While the signature evidence and supporting evidence show that William Bury was Jack the Ripper, his motivation for committing the Ripper murders remains unknown. Bury does not seem to have ever confessed to the murders, and so we can only speculate about his motive. There are at least two reasonable possibilities, one or both of which could help to explain Bury’s homicidal behavior.
According to a statement by James Martin, Bury’s former employer, Bury contracted a bad case of venereal disease in May, 1888. William Beadle suggests that the treatment for this case of venereal disease probably finished near the end of July, just prior to the Martha Tabram murder (Jack the Ripper 168). One obvious possibility, then, and a possibility that has long been entertained within Ripperology, is that the Whitechapel murders were motivated by an anger toward and desire to take revenge against prostitutes. Some Ripperologists believe that the Ripper simply chose vulnerable women as his victims, and these happened to be prostitutes, but the degrading and humiliating positioning of the victims’ legs in the series of murders suggests that Bury could have been commenting on the behavior of these women and that he could indeed have felt an antipathy toward and been actively targeting prostitutes.
Another possible explanation of Bury’s motive lies in his relationship with his wife, Ellen. In some cases of serial homicide, the killer uses his victims as surrogates for the true target of his anger and frustration. Robert Keppel and William Birnes note that with these killers, the women who are the real targets are often “a mother, wife, supervisor, or other women who can, at times, ignore or reject the potential killer” (Serial Violence 113). The “California co-ed murders” of Edmund Kemper provide an example of this. Kemper had a disturbed relationship with his mother, who worked as an administrative assistant at the University of California at Santa Cruz. According to Kemper, she repeatedly mocked and berated him. For example, Kemper complained, “My mother works at the university but my mother wouldn’t introduce me to any of the young ladies at the university because I’m like my father and I don’t deserve to know any of these young ladies” (Rosewood, Edmund Kemper 18). After his apprehension, Kemper indicated that his attacks on the coeds grew out of his frustration with his mother. Serial killer expert John Douglas comments that “he’s angry at mom, but rather than strike out at mom at this point, he’s going on the hunt. It was the only way he felt he had power” (“Experts Explain Ed Kemper’s Dysfunctional, Destructive Relationship with Mom He Murdered”). Once Kemper had finally murdered his mother, his desire to murder coeds seems to have fizzled out, and shortly after her murder he contacted the police and confessed to his crimes.
William Bury couldn’t have known his mother very well. Suffering from depression, she was committed to an asylum when he was less than a year old and she died in the asylum when he was only four. William Bury did, however, know his wife, Ellen. While there’s no evidence that Ellen Bury was a domineering woman, or a woman who was constantly belittling her husband, she did have extraordinary power over him in that she had inherited shares worth the then substantial amount of roughly £300 and was the source of wealth within the marriage. She had the ability to dispense funds to William Bury at her discretion. There had been frequent arguments within the marriage, which seem to have revolved around Bury demanding money from Ellen, and Ellen refusing to give it to him. Hence, Ellen would have been a source of great frustration for Bury and she could have been the indirect target of his Whitechapel murders. Ellen was a prostitute (although presumably no longer working as one following her marriage), and this could have led Bury, then, to focus on prostitutes as his surrogate targets, possibly, at least in part, in an effort to establish a sense of power.
It’s worth noting that there is no record of violence against women in William Bury’s background prior to his relationship with Ellen. Bury’s earlier conviction, in 1884, was for vagrancy. Within days of his marriage to Ellen, however, he committed two assaults against her. Two days following the marriage, Bury punched her in the face after she refused to give him drinking money, and a few days after that, he pinned her to a bed and threatened her with a knife in another effort to extract money from her.
If Ellen’s power over Bury had to do with her money, why didn’t Bury simply murder her in the summer or fall of 1888? As Ellen’s husband, Bury would have inherited all of her wealth. Perhaps Bury feared that he would have been the obvious suspect in any such murder, and he did not want to take a chance on being taken into custody and being executed for her murder. By staying within the marriage and murdering other prostitutes instead, he would have gradually been able to extract more and more of Ellen’s money while at the same time being able to work off some of his rage toward her, and with a much lower possibility of being identified as a murderer.
It’s interesting that following Ellen’s murder, things seemed to collapse for Bury. He lived with Ellen’s corpse for days, apparently unable to decide what to do next, and he did not fully clean up the crime scene before finally going to the police station in Dundee with his story suggesting that Ellen had committed suicide. He left the knife he’d used to mutilate Ellen sitting on the window sill with her blood, flesh and hair still on it, he did not wipe away the Ripper messages he apparently chalked at the back of his residence, and he did not play the role of the “grieving husband” by tenderly placing Ellen’s body in bed, instead leaving it naked except for a chemise in a demented and degrading position in the trunk. If Ellen was the real target in the Whitechapel murders, Bury might have felt no need to commit any additional murders following her death, much as Ed Kemper’s interest in murdering coeds petered out after the death of his mother, and at that point he could have been lost and lacked the will to make a more determined effort to avoid apprehension. In his written confession to his wife’s murder, Bury blamed the murder on Ellen’s “character,” which shows that he did indeed have a significant and ongoing frustration with her.
At this point in time there is of course no way to know what actually motivated William Bury to commit his Whitechapel murders, but the possibility that his relationship with Ellen was at least partly involved should be taken seriously and merits further exploration.
[updated September 27, 2019]