85 years since the execution of Dr Buck Ruxton, subject of a new book about the landmark 1935 Jigsaw Murders case

IT is 85 years today, May 12, since the execution of Lancaster doctor Buck Ruxton, whose shocking crimes changed the face of crime scene investigations.

In my new book called The Jigsaw Murders, I tell the full story of the landmark case in fine-grain detail for the very first time. Here I look at the revolutionary forensic breakthroughs made by police and scientists.

In September 1935, walkers in the remote Scottish Borders saw a strange bundle lying beside a stream in a ravine below a bridge. Protruding from it was a human arm.

Police recovered 70 dismembered pieces of human remains, including two mutilated heads. Eyes, teeth, fingertips and other identifying features had been removed. Detectives called upon eminent Scottish forensic scientists to piece together the gruesome human jigsaw puzzle. They quickly realised the killer was someone with surgical knowledge.

Officers who examined sheets of newspaper wrapped around body parts established they were from the Sunday Graphic, a national newspaper. Damningly, they were from a local slip edition that circulated only in the Morecambe and Lancaster area. 

Meanwhile in Lancaster there was gossip about the respected Indian GP Dr Buck Ruxton. His common law wife, Isabella, and his children’s nanny, Mary Rogerson, had disappeared. Ruxton had told friends and family they had gone together to Isabella’s native Edinburgh.

Ruxton fell under suspicion when Scottish police saw a newspaper report of a young woman missing from Lancashire. It was Ruxton’s nanny, Mary. Acting on a hunch, the Chief Constable of Dumfriesshire lifted the phone and called Lancaster police station.

And so began the incredible and ground-breaking investigation that would send Ruxton to the gallows at Strangeways Prison on May 12, 1936.

The story of these Agatha Christie-era murders has been told many times in newspapers, magazines and compendium true crime books. But these accounts rake over only the superficial and gory details. When I began work on my book I believed the story could be told in far greater detail, focusing on the human tragedy behind the sensational and gruesome headlines. 

I also wanted to give a voice to the silent witnesses, Isabella Ruxton and Mary Rogerson, the victims.

I was proved right when I unearthed never-seen-before documents and testimonies languishing in archives and attics. It included long-forgotten letters written by the victims Isabella and Mary and an unseen pocket diary belonging to Dr Ruxton.

The Ruxton case attracted many newspaper nicknames, including the Bodies under the Bridge, the Ravine Mystery and the Jigsaw Murders. It is remembered because of the pioneering forensic techniques, many of them still in use today.

Chief among the achievements was the reassembly of the two bodies. There had been murder cases before involving dismemberment, of course, but they generally involved one victim. Never before had the parts of two bodies been intermingled like this. It made the challenge of reassembly and identification almost impossible. But the Scottish scientists succeeded.

Determining the identities of the victims required new forensic techniques. The scientists came up with the brilliant idea of superimposing photographs of the skulls on to family photographs of Isabella and Mary.

For the first time in a criminal investigation, casts of the victims’ feet were slipped into the shoes of the alleged victims. In a macabre echo of Cinderella’s glass slipper, scientists again found a match.

Maggots taken from the putrefying remains were used to establish how long the bodies had lain in the ravine, again a first in the history of crime scene investigation. Fingerprint experts from Glasgow police were later praised by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI for using ‘chance’ fingerprints taken from Ruxton’s home in Dalton Square, Lancaster, in establishing that a dismembered arm found at Moffat was that of Mary Rogerson. Surprisingly, before the Ruxton case detectives only used fingerprints on police records for such comparisons.

A visit to Lancaster City Museum was a turning point in my research. Here I was shown a letter nanny Mary had written. And I found Dr Ruxton’s 1934 pocket diary. Reading it was a chilling experience, as it provided a glimpse into the mind of a killer on the cusp of his terrible crimes. To my knowledge no other writer had seen or used this incredible document. I photographed every page. I transcribed every word. And I wove Ruxton’s own twisted testimony into the fabric of my book.

On New Year’s Eve 1934, he and Isabella were with friends at the Elms Hotel in Morecambe and at the strike of midnight he was in the ballroom ‘saying a prayer for all the world’. Nine months later he would kill Isabella and Mary.

Ruxton was known at the time for his public compassion. He often waived medical fees for patients who struggled to make ends meet. He is still spoken of with affection in Lancaster by people whose parents and grandparents would not hear a bad word against him.

Thousands of Lancaster people refused to believe Ruxton was guilty. They signed a petition to save him from the hangman’s noose on the grounds of clemency for the sake of his three children. But it was in vain. His trial at Manchester Assizes had exposed a jealous, controlling man who had committed double murder.

His children were taken into care and a cloak of anonymity wrapped around them. The secret of what became of them is locked away in archives in Preston until 2035.

* Jeremy Craddock’s book The Jigsaw Murders: The True Story of the Ruxton Killings and the Birth of Modern Forensics is published by The History Press on May 28. It has been optioned for television by STV Productions.

You can order the book here.

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