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Dr. Buck Ruxton and the Grisly Jigsaw Murders of 1935

The surgeon's brutal deeds earned him a savage nickname.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s fair to say that Britain has had a long line of notorious felons and many of them have, by some means, secured an ignominious spot in criminal history. Doctor Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, better known as ‘Buck’ Ruxton, is certainly one of them. 

In the early morning hours of September 15, 1935, Ruxton brutally murdered his common-law wife Isabella Kerr and their housemaid Mary Jane Rogerson at his home in Lancaster, England, then travelled to the Southern Uplands of Scotland to dispose of the remains. The media dubbed him the Savage Surgeon. The twin murders he committed were together known as the Jigsaw Murders due to the mutilation Ruxton inflicted upon the bodies of his victims, and the meticulous efforts investigators were forced to take in re-assembling and identifying the women slain. One of early 20th century England’s most shocking crimes, Ruxton is largely forgotten today outside of Northern England where he did his grisly deeds. 

Ruxton, who anglicized his birth name, was born in Bombay, India on March 21, 1899. He qualified as a doctor and came to England hoping to ply his trade, initially doing well. Ruxton was popular in the local community, especially with his poorer patients. In a time before England’s National Health Service provided medical care free to all, Ruxton often waived his fees if he felt a patient was too poor to pay. All in all, he was a respected, well-liked professional man.

Yet tragically, Ruxton also had a dark side. He was hot-tempered, perpetually jealous, possessive and sometimes violent. He constantly suspected his common-law wife Isabella of infidelity. The couple fought badly and often, and Isabella had already left him twice. On September 15, 1935 Ruxton’s dark impulses turned deadly. Isabella vanished and so, oddly, did the family’s housemaid Mary Rogerson.

According to Ruxton, Isabella had left him again. He denied knowing anything about Rogerson’s disappearance. The police believed he knew far more than he was saying and they were determined to find out what. A search for the women was mounted and police, discovering Ruxton’s jealous and violent history, had him firmly set as prime suspect. 

Related: A Day That Began with Death: The Hoskins Family Murders of 1919 

The mystery of the two women’s disappearance was soon resolved. Susan Haines was out walking near Gardenholme Linn, a river in the Dumfries area of southern Scotland, when she found body parts from two separate people, scattered about and wrapped in newspapers. The newspapers used to wrap the remains were the Daily Herald from August 6 and August 31, 1935, the Sunday Chronicle, and a special local edition of the Sunday Graphic dated September 15. The Graphic pages came from a local ‘slip’ edition distributed only in the Morecombe and Lancaster area of Lancashire, not far from Ruxton’s medical practice. Noticing that the women had vanished on or around September 15, police examined the subscription list and soon found a familiar name: Doctor Buck Ruxton. 

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  • Isabella Ruxton.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

Questioned, Ruxton denied having been in Scotland at the time. This might have worked if he hadn’t accidentally run down a cyclist near the town of Kendal while returning from dumping the body parts. A traffic cop stopped Ruxton in Minthorpe, due south of Kendal; the officer had noted Ruxton’s car description and registration number. Police now had a date, time, car, and driver. Now they needed to conclusively piece together the identity of the bodies. They managed that using, for the time, highly innovative forensic techniques. 

The body parts were taken to Edinburgh where leading pathologist Sir Sydney Smith and a team of experts used forensic entomology to date the age of the maggots on the body parts. This established a window of time between their deaths and discovery. The researchers then superimposed a photo of Isabella over her skull, thereby identifying her in conjunction with dental records. With Kerr and then Rogerson identified it wasn’t long before they again visited Ruxton, this time bringing a search warrant and a pair of handcuffs. Ruxton was arrested on October 13, and charged with Mary Rogerson’s murder.

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A thorough search of Ruxton’s home revealed bloodstains and bloodstained medical instruments, evidence strongly suggesting the victims had been killed and dismembered there. Ruxton’s flimsy explanation for a recent injury leaving his right hand bandaged didn’t help him much, either. On November 5, 1935, Ruxton was charged with murdering Isabella Kerr as well. 

Arrested and charged, Ruxton’s trial began on March 2, 1936. It was a showcase of fine legal minds and big legal names. Ruxton was defended by Norman Birkett, KC (KC being a King’s Counsel, a senior barrister) and Philip Kershaw, KC. Birkett is still considered one of the finest lawyers of his generation with a well-deserved reputation for winning difficult cases. 

The prosecution were no less distinguished. Joseph Cooksey Jackson was a KC as was David Maxwell Fyfe, later to become Home Secretary (nowadays Minister of Justice). Hartley Shawcross would later be lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The presiding judge was Mr. Justice Singleton.

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  • Strangeways Prison.

    Photo Credit: Mikey / Flickr (CC)

With circumstantial evidence so incriminating and forensic evidence so groundbreaking, it was no surprise that Ruxton was convicted of Isabella’s murder on March 13, 1936. He’s believed to have murdered Rogerson because she witnessed the crime. The verdict was unpopular locally, where Ruxton remained a popular figure. A petition with over 10,000 signatures went to Home Secretary Sir John Simon. Simon ignored it. Ruxton’s petition to the Court of Criminal Appeal was also denied. Unlike the United States where capital cases drag on for years, English law allowed only a minimum of three Sundays between sentencing and execution. 

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On May 12, 1936 he was taken from the special Condemned Cell at Strangeways Prison at 8:00 A.M. Only a short walk separated him from hangman Thomas Pierrepoint (uncle of Albert Pierrepoint) and Pierrepoint’s assistant Robert Wilson. The formalities lasted only seconds. As Ruxton reached the gallows the prison clock started chiming the hour. 

Before it finished chiming, he was dead. 

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons