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On September 29, 1935 two men walking on a bridge near Moffat, Dumfriesshire in Scotland saw, in the ravine below, a human hand sticking out of a paper-wrapped bundle.  The police combed the riverbank and recovered even more remains: two human heads, two torsos, 17 limb parts and “43 portions of soft tissue” that were wrapped in newspaper and clothing. 1 The case was a forensic challenge because investigators had to reassemble the badly decomposed body parts before they could identify the victims, pinpoint the causes of death and the post-mortem interval. In the age before the discovery of DNA, a talented team of forensic pathologists, including anatomists, dentists, and fingerprint experts, was consulted to help with the grisly case.

Anatomist Dr. James Couper Brash, from the University of Edinburgh, had the dubious honor of reassembling the mutilated remains. 1,2 Because the killer had so meticulously removed all distinguishing characteristics from the body parts and what was left was so severely decayed, the police first thought that the remains belonged to one man and one woman. But Brash used the joint surfaces to assemble the interlocking pieces, and the forensic team discovered that the bodies actually belonged to two women.2

Using the teeth and bones, the forensic team estimated that the first body belonged to a woman between 18 and 20 years old who was about 4’11” tall.1,3 The murderer removed the eyes, but left the fingertips intact. The forensic scientists were not able to distinguish the cause of death. Dr. Brash found that the second body belonged to a woman who was between 35 and 45 years old and was about 5’4.” 2,3 The murderer removed her facial features, teeth, and fingertips. However, the pathologists did identify the cause of death of the second body as asphyxiation.2 Brash told investigators that the dismemberment of the bodies took at least five hours and was done by someone with a good amount of anatomical knowledge. 2,4

When the murderer finished butchering the bodies he wrapped the parts in newspapers, and left behind a tantalizing clue for police. One of the newspapers used to package the remains was a special edition of the Sunday Graphic dated September 15, 1935. Investigators quickly discovered that particular newspaper was only circulated in the Lancaster area of England, about a 100 miles to the south.

The Trial of Dr. Buck Ruxton

Dr. Buck Ruxton, née Bikhtyar Rostomji Ratanji Hakim, was born in India in 1899 and received medical degrees from universities in Bombay and London. 1 Ruxton, Isabella, his wife, and their three children lived at 2 Dalton Street in Lancaster, England.  The couple also employed a nanny by the name of Mary Jane Rogerson. 2

Buck and Isabella had a notoriously tumultuous relationship. The last time anyone saw Isabella and Mary alive was on September 14th, not long after Ruxton has accused Isabella of having an affair. He told anyone who asked, including Mary’s parents, that Isabella and Mary had gone on vacation to Scotland and would be gone for a couple of weeks.1

In the days after Mary and Isabella’s disappearance, Ruxton cancelled his appointments and went to such great lengths to clean his house1 that even his neighbors and staff noticed his erratic behavior and became suspicious. When the horrific discovery of the body parts in Moffat made headlines in Lancaster, many people speculated that they belonged to Isabella and Mary. Dr. Ruxton even visited the police in Lancaster on October 11th and asked them “to do something about the newspaper reports” because the bad “publicity was ruining his practice.” He then asked the police to tell “the press that there is no connection.”4

Identification of the Bodies

Although police were suspicious of Ruxton, they needed to prove the bodies belonged to Isabella and Mary before they could charge him with murder. This was the age before DNA, which wasn’t discovered until 1953. Brash thought Mary Rogerson and Isabella fit the descriptions of the bodies, but he first had to use photographic superimposition to come to a forensic conclusion.

Brash obtained portraits of Isabella and Mary and had them enlarged so they were life-sized. These photographs were then superimposed over x-rays of the skulls from the first and second bodies, which were posed at angles to match the photographs. The skull of the first body corresponded nicely with the portraits of Mary, and the skull from second body corresponded with Isabella. Brash concluded that the remains were those of Ruxton’s missing wife and nanny, Isabella Ruxton and Mary Jane Rogerson.1,2,3

Since the first body, believed to be Mary’s remains, still had fingertips, examiners reinforced Brash’s identification. Indeed, the prints from the first body matched items that Mary had used in the Ruxton household. 2 Using the life cycle of the maggots found crawling in the fleshy body parts when they were recovered, forensic investigators estimated that these victims were murdered about the time Isabella and Mary went missing.2 Ruxton was arrested and charged with the murder of Mary Rogerson on October 13th and for the slaying of his wife on November 5th. 2

The Trial

When police searched Ruxton’s home, they removed some of his clothing, a section of staircase rails, the bathroom door, and linoleum from the bathroom floor as evidence. Dr. John Glaister, a forensic pathologist and serologist at Glasgow University, testified that the staircase, the bathroom door, and linoleum from the floor had traces of a “considerable amount” of human blood. 4 Police also retrieved traces of tissue from the bathroom drain that Dr. Glaister testified was human. 3,4 This evidence helped prove Isabella and Mary were killed in the Ruxton home and dismembered in the bathroom.

Dr. Brash presented his photographic superimpositions in court to demonstrate how he identified the victims. Brash even took casts of the feet from both bodies to show the court they fit shoes belonging to Mary and Isabella. 3

In the face of mounting evidence, Buck Ruxton was convicted and was sentenced to death. After he was hanged on May 12, 1936, a newspaper published Ruxton’s confession in which he admitted to killing his wife in a fit of jealousy and murdering Mary Rogerson when she caught him slaying his wife.1 The forensic techniques and results were published by John Glaister and James Couper Brash in Medico-legal Aspects of Ruxton Case.

References

  1. Maples, W.R.; Browning, M. (1994). Dead men do tell tales: The strange and fascinating cases of a forensic anthropologist. New York, NY: Doubleday.   
  2. Evans, C. (1996). The casebook of forensic detection: How science solved 100 of the world’s most baffling crimes. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group.
  3. Gruesome evidence at Ruxton Trial. (1935, December 12). Aberdeen Journal, pp. 10.
  4. Trial of Dr. Ruxton. (1936, March 10). Dundee Courier, pp. 5.

Dolly Stolze is a researcher and editor at Strange Remains, a blog site that specializes in forensic science, bioarchaeology and bizarre history. She has a master’s degree in forensic anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles.

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