The hunt for Britain’s most notorious hoaxer has inspired a new novel by an exiled Mackem.
‘I’m Jack,’ is the story of Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer John Humble – dubbed Wearside Jack – whose taped messages misled police to believe the Ripper was a Sunderland man.
It is the work of English Literature lecturer Mark Blacklock, who was inspired by the investigations of former Sunderland Echo journalist Patrick Lavelle.
Pat spent years trying to track down the hoaxer and his investigation was widely credited with keeping ‘Wearside Jack’ in the public eye. He died five years ago, but lived long enough to see John Humble jailed.
“I really want to acknowledge my admiration for the work of Patrick Lavelle,” said Mark. “When I first started researching the Wearside Jack story, Pat Lavelle’s books and journalism were important sources for the background. I never met him but his tireless investigations were surely crucial in keeping the identity of the hoaxer in the minds of West Yorkshire Police, when many would rather have forgotten about it.
“His character seems to come through in his books, so that work grounded my rather more slippery approach to the subject.”
Mark now lives in Tooting with wife Katie and their three daughters and only vaguely recalls the summer when fear gripped Wearside.
“The truth is that I don’t remember the tape from the time,” he said. “I was only five in the summer of 1979 and I suppose it’s just not the kind of thing that registers with a five-year-old. My dad was interviewed by the police, along with everyone else, but I didn’t know that until I spoke to him about my interest in the case much more recently.
“The voice really stuck with me when I heard it: it was a voice that I’d grown up hearing but it was all wrong - excessively intimate and corrupted and in black humour.
“I grew up in Sunderland. The family business was Blacklock and Son jewellers in Fawcett Street. We moved to the other side of Houghton around 1985 because we opened a second shop in Durham. I went to university in the south of England and stayed down here but came back regularly to see my gran. I drew on my memories of Sunderland for the book - the wooziness of childhood memory seemed appropriate for the tone.
“I did also want to write what my editor has described as “a love-letter” to Sunderland - the Sunderland of my childhood - so there are scenes set in the shops I went to and locations that are important to those memories - Roker, the crem, Penshaw monument etc. And the Echo features in the book as an important character”
The book tells John Humble’s story through his own eyes, and deliberately mixes fact and fiction: “It is John Humble’s story from his – fictional – perspective,” said Mark.
“I have used a lot of documentation, some of which I have written myself, some of which I have borrowed, to create different levels of evidence. It is a slippery book, Humble is an unreliable narrator – but how could he be anything else?”
Tapes sent murder investigation police on the wrong trail
The search for the hoaxer who almost derailed the hunt for Britain’s most notorious serial killer finally ended on a Sunderland housing estate.
John Humble sent police three letters and a tape between March 1978 and March 1979, a move which saw the focus of the hunt switch from Yorkshire to Wearside.
Peter Sutcliffe killed three women and attacked three others while detectives concentrated on Wearside.
Wracked with guilt, Humble threw himself from Wearmouth Bridge, yet survived. But on October 18, 2005, justice caught up with him when police swooped on his home in Flodden Road, Ford Estate.
It followed a cold-case review by West Yorkshire detectives, who set out to trace any remaining evidence from the letters and tape. Hidden away in a corner of a London lab was part of the envelope from a letter Humble sent to the Daily Mirror in March 1978. Detectives were able to take a sample of “Jack’s” saliva from where he had attached the stamp, allowing forensic experts to build up a genetic profile.
Humble’s DNA had been placed on the police system when he was arrested over a 2001 assault. The police had their man.
He admitted perverting the course of justice at Leeds Crown Court in March 2006 and was jailed for eight years.