This Saturday, 3rd February, legal students from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dundee will be delving almost 130 years into the past and, using High Court and Crown Office archive records held by the NRS, will stage a mock trial of a notorious Dundee crime which resulted in the city’s last ever execution.

William_Henry_Bury (public domain - Dundee Courier, 12 Feb 1889)
William Bury (Dundee Courier, 12 Feb 1889). ©The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

William Bury was accused of the brutal murder of his wife, Ellen, and the trial was heavily reliant on the medical evidence presented by both prosecution and defence. This evidence, which is preserved in the trial papers, resulted in the jury returning a somewhat reluctant and controversial guilty verdict.

One important point of distinction centred around whether Ellen had taken her own life and her husband had concealed the body out of fear of being accused of the act, or whether William Bury had strangled Ellen and then concealed the body. The medical evidence was presented with markedly different interpretations by the doctors who examined the body.  Two of them determined that Ellen had been murdered.  However, a third doctor claimed, in a 14-page report, that the evidence pointed to Ellen having taken her own life.

As well as being the last man hanged in Dundee, Bury has the dubious notoriety of also

NRS Precognition and Trial Records: JC26/1889/15/4, JC26/1889/15/10, and AD14/89/160/1

being a suspect in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, although the murder of his wife was the only conviction brought against him.

Professor Dame Sue Black, Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, said that the event would have been impossible to stage without the records preserved here in the archives.   These records, along with contemporary newspaper reports, will allow students from Aberdeen University (for the defence) to re-examine the medical evidence, and seek to persuade a new jury that today’s forensic science standards may justify a different verdict.

The event will be held at Dundee Sheriff Court and will be live-streamed on Dan Snow’s HistoryHit TV online History Channel. Live tweets will also keep interested members of the public up to date on the trial as it progresses.  It will be fascinating to see whether 130 year old medical evidence will still ‘stand up in court’ after all this time.

The mock trial is being staged as part of the celebrations to mark the 130th anniversary of the establishment of the Cox Chair of Anatomy at the University of Dundee and more details about the event can be found on their website.

Kirsteen Mulhern, Archivist

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