William Bury’s 1884 prison record, found in register no. 2795 in West Yorkshire Prison Records, 1801-1914, includes a brief description of him. A cut on the right side of his neck is identified as a noteworthy physical characteristic. It is not clear if this refers to a fresh cut or a scar. If it was a fresh cut, it could have later become a scar. A right profile sketch of Bury when he was in prison garb and en route to the Dundee Sheriff’s office in 1889 does not show the presence of a neck scar (1), however it is a rudimentary drawing that lacks skin detail, and it is possible that a scar was simply not noticed or depicted. The cut on Bury’s neck is potentially of interest in connection to the Jack the Ripper case.
In August 1888, William Bury posed for a photograph with his wife Ellen while the two were on vacation in Wolverhampton. This is the earliest known image of Bury, and a drawing of the photograph (the photograph is no longer extant) shows that he was wearing a collar (2). Bury was arrested and taken into custody for his wife’s murder on February 10, 1889. When he appeared in court the next day, he was described as “particularly tidy about the neck, exhibiting a good deal of white linen” (3). During a court appearance on March 18, Bury wore “a white collar with small folded-down peaks in front” (4). Bury is pictured at this court appearance in the March 19 Dundee Advertiser (5). He wore a large collar at his trial later that month (6), and this collar is shown on the front page of this website. It was obviously not uncommon for Victorian men to wear collars, and Bury might have needed to wear the same clothes at each of his court appearances. A later incident, however, suggests that Bury’s wearing of a collar could have been something more than that.
The press reported that on the morning of his execution, Bury wore a white linen collar on his walk to the scaffold (7). There was a “little commotion” when the collar, and a tie, were taken from him and thrown down to the floor (8) by his executioner, James Berry, who would have needed to remove the collar in order to hang him. In Berry’s own account, however, the removal of the collar took place in Bury’s cell prior to the procession to the scaffold. Berry wrote that when he instructed Bury to remove his collar, “He did not seem to wish to comply with the request, and I firmly believe that had it been possible to hang him with it on he would have asked me to do it. To the last, he was vain and anxious to appear at his best before the eyes of those within the prison, so I had to take the collar off for him” (9). In explaining the discrepancy between the two accounts, Stewart Evans suggests that the press might have been given a sanitized account (10). Perhaps Bury’s reluctance to remove his collar was, as James Berry suggests, mere vanity. It is also possible that William Bury had a scar on the right side of his neck, that he was self-conscious about its appearance, and that this led to a steady interest in wearing a collar to cover it when appearing before others. Even a small or barely noticeable scar could have had a psychological effect on Bury.
If Bury did indeed have a scar on his neck that he was embarrassed about and that he obsessed over, this would constitute another way in which he matches the F.B.I. profile of Jack the Ripper. The profile states that Jack the Ripper “would be expected to have some type of physical abnormality. However, although not severe, he perceives this as being psychologically crippling” (11). Such a scar would not link William Bury to the assault on Annie Farmer, as her assailant had a scar on the left side of his neck, not the right (12). If Bury was sensitive about a neck scar and felt that others would notice it, he probably would have taken care to cover it when he was looking for victims in the East End of London. Of the witnesses in the Jack the Ripper case, J. Best (13), William Smith (14) and George Hutchinson all described the man they saw as wearing a collar. Interestingly, Joseph Lawende stated that the man he saw was wearing a reddish handkerchief tied in a knot around his neck (15). None of the other witnesses seem to have mentioned a collar or other neck covering, but nearly all of the witness descriptions were very brief. Elizabeth Long described a man who had a “shabby genteel” appearance, and such a man could have been wearing a collar. There is no proof that in 1888 and 1889, William Bury either had a scar on his neck or that his attention to collars was connected to one, and so any link between his neck cut and the Jack the Ripper case must remain a matter of speculation.
(1) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(2) Beadle, William. Jack the Ripper Unmasked. London: John Blake (2009): 101.
(3) “Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Advertiser ( 12. Feb. 1889).
(4) “Dundee Circuit Course Cases.” Dundee Courier (19 Mar. 1889).
(5) “Dundee Circuit Court.” Dundee Advertiser (19 Mar. 1889).
(6) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).
(7) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Advertiser (25 Apr. 1889).
(8) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Courier (25 Apr. 1889).
(9) Evans, Stewart P. Executioner: Chronicles of a Victorian Hangman. Stroud: History Press (2009): 241.
(10) Ibid, 242.
(11) Douglas, John E. “Subject: Jack the Ripper.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://vault.fbi.gov/Jack%20the%20Ripper/Jack%20the%20Ripper%20Part%201%20of%201/view.
(12) “Outrage in Whitechapel.” Weekly Dispatch (25 Nov. 1888).
(13) Beadle, William. Jack the Ripper Unmasked. London: John Blake (2009): 131.
(14) Ibid., 134.
(15) Ibid, 144.
[updated February 4, 2022]