In this time of lock down I was lucky enough to get away for a few days at the end of August. We went down to the Lake District in England.
To get there you have to pass along this beautiful valley called the Devil’s Beef Tub. The road south from Edinburgh to Moffat runs along side the valley. It twists and turns, passing over bridges and streams that tumble into little waterfalls.
It is at one of these turns and picturesque stone bridges that we can relate it to a mile stone case in forensics and anatomy.
In 1935 a Lancashire doctor Buck Ruxton took it into his head to murder his wife, Bella, and her maid Mary. Finding himself with two bodies to dispose of he decided to dismember them and dispose of them in the Devil’s Beef Tub. He wrapped them in a local Lancashire newspaper, a fact that would come back to haunt him later, and scattered the 70 pieces of remains into the countryside. Some of them were found by the local police and one of the most famous murder investigations started.
In 1935 forensics was still very much in its infancy. A super team of experts was formed with Glaister, the Glasgow professor of forensics, Smith, the Edinburgh professor of forensics and Brash, the Edinburgh professor of anatomy, leading the way. They very soon reached the conclusion that the bodies had been dismembered by someone who knew what they were doing. Building the grizzly jigsaw soon informed then that they were looking at the remains of two individuals but they still had no idea who, or even what sex the victims were. When they were identified as women the penny dropped that maybe this was related to the two women who had gone missing from Lancashire, reported missing by Buck Ruxton, a man who had the capability to dismember.
The finger tips has been removed from one victim hoping that this would remove the ability to take fingerprints. The other victims hands had decomposed beyond the point of being able to finger print the skin. The newly formed finger print unit in the UK worked with the FBI to take fingerprints from the dermal layers that were left on the hands and managed to produce prints that matched in over 16 positions to those of Mary the maid which they had managed to lift from the house in Lancashire.
This left the puzzle of how to positively identify the other remains. The skull had been recovered but they were struggling to get any identifying features. Then one of the team came up with an idea. At that point it was ground breaking. Now, it is a common feature of masters students projects. Could a picture of the skull be superimposed onto the portrait of Bella. She had a very distinctive jaw line; could it persuade a jury that the remains were her’s?
After much positioning of the skull to match the image above the team were able to produce the picture below
As you can see the ear, the eye socket and the jaw line all match.
It was proof enough for the jury who decided that the remains were those of Bella and her maid Mary.
Buck Ruxton was executed in Strangeways prison in 1936 and the case went down as the first modern murder investigation.
Full details can be found in the book by Tom Wood, Ruxton – the first modern murder but bear in mind it might change your view of that beautiful valley if you travel down that road.