Lancaster’s ‘Jigsaw murders’ pieced together by evidence

Just over 80 years ago, Lancaster’s Dr Buck Ruxton was hanged at HM Prison Manchester after being found guilty of the murder of his wife Isabella Ruxton and their housekeeper Mary Jane Rogerson.

Dr Buck Ruxton, of Lancaster.
Dr Buck Ruxton, of Lancaster.

The case itself was primarily remembered for the innovative forensic techniques used to identify the victims.

Buck Ruxton (born Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim) was an Indian-born British physician convicted and subsequently hanged for the September 1935 murders of his common-law wife, Isabella Ruxton (née Van Ess), and the family housemaid, Mary Jane Rogerson, at his home in Lancaster.

The case became known as the ‘Bodies Under the Bridge’ due to the location, in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, where the bodies were found.

Buck Ruxton's wife Isabella Ruxton who he murdered and dismembered. She was eventually identified using forensic techniques which involved superimposing a photograph onto her skull.

The case was also called the ‘Jigsaw Murders’ because of the painstaking efforts to re-assemble and identify the victims and then determine the place of their murder.

Ruxton earned the title of ‘The Savage Surgeon’ due to his occupation and the extensive mutilation he inflicted upon his victims’ bodies.

While studying to become a fellow of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Ruxton became acquainted with a 26-year-old woman named Isabella Van Ess, who managed a café in the city.

A romance blossomed and Isabella Van Ess and Buck Ruxton married and then in 1930 they relocated from London to Lancaster, where the doctor established a medical practice at his family home at 2 Dalton Square.

Police horse, "Thornton" drinks from a bath at the Lancashire Constabulary Mounted Branch in Hutton near Preston. The bath was used by murderer Dr Buck Ruxton when he mutilated the bodies of his wife and his maid in Lancaster in 1935

The couple had two daughters, Elizabeth and Diane, and a son William.

In 1933, the Ruxtons employed a young maid and live-in housekeeper named Mary Jane Rogerson, primarily to care for their children.

The relationship between Buck and Isabella was fraught, with Buck becoming increasingly suspicious of Isabella’s alleged infidelity.

Loud quarrels between the couple had resulted in police intervention on several occasions.

The bath from Ruxton's house arrives at Glasgow University for forensic tests.

On the evening of September 14, 1935 Isabella Ruxton left the family home to view the Blackpool Illuminations and visit two of her sisters who both lived near to the resort.

She left Blackpool to return home at approximately 11.30pm.

Upon her return to Dalton Square in the early hours of Sunday, September 15, Ruxton’s jealousy and paranoia apparently overwhelmed him, and it is believed he most likely strangled Isabella into submissiveness, unconsciousness, or death with his bare hands, before beating and stabbing her body.

Either to prevent their housemaid from discovering his crime or because she had actually witnessed the act, Ruxton extensively bludgeoned and either strangled or asphyxiated Mary Jane Rogerson; he probably also stabbed her body either before or after death.

The amount of blood subsequently discovered on the stairs, walls, and carpeting of the Ruxton household indicates excessive blood flow prior to the bodies’ mutilation, leading to the conclusion that Ruxton had stabbed either or both of the victims extensively shortly before or after death, or during the actual act of murder.

He proceeded to extensively dismember and mutilate both bodies in the bathroom of his home in an effort to hide their identities.

Two weeks later, on the morning of September 29, 1935, a young woman named Susan Haines Johnson glanced over the parapet of an old stone bridge two miles north of the Dumfriesshire town of Moffat.

Upon the banks of the stream—named Gardenholme Linn—which ran beneath the bridge, Johnson spotted a bundle wrapped in fabric which had lodged against a boulder, with a partially decomposed human arm protruding from the package.

Police from the Dumfriesshire Constabulary were called to the scene.

Discovering the remains within the package were indeed human, officers searched the stream, surrounding ravines, and the nearby Annan River, discovering two human heads, and four further bundles, each containing extensively mutilated human remains including thigh bones, legs, sections of flesh, a human torso and pelvis.

These human remains were in a state of decomposition and had been wrapped in bedsheets, a pillow-case, children’s clothing, and several newspapers.

From the skull sutures on both bodies, Professors John Glaister Jr and Sydney Smith were able to determine that one of the bodies was that of a woman aged about 30 to 55, probably between 35 and 45, and that the second body was that of a woman aged between 18 and 25, probably aged between 20 and 21 at the time of her murder.

The older woman had five stab wounds to the chest, several broken bones, and numerous bruises.

In addition, her lungs were remarkably congested, and her hyoid bone had been broken, indicating she had been strangled before the other injuries had been inflicted.

The limbs and head of the second victim bore signs of excessive blunt force trauma, indicating she had been extensively bludgeoned with an unknown instrument.

The professors concluded the mutilation of the two bodies would have taken approximately eight hours to complete, and that the two bodies had been drained of both blood and viscera at the time of their dismemberment.

Several of the pages of the Sunday Graphic in which the remains had been wrapped had been a souvenir edition of the newspaper which had been printed and circulated solely in the Morecambe and Lancaster area of on September 15, strongly suggesting the two victims and/or their murderer lived in that area.

Five days before the discovery of the human remains in Moffat, Ruxton had visited Lancaster Police, claiming his wife had “once again” deserted him; he had earlier visited the Morecambe household of the parents of the family maid, Mary Jane Rogerson, claiming their daughter, having recently engaged in an affair with a local youth, had become pregnant and that his wife had agreed to discreetly take her away from their home to arrange an abortion.

The same day that police identified several items of the clothing used to wrap the dismembered remains, Dr Ruxton again visited the Lancaster Police Station; on this occasion, he burst into tears, complaining that local rumours had begun to circulate regarding the discoveries of the human remains in Scotland as being those of his wife and maid, and that these rumours were proving to be detrimental to both his medical practice and his general reputation.

He then requested they conduct discreet enquiries to locate his wife and maid, before demanding police search his house to quash these rumours.

Although Ruxton was placated by officers before being driven home, at this point he was considered the prime suspect in the murders by all law enforcement personnel thus far involved in the investigation.

On the evening of October 12, Ruxton was arrested by Lancaster Police and extensively questioned throughout the night.

In this interview, Ruxton denied he had ever been to Scotland since establishing his Lancaster practice.

However, he was unable to explain just why his car registration number had been logged by a young cyclist whom he had knocked over in the Cumbrian town of Kendal on September 17, which had led to his vehicle being intercepted in nearby Milnthorpe the same day, as the cyclist had reported his registration number—which he had logged in his pocketbook—to police when he had failed to stop at the scene of the accident.

He was further unable to explain just why a police search of his home the previous day had revealed extensive traces of bloodstains on the stairs, railings, balustrade, and various carpets within the property despite evidence of the house being extensively cleaned, and several walls around the staircase being recently redecorated.

Moreover, he was also unable to explain why traces of human fat and body tissue had been discovered within the drains of the property, with much of this material recovered within the section of the drains leading directly from the bathroom.

In the early hours of October 13, the finger and palm prints upon the second set of human hands discovered were found to be a match for impressions upon items Mary Jane Rogerson had habitually handled at Dalton Square.

Upon hearing of this forensic match, Ruxton was formally charged with the murder of Mary Jane Rogerson at 7.20am that same day.

On November 5 he was further charged with the murder of his wife, whose remains were positively identified using the technique of forensic anthropology, in which an X-ray of a victim’s skull was superimposed on a photograph taken of Isabella Ruxton in life.

Professor James Couper Brash would later construct replica models of the two victims’ left feet in a flexible gelatin-glycerin mixture; when placed in shoes the women had worn in life, the replica foot of the first victim recovered from the vicinity of the Annan River precisely fitted a shoe worn by Mary Jane Rogerson, whereas the replica foot of the second victim recovered precisely fitted shoes worn by Isabella Ruxton.

On March 2, 1936 the trial of Buck Ruxton opened at Manchester’s High Court of Justice.

The trial lasted 11 days, with the majority of the testimony delivered being from witnesses and from medical and forensic experts who testified on behalf of the prosecution.

The jury deliberated for just over one hour before returning a verdict of guilty against Ruxton.

Ruxton did file an appeal against his criminal conviction.

This appeal was heard at the Court of Criminal Appeal by then-Lord Chief Justice Lord Hewart, Mr Justice du Parq, and Mr Justice Goddard on April 27, 1936.

The appeal was dismissed that same day as being “insufficient as to even remotely suggesting” any form of misdirection on the part of the judge at Ruxton’s original trial.

Despite a petition from Lancaster residents urging clemency for Ruxton having collected more than 10,000 signatures, the doctor was hanged at HM Prison Manchester on the morning of May 12, 1936.

His executioner was the famous Lancashire hangman Albert Pierrepoint.

The day after Ruxton’s execution, a Sunday newspaper published a brief handwritten confession, written by Ruxton the day after his arrest, and which he had instructed be opened only in the event of his execution, or returned to him should he be acquitted.

In this confession, Ruxton admitted to killing his wife while in a state of jealous fury, only to be interrupted in the act by Mary Jane Rogerson. Resultingly, he stated he “had to [also] kill her”.

Despite intense police searches, the torso of Mary Jane Rogerson was never found, having likely flowed into the Solway Firth.

The remains of her body which were recovered were buried in a churchyard in the village of Overton.

The house on Dalton Square where the murders were committed would remain empty for decades after the notorious double murder within their walls.

In the 1980s the building underwent substantial internal renovation, particularly the bathroom, which would be transformed into architects’ offices.

The bath in which Buck Ruxton dismembered his two victims was removed from the property to be used as evidence during his hearing. Afterwards, it was used as a horse trough by the mounted police division at Lancashire County Police headquarters, Hutton.

After the deaths of their parents the children Elizabeth, Diane, and William Ruxton are believed to have been brought up in an orphanage in the Wirral.