Conjoined Words

Of the many letters supposedly written and sent out by Jack the Ripper in the fall of 1888, the only one that many Ripperologists feel could possibly have come from the Ripper is the “From hell” letter, which was ghoulishly accompanied by a piece of human kidney.  A handwriting quirk in this letter is the presence of conjoined words, or words that are connected by a common writing stroke.  While this is not an unusual trait in Victorian handwriting, what can be used to link this trait to a specific individual is the frequency with which the trait occurs in that individual’s writing.

The words “I took” from the infamous “From hell” letter.

The words “I took” from the infamous “From hell” letter.

If William Bury wrote the “From hell” letter, it is a piece of disguised handwriting, as it differs in some noticeable ways from the handwriting displayed in his confession letter.  At Bury’s trial, however, his sister-in-law, Margaret Corney, testified that Bury could write in “several hands” (1), so Bury was evidently experienced with disguising his handwriting.  There are two examples of disguised handwriting by Bury, the “Ogilvie Letter,” the offer of employment from a Dundee firm that Bury forged to persuade Ellen to move with him to Dundee, and the “Letter from Ellen,” which Bury wrote on behalf of his wife Ellen to her sister Margaret, and in which Bury pretended to be Ellen.

The handwriting trait of conjoined words occurs in both of these documents.  In the following analysis, numbers, symbols and abbreviations are excluded.  The analysis focuses on connecting strokes among fully formed words.  In the “Ogilvie Letter,” William Bury’s signature is excluded, as is the name of the witness signing the document, as the witness signature should be regarded as a separate piece of disguised handwriting.  The word “hereby” is treated as two words, as Bury splits the word into the separate words “here” and “by” in the document.  In the case of the “Letter from Ellen,” the envelope containing the letter is regarded as a separate document and is excluded from the analysis.

Turning first to the “Ogilvie Letter,” there is one occurrence of conjoined words (the words “a period” are connected by a common stroke) in a document containing 55 words, for a frequency of once every 55 words.  In the “Letter from Ellen,” there are four occurrences of conjoined words (“to promise,” “not forgetting,” “must please” and “the post”) in a document containing 218 words, for a frequency of once every 54.5 words.  In the “From hell” letter (the word “Mr,” as an abbreviation, is excluded from the analysis), there is one occurrence of conjoined words, “I took,” in a document containing 55 words, for a frequency of once every 55 words.

Remarkably, then, this handwriting quirk occurs with an identical frequency in all three pieces of writing.  While this obviously does not prove that William Bury wrote the “From hell” letter, it is an important piece of evidence linking him to that document.

As a postscript, the two chalked messages at the rear of Bury’s Princes Street residence, if written by Bury, would constitute two additional pieces of disguised handwriting by Bury.  Given the brevity of these texts (one message contains 6 words and the other contains 9 words), we would expect the trait of conjoined words to occur either not at all or at most one time in each of the two messages if they were written by Bury—and in fact the trait does not occur in either message.



(1) Trial Transcript from the Trial of William Henry Bury for the Crime of Murder. JC36/3. National Archives of Scotland. 1889.