Had the Jack the Ripper murders taken place in 1988 and not 1888 then our response to them would have been markedly different. No one in 1988 would have doubted that the perpetrator was a sexual serial killer carrying out his own perverted agenda. Since 1888 we have learnt much about this type of killer, their damaged childhoods, misfit adulthoods and psychopathic alienation from the human race.
One man who embodied all these dire characteristics was William Henry Bury. Born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, in 1859, Bury spent his teenage years and early twenties in Wolverhampton, Dewsbury (allegedly) and Birmingham before decamping to the East End of London in 1887. There he married Ellen Elliot, a prostitute who perhaps surprisingly was possessed of an inheritance and whom he proceeded to bleed dry, in all respects because in addition to squandering Ellen’s money on drink Bury was also habitually violent towards her. In January, 1889, with the Ripper’s work done in Whitechapel, Bury dragged Ellen off to Dundee where three weeks later he murdered her. He was executed on April 24th.
But was Bury the Ripper? According to a Dundee lawyer who reviewed the case against him which I outlined in the Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper:
“Based on the evidence presented here, a Crown Prosecution of William Bury for the Ripper murders would have had every chance of success”.
Bury’s life pattern was one which investigators today would recognise as being consistent with that of a sexually motivated killer. His early childhood was horrendous. Within a year of his birth he lost his elder sister to ‘status epilepticus’, a series of recurring epileptic fits running into each other, his mother was packed off to a lunatic asylum and his father was killed in a carting accident, his body ripped asunder up the middle. It was this dreadful image which Bury repeated over and over again in the streets of London twenty-eight years later.
The childhood fashioned the adult. The William Bury whom we encounter in Wolverhampton in the 1870’s and 80’s was a thief, liar and a fantasist prone to sudden squalls of destructive rage. These are the hallmarks of the development of a psychopathic personality. As such, Bury fits the FBI’s profile of Jack the Ripper in virtually every detail, including venereal disease, heavy drinking, fear and hatred of women and clinical paranoia. Here, he invariably carried knives around with him and slept with one under his pillow.
In their book Sexual Homicide, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, pioneers of psychological profiling and formerly heads of the FBI’s Investigative Support unit, present the case of Warren (1), an Alabama multicide whom they use as a ‘motivational model’. When Warren’s history is compared with Bury’s the similarities are uncanny. So too are the parallels between Bury and Fred West. But Bury was obviously not copying Warren or West; instead their lives imitate his. Brutality towards partners is another trait of the sexual homicide. Bury’s repetitive beatings of the sad little woman who joined her life to his without realising how much he hated her provide a classic example.
However, invaluable though they are, profiles have to be used in conjunction with other evidence. The police later established that Bury was out all night on the dates of the murders. When he returned home after the death of Annie Chapman he is reported to have behaved like a ‘madman’. He fitted the description of the man seen with three victims, short, swarthy and respectably dressed with features which, said the Dundee press, could be mistaken for Jewish. When the Burys visited Wolverhampton in August,1888, they had a portrait made which shows him with a moustache but no beard or side-whiskers, matching the man whom P.C. Smith and William Marshall saw in Berners Street, an item well reported in the press. Significantly, when he turned up in Dundee Bury was sporting both. The police also discovered Bury had been a horsemeat butcher, cutting the meat up for cats’ food. Although not a necessity, possession of the sort of anatomical knowledge a man might gain from cutting up animals is certainly not a disadvantage in the Ripper stakes. John Douglas remarks that employment as a butcher would have nourished the Ripper’s sadistic fantasies.
It is interesting that the ground floor of 29, Hanbury Street was a cat’s meat shop; also that ‘Polly’ Nichols was wearing a jacket with a man leading a horse emblazoned on it. A Horse caused the accident which killed Bury’s father. Factors like these stimulate the destructive urges lurking inside a serial homicide. When stirred in the pot alongside the rest of the circumstantial evidence they coalesce into what a Judge has described as: “A network of facts cast around the accused man…so close, so stringent, so coherent that no effort on the part of the accused can break through (them)”.(2)
The net tightens even further when we examine Bury’s extraordinary flight from London;- and flight is the only word to describe it. Residing in Bow, he had used a pony and cart – bought originally for a business which he soon neglected – to give him easy access to Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Early in December, 1888, he divested himself of it and Jack the Ripper never troubled those parishes again. Around the turn of the year a major article appeared in The Star discussing whether the Ripper first strangled his victims. The reporter revived a suggestion made by Dr. Bagster Philips at Annie Chapman’s inquest, and ignored at the time, that she had been choked. It was after publication of this article that Bury decided it was time to put a lot of distance between himself and the Capital. He concocted phoney jobs for Ellen and himself in Dundee and lied to others that they were going to Australia. Once again, these are the characteristics of a serial murderer fleeing a locale that has become too hot for him.
It is in Dundee that the case against Bury reaches its apogee. On the night of February 10th, 1889, he walked into a Dundee police station and claimed that his wife had committed suicide. In fact, she had been strangled and her body ripped up in the same was as the London victims. Aside from the fact that Ellen’s throat was not cut – in the circumstances it was unnecessary – this was a Ripper crime, the mutilations to the genital area his ‘signature’. It is when we directly compare the post mortem report on Ellen to that of Catherine Eddowes and the inquest testimonies on ‘Polly’ Nichols and Annie Chapman’s injuries that we can see that they were all the work of the same man. Had Ellen Bury been butchered in the streets of Whitechapel between the murders of Nichols and Chapman then nobody would have had any doubts about it. Moreover, it transpired from the autopsy that Bury, with the time and facility to do so, had returned to Ellen’s body and begun to incise around her genital area again. Only sexual serial murderers, turned on by deviant lust, do this. There was no other reason for the mutilations in the first place. He was the Ripper and he had to do it.
In one of the trunks containing Bury’s possessions the police found knick-knacks which could have been trophies from the London crimes, including two cheap rings like those yanked off Annie Chapman’s finger. Also, a bloodstained belt, the stains too old to be Ellen’s, but exactly what you would expect to find if a man has been kneeling over bodies which have been cut open.
At the rear of the Burys’ apartment were two chalked messages reading; “jack ripper is at the back of this door” and “jack ripper is in this seller”(sic) They were, as the Dundee Advertiser rather quaintly puts it: “older than the discovery of the tragedy”. The only credible motive for Ellen’s murder was to shut her up, a point made by the Dundee police to the New York Times stringer. He wrote: “The theory of the police officials is that Bury’s wife knew of facts connecting him with the East End atrocities” (February 12th).
The London police initially poured cold water on the findings but by the time Bury was hanged there had been a very definite change of mind and Bury was being rigorously investigated. Two Scotland Yard detectives travelled up to Dundee for his execution but they failed to get anything out of him. Bury explained why to his executioner, James Berry. “I suppose you think you are clever to hang me”, said Bury, emphasising the “me”. This has been taken to mean that in his warped mind he considered himself to be someone special, ie; the Ripper. Undoubtedly this was the case but it is his next words, less often quoted, which are the most important: “But because you are to hang me you are not to get anything out of me”. In other words he was not going to confess to anything (other than Ellen’s murder which he had already owned up to) unless he was reprieved. Yet again Bury was laying down the parameters for other multicides – in America often successfully – in delayed executions. The Scotland Yard detectives told James Bury: “We are quite satisfied that you have hanged Jack the Ripper. There will be no more Whitechapel crimes”. And there weren’t. The dread figure with the knife vanishes with William Bury’s execution and crossed the Stygian into Hades.
For those who have not read it, I heartily recommend Euan Mcpherson’s new book: The Trial of Jack the Ripper, which concentrates on events in Dundee and is exhaustively researched from the Dundee press and the files in the Scottish Public Records Office. Having been down these avenues myself, both in the early nineties and more recently for my own work on Bury, I can appreciate the hard work which Euan has put in. Not only is his book immaculately researched but also very readable and makes me hope that he will do more.
(1), Warren’s real name was withheld for reasons of confidentiality.
(2), Lord Coleridge at the trial of John Dickman, executed in 1910.
Bill Beadle is the author of ‘Jack the Ripper: Anatomy of a Myth’ (Wat Tyler Books – 1995)