I think our fascination with murder is hard-wired. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth 400 years ago; today the best-selling fiction genre is crime and detective dramas dominate TV. I think it’s cathartic when order is re-established out of chaos at the end. But while crime fiction is a vicarious pleasure, true crime is popular for a different reason. I think people want to understand what drives someone to commit an evil act.
Not every murderer is a serial killer. Under certain circumstances each one of us might be capable of killing another. Done well, true crime explores this darker aspect of our character and serves as a warning.
I first heard about the Ruxton murders when I was a child, growing up in the Lake District. Whenever we visited Lancaster, my Dad pointed out the doctor’s house in Dalton Square. I should explain my family had links with Lancaster going back to the 1930s. My grandparents moved there around 1933. My 91-year-old uncle was five at the time of the murders and has a vague memory of the town being in shock. My Dad was born there two months after Ruxton’s execution.
After university there, I lived and worked as a journalist in the area. I covered many cases at the crown court, so I was constantly reminded of the story. There was much to read about the case in newspapers and true crime magazines, but it was very two-dimensional. Invariably the author raked over the basic facts, focusing on the gore, rarely if ever delving into the human drama behind it. I felt the story needed to be told properly and with sensitivity.
The most rewarding was uncovering the fine-grain detail that had never been told before. There was so much material, unseen for decades, gathering dust in archives and attics. No writer had looked very closely before and it was just waiting to be teased out.
I was excited when I found Dr Ruxton’s 1934 pocket diary in Lancaster’s City Museum. Unseen for nine decades, it provided an incredible insight into the state of the doctor’s mind in the year before the murders. You can see his paranoia growing and his jealousy becoming inflamed. You want to shout and warn Isabella to get out of the house, to escape to safety at her sister’s in Edinburgh. Knowing everything that was to come, it’s a sad, tragic read. I photographed every page of the diary, transcribed every word and wove it into the fabric of the book.
It was fascinating to communicate with people whose relatives were caught up in the events of the Ruxton case. One was the grand-daughter of a Lancaster detective. She shared this amazing photograph of her grandfather and other officers outside Ruxton’s house just after his arrest. Another was a woman whose grandfather was a doctor who worked with Ruxton and witnessed his arrest at Lancaster police station. She shared with me her grandfather’s unpublished handwritten accounts of what happened. That helped me to piece together the dramatic scene in cinematic detail.
I was given a tour of the murder house in Dalton Square, which is now council offices. I was also shown around the old police court in Lancaster Town Hall and the original police station and cells in the bowels of the building. These are unchanged since Ruxton’s day and being able to see them first-hand was invaluable when it came to describing the scenes that unfolded there in the autumn of 1935.
The most difficult part was when COVID hit. I had planned to visit university archives in Glasgow and Edinburgh in April 2020. A trip in person was impossible, but the archivists were wonderful and provided me with scans of everything I needed.
It was vitally important.
The case is a landmark because of the incredible pioneering teamwork of the police and scientists. This is well documented. What is not well known is the human story behind it, the utter tragedy that blighted so many lives and whose ripples are still being felt today.
Central to this are the silent witnesses, Isabella and Mary, the victims, two young women whose lives were cut short. It is easy to overlook them when exploring a murder case from so long ago, to focus solely on the killer. And yet there was so much previously unused material about Isabella and Mary out there. I have spoken to relatives of both families. Descendants of Mary have thanked me for writing her story, for giving her a voice at last.
Many of the pioneering techniques arising from the investigation are still in use today. Chief among the achievements was the reassembly of the two bodies. There had been murders before involving dismemberment, but generally they involved a single victim. Never before had the bodies of two been intermingled like this. It made the challenge of reassembly and identification almost impossible but the Scottish scientists succeeded.
Determining the identities of the victims required new forensic techniques. The scientists came up with the brilliant idea of superimposing photographs of the skulls on to family photographs of Isabella and Mary. For the first time in a criminal investigation, casts of the victims’ feet were slipped into the shoes of the alleged victims. In a macabre echo of Cinderella’s glass slipper, scientists found a match.
Maggots taken from the putrefying remains were used to establish how long the bodies had lain in the ravine, again a first in the history of crime scene investigation. Fingerprint experts from Glasgow police were later praised by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI for using ‘chance’ fingerprints taken from Ruxton’s home in Dalton Square, Lancaster, in establishing that a dismembered arm found at Moffat was that of Mary Rogerson. Surprisingly, before the Ruxton case detectives only used fingerprints on police records for such comparisons.
Researching and writing the book took four years. I became emotionally involved with the people, the characters in my book. Despite the dark and depressing nature of the case, my spirits were lifted by the story of the police and forensic science investigators, their dedication to the work and their shared sense of purpose.
But I think what has lingered with me is writing about Ruxton and Isabella’s children – Elizabeth, Diana and Billy. It is easy to lose sight of them. For them this was an unfathomable tragedy. They were left as orphans and put into care. The truth of what became of them is locked away in archives in Preston until 2035.