The Jigsaw Murders: How a sensational Manchester trial gave birth to modern forensics

70 pieces of human remains found in a Scottish ravine, and a case that gripped the public

By Jeremy Craddock

Friday March 13 in 1936 was a cold, clear day. Britain was emerging from a mild winter but it was still overcoat-and-gloves weather in Manchester.

There was a buzz of activity at the High Court of Justice on Great Ducie Street, a stone’s throw from the cathedral and Victoria station, where the Manchester Winter Assizes were sitting. The imposing Venetian Gothic Revival building peered down in judgement on Manchester’s scurrying citizens. Over its shoulder, the equally austere, smoke-grimed Strangeways Prison stood guard.

Sitting in one of the cells waiting to be led into court was Dr Buck Ruxton. Friday the 13th. Ruxton was a superstitious man. It was the final day of his trial on two counts of murder — the most sensational criminal case since that of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen 25 years earlier. Now the world was waiting to hear the doctor’s fate.

Reporters, clutching press passes and notebooks, filed into the courtroom to take their seats on the press bench. For 11 days a line of ordinary Manchester folk had formed outside court each morning, jostling for a place in the public gallery.

On the first morning, Manchester woman Mary Phillips had been queueing from ten-thirty the night before. “I was determined to be first,” she told a reporter from the Press Association. “I have taken a deep interest in the case. It was not until four o’clock in the morning that anyone else joined me. Then three men came along.”

The world had watched and listened to the most shocking evidence imaginable. One hundred and fifteen witnesses for the Crown had given evidence; more than a hundred exhibits had been produced. There had been only one witness for the defence: Dr Ruxton.

Now, on this final judgement day, a large mob pushed and swayed outside court in anticipation of a verdict. For months newspaper headline writers had rehearsed a string of nicknames for the crimes: ‘The Ravine Mystery’; ‘The Moffat Murders’.

But the most chilling was also the most enduring: ‘The Jigsaw Murders’.

The headlines had begun the previous autumn. In the remote countryside of the Scottish Borders, walkers had spotted a strange bundle lying beside a stream in a ravine below a bridge. Protruding from the bundle was a human arm.

Police eventually 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 soon realised the killer was someone with anatomical 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’ — a localised version of a newspaper with a few pages that are unique to a specific area. That slip edition was only circulated around Morecambe and Lancaster.

Meanwhile, in the town of Lancaster, there was gossip about the respected GP Dr Ruxton. His wife, Isabella, and his children’s nanny, Mary, had disappeared. Ruxton had told friends and family they had gone to Isabella’s native Edinburgh and that his wife had taken money to pay for an abortion for Mary.

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

The mind of Dr Ruxton

Dr Buck Ruxton was born in Bombay to wealthy Indian and French parents. He was an intelligent and sensitive man, but he was known for being easily slighted if someone didn’t show him the respect he felt he was due. Reputation and appearance were everything to the doctor who had metamorphosed from Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim to Captain Gabriel Hakim and finally to Dr Buck Ruxton.

As a medical student at Edinburgh University in 1927 he had fallen in love with Isabella Kerr, the manager of a cafeteria on Princes Street. He ate there every day, ignoring the clatter of tramcars outside, just so that he could admire the striking, confident young woman.

Soon Ruxton and Isabella were lovers and by 1930 they were living in Lancaster with their first child and Ruxton was established as a popular GP. They presented themselves as Dr and Mrs Ruxton but in truth they had never married. As with so many aspects of Ruxton’s life, the public face was very different to the private.

Outwardly charming, charismatic and compassionate, he was well-known for generously waiving payment for those patients who were struggling to make ends meet (these were pre-National Health Service days).

But behind closed doors, he was controlling and abusive to Isabella, dictating every aspect of her life, from her spending to what she could wear. He became violently jealous at the slightest provocation, particularly if she was friendly towards another man.

At a certain point in their union, he began to entertain the idea that she was cheating on him. Always a suspicious man, Ruxton’s mind spiralled into paranoia. In 1934 he wrote in his diary that his coffee tasted bitter and that Isabella had poisoned it. He would force her to perform degrading acts of penance, including making her run up and down the stairs in bare feet — at knifepoint.

Despite efforts to walk out on Ruxton with their children (by 1933 they had two daughters and a son), and failed suicide attempts, Isabella found herself trapped in a living nightmare. By 1935 the unstable doctor imagined Isabella was having an affair with a young solicitor from Lancaster Town Hall.

Months later in the courtroom of Manchester Assizes, it was claimed Ruxton crossed the line from being a jealous husband to becoming a murderer on the night of Saturday, September 14, 1935.

The jigsaw puzzle

At Edinburgh University in the cold, damp autumn of 1935, Professors John Glaister and James Couper Brash stared at the gruesome human jigsaw puzzle before them. 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.

Professor Glaister spent days examining bloodstains at Ruxton’s house on Dalton Square in Lancaster. The constant travelling between Scotland and Lancaster forced him to request the removal of major structural elements of the house to labs in Edinburgh, including the doctor’s bathtub and entire staircase. These were reassembled in the labs, creating a macabre theatre set.

Meanwhile, police in Scotland and Lancaster were working closely together. Detectives were attempting to lift as many fingerprints as possible to try to find matches with those taken from the remains found in the ravine. Through it all Ruxton maintained his innocence. Eventually, police were satisfied they had enough evidence to confront the doctor.

The press went into a frenzy over the handsome, popular Indian doctor’s arrest. Locally the Morecambe Guardian’s headlines screamed:

DR RUXTON IN CUSTODY ON CAPITAL CHARGE. Early Sunday morning arrest. “Link of identification,” say police. Inquiries for Mrs Ruxton still pursued.

The people of Lancaster were in disbelief. Many simply refused to believe he could have killed Isabella and Mary and cut up and disposed of their bodies.

Meanwhile, Ruxton called on the services of the most celebrated lawyer in England to defend him. Like everybody else who read newspapers, Ruxton knew that if Norman Birkett KC couldn’t get him off then nobody could.

Birkett had won the acquittal of the defendant in the notorious Brighton trunk murder. This was a case that had gripped the public during the summer of 1934 after a woman’s body was found inside a suitcase in the basement flat of drifter and petty criminal Toni Mancini. It was identified as Violette Kaye, who had been in a tempestuous relationship with Mancini. The prosecution argued that Mancini had murdered her during a row.

At the trial, Birkett’s defence was remarkable because almost everyone — including the defendant himself — had believed Mancini would hang for the crime. He argued that Violette could have fallen down the steps of the basement flat, causing the head injuries from which she died. He suggested to the jury that Mancini panicked, knowing the police would suspect him of murder because of his criminal record.

It was an audacious move that paid off, turning the barrister into a star of the legal profession.

But Birkett knew he had a difficult task of convincing a jury Ruxton was innocent. The forensic evidence was both revolutionary for its day, and highly persuasive. But he saw an opportunity to exploit: evidence that was so new and without precedent in the courts could also be seen as unreliable.

Plus, Birkett knew that much of the evidence was circumstantial. While it might prove the bodies were those of Isabella and Mary, it did not prove Ruxton killed them.

The work of the police and forensic scientists made history when it was presented to the jury in Manchester. Many of the techniques used for collecting evidence had never been tried before. As well as the intricate reassembly of the bodies there was also the use of superimposed photographs of the victims when alive with those of the recovered skulls, which matched perfectly.

For the first time in a criminal investigation, casts of the victims’ feet were slipped into their own shoes. In a sinister inversion of Cinderella’s glass slipper, scientists found a match.

Maggots taken from the putrefying remains were used to establish how long the bodies had lain in the ravine, another forensic first. Fingerprint experts from Glasgow police were later praised by J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious head of the FBI, for using ‘chance’ fingerprints taken from Ruxton’s home in establishing that a dismembered arm found at Moffat was that of Mary Rogerson. Before the Ruxton case detectives only used fingerprints on police records for such comparisons.

The greatest solemnity

The jury in Manchester heard final representations from the prosecution and defence in March 1936. The Crown repeated its conviction that Ruxton had murdered Isabella during a violent argument and had then killed young Mary, the children’s nanny, because she was a witness.

Then Birkett stood to make his final remarks in defence of Ruxton. He told the jury:

The decision which you have to make is a decision of the greatest solemnity and the greatest responsibility. It is irrevocable, and if you have doubt give utterance to it now. I submit to you the Crown have failed to prove this case beyond all reasonable doubt, and that your verdict for Dr Ruxton must be a verdict of Not Guilty.

It was then the turn of the judge, Mr Justice Singleton, to give his summing up. It lasted several hours. Eventually, he asked the jurors: “Will you consider your verdict?”

The 12 men rose from their seats and filed out to determine the fate of Dr Buck Ruxton. Just over an hour later they returned. The Clerk of the Assizes asked:

“Members of the jury, are you all agreed upon your verdict?”

The foreman of the jury said: “Yes.”

“Do you find Buck Ruxton guilty of murder, or not guilty?”

“Guilty.”

Mr Justice Singleton sentenced the doctor to death by hanging. He told Ruxton: “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

In a final gesture, perhaps one of acceptance or respect at the mention of the Lord's name, Ruxton raised his right arm from the elbow in a salute. Then he turned and descended the steps with a prison warder either side of him and two behind.

The final chapter of the Ruxton story took place on May 12th, when around 5000 people crowded outside Strangeways Prison early in the morning. There were hopes of a last-minute reprieve for Ruxton, spurred by a petition for clemency signed by several thousand people in Lancaster. But it was all in vain. Ruxton was hanged at just after nine o’clock that morning.

The News of the World published a written confession by Ruxton the following week, which he had entrusted to a friend with instructions that it should be opened only after his death.

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.

You can pre-order a copy here on Hive or here on Amazon. Jeremy is one of the very earliest Millers — you can follow him on Twitter here.

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