How infamous Lancashire murder changed policing forever

It is 85 years today since the execution of Lancaster doctor Buck Ruxton. In his new book, The Jigsaw Murders, author Jeremy Craddock tells the full story of the landmark case for the first time

Wednesday, 12th May 2021, 3:45 pm
Photo of murder victim Isabella Ruxton next to photo of one of the skulls of Buck Ruxton’s victims
Photo of murder victim Isabella Ruxton next to photo of one of the skulls of Buck Ruxton’s victims

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.

Double killer Buck Ruxton

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 called Lancaster police station. And so began the ground-breaking investigation which 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 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 headlines. I also wanted to give a voice to the silent witnesses, Isabella Ruxton and Mary Rogerson, the victims.

Isabella Ruxton, wife and victim of killer doctor Buck Ruxton

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 diary belonging to Dr Ruxton.

Much of this treasure-trove of material was hidden away in Lancashire, ignored for almost 90 years. 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 still in use today. Chief among the achievements was the reassembly of the two bodies. There had been murder cases before involving dismemberment, but 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 idea of superimposing photographs of the skulls on to family photographs of Isabella and Mary.

Mary Rogerson, nanny and victim of killer doctor Buck Ruxton

The match was perfect. This had never been done before to prove identification of murder victims. The Scottish police and scientists turned to Lancaster commercial photographer Cecil Thomas to help in the photographic reconstruction. Thomas, whose studio was in Market Street, Lancaster, had been paid by Ruxton to take a portrait of Isabella in 1934.

This image was the starting point for the forensic work. 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. Isabella’s shoe had been bought at the Banks Lyon shop in Lancaster.

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 a dismembered arm found at Moffat was that of Mary Rogerson. Before the Ruxton case, detectives only used fingerprints on police records for such comparison.

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 document. I photographed every page. I transcribed every word. And I wove Ruxton’s own twisted testimony into the fabric of my book.

Extract from Lancaster GP and double murderer Dr Buck Ruxton’s diary

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 spare him 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 shroud of anonymity placed on 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.

Police hold back a huge crowd of sightseers outside Strangeways Jail, in Manchester before the execution of Dr Buck Ruxton for the murder of his wife and her maid