Many serial killers have been involved in alcohol abuse. In this post I will review what is known about William Bury’s relationship with alcohol.
Was William Bury a drinker?
Yes, testimony at his trial and numerous newspaper reports indicate that he was.
What did he drink?
Bury was very much a beer drinker. The Dundee Courier reported that Bury “loved his beer” (1) and the Dundee Advertiser reported that he “drank beer only” (2). During the first week that he and his wife, Ellen, spent in Dundee, they lived on Union Street, and Bury drank beer at both the pub located on the ground floor of their building and another pub a short distance away (3). The Burys then moved to a residence on Princes Street in Dundee. The proprietor of the Prince Regent Bar on Princes Street, Alexander Patterson, stated that when Bury visited his bar, he would always ask for a glass of beer, and at the end of the day, he would take beer home with him (4). During a visit with a Dundee neighbor, Mrs. Smith, Bury went out for and brought back beer (5). Bury asked another Dundee neighbor, Mrs. Lee, “What is the name of the nearest beershop to the church?” (6). After his arrest, Bury’s Princes Street residence was examined by the police and it contained an empty bottle of Edinburgh Ale, as well as two other empty bottles, one containing dregs of beer and the other containing dregs of whiskey (7). This appears to be the only time that an alcoholic beverage other than beer is mentioned in connection with Bury. There are no reports of Bury drinking wine, but when he was a younger man, he did spend some time working in a wine vault (8).
Was Bury primarily a social drinker or did he mainly drink at home?
While he was not exclusively a social drinker, Bury seems to have spent a good deal of time drinking in social environments. The Dundee Courier reported, “During the fortnight he lived in the house in Princes Street he spent the most of his time at publichouse bars, talking to everybody he met, and boasting of his money” (9). When a reporter asked Mrs. Lee if Bury had a job, she replied, “Well, his principal trade seemed to be to visit the public-house over there. He did that very regularly” (10). Alexander Patterson stated that Bury “called at his place almost daily, and sometimes paid several visits to his shop during one day, always partaking of a glass of bitter beer. He seemed to be a very communicative man, and rapidly made up to any person at the bar” (11). He added that “at times Bury stayed for about half-an-hour…but more generally took his glass of bitter and left, returning possibly an hour or two afterwards for another glass. He had always plenty of money to pay his way, and never requested ‘tick.’ He also displayed a certain amount of independence, and, while he was always ready to treat any person with whom he fell in conversation to a glass of beer, he would not allow anybody to ‘stand’ him drink in return” (12). The Courier noted, “Among his ‘pals’ he was ‘a jolly good fellow,’ ever ready to stand a drink” (13).
Did William Bury ever drink to excess?
There are a number of reports which indicate that he did. Elizabeth Haynes was the landlord of the Burys in London shortly after they were married, and she reported that “she never saw him sober when he could get drink” (14). Bury’s former employer in London, James Martin, told Inspector Frederick Abberline, “Bury was drunk three or four times a week whilst he was in my employ, and since he obtained the money from his wife he has seldom been sober” (15). He added, “since he married her he has done nothing but frequent public-houses spending her money” (16). At Bury’s trial, Martin testified that Ellen told him that “every time she gave him money to go and purchase dust that he always spent it and came home drunk” (17). Also at Bury’s trial, his sister-in-law, Margaret Corney, said that Ellen told her that “he was frequently intoxicated—scarcely ever sober” (18). The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch reported that Bury “was a heavy drinker” (19) and the Dundee Courier reported that “his career in Dundee was brief, but his general conduct was marked with the same love of debauchery…which he had exhibited in London” (20). While Mrs. Smith observed that Bury was “generally the worse of drink,” in Bury’s defense, Mrs. Lee noted that “she had never seen him so bad that he could not come down the stair without assistance” (21). In contrast to the preceding accounts, Jane Robertson, who was the landlord of the Burys when they were living on Union Street, told the press that although the Burys drank, “I could not say that I ever saw any of them in any way the worse of it” (22), but at Bury’s trial, her daughter, Margaret Robertson, testified that “we noticed him several times the worse of liquor” (23).
Was William Bury an alcoholic?
While we cannot be certain that Bury was an alcoholic, the reports of Bury’s frequent and heavy drinking suggest that he was. At Bury’s trial, Margaret Corney said that Ellen told her that he was always drinking and that he would get someone else to do his work as a sawdust merchant “while he sat in the publichouse” (24). As noted earlier, Alexander Patterson reported that Bury “sometimes paid several visits to his shop during one day,” and that “at times Bury stayed for about half-an-hour…but more generally took his glass of bitter and left, returning possibly an hour or two afterwards for another glass” (25), a pattern of behavior which would be consistent with his having a physical dependency. On one occasion Bury went looking for beer as early as 8 o’clock in the morning (26). Also of note are the reports that Bury’s physical appearance improved after he was taken into custody and presumably no longer able to drink. A day after his arrest, Bury was described as having “a haggard countenance” (27), but after a little more than a month in prison, the Dundee Courier reported that Bury had “considerably improved in appearance since he was brought before the Sheriff on the day that he was remitted…he appeared to be somewhat fuller and rounder in the face than on the occasion of his last public appearance in the Police Court” (28). Bury was neither overworked nor starving prior to his arrest, and so it seems reasonable to attribute this positive physical change to his forced sobriety. While Bury seems to have been an alcoholic, it’s important to point out that there are no clear indications of his having withdrawal symptoms after he was taken into custody and his drinking was suddenly stopped. The press did report that the day after his arrest, Bury was “nervous-looking” (29) and in “a rather excitable condition” (30) and that “he had a peculiar, hunted-like expression, terrified apparently to look about him lest he should be frightened by the appearance of some spectre” (31), all of which could have been related to alcohol withdrawal, but equally all of these appearances could simply have reflected his anxiety about his imprisonment and his serious legal predicament.
Did William Bury’s alcohol use have a negative effect on his behavior?
Five days after the Burys were married, Elizabeth Haynes saw a drunken Bury pin Ellen to their bed and threaten her with a knife when she would not give him drinking money (32). At Bury’s trial, Margaret Corney recalled an incident in which Ellen brought her jewelry with her when she came to visit her. “She said she was obliged to bring it with her because prisoner was drinking, and when he went home he would break the drawer open and take it away to pawn it” (33). Also at Bury’s trial, James Martin testified that he saw Bury punch Ellen in the face on three separate occasions, two of these incidents occurring in Whitechapel, and one of them taking place inside a pub there. He stated that Bury “was drunk on the occasion of the first two assaults, and was getting better of drink at the time of the third” (34). Margaret Corney claimed that Ellen told her that Bury was only violent when he was drunk (35). Finally, Bury told the police that he had been drinking on the night that he murdered his wife.
How is William Bury’s relationship with alcohol connected to the Jack the Ripper case?
If, as Margaret Corney related, William Bury was only violent when he was drunk, it would mean that alcohol played a central role in the Jack the Ripper murders and that they would not have occurred had Bury been a sober man.
Thus far we have learned that William Bury avoided work and that he liked to spend his time drinking in pubs. We have also learned that when he was living in London, he spent some of his time drinking in Whitechapel. The Dundee Courier reported that Bury was “well known in the locality” (36). It seems reasonable to expect, then, that he spent a good deal of time drinking there.
When he was living in Dundee, Bury favored the pubs that were closest to where he lived. The Prince Regent Bar was “situated only a few yards distant” from his Princes Street residence (37). This suggests that when he was drinking in Whitechapel, Bury probably spent most of his time at a pub that was very close to where his horse and cart were parked. If Bury had a favorite pub in Whitechapel, this would have made it easier for James Martin to locate him in Whitechapel and put him in a position to observe Bury’s drunken assaults on his wife there. Unfortunately we cannot associate Bury with the name of any specific pub in Whitechapel. Pubs that were very close to stables would be obvious candidates for Bury’s favorite pub, if he indeed had one there.
It’s important to carefully note William Bury’s behavior when he was drinking in a pub in Dundee, as he likely behaved in the same way when he was drinking in Whitechapel. As described earlier, the Dundee Courier reported that Bury “spent the most of his time at publichouse bars, talking to everybody he met, and boasting of his money,” and Alexander Patterson observed that he “was always ready to treat any person with whom he fell in conversation to a glass of beer,” and “among his ‘pals’ he was ‘a jolly good fellow,’ ever ready to stand a drink.” If Bury behaved like this in the pubs of Whitechapel, it’s not hard to see how he could have become well-known and a popular figure there. Fellow drinkers, including alcoholic prostitutes in the area, would have been drawn to him.
As a serial killer, this would have benefitted him in two different ways. First, it would have made these people less likely to report him to the police if they saw him under suspicious circumstances. Second, when Bury bought drinks for prostitutes, chatted with them and developed relationships with them, he would have gained their favor and established a comfort level within them that he could later exploit when he was searching for murder victims. It seems very possible that at least some, if not all, of the Jack the Ripper victims knew “Bill,” as Ellen sometimes called him (38), by name. Their fondness for and familiarity with generous, drink-supplying Bill would help to explain why Elizabeth Stride would be willing to go into Dutfield’s Yard with him after the initial tussle observed by Israel Schwartz, why Catherine Eddowes would be willing to take him with her into the darkest corner of a deserted square, and why Mary Kelly would be willing to invite him back into her room, all during a murder scare. Alcohol, then, might not only help to explain William Bury’s violence and how the Jack the Ripper murders could have occurred, it might also help to explain how William Bury could have taken his victims so completely by surprise and achieved his kills.
(1) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Courier (25 Apr. 1889).
(2) “Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Advertiser. (12 Feb. 1889).
(3) Macpherson, Euan. The Trial of Jack the Ripper. Edinburgh: Mainstream (2005): 65-6.
(4) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(7) “Ellen Bury Crime Scene.” William Bury, Victorian Murderer. http://williambury.org/blog6/documents/ellen-bury-crime-scene/.
(8) Beadle, William. Jack the Ripper Unmasked. London: John Blake (2009): 53.
(9) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Courier (25 Apr. 1889).
(10) “Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Advertiser (12 Feb. 1889).
(11) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(13) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Courier (25 Apr. 1889).
(14) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).
(15) 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.
(17) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).
(19) “The Dundee Tragedy.” Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (12 Feb. 1889).
(20) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Courier (25 Apr. 1889).
(21) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(23) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).
(25) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(26) “Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Advertiser (12 Feb. 1889).
(28) “Dundee Circuit Course Cases.” Dundee Courier (19 Mar. 1889).
(29) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(30) “The Dundee Tragedy.” Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (12 Feb. 1889).
(31) “Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Advertiser (12 Feb. 1889).
(32) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).
(34) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Advertiser (29 Mar. 1889).
(35) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).
(36) “Shocking Murder of a Woman in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (14 Feb. 1889).
(37) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889).
(38) “The Dundee Murder.” Dundee Courier (29 Mar. 1889).