimes from street to street. To Oldfield and his team, who had previously been spending the vast majority of their time interviewing suspects around Bradford and Leeds, this tape was a Eureka moment. They moved their search 100 miles north to Sunderland with renewed vigor: The killer had given himself away.

Except, of course, he hadn't. The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, had not sent any letters or recordings to Oldfield. He was from Bingley, a town in West Riding, on the northeast side of Bradford's urban sprawl. While the police interviewed 40,000 suspects throughout Wearside, Sutcliffe killed three more women.

When Sutcliffe was finally arrested, in a driveway in Sheffield in January 1981, there were hardly any celebrations from the police force. They had been lied to—three times—and fallen for it, each time. They had wasted £1 million ($1.5 million) in police money and allowed a monster to roam the streets. In the process, Sutcliffe had been interviewed nine times, but continually ruled out due to his accent. Oldfield, humiliated, bruised, exhausted, took early retirement. Four years later he died.

This is not the end of the story. Twenty-six years later, Wearside Jack—the name the media gave the man who was pretending to be Peter Sutcliffe—was caught when West Yorkshire Police reopened the case after a small piece of forensic evidence from one of his letters was discovered hidden away within their laboratory.

John Humble, a Wearside native and semi-drifter, was arrested. You can hear him speaking on his recorded message to Oldfield, his voice rising up from the player like a spirit through a Ouija Board.

John Humble did not kill anyone. He didn't know Peter Sutcliffe, but for some reason he felt inclined to reach out to a laboring police force and pretend. He liked darts, a good pint, and crime fiction. He drifted between incomes—window cleaner to laborer to the dole—and once tried to throw himself in the River Wear. He married and divorced. He drank. He drank some more. He was, essentially, a pretty standard bloke. Except for the fact he decided to take credit for one of the worst killing sprees in British history, in so doing deflecting the course of justice and causing an untold amount of grief to many thousands of people.

John Humble, aka Wearside Jack, who pretended to be Peter Sutcliffe

The question of why—why would someone want to impersonate a serial killer?—is a difficult one to answer. And yet, it is a surprisingly regular occurrence. According to the Innocence Project, one in four people convicted of a crime who made a confession were, in fact, innocent. Other people have appeared after the disappearance of a child and claimed to be them—most recently someone emerged lying about being Ben Needham, who disappeared in Greece 25 years ago. Then there were the Reykjavik Confessions, where six Icelanders confessed to a murder they did not commit.

"My guess as to why [people impersonate serial killers]," Mark Blacklock, author of I'm Jack, tells me over email, "[is that] it's a gigantic 'fuck you' to societal norms, a willed act of transgression. There's almost a satiric urge in it, I think, a kind of curdled attempt at culture jamming. And crucially, a lack of awareness of, or a disregard for, potential consequences."

Blacklock's I'm Jack is a novelization of John Humble's life after his incarceration. Told in letters and transcripts and winding episodes of first-person narration, it explores these ideas in some creative detail. The most interesting point the novel makes is that hoaxers are, of course, fiction writers.

Fiction feels like the most natural place to go in search of answers. Both fiction and hoaxing involve the process of impersonation, of ventriloquism. Both obfuscate the truth and transform what is real into something else.

Blacklock's novel is remarkable as it exists as the impersonation of the impersonator. Blacklock is pretending to be Humble, as Humble pretended to be Sutcliffe. "I made two separate Freedom of Information requests for the CPS case file and was, quite correctly I think, knocked back on each occasion," he explains. "In retrospect that was a real blessing because, in my frustration, I began to recreate the documents I wanted to read."

He "taught [himself] graphology in an afternoon" and made his own analysis of Humble's handwriting.

Empathy is also crucial to the act of impersonation, of course. By impersonating a serial killer, the hoaxer moves closer to the assailant. "In assuming a voice you do begin to feel empathy for its origin—in many ways, this book is an exercise in a kind of imaginative empathy," says Blacklock. "But I'm aware that what I'm empathizing with is my own creation. I'm also aware, of course, of the real, extra-textual John Humble, and I've no desire to inflict any more punishment on him but I do feel that the worst that can happen to him—his apprehension and imprisonment—has already happened."

Mark Blacklock, author of 'I'm Jack'

What's more interesting is how the serial killer is a very modern construct, rising out of the 50s and 60s' rapid increase in surveillance and personal connectivity. Killers are the star of front pages, news rounds, blockbuster movies, bestselling novels, popular television shows and even songs.

"After World War II, pop culture audiences were tired of feeling sorry for the mass murderer and believed in the myth that cold-blooded killers were getting away with murder thanks to fraudulent insanity defenses," professor and author Thomas Horan tells me. "Therefore, the old psychokiller archetype underwent a process of deconstruction in the popular and tabloid media. This left a void—the tabloid media needed their mass murderers to sell papers, but audiences had rejected the old psychokiller archetype.

"In my research into the pop culture figure of the mass murderer, I saw a distinction between the modern, Freudian 'psychokiller,' a person who himself was the victim, so to speak, of uncontrollable compulsions to kill, versus the postmodern, rational, deliberate 'serial killer.'"

At the precise same time as Humble was impersonating the Yorkshire Ripper in England, a murderer began to prowl the Northern Californian highways. The Zodiac Killer, perhaps the most famous of all serial killers, was also, coincidentally, a letter writer.

"The San Francisco Chronicle began receiving letters from a person who not only claimed to be the murderer of several young people in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also disclaimed any lack of conscious will or deliberate intention," Horan continues. "That is, he took full responsibly for 'his' murderous behavior and demonstrated in his letters a fully rational, if disturbing, motive, rational premeditation, and complete 'recall' of each crime."

"The problem was, according to Horan, that there was no proof that the multitudes of letters sent to various recipients across Northern California in the 1960s were all actually from the Zodiac Killer. "From the handwriting, the contents of the letters, and the style," says Horan, "it is apparent that [at least one other person took up writing the letters], after the first three or four."

All the Zodiac letters were written to Dear Editor, much how Humble's letters were directed specifically to Oldfield. It's fascinating that at the exact same time, within two drastically different places, the same phenomenon was occurring. And, just like John Humble, Horan argues that the letters "clearly interfered with the police investigation."

"If the Zodiac hadn't written to the Chronicle, they would have had to invent him," he says.

"We're certainly all implicated in the game of identity construction and destruction. I'm conscious that in a very real sense the name Mark Blacklock attached to this book is no longer something over which I should expect to be able to claim authority (if I ever could)," says Blacklock.

"I always found Humble's claims that he was motivated by a resentment of the police and a desire to focus more attention onto the case completely unsatisfactory," Blacklock continues. "I've come to think of the hoaxer as a troll before the letter. He's a harbinger of below-the-line textuality, that seething underworld of spitfleck opinion, resentment, and frustration. There's a bit of troll in us all, I think. We can turn off the comments but we can't stem the source from which they flow."

Whatever the motivations and causes may be, the results are always the same: pain and waste. Hoaxers may think it is all just a bit of fun, but between Sutcliffe and the Zodiac, 18 people lost their lives. At least. Hoaxers may be an interesting intellectual idea, but fundamentally they are a cruel, damaging diversion. It is the victims that should be remembered – and behind the shroud of a celebrity killer and a hoaxer, it is often easy to forget.

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