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Virtual Tour — Dr Buck Ruxton’s House of Murder

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Buck Ruxton’s house in Dalton Square, Lancaster
Buck Ruxton’s house in Dalton Square, Lancaster

 

The following story is a bit of oral history (or gossip as it’s known locally) that I was told back in the mid-70s. A student, I had hitched a ride into town from the uni, as was customary in those days, and was picked up by an elderly lady. She parked up in Dalton Square, and we sat in her car for another half an hour as she told me this story. She, like a lot of local people, had personally known a man who would become nationally infamous - Doctor Buck Ruxton.

She’d also known his common-law wife, Isabella Kerr and their three children. Her first-hand account is the basis of this article, with help from other sources including Wikipedia and Lancashire County Council’s CSI website, where there are many more interesting photos from this case. 

Ruxton’s original name was Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, or 'Buck' Hakim. He was a Parsi from Bombay, of Persian and French descent, who had previously served as a ship’s doctor. 

He met Isabella van Ess, née Kerr (separated from her Dutch husband) in Edinburgh. In 1928, she quit her job and moved to London with him. In 1930 they moved to 2 Dalton Square at the very heart of Lancaster, next door to the local cinema, where he built up a prosperous medical practice. They never married, though she took the surname Ruxton, and they had three children.

 

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Buck Ruxton, double murderer
Buck Ruxton

 

He was, by all surviving accounts, the first well-to-do person of colour seen in these parts. In the grim days before the National Health Service, Dr Ruxton was considered a kindly man, and he was universally popular in the town, being known to be particularly generous in treating the poor. Also, he consistently turned up sober, which was particularly attractive and not all that usual in an affordable doctor. Unfortunately, he was also a very jealous husband.

My friendly ride told me that Isabella was attractive, and liked to socialise. At the Mayor’s Annual Ball, in the Town Hall, she danced all night and was much in demand; her husband apparently preferring to sit things out and sulk.

 

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Isabella ‘Belle’ Kerr, common-law-wife and victim of Buck Ruxton
Isabella ‘Belle’ Kerr

 

The marriage deteriorated, with Ruxton becoming ever more jealous and controlling. Isabella attempted suicide in 1932 and left him for a period in 1934.

Police Constable Norman Wilson’s notebook entry for the evening of on 27 May 1935 states:

‘8.55pm: In consequence of a telephone received from Mrs Ruxton I went to her house. On arrival I was met by Dr Ruxton who was in a very excitable state and behaving like a man insane and threatening to commit two murders in Dalton Square tonight. Sergeant Stainton then arrived and the Doctor calmed down. But stated his intention to come to the Police Court on Monday morning and applying for a summons against a man who had enticed away his wife’s affections. We then came away leaving all quiet.’

Nowadays she would have been automatically referred for Domestic Violence support. But in 1935 that didn’t happen.

She was last seen on 14 September 1935 enjoying a day visiting her sisters in Blackpool, from which she tamely drove home to arrive by midnight. Early on the 15th, Dr Ruxton strangled Isabella with his bare hands and killed her.

But, we are told, he was surprised by their children’s young nursemaid, Mary Jane Rogerson, who was just 19 years old. He cruelly cut the throat of this young girl and she bled to death in his house in Dalton Square, according to evidence of blood on the stairs. 

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Mary Jane Rogerson, victim of Buck Ruxton
Mary Jane Rogerson



To dispose of the two bodies, he first dismembered them in the bath, and, being a surgeon, made a professional job of it, as you will see. 

(The bath was later reinstalled as a charming Victorian horsetrough at Hutton Police HQ.)

My source recalls being in the hairdresser’s, then on the west side of Dalton Square, and the ladies present remarking that Dr Ruxton had been burning ‘ever such a lot of rubbish’; the smoke from his back garden had been drifting across the square for two days. He was burning his victims’ clothes, having told people that his wife and the nursemaid had both gone away. 

 

Forensics: A New Science

 

The murders are famous because of the application of then new methods of forensic science to their solution. A man of science himself, Dr Ruxton would at the time have been one of the very few capable of understanding the means by which he was convicted. But he was apparently better at being a doctor than he was at being a criminal. 

He had managed to pack the body parts, wrapped in newspaper, into his car and took them as far away as he could, to dispose of them. 

According to a BBC documentary, as Richard C. Jones kindly pointed out to me, the body parts in the stream near Moffat, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, were first spotted by a woman, a Miss Susan Haines Johnson, who was visiting from Edinburgh. From the bridge near ‘The Devil’s Beeftub’, she spotted something white and then realised it was a human arm sticking out from package down in the steep gully below. She ran to fetch her brother, who climbed down and found four bundles of body parts, mutilated beyond any recognition, wrapped in newspaper. It must have been a dreadful thing to find.

Particularly as not all the body parts were found. Mary Rogerson’s torso has since remained lost. A search of the area was carried out and the local boy scouts were drafted in to assist. (We don’t know if they got a special badge for it.) There were thirty pieces in all found over the next few months, leading the press to call the case the ‘Jigsaw Murders’.

The local police got cracking and the newspaper, dated 15 September, was identified as being a special edition of the Sunday Graphic — sold only in Lancaster. Aha!

Inspector Jeremiah Lynch of Scotland Yard was called in to assist in the investigation. He pored over the newspaper’s local subscription list, which was a vital clue in tracking Ruxton, who was on the regular delivery route. When initially questioned, Ruxton denied he had ever been to Scotland. But when he had, in fact, been on his way back from Scotland, having disposed of the grisly evidence, his car had knocked over a cyclist in Kendal, a mistake that proved to be fatal for Ruxton as he had been stopped by a police officer in nearby Milnthorpe. The copper had made a record of Ruxton’s vehicle registration number in his pocketbook. This was vital evidence at the later murder trial. It is a testatment to Inspector Lynch’s thoroughness in those pre-digital times that all these components to Ruxton’s prosecution were found and assembled together to bear witness to Ruxton’s guilt.

The Glasgow Police Identification Bureau used the newly developed fingerprint techniques to help identify the bodies. As the fingers had been mutilated, they also used the new science of photographic superimposure, matching a photo of Isabella to the shape of one of the skulls found. The match was perfect.

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Isabella Kerr Ruxton — flesh and bone
Isabella Kerr Ruxton — flesh and bone

The local dentist James Priestley also gave evidence to identify the victims.

Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but informative technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.

Ruxton had cunningly removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces to make them (he thought) unidentifiable.  But the precision of the cuts indicated a surgical familarity that narrowed the list of possible suspects right down. 

A post-mortem revealed that Isabella had been beaten about the face and then strangled on the landing. Mary Rogerson, who occupied the a room on the top floor, had come down to the same landing and been asphyxiated, had her skull fractured by a heavy blow that would have rendered her unconscious, and then stabbed, with ensuing blood spatter to the walls and stairway. 

Despite this horrendous mess, it appears that Ruxton had planned the murder at least one day earlier. It was thought to have happened on the Sunday. On the Friday before he had told one of their charwomen (cleaners) whose usual day was Saturday not to come in until the following Monday. He told their other charwoman the same thing on the Sunday morning. He told them that his wife and her maid were away in Edinburgh for the weekend so they wouldn't be needed until her return. 

On the morning of Sunday the 15th he drove out and bought two cans of petrol from one garage and filled up the tank of his car at another’s.  Then he drove his three children, Elizabeth aged 6, Diane aged 4 and Billie aged 2 round to a friend's house. In the afternoon he went round to a nearby neighbour's and told her that Mary Rogerson was off on holiday and that his wife, Isabella, was not back yet from Blackpool. He had cut his hand badly — he said he'd done it trying to open a tin of peaches — and he said he needed her and her husband to help him to get his house ready as he had decorators coming. When she got there she was surprised to find the stair carpet had been removed and replaced with straw. One of the charwomen later found the bloodstained capet and a pile a burnt clothing in the back garden. 

He told another person that his wife had gone to London with another man, and even came up with a tale that Mary Rogerson had got pregnant by the laundry boy and run away, leading a police missing persons notice to read, ‘Please cause special enquiries to be made at Maternity Homes, Hospitals and Midwives.’

Following a series of committal hearings at Lancaster Town Hall Magistrates Court, Ruxton was held at Strangeways, awaiting the pleasure of the Assize Court at Manchester, which had to be prepared, refurbished and extended, for what was becoming known as the ‘Case of the Century’.

His trial, for the murder of Isabella Ruxton only, eventually started on 2 March 1936 and lasted for 11 days.  The evidence was overwhelming. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

 

Appeal for Clemency

 

A petition asking for clemency for him was signed by 10,000 people (despite the fact that he had also knocked over a cyclist) but his Appeal was turned down. Dr Ruxton was hanged at Manchester on 12 May 1936. 

My source explained that, had he ‘just’ killed his wife in anger, he might not have hanged.  But, to escape justice, he had also murdered the nursemaid, Mary Jane Rogerson, a nineteen-year-old girl whose only involvement was caring for his children. Although he wasn’t tried for Rogerson's murder, she believed that was what had sealed his fate. 

My mother, who was thirteen then and lived in Rochdale, where they are less clement, remembers the song they sang at the time, to the tune of ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’:

Red stains on the carpet,
Red stains on your knife
Oh, Dr Buck Ruxton,
You murdered your wife.
The nursemaid saw you,
And threatened to tell,
Oh, Dr Ruxton, you killed her as well.

Ruxton’s children were adopted by his lawyer, and there we leave them to remake their lives. Ms Rogerson’s family still live in the area and were seriously unamused when a city centre pub round the corner from the Ruxton house decided it would be fun to retheme itself as ‘Ruxton’s’ back in the ’80s. The change didn’t stick (neither did the two themes after that) and the pub is currently called The Boar’s Head

Ruxton’s house, on the south-east corner of Dalton Square, stood empty for almost half a century, until the City Council gutted it in the 1980s, redeveloped it and renamed it Palatine Hall, to house the City’s Architect’s Department. Now a Grade II Listed Building, it faces Lancaster Town Hall, where he was initially held following his arrest. Tours of Lancaster Town Hall happen on Heritage Open Days (it’s free but booking is required) and occasionally at other advertised times. Tours feature, along with our splendid Town Hall’s numerous other (surprisingly) wondrous attractions, a visit to the old courtroom, complete with all the original furniture, where Buck Ruxton appeared at several committal hearings. From the prisoner’s dock visitors are ‘sent down’ to view the atmospheric subterranean police cells, which in 1935 held Lancaster’s notorious double murderer, Dr Buck Ruxton.


Ruxton on the Radio


A programme in the radio series Secrets of Scotland Yard (1949–51), entitled ‘Dr Ruxton, Axe Killer’, dramatized the murders in what seems to be a reasonably factual way. See this page of the Internet Archive.

The same story was told, using fictitious names but adhering to the essential facts, in the Whitehall 1212 radio series (1951–52). Look for ‘The Case of Maggie Ralenson’ at this page of the Internet Archive. (The name used in the programme sounds like Madgie Rowlandson but has apparently been misspelt on the Internet Archive page. This name was used not for Isabella Kerr, but for the nursemaid and second victim, Mary Jane Rogerson.)

You can listen to the programmes on the Internet Archive website or download them, as you prefer.


 

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