In assessing William Bury’s connection to the Jack the Ripper murders, some Ripperologists have expressed the reservation that they believe that Scotland Yard must have investigated Bury and cleared him. Let’s take a quick look at the facts that pertain to this issue.
There are no extant police records which indicate that Scotland Yard either investigated William Bury for the Jack the Ripper murders or that it cleared him. The closest that we can come to such records are the statements that Inspector Frederick Abberline took from some of Bury’s contacts in London in the week following Bury’s arrest, as part of his investigation of Bury for his wife’s murder. These statements do not show that Scotland Yard was investigating William Bury for the Jack the Ripper murders. For example, at Bury’s trial, his former employer, James Martin, testified about two violent incidents involving Bury in Whitechapel. In the statement that Abberline took from Martin, however, four days after Bury’s arrest, the word “Whitechapel” does not appear, which suggests that Abberline did not ask Martin if Bury was in the habit of visiting that area. This, obviously, would have been a very basic question to ask if Abberline had indeed been investigating Bury for the Ripper murders.
If Scotland Yard had wanted to conduct a serious investigation of Bury for the Ripper murders, it would have been essential to launch that investigation without delay, as it would have been important to send one or more of the medical men who had worked on the Ripper case up to Dundee to examine Ellen Bury’s body before it was buried. Her mutilations were roughly similar in extent to those of the Ripper victim, Mary Ann Nichols, and such an examination was warranted. However, there is no information from any of the newspaper coverage of the Ellen Bury murder, or from any other source, which indicates that Scotland Yard bothered to take even this very basic step. The limited statements that Abberline took from Bury’s contacts in London, and the apparent refusal to send any of the Ripper medical men to Dundee, together suggest negligence on the part of Scotland Yard, as, according to the Dundee Advertiser, the Dundee police had given Scotland Yard the “full particulars” of the Ellen Bury murder immediately following Bury’s arrest (1). The Advertiser reported that officials at Scotland Yard “were somewhat slow to move in the matter” (2) of investigating Bury when the only competent response would have been a speedy one. An Irish newspaper did claim that “Some of the officers who had charge of the Whitechapel investigation” went to Dundee shortly after Bury’s arrest (3), but such a visit was not mentioned in the Dundee newspapers, which provided extensive coverage of the case.
There were no public statements by any police officials involved in the Ripper investigation which indicated that Scotland Yard either investigated William Bury for the Jack the Ripper murders or that it cleared him. Robert Anderson came to believe that Jack the Ripper was a Jew. Donald Swanson may have agreed with him. Frederick Abberline spoke with enthusiasm about the possibility that George Chapman was responsible for the murders. Henry Moore, who succeeded Abberline on the Ripper case, did not favor any suspect. Melville Macnaghten thought that Montague John Druitt was the best suspect. While it’s clear that these important police officials did not believe that William Bury was responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders, it is also true that none of them ever indicated that they had been able to clear or exonerate him. That they did not believe that Bury was responsible for the murders lacks weight when Scotland Yard did not apparently conduct a thorough investigation of him. In addition to apparently failing to send Ripper medical men to Dundee, there is nothing in the newspaper coverage of Bury which suggests that Scotland Yard bothered to take other basic and important steps, such as placing Bury in an identification parade before the witnesses in the case, or showing the women’s trinkets “of very inferior metal” in Bury’s trunk to the people who knew the victims.
Some newspaper reports indicated that Scotland Yard investigated Bury for the Jack the Ripper murders and developed the belief that he was not responsible for the murders, but these reports did not indicate that Bury had been cleared. One report, published shortly after Bury’s arrest, stated that “The London authorities are not inclined to believe that prisoner was connected with any of the recent atrocities in Whitechapel, as he was well known in the locality, and had never been seen out at any untimely hours” (4). Such a finding, of course, would hardly have cleared Bury (about the Ripper case, Henry Moore would later remark, “It was almost impossible to get anything like a trustworthy statement” from the people who spoke to the police (5)). Indeed, subsequent to this Scotland Yard was apparently still investigating Bury, as the Dundee Advertiser reported that the Yard’s investigations “would be continued” (6) and the Evening Telegraph reported that it was “still making inquiries as to his life in London immediately preceding his departure for Dundee” (7). The Dundee Courier ran a story in which a major Scotland Yard official claimed that Bury had confessed to the Ripper murders shortly after his arrest, but that his confession had been discounted for not being sufficiently detailed (8), but this isn’t a believable account, as Bury did not confess to murdering his wife, Ellen, until a few days prior to his execution, and if he had confessed to the Ripper murders immediately following his arrest, then surely he would have confessed to Ellen’s murder at that time as well (the reverse does not hold true, as one can easily imagine a man being willing to confess to killing his wife in a drunken row without also wanting to confess to being one of the greatest monsters in British history). Without providing details, the Dundee Advertiser did indicate in April 1889 that Scotland Yard came to believe that Bury was not responsible for the murders (9), but believing that he was not responsible for them and clearing him are obviously two separate things, and neither the Advertiser nor any other newspaper ever reported that Bury had been cleared.
Bury’s executioner, James Berry, and crime reporter, Norman Hastings, who wrote about Bury in 1929, both claimed that Scotland Yard sent two detectives to Bury’s execution to see if he would confess to the Ripper murders, which shows that Scotland Yard continued to regard Bury as at least a person of interest and that it had not cleared him. Neither Berry nor Hastings provided the names of the two detectives, and the newspaper coverage of Bury’s execution did not mention that Scotland Yard detectives were present. There are no extant police records of Frederick Abberline, Henry Moore or any other Scotland Yard detective ever visiting Dundee to interview Bury or to witness his execution. That said, James Berry would have been in a position to know if such a visit had been made, and Hastings had contacts at Scotland Yard who could have informed him if this visit had indeed taken place. As Berry’s biographer, Stewart Evans, points out, Berry had a reputation for exaggeration, or for “gilding the lily,” as Evans puts it (10), and so it’s important that we have the account of Hastings (11) in support of Berry’s claim.
Two years after Bury’s execution, the Dundee police held the view that William Bury was responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders, which shows that when William Bury was in custody, Scotland Yard never communicated to the Dundee police that it had been able to clear him of the Ripper murders. The report can be found as a small note in the July 4, 1891 issue of the Dundee Courier and states, “the Dundee authorities are still of opinion that the William Henry Bury who died in Dundee at the hands of the common hangman was no other than the much spoken of ‘Jack-the-Ripper’” (12).
Norman Hastings reported that, far from clearing Bury, opinion was sharply divided at Scotland Yard as to whether or not Bury was the Ripper. Writing in Thomson’s Weekly News in 1929, Hastings stated that the facts that Scotland Yard had gathered about Bury “pointed more and more clearly to Bury being Jack the Ripper” (13). For example, Hastings reported that Scotland Yard had been able to establish that Bury had been away from home at the times of the Annie Chapman murder and three other of the Jack the Ripper murders (14). Following the Chapman murder, they had learned that Bury’s “manner on his return home the next afternoon suggested a madman” (15). Hastings again appears to corroborate James Berry’s account, as Berry had previously claimed that the two detectives who visited Dundee for Bury’s execution told him that they knew “all about his movements in the past, and we are quite satisfied that you have hanged ‘Jack the Ripper’” (16). Nevertheless, Hastings wrote that “the evidence was entirely circumstantial, with opinion sharply divided” at Scotland Yard “as to whether Bury was the guilty man or not” (17). Since Anderson, Swanson (apparently) and Abberline all spoke in favor of suspects other than Bury, what might have been the case is that the lower-level detectives at Scotland Yard who did most of the legwork on Bury came to believe that Bury was responsible for the Ripper murders, but those above them did not. In any event, Hastings’s account of Scotland Yard’s investigation of Bury in no way suggests that Scotland Yard ever cleared him.
In summary, then, the facts do not support a conclusion that Scotland Yard ever cleared William Bury of the Jack the Ripper murders, and there are reasons to believe that its investigation of Bury was a limited and inadequate one. Now that Bury has been identified as the Ripper, we know that the leadership at Scotland Yard made a major mistake with Bury. How could men like Robert Anderson, Donald Swanson and Frederick Abberline have failed so badly when they were obviously very motivated to apprehend the killer? We simply do not know. In their book, The Psychology of Serial Killer Investigations, Robert D. Keppel and William J. Birne write that, “When a major serial killer case is finally solved and all the paperwork completed, police are sometimes amazed at how obvious the killer was and how they were unable to see what was right before their noses” (18). Investigators can have blind spots even when they are very keen to track down their quarry. For one reason or another, Scotland Yard looked past William Bury, and we ended up getting the greatest murder mystery of all time.
(1) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Advertiser. 25 Apr. 1889: 6.
(3) “Murder and Mutilation of a Woman in Dundee.” Freeman’s Journal. 12 Feb. 1889: 6.
(4) “Shocking Murder of a Woman in Dundee.” Dundee Courier. 14 Feb. 1889.
(5) Begg, Paul, Martin Fido and Keith Skinner. The Complete Jach the Ripper A-Z. London: John Blake (2010): 356.
(6) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Advertiser. 25 Apr. 1889: 6.
(7) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Evening Telegraph. 25 Feb. 1889.
(8) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Courier. 15 Feb. 1889: 3.
(9) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Advertiser. 25 Apr. 1889: 6.
(10) Evans, Stewart P. Executioner: The Chronicles of a Victorian Hangman. Stroud: History Press (2009): x.
(11) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 70. [This is a reprint of a series of 1929 articles from Thomson’s Weekly News.]
(12) “All Sorts and Conditions.” Dundee Courier. 4 Jul. 1891: 5.
(13) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 70.
(16) Evans, Stewart P. Executioner: The Chronicles of a Victorian Hangman. Stroud: History Press (2009): 309.
(17) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 70.
(18) Keppel, Robert D. and William J. Birnes. The Psychology of Serial Killer Investigations. San Diego: Academic Press (2003): xxi.
[updated January 27, 2022]