The file that Scotland Yard must have compiled on William Bury as part of its investigation of him for the Jack the Ripper murders is no longer extant, and so the information obtained about its investigation by U.K. journalist Norman Hastings, who published his account in 1929 in Thomson’s Weekly News, is of great interest. Hastings claimed to have spoken to men at Scotland Yard who had specific knowledge of the Bury investigation. “The few officials who were in possession of the full facts maintained such an extraordinary secrecy that it was a long time before I was able to discover what had gone on behind the scenes in Dundee,“ Hastings wrote (1). Hastings’s entire series of articles on the Ripper murders, including his discussion of the Bury investigation, was reprinted in an issue of the journal Ripper Notes in 2005 (2). In this post I will comment on some aspects of what Hastings learned about Scotland Yard’s investigation.
At the outset, it’s important to point out that there are some factual errors in Hastings’s account. For example, Hastings stated that Ellen Bury’s body was dismembered, when it was not, and he stated that Bury lived in Whitechapel in London prior to moving to Dundee, when in fact Bury lived in Bow at that time (more on this below, however). Because of mistakes like this, we should approach all aspects of Hastings’s account with some degree of caution. At least some of the mistakes that Hastings made could have been due to the faulty memories of the Scotland Yard officials who provided information to him. It does not appear that Hastings was familiar with the major 1889 newspaper articles about Bury that were published by the Dundee Advertiser and the Dundee Courier. Had Hastings read these articles, he would have known that Ellen Bury’s body had not been dismembered.
One particular mistake that Hastings made merits special attention. Hastings claimed that William Bury confessed to the Jack the Ripper murders when he visited the Dundee police station to report the death of his wife. There was some confusion in the newspapers regarding Bury’s mention of Jack the Ripper at the police station. At Bury’s trial for his wife’s murder, the Dundee police officer who spoke at length to Bury when he visited the station, Lt. James Parr, cleared things up when he testified that Bury only told him that he feared being apprehended as the Ripper, not that he actually was the Ripper. Bury only confessed to murdering his wife a few days prior to his execution, after his appeal had been denied, and it’s not reasonable to believe that he would have confessed to the Ripper murders while maintaining innocence in the death of his wife.
Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Scotland Yard did somehow form the impression that Bury had confessed to being Jack the Ripper. Five days after Bury had been taken into custody, the Dundee Courier ran a story in which it reported that a Scotland Yard inspector, “one of the most prominent heads of the Scotland Yard police force” (3), who William Beadle believes was “almost certainly” Chief Inspector Donald Swanson (4), claimed that Bury had confessed to the Ripper murders (5). A New York Herald reporter is quoted as asking this inspector, “Do you credit the man’s statement that he is the original ‘Jack the Ripper’?” In reply, the inspector states, “Not for a moment. Were he really the Whitechapel assassin stricken with remorse, we should have a detailed confession of all his crimes. As it is, he merely talks in a rambling incoherent way about being the author of the London horrors…Oh, no; you may be quite sure this man Bury is not ‘Jack the Ripper’” (6). The mistaken notion that Bury had confessed to the Ripper murders could have lingered for decades at Scotland Yard and led to Hastings getting incorrect information from the Scotland Yard officials who spoke to him.
How could Scotland Yard have obtained the false impression that Bury had confessed to the Ripper murders when the man who had spoken at length with Bury, Lt. Parr, knew that this is not what Bury had said? Evidently, there was some miscommunication between the Dundee police and Scotland Yard on this point. Either the Dundee police misspoke in its communication, or Scotland Yard misinterpreted and misunderstood that communication.
Of course, there is another possibility, too, namely, that the Scotland Yard inspector who spoke to the Herald reporter knew that Bury had not confessed to the Ripper murders, and that he was deliberately misleading the press, and the public, in his response to the Herald reporter’s question. Swanson, if he was the inspector involved, could hardly have been told that Bury “talks in a rambling incoherent way about the being the author of the London horrors” by the Dundee police, so if the Courier article is accurate, Swanson must either have been embellishing what he had heard, or simply lying.
It’s worth mentioning that in prefacing his response to the Herald reporter, the Scotland Yard inspector is quoted as saying, “I have no detailed information as to this case” (7). This seems hard to believe if the inspector was indeed “one of the most prominent heads of the Scotland Yard police force.” The Dundee Advertiser reported that Scotland Yard had received the “full particulars” of the Ellen Bury murder immediately following Bury’s arrest (8), as we would expect with a murder of such a remarkable character, one in which the victim’s abdomen and genitals had been mutilated. The Ellen Bury murder was a sensational murder that was reported in newspapers throughout the U.K., and the articles in the Dundee newspapers alone, which were rich in detail, would have given Swanson a good deal of information about the case.
If we assume that the Courier’s account is accurate, why would a senior Scotland Yard official like Donald Swanson want to lie to the press about Bury and try to steer people away from him? This would not seem to have been an attempt to calm things down so that the Yard could quietly conduct a serious investigation of Bury. None of the reporting on Bury indicates that Scotland Yard would even take the basic step of sending the medical men who had worked on other Jack the Ripper murders up to Dundee to examine the mutilations of Ellen Bury’s body, which were roughly similar in extent to those of the Ripper victim, Mary Ann Nichols. Nor does any of the reporting indicate that Scotland Yard was willing to put Bury in front of the eyewitnesses in the Ripper case. In addition, there’s nothing in the statements that Inspector Frederick Abberline took from some of Bury’s contacts in London in the week following his arrest which shows that Scotland Yard was actively investigating Bury for the Ripper murders. For example, there’s no indication in these statements that Abberline bothered to ask these contacts if Bury was known to spend time in the Whitechapel area.
Why else, then, might Swanson have been lying? It’s possible that Scotland Yard had some corrupt purpose in misleading the public about Bury and refusing to immediately launch a serious investigation of him for the Ripper murders. But what could that corrupt purpose have been? One intriguing possibility is that word had quickly reached Scotland Yard that William Bury was a Mason. James Berry, the hangman who executed Bury, claimed that he observed William Bury wearing Masonic cufflinks and that Bury was a Mason (9). At first blush Bury might seem to be an unlikely candidate for the brotherhood. Some of those who knew him described him as a loafer, a drunk and a wife-beater. When he and Ellen traveled to Wolverhampton in August 1888, however, he made a show of how successful he’d become, and it seems possible that he could have conned his way into the organization. It’s important to point out, however, that to date no Masonic records have been identified to substantiate James Berry’s claim that William Bury was a Mason. Could records have been doctored, hidden away or destroyed? Even if the Dundee police merely told Scotland Yard that Bury was wearing Masonic cufflinks, that alone might have been enough to spook someone like Swanson, who was himself a Mason (10), into pulling back on Bury, at least in that first week following Bury’s arrest, for fear of the damage that it might cause to the reputation of the Masons if Bury were indeed found to be the Ripper. James Berry had a reputation for embellishment and it is possible that his claim that William Bury was a Mason was just an invention. But what other corrupt purpose could Swanson have had for lying about Bury and trying to steer the Ripper investigation away from him when he hadn’t even delved into the man yet? This is a question that merits further exploration.
At some point Scotland Yard does appear to have launched an investigation of Bury for the Ripper murders, although this investigation might not have been fully supported by senior officials like Swanson. Hastings provided some interesting tidbits of information about this investigation, which he presumably received directly from his contacts at Scotland Yard. Again, it’s important to note that the memories of these contacts could have been faulty and that one or more of the following pieces of information could be inaccurate.
- Hastings stated “A dozen experienced men were sent” by Scotland Yard “to make the necessary inquiries” (11).
This suggests that when Scotland Yard did eventually investigate Bury, it invested a significant amount of manpower in the task. Unfortunately, we do not know the names of any of these men. The only Scotland Yard detective who we can definitely associate with Bury is Frederick Abberline, who took statements from some of Bury’s contacts in London as part of his investigation of Bury for his wife’s murder.
- Scotland Yard learned that Ellen Bury “never used to dare ask” her husband “where he had been when he absented himself at night” (12).
Some writers on Bury have speculated that Ellen Bury knew that her husband was Jack the Ripper and that her remark to a neighbor in Dundee that “Jack the Ripper is quiet now” reflected that knowledge. What Hastings reported here, however, supports the idea that Bury kept his wife in the dark about the murders that he committed, and that she could only have suspected him of being the killer.
- Scotland Yard “had established the fact that he was missing from his lodgings on the night that Marie Kelly was done to death in her home in Dorset Street” (13).
It’s worth pointing out that if Scotland Yard had been able to place Bury at home at the times of any of the Jack the Ripper murders, they would have been able to exclude him as a suspect. They were never able to do this.
- Scotland Yard felt that “his description was very like that of the man who had been speaking to the young woman Kelly on the night of the crime” (14).
Since this conversation took place at night, this must have been a reference to “Astrakhan Man,” or the man seen by George Hutchinson. While Bury was not an exact match with the description provided by Hutchinson (e.g., Bury had a fair or sandy moustache, not a dark one), he did fit the description in some ways, and the detectives at Scotland Yard, who were experienced in dealing with witness descriptions and their various inaccuracies, must have felt that Bury was a very good match.
- Scotland Yard was not able to establish that Bury actually worked—“if he carried on a business as a sawdust merchant the police were certainly never able to verify it” (15).
There was testimony at Bury’s trial which indicated that while Bury was ostensibly a sawdust merchant, he preferred to spend his time drinking in pubs. Scotland Yard’s inability to verify that he worked as a sawdust merchant tallies with that.
- Scotland Yard learned that after returning to London following his August 1888 trip to Wolverhampton, Bury “had apparently constantly changed his address and although the police were able to trace several of these, there were important gaps in his history which they were never able to fill” (16).
Bury’s “permanent” or home address from August 11, 1888 until he left for Dundee in January, 1889, was 3 Spanby Road in the Bromley-by-Bow district of London. What Hastings revealed here is that Scotland Yard had been able to establish that Bury was in fact moving around among a number of different addresses during the period of the Jack the Ripper murders, perhaps as part of a general strategy to evade detection. At Bury’s trial, a Dundee neighbor, Marjory Smith, testified that Ellen Bury told her that Bury had “pals” when he was living in London, and as I noted in my post, Q and A: William Bury and Alcohol, Bury apparently spent a good deal of time drinking in the Whitechapel area. It seems reasonable to expect, then, that at least some of these temporary addresses were the residences of friends in the Whitechapel area. Many Ripperologists believe that Jack the Ripper must have lived close to the Ripper murder sites. What Hastings’s report suggests is that at times Bury could indeed have been a resident of the Whitechapel area during the period of the Ripper murders. There has been speculation that Bury could have overnighted at a stable in the area, as he had sometimes slept in a stable when he worked for James Martin, but Hastings’s account indicates that Bury was staying at actual residences.
- The Scotland Yard detectives who investigated Bury “kept their own counsel, and when Bury came up for trial it was the common opinion that he was guilty of the Whitechapel crimes and would make a full confession in the event of his being condemned to death” (17).
Like Hastings, William Bury’s executioner, James Berry, also claimed that Scotland Yard felt that Bury was the Ripper. Berry wrote that two detectives from Scotland Yard attended Bury’s execution and told him, “We know all about his movements in the past, and we are quite satisfied that you have hanged ‘Jack the Ripper’” (18). However, important figures in the Jack the Ripper investigation like Robert Anderson, Donald Swanson and Frederick Abberline clearly did not believe that Bury was the Ripper. What Hastings and Berry are really telling us, then, is that some at Scotland Yard had concluded that Bury was the Ripper, presumably the lower-level detectives who had done most of the investigative work on him. Within Ripperology, we are sometimes told that there was a “police solution” to the Ripper case and that Aaron Kosminski or some other Jewish man was identified as the Ripper. If the reports provided by Hastings and Berry are correct, then there were actually two “police solutions” to the case, with the conclusion reached by the detectives who investigated Bury being disregarded by senior officials at the Yard.
- “In height and build he answered the description of the suspect seen after two of the murders” (19).
Unfortunately, it is not clear which witness descriptions Hastings was referring to. There were no suspect descriptions for the Nichols murder, and the suspect descriptions for the Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly murders were of men seen prior to, not after the murders. Either the Scotland Yard official misspoke to Hastings and meant “before” and not “after,” or Hastings made his own mistake here. Another possibility is that Hastings was referring to witness descriptions that are not available to modern researchers.
- Scotland Yard learned that “on one occasion when he was definitely known to be staying in the East End at the time of a Ripper crime, he had absented himself from the house for that night in the most suspicious manner” (20).
While no additional details are provided, this is another interesting data point with Bury.
- Scotland Yard discovered that “he was in the habit of walking about very quietly and had often frightened people by his silent approach” (21).
If Bury was soft-footed, this would obviously have aided his ability to slip away following a murder.
- Scotland Yard felt that “he did not look much like a foreigner, such as witnesses had described” (22).
Apparently contemporary impressions of Bury could vary. A Dundee reporter who observed Bury claimed that Bury had “features somewhat of the Jewish or Semitic type” when viewed from the side (23).
- “The home of Bury in the East End at the time of the Hanbury Street murder was traced, and again it was ascertained that on that night Bury had kept away from his home, and his manner on his return home the next afternoon suggested a madman” (24).
Unfortunately, it is not clear if this “home” was Bury’s permanent residence on Spanby Road in Bow or one of his temporary residences, possibly in the Whitechapel area. Ellen Bury was dead when Scotland Yard was conducting its investigation of Bury and would not have been able to attest to her husband’s demeanor after his return home that day. This, together with the fact that Bury’s residence had to be “traced,” would seem to suggest that Bury was staying at one of his temporary residences when he committed the Chapman murder. What’s also interesting is that Bury did not return to this home until the afternoon following the murder. Since it seems highly unlikely that Bury would have been carrying Chapman’s uterus around with him for a good portion of the day, Bury’s practice following a murder must have been to take the murder weapon and any souvenirs he’d taken from the victim back to his cart, or possibly to the residence of a trusted friend, rather than to his current residence. This no doubt would have been part of his strategy to evade detection.
- Hastings wrote, “On the day before his execution two detectives were sent from London to be present should he make a last statement. This I myself only learned years afterwards, so carefully guarded was the secret, but it shows the importance Scotland Yard attached to their discoveries” (25).
As noted earlier, James Berry also claimed that two Scotland Yard detectives attended Bury’s execution, so we have two separate sources both indicating that there was significant interest in Bury within Scotland Yard in April, 1889.
- In describing the investigation conducted by the Scotland Yard detectives, Hastings reported, “the facts they gathered pointed more and more clearly to Bury being Jack the Ripper, but it was a slow task, entailing months of work, and they had been ordered to make nothing public” (26).
In my post, Did Scotland Yard Clear William Bury?, I pointed out an 1889 newspaper article which indicated that Scotland Yard came to believe that William Bury was not responsible for the Ripper murders. Evidently, this report simply reflected the views of senior officials at the Yard, like Swanson, who might have been communicating with the press, and did not reflect the views of the Yard as a whole. What Hastings is telling us here is that the detectives who investigated Bury and who came to believe that he was responsible for the Ripper murders were silenced by these senior officials.
- Hastings wrote that Scotland Yard had not only been able to establish where Bury was staying on the night of the Chapman murder, but it had also “established where he had been staying on the nights of three other of the Whitechapel murders, and from the recollection of those who lived nearby, it was quite possible that he had the opportunity to commit them” (27).
While Hastings unfortunately does not name these three other Ripper murders, it is possible to work out which murders they must have been. Hastings appears to regard the Martha Tabram murder as the first of the Jack the Ripper murders, as he stated that Bury did not return to his hometown of Wolverhampton, which took place in mid-August 1888, until “just after the time of the first Whitechapel murder, when he brought with him the woman he called his wife” (28). As noted earlier, Hastings reported that Scotland Yard had learned that Bury was away from his lodgings on the night of the Kelly murder, so it must have known where he was staying that night. If Scotland Yard was able to establish where Bury was staying on the night of the double event, that would account for two of the three murders. There are two possibilities for these three other murders, then. Either Scotland Yard was able to establish where Bury was staying on the nights of the Tabram, Nichols and Kelly murders, or it was able to establish where Bury was staying on the nights of the double event and the Kelly murder. Of Bury, Hastings wrote that “No one knew where he stayed in the East End prior to going to his new landlord’s home” (29), which was a reference to Bury’s residence at 3 Spanby Road in Bow. Since Bury did not move into this residence until August 11, 1888, following the Tabram murder, Scotland Yard could not have known where Bury was staying on the night of the Tabram murder. The second scenario, then, must be the correct one, and Scotland Yard must have been able to establish where Bury was staying on the nights of the double event and the Kelly murder, in addition to the Chapman murder.
Norman Hastings provides us with a rare window into Scotland Yard’s investigation of William Bury for the Jack the Ripper murders. Hastings did not favor William Bury as a suspect for the murders, apparently preferring the theory that the Ripper was a cattleman coming into London on a foreign ship (30), and so there’s no reason to view him as a biased source who should be distrusted. While we have to be cautious about his account, due to its various inaccuracies, the account itself is fascinating and provides us with insight into some of the information that must have been contained in Bury’s file at Scotland Yard.
(1) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ed. by Nicholas Connell. Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 67.
(2) Ibid., 34-87.
(3) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Courier (15. Feb. 1889): 3.
(4) Beadle, William. Jack the Ripper Unmasked. London: John Blake, 2009: 284.
(5) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Courier (15. Feb. 1889): 3.
(7) “The Princes Street Tragedy.” Dundee Courier (15. Feb. 1889): 3.
(8) “The Princes Street Murder.” Dundee Advertiser 25 Apr. 1889: 6.
(9) Evans, Stewart P. Executioner: Chronicles of a Victorian Hangman. Stroud: History Press (2009): 241.
(10) Wood, Adam. Swanson: The Life and Times of a Victorian Detective (Kindle version). London: Mango (2020): Chap. 13, para. 39.
(11) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 68.
(13) Ibid., 69.
(18) Evans, Stewart P. Executioner: Chronicles of a Victorian Hangman. Stroud: History Press (2009): 242.
(19) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 69.
(23) “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee.” Dundee Courier (12 Feb. 1889): 3.
(24) Hastings, Norman. “When the People Were in Terror.” Ripper Notes 21 (2005): 70.
(28) Ibid., 69.
(30) Ibid., 83.
[updated September 9, 2022]