Film Review: The Trial of William Bury

The Trial of William Bury. Presented by Dan Snow. Directed by Nathan Williams. Hit Networks, 2018. 54 minutes.

The Trial of William Bury is a documentary about the February 2018 mock trial of William Bury for the murder of his wife Ellen. It does not provide a detailed examination of the evidence linking Bury to the Jack the Ripper murders. The documentary is hosted by Dan Snow and includes appearances by William Bury expert Euan Macpherson, forensic anthropologist Sue Black and historian Eddie Small from the University of Dundee, and Ripperologist Mick Priestley, who is filmed as he conducts a tour of the Jack the Ripper murder sites in London.

The documentary begins with background information about William and Ellen Bury, including their move to Dundee in January 1889. Macpherson points out locations of interest in Dundee, including Union Street, where the Burys briefly resided, and the type of residence they would have had on Princes Street. William Bury’s neck vertebrae, now at the University of Dundee, are shown by Dr. Black.

There is an interesting CGI recreation of the room where Ellen Bury’s body was found, but unfortunately this is marred by an inaccurate depiction of the position of one of her legs inside the trunk containing her body. In the film her two legs are shown as parallel to each other, however in his 1889 trial testimony, Lieut. David Lamb reported that Ellen’s left leg was bent back so that its foot was over her right shoulder, in other words, one of her legs was crossed over to the other side of her body.

The documentary includes extended excerpts from the mock trial of William Bury, and features testimony by rival forensic pathologists Dr. John Clark (prosecution) and Dr. Richard Shepherd (defense). Shepherd points to the small amount of force used in the strangulation and the possibility of a rising ligature mark as being suggestive of suicide. It’s important to note, however, that at Bury’s original trial Dr. Henry Littlejohn testified that Ellen Bury was incapacitated prior to being strangled. “My opinion is that a struggle having taken place a blow was struck on left temporal muscle. It is in a hollow and not so likely to have been caused by a fall. This blow would render deceased either wholly or semi-unconscious. I think the application of ligature to neck followed producing suffocation and that while deceased moribund the various wounds on the belly and elsewhere inflicted.” Hence, it’s reasonable to expect that Ellen Bury would have been lying on the floor and possibly incapable of resistance when William Bury strangled her. He would have needed little force to strangle an unconscious woman, and the possibly rising ligature mark could be explained by his having lifted her head from the floor to perform the strangulation. (Incidentally, Dr. Littlejohn testified, “On right side of neck beneath the skin and in substance of muscle the effusion of blood shews that ligature applied with great violence,” so it is unclear how much force Bury actually used.)

This is an interesting and well-produced documentary and is highly recommended as a film about the mock trial. Remarkably, however, it contains no mention at all of the fact that William Bury confessed to the murder of his wife just a few days prior to his execution, after his request for a reprieve had been denied. In other words, the documentary seems to be trying to create a mystery where there is none.