IT was a time when the imagination of the North East was held in thrall. Was one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers living among us?
Bolstered by what is now known was the malicious and fraudulent ‘I’m Jack’ tape, there was a fevered air, I remember, to those months at the end of the 1970s when the search for the Yorkshire Ripper switched a hundred miles north of his killing ground in and around Leeds.
Here at The Shields Gazette, we invited readers to come in and listen to the ‘Ripper tape’ to see if they could identify the taunting voice.
Police, locally, were actively involved in the hunt.
But it wasn’t just the hoaxer who muddied the waters of the Ripper investigation.
At the time, Doris Stokes was probably the UK’s best-known spiritualist and medium, whose homely demeanour belied her crowd-pulling celebrity as a ‘conduit’ to the world beyond the grave.
On July 1, 1979, she featured on the front page of the Sunday People, giving – through a link with the spirit world – a physical description of the Ripper and saying that he lived on Tyneside or Wearside, in a thoroughfare named either Berwick or Bewick Street.
She even went so far as to suggest that the killer had at some point received treatment at Cherry Knowle, the psychiatric hospital at Ryhope.
The sorry upshot of this was the detainment of a hapless lorry driver from Berwick Avenue in Sunderland’s Downhill area.
He was quickly eliminated from the inquiry and, with the benefit of hindsight, it illustrates how distracted the investigation had by then become.
Other psychics made their own contributions. Gerard Croiset, the so-called ‘wizard of Utrecht,’ had the Ripper living in a flat above a block of garages in the centre of Sunderland.
The one that pulled us up sharp here was self-styled King of the Witches Alex Sanders, an occultist, who was sure the Ripper was a single man living alone near railway arches in South Shields.
I remember thinking at the time that Bewick Street in Shields was only a step from the rail line through Chichester. It really did get that bizarre.
Only one psychic got close. She was Nella Jones, who said the killer’s name was Peter and that he lived in Bradford. He worked as a lorry driver for a firm whose name began with C (the Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, worked for haulage company T & HW Clark) and the initials of his next victim would be JH, she said (Jacqueline Hill would be the Ripper’s 13th and final murder).
In the end, the arrest of Sutcliffe in 1981 had nothing to do with any of these psychic trails, but more than 30 years later, Nella’s contribution can still send a little shiver up your spine.
As indeed can much in Ghosts & Gallows, in which the psychic search for the Yorkshire Ripper is just one chapter in an engrossing exploration of true crime stories and their links with the paranormal.
Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of books that, often in florid and excitable fashion, link ghost stories with crime,
But the author here, Paul Adams, is a paranormal historian, who brings a sense of intelligent and objective curiosity to a subject that others might have taken as an excuse to indulge their own enthusiasm.
Here, the connection between crime and the paranormal goes back as far as the 18th century, to the discovery of a skeleton on a Cairngorm mountain side by a young shepherd who claimed to have been directed to the spot by the ghost of the victim.
Some of the cases are well known in the annals of criminology, among them that of the Red Barn murder, and that of Jack the Ripper, where the uncanny visions of a psychic, Robert Lees, were ignored by the police.
Less well known, now, is the nasty case of child killer Frederick Nodder who, in 1937, murdered a little girl, Mona Tinsley.
Estelle Roberts, highly regarded as a psychic medium, was able to accurately describe the house where the child had been taken, and where she would be found, in a river.
In fact it would be the quality of Estelle Roberts’s abilities that would eventually help convince the British government to legalise spiritualism as a religion.
In some cases the ghosts are of the killers themselves, like Ethel Major, a pathetic figure who is said to haunt Hull Prison, where she was hanged in 1934 for the murder of her husband.
And through it all thread intriguing figures, like flamboyant ghost hunter Harry Price here, of Borley Rectory (the most haunted house in England) fame, seen demonstrating a seance room
All in all a book that will keep you reading and – who knows – possibly asking yourself a few questions at the end of it.
* Ghosts & Gallows, by Paul Adams, is published in paperback by The History Press, price £14.99. Visit www.thehistorypress.co.uk
* I have five copies to give away if you can answer the following: In what year was the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, arrested?
Send your answer to Ghosts Book Competition, c/o Janis Blower, Shields Gazette, Chapter Row, South Shields NE33 1BL, to arrive by next Wednesday.