Schwartz and Eyewitness Memory

It is well understood by Ripperologists that eyewitness descriptions often contain inaccuracies, and so it is tempting for researchers to pay little heed to the various descriptions of Jack the Ripper provided by the eyewitnesses in the case.  Memory research is a complex and rapidly evolving area of psychology, and some interesting studies have appeared in recent years which suggest that we should in fact privilege one of the eyewitness descriptions above all of the others, and that is the description provided by Israel Schwartz.  While it cannot be proven that Elizabeth Stride was murdered by Jack the Ripper, there is statistically only a slim possibility that she was not, and police records indicate that Schwartz’s account was valued and that he was not dismissed as an unreliable witness.

Schwartz’s description is likely to be the best description in the case because of the circumstances of his sighting and how those would have affected him.  Schwartz “saw a man stop & speak to a woman, who was standing in the gateway.  The man tried to pull the woman into the street, but he turned her round & threw her down on the footway & the woman screamed three times, but not very loudly.”  He also heard the man call out “Lipski,” an anti-Semitic slur.  Witnessing a violent crime, and hearing an anti-Semitic slur hurled, Schwartz, who has Jewish, would have naturally experienced some degree of fear or apprehension, and in fact Schwartz then proceeded to walk away from the scene, subsequently running away when he thought that another man at the scene might have been following him.

None of the other important witnesses in the Jack the Ripper case made their observations in a similar state of fear, or within a situation in which they would have felt threatened.  Elizabeth Long made her observation as she simply passed by the couple that she saw.  The other Stride witnesses also observed men, none of whom may have been the Ripper, in unremarkable situations.  While Joseph Lawende and his companions might not have been impressed with the look of the man they saw with Catherine Eddowes, Lawende observed Eddowes holding her hand on the man’s chest, as though she were in control of the situation, and Lawende and his companions could not have felt threatened by him.  Similarly, none of the witnesses in the Mary Jane Kelly case observed anything which would have caused them to become afraid of the man that they saw.  The other important witnesses in the case seem all to have made their observations in a neutral emotional state.

Schwartz would have experienced some degree of fear, however, and the presence of that fear would have focused his attention on the man and probably led to a more accurate recollection of the man’s appearance.  In their chapter “The Influence of Emotion on Memory in Forensic Settings” (Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology, 2017), Daniel Reisberg and Friderike Heuer write “emotional events are usually important to us, virtually guaranteeing that we will pay close attention as the event unfolds, and close attention contributes to more accurate and more complete remembering” and “emotion seems in many studies to promote memory for an event’s gist or central content and memory for details that happen to be (spatially or temporally) associated with this central content.”  These memory enhancements can be especially pronounced when the emotion involved is a negative one.  In their article “Emotion and Memory” (Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, 2018), Elizabeth A. Kensinger and Sarah M. Kark note that “in the laboratory, participants are better able to remember the details of negative stimuli.”  Schwartz’s gender could also have had a positive effect on his recollection of the man’s appearance.  Citing an earlier study concerning eyewitness memories of a crime, Reisberg and Heuer write, “Males had better memory for details about a purse snatcher they had seen, but females had better memory for the victim’s clothing.”  While we thus have reason to believe that Schwartz’s description of the man is likely to have been more accurate than the other eyewitness descriptions in the case, this does not mean that we should expect it to be entirely accurate.  Reisberg and Heuer explain, “the evidence cannot be understood as indicating that emotion leads to uniformly accurate memories.  It does not.  No matter what the circumstances, memory errors are possible (and perhaps even likely).”  In addition, there are studies which suggest that with some individuals stress can actually impair and not improve memory accuracy.  Hence, while we have cause to privilege Schwartz’s description of the man over that of the other eyewitnesses, this does not mean that Schwartz’s description is necessarily the best description. With all of this said, how well, then, do the various components of Schwartz’s description compare with what we know about William Bury?

Schwartz: age about 30
William Bury was 29 at the time of Elizabeth Stride’s murder.  A match.

Schwartz: 5 ft. 5 in.
Bury was 5 feet 3½ inches tall in his boots.  Adding a bit of height onto that for his hat, Bury would have been over 5’4″ and an excellent match with Schwartz’s height estimate.

Schwartz: comp fair
There is a discrepancy on this point.  The Dundee newspapers reported that Bury had a dark complexion, or a fresh complexion, not a fair one.  While Schwartz might have provided the best description in the Ripper case, as we have learned, that does not mean we should expect his description to be a perfect one.  It’s worth noting, however, that Schwartz made his observation in the darkness of 12:45 a.m., with the nearest street lamp being some distance away.  How much confidence should we place in a description of a person’s lightness or darkness, which can be a very subjective judgment, when the observation is being made under low lighting conditions?  It’s further worth noting that in a February 12, 1889 article in The Daily Free Press, Bury’s face is described in court as “a little florid.”  If Bury could look florid in a sober state in a court appearance, it seems reasonable to suggest that he could have looked rather florid indeed when under the influence of drink.  Is it possible that Schwartz saw a red-faced Bury—Bury might have just finished drinking at one of the pubs in the area when he happened upon Stride—and wrongly concluded that Bury had a fair complexion?  It’s a sensible question to ask.

Schwartz: hair dark
The Dundee Courier reported that Bury had dark brown hair.  A match.

Schwartz: small brown moustache
In an August 1888 portrait of Bury (this is reproduced on page 101 of William Beadle’s Jack the Ripper Unmasked), he is shown wearing only a moustache.  The Dundee Courier described Bury’s facial hair as “sandy-coloured.”  A match here as well.

Schwartz: full face, broad shouldered
This is an accurate description of Bury as he appears in his August 1888 portrait.  James Berry, the man who executed William Bury, described Bury as a “full develloped” man in a letter that he wrote just a few days after Bury’s execution.  Importantly, the March 29, 1889 Dundee Advertiser reported that Bury “seems to have a powerful chest and shoulders.”

What we have learned, then, is that the eyewitness who is likely to have provided the most accurate description of Jack the Ripper has also provided what is largely a very accurate description of William Henry Bury.