Bury and the Smith Murder

As I noted in Postidentification Ripperology, the identification of William Bury as Jack the Ripper still leaves a number of the Whitechapel murders unsolved, and one of these is the murder of the prostitute, Emma Smith, who was assaulted very early on the morning of April 3, 1888, and who died from an infection related to one of her injuries a day later on April 4.  Emma Smith claimed that she was assaulted by three men, which has led many Ripperologists to doubt that she was attacked by Jack the Ripper, but there are reasons to believe that her account could have been a false one.  As the Ripperologist Tom Wescott pointed out in his book, The Bank Holiday Murders, a report by Inspector Edmund Reid indicated that Smith apparently initially explained her injuries by saying that she had simply fallen (1) and she could not provide a description of any of the three men who supposedly attacked her (2).  The location of the assault that she gave should have resulted in her being seen and helped by others during the period of time that elapsed between the assault and her return to her residence, but this did not occur (3).  Finally, according to Reid, she would have passed a number of police constables on her walk back to her residence, “but none was informed of the incident or asked to render assistance” (4).  While the attack on Smith does not appear to have been an attempted murder—her attacker could not have assumed that she would die from the injuries that he inflicted on her—serial killers sometimes commit violent crimes prior to committing their first murders, and so it is possible that Emma Smith was attacked by William Bury.  Are there any real reasons, though, to suspect him of having committed this crime?

Let’s begin by assessing Emma Smith’s injuries.  Her head was bruised and bleeding, her right ear was torn, and a blunt object had been thrust so forcefully into her vagina that it ruptured her peritoneum, which led to the peritonitis that caused her death.  William Bury had struck Ellen Bury and apparently also at least some of his Whitechapel victims in the head prior to murdering them, and so Smith’s head injuries would be one of way of linking her assault to Bury.  Many assault victims receive head injuries, however, and so this link is obviously not a significant one.  Much more interesting is the fact that Emma Smith suffered genital trauma, as was the case, again, with Ellen Bury and with William Bury’s Whitechapel victims.  According to the state of Washington’s Homicide Investigation Tracking System (HITS) database, genital trauma occurred in less than 0.1% of the murders committed in Washington between 1981 and 1995 (5), and it seems reasonable to expect that genital trauma would also have been rare in homicides committed in Victorian Britain.  As a person who was known to spend time in Whitechapel, William Bury would have to be considered a candidate, then, for the attack on Smith.

There are also some circumstances which suggest that Bury could have been present in Whitechapel on the night that Smith was assaulted.  At Bury’s trial, his former employer, James Martin, testified that on April 4, 1888, two days after William and Ellen Bury were married, William Bury punched Ellen Bury in the face.  There is disagreement in the records of the trial about the location of the assault.  According to the official trial notes, the assault took place at Martin’s “house” (6), presumably meaning 80 Quickett Street in Bromley-by-Bow, but according to the more detailed transcript of the trial published in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, the incident took place in Whitechapel.  Here is the Evening Telegraph’s account, in which Martin is describing Bury’s assaults on Ellen during the course of their marriage:

“The ADVOCATE-DEPUTE—When did the assaults take place?—The first time on the Wednesday after they were married.

What did he do?—He punched her on the face. (Laughter.)

Was that in your house?—No.  In Whitechapel—in a public house” (7).

The transcript of the trial published in The Dundee Courier and Argus also shows that Martin testified that the April 4 assault took place in Whitechapel (8), not in Bromley-by-Bow.  In a conflict between sources, preference would normally be given to an official court record over a newspaper source, but with two separate newspaper transcripts agreeing that Martin said that the assault took place in Whitechapel, and with no newspaper transcript supporting the court record, it appears that a mistake was made in the compilation of the trial notes.  Interestingly, in a statement that Martin gave to Inspector Frederick Abberline on February 14, 1889, shortly after Bury’s arrest for his wife’s murder, Martin indicated that Bury assaulted Ellen in his “house” prior to their marriage, not following it (9).

It‘s unclear what circumstances would have allowed James Martin, who lived in Bow, to witness a domestic abuse incident involving the Burys inside a pub in Whitechapel two days following their marriage.  As part of his account of the incident, Martin indicated that he asked Bury for money that he owed him (10), but it seems unlikely that this could have been the main reason that Martin was there, as he and the Burys both lived in Bow and it wouldn’t have been necessary for him to travel all the way to Whitechapel to ask for his money.  Martin witnessed a second domestic abuse incident involving the Burys in Whitechapel in June, 1888.  The couple had purchased a rug there, and Martin saw William Bury strike Ellen Bury in the mouth, this time outside of a pub.  Again, it’s unclear how or why the three of them could have been together in Whitechapel.  Perhaps Martin and the Burys had simply come across each other by chance.

A third domestic abuse incident that took place in Bow in December 1888 suggests one possible explanation for Martin being with the Burys in Whitechapel on April 4.  Martin testified that in December 1888, Ellen told him that her husband “had not been home for two nights and she was running about looking for him” (11).  Martin would have owned a horse and cart, and if Bury had not been home for a few days prior to the April 4 incident, Martin’s presence in Whitechapel could perhaps be explained by his having driven Ellen into the area to help her locate her missing husband.  If this is indeed what occurred, and if Bury had been staying in Whitechapel throughout the time he’d been away, then he would have been present in Whitechapel during the early morning hours of April 3, when Emma Smith was attacked.

The Burys were married in Bromley-by-Bow on April 2.  Remarkably, then, if this is what actually took place, Bury would have abandoned Ellen, perhaps in connection with their first post-marriage dispute over money, and headed into Whitechapel on their very wedding night.  Could something as apparently implausible as this have actually occurred?  According to Martin’s trial testimony, William Bury punched his wife in the face two days following their marriage, and according to the Burys’ former landlady, Elizabeth Haynes, he pinned his wife to a bed and he threatened her with a knife five days following the marriage.  We know, then, that William Bury behaved horribly toward his wife in the immediate aftermath of their wedding, and so something as cruel as abandoning her on her wedding night certainly seems possible as well.

As I showed in my post Was Ellen the Real Target?, one plausible explanation of what motivated Bury to commit his Whitechapel murders is that he was indirectly lashing out at Ellen and the financial control that she had over him.  With their exchange of vows on April 2, her dominion over him began, and so Bury’s abandonment of her and his substitute assault on another prostitute on their wedding night could have been his first great act of resistance against her control, and a way for him to establish a sense of his own power.  It’s interesting that a blunt object was thrust into Emma Smith’s vagina on a night when William Bury would have been expected to engage in sexual intercourse with his new wife.  Instead of the wedding night timing being the main obstacle to linking Bury to the assault on Smith, the timing could very well help to explain the attack.  A wedding night assault would also have given Bury a very good alibi if an investigation of the assault ever led back in his direction.

In summary, then, Emma Smith, like William Bury’s known Whitechapel victims, was attacked in the morning hours, her head injuries and especially the injury to her genitals are ways to connect her assault to William Bury, there is trial testimony placing William Bury in Whitechapel on the day following the assault, and as a man who could be gone from home for a few days at a time, William Bury could reasonably have been present in Whitechapel at the very time that Smith was attacked.  While there is obviously not enough here to warrant a belief that William Bury murdered Emma Smith, if we were working this case today, we would say that William Bury is a man who merits further investigation.



(1) Wescott, Tom. The Bank Holiday Murders: The True Story of the First Whitechapel Murders. Crime Confidential (2014): 9.

(2) Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion. N.Y.: Skyhorse (2009): 4.

(3) Wescott, Tom. The Bank Holiday Murders: The True Story of the First Whitechapel Murders. Crime Confidential (2014): 10.

(4) Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion. N.Y.: Skyhorse (2009): 4.

(5) Keppel, Robert D, Joseph G Weis, Katherine M Brown and Kristen Welch. “The Jack the Ripper Murders: A Modus Operandi and Signature Analysis of the 1888-1891 Whitechapel Murders.” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 2.1 (2005): 18.

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

(7) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Evening Telegraph (28 Mar. 1889): 2.

(8) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier and Argus (29 Mar. 1889): 5.

(9) Statement by James Martin. Precognition Against William Henry Bury for the Crime of Murder at 113 Princes Street, Dundee. AD14/89/160/1. National Archives of Scotland. 1889.

(10) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Evening Telegraph (28 Mar. 1889): 2.

(11) Ibid.

[updated January 24, 2020]