The Ruxton Murders

Photograph of Dr. Buck Ruxton around the time of the murders.
Dr. Buck Ruxton

Like last week’s blog, the Ruxton murder case is one of domestic homicide.  The Ruxton murders are a case from England in the 1930s.  The case is famous for the minute detail used by the forensic examiners and the innovative technique used to identify the victims.

A Grisly Discovery

September 29, 1935 was a Sunday.  A woman out for a stroll looked down from a bridge along the Edinburgh-Carlisle road in Scotland and saw what looked like a human arm on the stream bank below.  After notifying police, investigators found seventy pieces of human remains.  Forensic pathologists concluded that the remains were of at least two bodies but probably nor more than two.

The killer appeared to have gone to great lengths to remove any identifiable features from the bodies.  The heads, when found, had the flesh and eyes removed along with most of the teeth, leaving little more than bare skulls.

A Clue to the Victims

Investigators’ first order of business was to identify the victims.  They found an immediate clue when they discovered that some of the remains had been wrapped in newspaper.  The paper was the Sunday Graphic dated September 15.  This was a special edition of the Graphic published and distributed only in the Lancaster district of northern England.  When police learned that a woman had been reported missing from that area, they knew they were on to something.

The missing woman was Mary Rogerson.  Mary was twenty years old and employed as a nursemaid to the three children of Dr. Buck Ruxton and his wife, Isabella.  Ruxton claimed that his wife had left him, which authorities viewed as a sinister coincidence.

Dr. Ruxton was born Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim in what was then Bombay, India.  At some point, he anglicized his name to Buck Ruxton.  He met Isabella in 1927.  Friends and neighbors presumed her to be his wife, but famed pathologist Sir Sidney Smith contends they were never formally married.  Regardless, Dr. Ruxton kept himself in the spotlight by demanding several times that police attempt to find his missing wife.

Forensic Science Reveals the Truth

Professor Dr. John Glaister had whole sections of the Ruxton house dismantled and reassembled in his Glasgow laboratory.  His painstaking investigation discovered human blood in many areas, especially in the bathroom.  Although DNA testing was decades away, the blood stains were an important clue, nonetheless.  Additionally, Mary Rogerson’s mother recognized an item of clothing that police found with the remains as her daughter’s by portion that she herself had mended.

Meanwhile, Professor James Brash used a new technique to identify the victims.  He superimposed a photograph of one of the skulls over a portrait if Isabella Ruxton.  The result was an eerily obvious match.  Every detail in the photograph fit Mrs. Ruxton’s skull.  However, the same technique did not produce as conclusive results for Mary Rogerson because Brash did not have a good portrait of her to work with.

Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash's superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).
Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash’s superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).

Convicted of Murder

Given the evidence, it is not surprising that a jury found Dr. Ruxton guilty and Mr. Justice [John] Singleton sentenced him to death.  The Ruxton murders generated quite a bit of public interest at the time and, surprisingly, despite the overwhelming nature of the evidence and the nature of the murders, ten thousand people, including six thousand Lancaster citizens, petitioned the Home Secretary to intervene and grant a reprieve.  He declined, and Dr. Ruxton was hanged at Strangeways Prison on May 12, 1936.

An Epilogue

The Ruxton murders had an interesting postscript. The Sunday following Dr. Ruxton’s execution, the News of the World published his signed confession.  He had written the confession, sealed it in an envelope, and given it to one of the paper’s reporters just two days after his arrest for murder.

Dr. Ruxton had a reputation for being very jealous and unduly suspicious that his wife might be paying attention to another man.  Twice police had been called to his house for what we call today domestic violence.  No one knows for sure, but it is unlikely that Dr. Ruxton intended to kill his wife.  They probably got into an argument that escalated out of control and ended in her death.  Mary Rogerson probably discovered evidence of the crime and became the second victim.

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