Former Scottish Detective Pieces Together the ‘Jigsaw Murders’

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Retired Lothian and Borders Deputy Police Chief Constable and crime writer assembles missing pieces of the Ruxton Case on its 85th anniversary with previously unseen documents.

Dr Buck Ruxton and the Murders that Revolutionised Forensic Investigation

September 1935 saw “the absolute height of Agatha Christie’s fame and the golden age of crime fiction and crime writers” according to Detective turned crime writer, Tom Wood. 

So, when 43 dismembered body parts were uncovered in the Moffat Ravine, in the Scottish Borders, with no indication as to how they got there, the public and popular media were caught up in a frenzy, desperate to piece together “the jigsaw puzzle of human remains”

We are yet to see our obsession with true crime and crime fiction fade and even after 85 years, this case withstands the test of time. 

Wood said: “The story had all the ingredients beloved of the popular press – violent crime, mystery, and a strong touch of the macabre. This was a real case which was much more like a fictional case. It was right out of Agatha Christie.”

In Ruxton: the First Modern Murder, Wood explores the case he thought he knew so well. He quickly realised that the fascination over the dismembered bodies and why they were in this rural Scottish town was only the beginning. This would be a case that would make English legal history as the most expensive and elaborate murder trial to date, change the face of criminal investigation and enrapture the public psyche for over a century. 

Background to the Ruxton Case

The 43 “pieces of rotten flesh and bone wrapped in rags and newspaper” belonged to two women, Isabella Ruxton and Mary Rogerson who history, Wood notes, has too often overlooked. 

Isabella “Bella” Ruxton was the vibrant common-law wife of the Indian-French doctor and surgeon, Dr Buck Ruxton, and Mary Rogerson was the loyal 20-year-old nursemaid and confidante of Bella. 

107 miles away, these three “colourful characters” lived and worked in Lancaster until the night of 14 September 1935, when the “Savage Surgeon” brutally murdered his wife in a fit of jealousy, as well as the unfortunate witness to his crime. 

Like any murderer, Buxton faced only three options: “stand, run or cover”, according to Wood. Blinded by pride and with three children to look after, Wood claimed: “His only option was to cover his tracks and he had a lot of chance of doing that as a skilled doctor and surgeon. 

“He knew how to dissect bodies and disguise body parts and he had a fine opinion of himself. Frankly he had a very good chance of getting away with it.”

But he didn’t get away with it. Ruxton was convicted of both murders and hanged in Her Majesty’s Prison Manchester on 12 May 1936. 

About the Author

On his retirement, following an almost 40-year career in police service, as a “bobby on the beat” in Stockbridge to senior ranking positions in Scottish policing, he was gifted a mountain of previously classified interviews, original police statements and telephone transcripts. 

After a year of research and a year of writing, Wood published his almost ‘cold case-like’ review, but as a columnist for the Scotsman and an already established crime writer, it was just like being back at work, according to Wood.

However, his first book – co-authored with David Johnston – dissected an infamous case that Wood, himself, worked on: the World’s End murders of Christine Eadie and Helen Scott by the notorious Angus Sinclair, the man Wood believed murdered at least three other women.

Striking the balance between informing the public on details of key details of a crime and not glorifying the crime itself has been important to Wood in both books. Wood stressed that Ruxton and Sinclair were two very different characters. 

Wood said: “Angus Sinclair was a horrible individual…Buck Ruxton, on the other hand, was a deeply flawed man…I find it unfortunate that when you google ‘Buck Ruxton’, you get ‘evil doctor’- I don’t think that’s justified.”

While not having any sympathy for Ruxton, Wood saw that his actions were “a purely pragmatic response to the situation he was in.” 

To maintain that very balance, Wood argued that we should not fictionalise and fill in our own blanks out of true cases. Wood advised: “If you are dealing with real people, real names, real events then you should stick to the facts.”

Bringing the Ruxton Case into the 21st Century

While Wood originally imagined the retelling of this infamous case as a two-part documentary series, he ruled nothing out about what was next for Ruxton: the First Modern Murder. A potential podcast series, perhaps? Who knows? For the moment, true crime enthusiasts will have to be satisfied with the knowledge that Wood has been using his lockdown year productively. He is already working on a new book about Edinburgh’s dark and hidden history with the sex industry and human trafficking in the 1840s. An issue that has been under the surface, and not just in Edinburgh, for centuries, persisting into the modern age. 

Although the Ruxton case cemented the importance of forensic science methods in criminal investigations forever, Wood believed that the issues facing policing are far more complicated than they were in 1935. 

Wood said: “The police service has played a very careful and considered game during the Lockdowns. There has not been this crushing enforcement model that a lot of people predicted. It’s been done with a very light touch and it has been a great credit to Police Scotland. But there are enormous challenges facing the police service going into 2021.”

Among these challenges that Wood regularly discusses in his Scotsman column, is next year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) that Wood described as “the biggest event held in the UK in living memory and that includes the London Olympics.”

Yet, even as we head into 2021, Policing is facing the same issues that it did in the 1840s and in 1935. Wood said: “People trafficking now is all done electronically. Same outcome, same victims that come from roughly the same profile.”

In 2020, the issues simply come in a modern packaging but at their core, they are just a new case to be cracked and a new puzzle to be solved.

Ruxton: the First Modern Murder is available now from AmazonRingwood Publishing and selected bookshops.

Words by Rebecca Carey

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