An extraordinary series of events occurred in Halifax and district in November 1938 when a number of attacks by an elusive razor-wielding assailant caused fear and terror in and around the town.
The first report of the so-called Halifax Slasher occurred in the Ryburn Valley. On the dark evening of November 16, two 21-year-old mill-workers, Gertie Watts and Mary Gledhill, were attacked by a man while walking in Old Bank Lane, between Barkisland and Ripponden.
With blood streaming from wounds in their heads, apparently caused by a blade, they rushed to a nearby house.
They described their assailant to the police, and the Halifax Courier declared: “Until the culprit is found and effectively dealt with there is not likely to be much peace of mind, not only at Barkisland and Ripponden but further afield. The affair has created a tremendous sensation and it has thoroughly upset the people.”
The “sensation” grew alarmingly when a similar event was reported in Halifax five days later. Late on the evening of the 21st Mary Sutcliffe was on her way home from Mackintosh’s Queen’s Road factory when she was attacked by a man near the junction of Lister Lane and Francis Street.
Although she pushed her assailant away, she discovered she had a deep but clean cut to her wrist, seemingly caused by an implement like a razor. The Halifax police could find no trace of the felon, though Mary described him clearly.
Then, on the 24th, Clayton Aspinall was attacked by a running man in Jasper Street, near Queen’s Road. The police could find no trace of his attacker. The following day the Courier carried the headline: “£10 police reward for arrest of Halifax ‘Slasher’”.
The following evening Hilda Lodge went to buy vinegar from a shop near her home and was suddenly attacked on Green Lane, near Martin’s Mill, Pellon Lane. She reported: “Just as I got to the corner, an arm came round the wall side and aimed a blow at me.”
Running to a neighbour’s house, she was found to have cuts on her face and forearm, though they were not deep.
The news spread like wildfire and a large crowd soon gathered. Clifford Edwards, of Pellon Lane, went to assist in a search for the attacker and was threatened because someone said he was the culprit.
Soon shouts of: “Kill the bastard” were to be heard, and Edwards was in apparent danger of being lynched by the mob. He had to be rescued and escorted home by the police .
Nor far away, on Bedford Street North, near the Halifax Gibbet, on the evening of November 27, 19-year-old Beatrice Sorrell was slashed by a man who lunged at her out of a dark yard. She rushed to the nearby fire station in Gibbet Street and reported the incident to the deputy chief officer.
Showing her slashed sleeve and two superficial wounds on her arm, she seemed rather too calm but that was not the mood of several hundred people who soon appeared outside to help search for the attacker. The police could not find any clues nearby.
That evening no fewer than three other similar attacks in the district were reported to the police, one in Elland. Others were to follow.
Groups of well-meaning but frenzied men were now roaming the streets every night, intent on vigilante action. Any man who seemed to be out of place or appeared odd was in danger of being beaten up.
The Courier declared: “Not within living memory has Halifax been so worked up as it is over the series of slashing affairs. Just over a week ago, when the first of these Halifax outrages occurred, none could anticipate that the slashings would assume such proportions as has now been the case.
“Halifax is receiving national notoriety of a kind the cause of which is a matter for nothing but regret and there is only one topic of conversation wherever one goes – the Slasher.”
One problem was that the various descriptions of the assailant did not tally. The police announced that up to three men might be involved but no trace could be found of any of them and paranoia about the Slasher reached fever pitch.
Under pressure the police called in Scotland Yard to assist. Detective Chief Inspector William Salisbury and Sergeant Harry Studdard arrived from London on November 29. Salisbury had recently led an operation which smashed the London “razor gangs.”
The Courier reported: “Halifax has certainly never had such a manhunt in its history and the hunt generally is probably unparalleled since the days of the Jack the Ripper scare in London.”
Why had the Slasher – or slashers – left no trail for the police to follow? Because there never was such a character! In spite of apparent evidence to the contrary he was simply a figment of imagination and this began to emerge when the confessions began – for every person attacked had faked their own injuries.
Beatrice Sorrell announced: “I did it myself after having a row with my boy,” and it was reported she had just discovered she was pregnant.
She had bought a new razor blade: “I held hold of the blade in my right hand and slashed down my left arm, making a long cut in my mackintosh coat and cardigan.
“I then put the blade back into the cut, and scratched down my arm twice. I put my fingers through the cut in the cloth and saw that they were covered in blood. The reason why I cut my arm was because I was in a temper and had been reading in the papers about girls being slashed.”
Other confessions to the police followed. “I told newspapermen a lot of lies,” said Hilda Lodge and it was soon clear to everyone that the “Halifax Slasher” had never existed.
As the prosecuting solicitor at the public hearings for public mischief was later to say: “It is almost inconceivable that sane persons should do injury to themselves and then wilfully make reports to the police which are false.”
On December 2 the Courier announced: “Carry on, Halifax, the slashing scare is over! The theory that a half-crazed, wild-eyed man has been wandering around, attacking helpless women in dark streets, is exploded.”
The extraordinary mass hysteria was over. Two weeks later the public mischief hearings began. Among others, Beatrice Sorrell and Hilda Lodge were to receive the standard four-week detention for their offence.