My PhD, which seems a lifetime ago already, officially ran up to 1878 – the year in which nationalised control of the prison system came into force. However, I have always been interested in the cases that followed it and regular readers of the blog will know that I have been lucky enough to talk about some of these later cases on BBC One’s Murder, Mystery and My Family. So, free from the chains of the PhD and with little else to do in lockdown, I thought I’d explore them at my leisure and hopefully for your pleasure. So, for the next few months I will be digging out some cases that took place in the North East of England between 1878 and the turn of the nineteenth century.
Today’s case is the 1882 execution of Thomas Fury (alias Thomas Wright/Henry Charles Cort) at Durham Prison. This one caught my eye for three reasons. Firstly, as I was appearing on BBC Radio Sunderland to promote my new book (shameless plug link here), I needed a good Sunderland based case to discuss. I know from my limited experience of local radio interviews that they always want something specific to the local area, but as my thesis predominantly covered executions at Durham, Newcastle and Morpeth the incidences of Sunderland based cases are few and far between. I know anyone reading with some knowledge of the region will be screaming ‘What about Mary Ann Cotton!’ but the fact that everyone knows that name is another reason not to cover it for me. Plenty of great stuff has been written on her, the case and her execution, so no need for me to retread that old ground. The second reason was that I stumbled upon a fascinating phrase in reports of Fury’s execution, that we have all become accustomed to in recent months “going on furlough.” For fans of etymology it was used by Fury himself to describe being executed – the ultimate leave of absence/lay off. The final reason was that another Thomas Fury is frequently in the news these days as a well-established boxer, Celebrity Love Island star and half-brother to Tyson Fury. If those three aren’t convincing enough reasons to pique your interest then I can’t help you.
So, to the case…
On February 19th 1869 Maria Fitzsimmons, 34, a prostitute and petty criminal of some renown (the Shields Daily Gazette reported that she had been ‘before the magistrates some 23 times’ on various charges including drunkenness and robbery) was found murdered in her residence in Baines Lane, Sunderland. She had been seen earlier that day with a sailor in numerous public houses around Sunderland’s salubrious East End. Numerous papers reporting on the murder noted that Baines Lane was, ‘once a respectable locality’ but ‘had become the very reverse, and at the time when the crime was committed was frequented by those who eked out a precarious livelihood by prostitution and felony.’ Recent excellent work has been done on the area in that period which highlights the precarious living arrangements in the area and the practice of one particular slum landlord, William Acklam. He, like many others of the time took advantage of a predominantly Irish community who had arrived in the area to escape the Great Famine.
Acklam owned several properties in the squalid, overcrowded East End of Sunderland whilst he and his family lived in the comparatively spacious and pleasant parish of Bishopwearmouth. His properties were often tenanted by Irish immigrant families who had fled to England to escape the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, and who found work on the new docks being built in Sunderland at the time. The 1851 Census records for Baines Lane, one of the streets on which Acklam owned several properties, show that 7 families, comprising 42 people, were living in one house.https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/towns/tyne-and-wear-case-study/about-the-group/housing/william-acklam/
Reports of the time indicate that Maria’s dwellings were equally miserable with descriptions of her house being ‘in one of the worst parts of the east end’ and ‘the middle portion of a miserable three storeyed house’ Baines Lane is no longer in existence but these 1860s maps show it’s location and you can see it set against modern day Sunderland below.
One of many fascinating things about this case is the way in which the victim is described. When reading this next quote, bear in mind that this is the description of a woman that has been brutally murdered.
Although shocking, one need only look at recent reports and work done around the Yorkshire Ripper case to see that the lives of women like Maria have always been seen as ‘dispensable’ by the authorities.
Maria’s murder caused a considerable shock owing to the brutality of it. Her body had been found by a visiting friend. She found it positioned underneath the bed, so as to hide it, but there was a considerable pool of blood that immediately alerted her to the foul play. The resultant inquest held on Maria’s body found that she had been stabbed 9 times in the chest and, according to the Coroner, then laid back on the bed and eventually hidden under it.
What is particularly remarkable about the case is that numerous witnesses had seen Maria that day in various public houses, drinking with what many described as an ‘Irish-Yankee’ sailor. Detailed descriptions of him were given and yet, for the eagle-eyed reader, you will remember that Tommy Fury was not executed until 1882. To find out why it took thirteen years to catch him you’ll have to wait till next week.
Shields Daily Gazette, 15th February 1869.
Really eagle eyed readers of the blog will notice that I never wrote a part 2 to my history of hangman….what can I say, life (and a global pandemic) gets in the way. Hopefully, I will finish it in the not too distant future.
- SAY HELLOW TO MY OTHER LIFE
Believe it or not, writing a blog every few months/years (if i’m lucky these days) doesn’t pay the bills. So, my day to day existence is taken up making films and websites for companies of all shapes and sizes. Having just redesigned the whole thing I thought now was as good a time as any to plug it. Also, would hate to be judged on my web design based on this lovely old, dog eared blog! You can check it out here at www.hellow.co
2. THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES – JEAN GIONO
Remember when we all thought 2021 was going to be the bright new dawn after a torrid 2020 – oh how naive we were! Well as 2021 continues to be as bad, if not worse, I thought I needed something uplifting on the blog and this book instantly sprang to mind. The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono is a beautiful short story about a Shepherd in Provence. If you do read it then make sure to get the copy with the afterword by his daughter, because the story of the afterlife of Giono’s story is almost as beautiful as the book itself.