On this day seventy five years ago the final act took place in one of the most important and infamous cases in Lancashire’s Criminal Past.
On Tuesday 12th May 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim originally from Bombay, but latterly of Dalton Square, Lancaster known by his adopted name of Buck Ruxton, was executed for murder at Strangeways Prison in Manchester.
Variously dubbed by the world’s press as the “jigsaw murders”, “the beef-tub” murders and the “ravine killings”, this case was solved using ground-breaking forensics and crime scene investigation, the forerunner of techniques used in the popular TV series CSI and Bones.
The first record of events in this case comes from the notebook of policeman PC15 Wilson, who was sent to the house at 2, Dalton Square, Lancaster in May 1935 following a distressed call from Mrs. Ruxton.
Buck Hakim, formally a ship’s doctor in India, had met Isabella Van Ess, née Kerrin (separated from her Dutch husband) in Edinburgh. In 1928, she quit her job and moved to London with Buck. They never married, though she took the surname Ruxton, and they had three children. They settled in 1930 at Dalton Square, Lancaster, where he built up a prosperous medical practice as the first well to do black person seen in this provincial town. He was evidently a very good and well liked GP, particularly as a considerate physician to the poor in these pre-NHS days of private medicine.
Buck and Isabella were a contrasting couple. He small, quiet and apparently mild mannered, she very tall and vivacious. She quickly became popular in the Lancaster social scene, which apparently caused friction in the relationship. The Ruxtons had a stormy private life. Buck was described as “morbidly jealous” of his wife’s friendships with men. She had attempted suicide in 1932 and left him for a period in 1934.
David Pownall, Lancashire playwright, premiered “Buck Ruxton” at the Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster in 1975. The play presents a sympathetic portrait and suggests that the racism of Lancaster’s upper class may have been a contributory factor in the unfortunate events that unfolded.
PC Norman Wilson’s notebook entry for the evening of on 27th May 1935 states:
“8.55pm In consequence of a telephone received from Mrs. Ruxton I went to her house. On arrival I was met by Dr. Ruxton who was in a very excitable state and behaving like a man insane and threatening to commit two murders in Dalton Square tonight. Sergeant Stainton then arrived and the Doctor calmed down. But stated his intention to come to the Police Court on Monday morning and applying for a summons against a man who had enticed away his wife’s affections. We then came away leaving all quiet”
Isabella Ruxton was last seen alive on September 14th 1935 when she returned at midnight from a day out in Blackpool.
Her absence was soon noticed, as eventually was that of the Ruxtons’ maid and child minder Mary Rogerson. Dr. Ruxton gave a number of explanations, which seemingly varied when told to different people including that his wife has run off with another man and that Mary had become pregnant by a laundry boy, the police missing persons notice for Mary says “Please cause special enquiries to be made at Maternity Homes, Hospitals and Midwives”.
On 29 September, 1935, by Miss Susan Haines Johnson, a tourist visiting Dumfriesshire in Scotland was walking along the Carlisle to Edinburgh road two miles north of Moffat and a hundred miles from Lancaster. As she crossed the bridge over the ravine known as the “Devil’s Beef Tub”, she looked down on the stream of Gardenholme Linn and saw what she thought was a human arm protruding from a package in the undergrowth. She ran the two miles to her hotel in Moffat and returned with her brother who climbed down to investigate. He discovered four bundles of human remains. Over the next few months, more remains were found further afield, finally 30 packages in all were retrieved. The victims had been drained of blood, dismembered with surgical precision and had identifying features removed.
The remains were taken to Edinburgh University to attempt identification. The methods used by the forensic scientists will be familiar to any watchers of the TV Crime series. Forensic etomology (as beloved of Gill Grissom in “CSI Las Vegas”) and skeletal reconstruction (like that practiced by Temperance Brennan in TV’s “Bones” and the novels of forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs) were among the arsenal of techniques employed by Professors John Glaister, James Couper Brash and their team.
The discovery of the so many remains prompted fears of a serial killer. A mutilated woman was found in a stable yard in Morecambe, a torso wash up on the Irish coast on the 23rd October. These were eliminated from the investigations and eventually the forensic team determined that all the other remains belonged to two female victims.
Suspicion quickly fell on Buck Ruxton, and he failed to provide any satisfactory explanations for his behavior or the disappearances in the face of mounting evidence.
On the 11th October, Capt. Vann, Lancaster’s Chief Constable summoned Ruxton and he underwent an almost continuous 48 hour interrogation by Lancaster and Scottish police. On the 13th, he was formerly charged with the murder of his wife. Evidence gathered in Lancaster, particularly from 2,Dalton Square, including the bath, were taken to the University of Glasgow for examination.
A long series of committal proceedings now took place before magistrates in Lancaster. At his third appearance on the 29th, he was additionally charged with the murder of Mary Rogerson. The defense strongly protested this preemptive charge, as no evidence was submitted, and requested its dismissal. But the magistrates accepted Capt. Vann’s claim that this was “no ordinary case”.
Throughout the proceeding Buck Ruxton strongly maintain his innocence and also made repeated requests for bail, which were all refused.
Ruxton was remanded to Strangeways prison in Manchester, but before he could be put on trial, the Assize Court at Manchester had to be prepared, refurbished and extended, for what was becoming known as the “Case of the Century”. Over a hundred witnesses were to be called, two hundred prosecution exhibits displayed, a hundred international journalists attended, plus a morbidly fascinated public who apparently exchanged money to get to the head of the queue for the limited seats available.
The trial opened on the second of March 1936 with a four hour opening presentation from the prosecution. Charges for the murder of Mary Rogerson had been dropped due to lack of evidence, but some evidence relating to her case was included to strengthen the other charges. It ended on the 13th when, despite Ruxton’s continued denial, in the face of overwhelming evidence Buck Ruxton was convicted of the murder of Isabella Ruxton and sentenced to “hang by the neck until you are dead”.
An appeal was launched and a petition raised in Lancaster, which drew over 6,000 signatures in a week.
The appeal was quickly dismissed on April 27th and pleas for clemency went unanswered.
Ruxton’s death sentence became a cause célèbre with abolitionists, and a large protest was held outside Strangeways Prison on the day of execution.
Buck Ruxton had always maintained his innocence, but subsequently the News of the World published an alleged confession written on October 14th 1935. However, there were also other letters from prison, in particular of from 16th March in which denied “doing any harm to Mary Rogerson”.
On the 15th of March, the Lancaster Guardian stated:
“As certain notices have appeared in the town announcing “Ruxton’s written confession” the “Guardian” made inquiries but failed to elicit that Ruxton made any confession of the crime before he died.”
The Ruxton trial caught the public interest to such an extent that, in the morbid music hall style of the day, the popular song “Red Sails in the Sunset” was adapted with new lyrics:
Red stains on the carpet,
Red stains on the knife
Oh, Dr Buck Ruxton, you cut up your wife.
The nursemaid she saw you, and threatened to tell,
So Dr Buck Ruxton, you killed her as well.
Red stains in the bathroom,
Red stains on the knife
Oh Dr Buck Ruxton, you murdered your wife.
You cut her to pieces, disfigured her face
Oh, Dr Buck Ruxton, your name’s a disgrace
Following the conclusion of the case, Isabella’s remains were returned to her family in Edinburgh.
Mary Rogerson was buried on May 2nd at Overton.
The Ruxton House on Dalton Square was never again occupied as a domestic home. The house stood empty for decades until the City Council gutted and remodelled the inside in the 1980s and it became part of the adjacent Palatine Hall.
Do you want to know more?
Much of this information is taken from reports in the Lancaster Guardian. The Lancaster Guardian archive is held at Lancaster Community Heritage Library. We are currently creating an online index at the Lancashire Lantern website.
The case was also reported by the Times and their articles can be viewed in the Times Digital Archive (free access to Lancashire Library members).
For the international coverage of the trial and the protest see the Google News Archive.
There is an entry for Buck Ruxton in the Dictionary of National Biography (free access to Lancashire Library members).
Lancashire Libraries have a numbers of books about the murders which are listed in our online catalogue, including two contemporary definitive works: Trial of Buck Ruxton edited by R.H. Blundell and G. Haswell Wilson and Medico-legal aspects of the Ruxton case by Professors John Glaister and James Couper .
For more on the Forensic Science involved in the case see the Forensic Medicine Archives Project at the University of Glasgow and U.S. National Library of Medicine. The Ruxton Murders are still used as one of the main Case Studies in the teaching of forensic science.
A lot of the historic material related to the case is held by the Glasgow University Archive Services (Repository Code: GB 0248).
Read a recent Guardian article about forensic etomology.
The “Red Sails” rhymes were researched by Jonathan Goodman in Bloody Versicles: the rhymes of crime.
PC Wilson’s notebook is now in the collection of Lancaster City Museum.
See vintage footage about the case on You Tube
The bath from the Ruxton House which yielded evidence of the mutilations is still in existence and, indeed, in use…. as a horse trough at Lancashire Police Headquarters at Hutton near Preston.