William Bury - the last man hanged in Dundee

Published on 1 September 2018

Our students recently participated in a public mock trial in Dundee. They re-examined the medical evidence which led to the execution of William Bury, the last man to be hanged in Dundee.

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Bury was found guilty of the murder of his wife Ellen, and was hanged on April 24, 1889. In his initial confession he made a claim to be Jack the Ripper.

His conviction rested largely on medical evidence which drew some uncertainty from the jury at the time.

Students from the Mooting Societies at the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen took part in a re-consideration of the information that was available in the nineteenth century and presented the evidence by today’s forensic science standards.

In the original trial the Crown alleged that Mr Bury strangled his wife Ellen with a piece of rope, then cut her abdomen open, disembowelling her, possibly whilst she was still alive. He then shoved the mutilated body into a wooden trunk, breaking both the bones in her leg in the process. The defence alleged that it was suicide. They claimed that she ‘self-strangulated’ and that the cuts to her body were made after her death.

Our students led the prosecution case. They were mentored by Alex Prentice QC, and called upon Dr Stuart Hamilton as their expert witness. Using today’s forensic science standards, they focused on the angle of a ligature mark on Ellen Bury’s neck. They argued that this showed that Bury strangled his wife, before disembowelling her and cramming her body into the trunk.

The defence argued that the angle of the ligature mark supported Bury's claim that his wife took her own life by "self strangulation" and the cuts to her body were made after her death.

We spoke to four of the students involved: Giorgio, who examined-in-chief the witness for the prosecution (studying English and Scots Law), Ritchie, who gave the jury speech (2nd year, studying English and Scots Law), Chloe, who cross-examined Professor Shepherd, (year studying Scots Law), and Kate (studying Scots and English Law), who was the team’s reserve, and who assisted enormously with the preparation for the trial.

All four spoke enthusiastically about their experiences, stressing what an amazing opportunity it had been for them.


UoD: How did you get involved in the trial?

Chloe: We auditioned through the mooting society. About 30 of us auditioned, and we had to prepare for a particularly difficult moot with only 24 hours notice.

UoD: Had you ever done anything similar to this before?

Georgio: No, this was a completely new experience – none of us had done anything quite like it. I don’t think any Scottish university has ever put on anything similar. It was an amazing opportunity for us.


UoD:  What did you gain from taking part?

Georgio: The skills you learn are just incredible. For example, I learnt so much about practical Scottish court etiquette. This just isn’t something you get during classes. We were so lucky to be thrown right in at the deep end. The big three things we learnt to do were cross-examination, examination-of-chief, and jury speeches. I now feel confident in these areas, which are day to day activities in any practising solicitor’s life.  

I also know for a fact from speaking to employers and firms that doing something like this really does set you apart from other candidates. It’s the kind of thing they look for.  

We were very fortunate in that we got expert tutoring too. 

Chloe: I learnt a lot about dress codes too – I turned up to meet the Principal QC in a red hoody and jeans the first time. Since then I’m always careful to check the dress code. 

The others were both in full suits! We were told it was casual but they decided to outshine me so we all turn up to things in suits now.

We learnt a lot about professional etiquette too. You know that if you do badly, you’d never live it down.

Kate: And you’re representing the Uni too.

Chloe: Exactly – it was massive practice for being as professional as you can be. You couldn’t be polite enough or well-dressed enough. 

Giorgio: We went to the Crown Office twice. That’s something you can’t prepare for.  It really, really hammered home the professionalism you need.

Kate: There was a lot of teamwork too. Obviously within our team, but there were so many people involved in this project. We had to co-ordinate with the Aberdeen team, and different professionals helping us out. It was a huge interwoven project 

Georgio: When you’re in an email chain with the Lord President you have to watch what you say!   

Ritchie: It’s been a huge confidence boost.  Even doing things like going into moots – for example, a few weeks ago, Chloe asked me to do a moot with her the next day. Normally I’d say that’s not enough time, but without being arrogant, we went there and both smashed it because we had the confidence from the trial. It’s things like that.  And also, the skills we’ve learnt we can apply to our work, for example, problem solving. That’s been one of the biggest things for me 


UoD: Did you find it stressful at any point?

They laugh. 

Kate: Well, Ritchie has to have regular haircuts to stop the grey from showing now! It definitely did get intense, on top of other commitments. When it came down to the crunch, we were meeting every day. But it was worth it. 

Chloe: It was a real exercise in discipline. It was good for us to learn what it’s like to be a real advocate or lawyer with three or four things to do at once.  

As for being stressful, well I was physically shaking at the start of the trial. If you watch the recording carefully there’s a bit where I stand up, walk over, then walk back to the table. I wasn’t quite ready to start! It felt like forever to me.    

However, the second that I said ‘Professor Shepherd…’ something just switched on in my head. All of a sudden the fear melted away and then before I knew it, I was sitting down. I then thought of other things I would have liked to have said! But Georgio and Ritchie sent me notes across the table to say I’d done well. 

I can’t stress how much this came down to preparation. This really reminded me how important is to have 100% confidence in yourself after having done the research. There’s no cutting corners. 

Chloe sums up the experience for us:

We’re lucky enough to have landed on our feet and enjoyed the hard work.  It shows us that this is a job, and it’s achievable. It made it real.

At the end of the day, the invited jury found in favour of the Aberdeen team, who defended Bury. Even though our students didn’t win the case, they nonetheless left on a high note.

Chloe: Two months on and we are still buzzing – our heads are still in the clouds. We had some great feedback from such high-up people. 

Kate: There are moments in a law degree where you’re completely buried in your books, and for all of us, the practical side of things is what we want to go into, rather than academia. It reminded us that we are doing this for a reason and there’s something to work towards. 

Chloe: Law is something you have to have a real passion for. Standing in that courtroom with your robes on, you know that it’s really what you want to do. We left with such pride in ourselves and each other.

“Such confidence comes from it. Even now, studying for exams is easier, because I know what’s waiting at the end is what I want to do. I’m not worrying anymore about whether this is really what I want to do with my life. It was 100% a defining moment for me.”



Press Office, University of Dundee