This blog was originally created for www.newcastlegaol.co.uk and is reproduced here with their permission.
The restrictions of prison life and confinement could often take a heavy toll and in some instances even result in prisoners taking their own lives. Although a relatively uncommon occurrence, there were a number of incidences of suicide at Newcastle Gaol. One particularly notable case was that of Alexander Ingram in 1911.
Alexander Ingram, 27, worked as a barman at the Globe Hotel in Blyth and resided at 233 Welbeck Road in Newcastle with his wife, Margaret Jane Ingram, and Margaret’s daughters, Bertha May Nesbit (9) and Ethel Eveyn Nesbit (7). On the morning of the 5th October 1911, Alexander entered his house with his younger brother and found his wife and step children lying dead with their throats having been cut. On seeing the scene Ingram ran from the house reportedly in some distress, but soon returned and claimed that someone had murdered his family and taken £10 from a drawer.
On initial investigation no murder weapon was found but Ingram was taken in to police custody. However, subsequent searches of the property uncovered a bloodied razor blade in the ashes of the oven flue. This razor was presented in police court and Ingram was subsequently committed to stand trial at the assizes for wilful murder. However, Ingram never made his trial.
Whilst remanded at Newcastle Prison and facing a capital charge he was kept under a close watch and accompanied by a warder whenever outside of his cell. Despite this, on the morning of Thursday 19th October he managed to evade the watch of no less than four warders and leapt over a first-floor balcony railing and fell some 20ft to the stone prison floor. Despite the swift arrival of the prison surgeon, Dr Hardcastle’s, Ingram was pronounced dead within half an hour.
Numerous reports emerged of how he evaded capture, with the Illustrated Police News even including a full-page illustration of the terrible deed (pictured above). At first it was believed that Ingram had asked for some writing materials to write to his mother and was being escorted to the materials room to retrieve them, however later reports suggested that he had been called from his cell to speak with the Governor – something that the Reynolds’s Newspaper reported as a daily occurrence to check on the welfare of prisoners awaiting a capital sentence. The seemingly calm Ingram had suddenly broken free from no less than four warders and dived over the balcony railing to his death. An inquest was held on the Friday and found that Ingram had committed suicide, whilst clearing the prison staff of any wrongdoing.
Ingram’s death caused great consternation and also meant that he never stood trial at the Assizes so never received the death sentence for his alleged crimes. Despite this the newspaper reports had a further sensational twist. Ingram’s name became posthumously linked with another death a year prior, that of one Mr Nesbit (former husband of Margaret Jane Ingram!). Mr Nesbit had also been found with his throat cut, but the Coroner’s Jury at the time had returned a verdict of suicide. Newspapers seized on the fact that Ingram had been a lodger with the Nesbit’s at the time and married the widowed Mrs Nesbit a few months after Mr Nesbit’s tragic death. In the aftermath of Ingram’s suicide numerous reports emerged tentatively linking him to the death of Nesbit. Indeed, the Coroner responsible for the inquest into the bodies of Margaret and the children even questioned Ingram’s brother about the case, saying “Did Mrs Ingram ever tell you of the circumstances of the death of her first husband.” Ingram’s brother said that she had not.
The final act in this tragedy was played out at the funeral of Alexander Ingram. Set to be buried at Heaton Cemetery his remains had been taken to the house of his father on Grace Street, Byker, a few roads away from the scene of the crime. An obituary notice had been published with the time and place of interment (Heaton Cemetery) and disgruntled locals had used the information to guess the route of the procession. The funeral cortege (a hearse and two mourning couches carrying the prisoner’s relations) was met on Grace Street by an assembled mass lining the street and the length of the mile long route to the cemetery. Some newspapers reported a 50,000 strong crowd. Although escorted by Police, both uniformed and plain clothes, the cortege was met with boos and jeering from the assembled angry mob. One paper reported the ‘disgraceful scenes’ and noted that
Indeed such was the protest and clamour that the police had to shut the gates as the crowd made a rush on them to get in. In the end the police, both mounted and on foot, held the crowd back and the service over Ingram’s body was read by Rev J. W. Garaham of St Michael’s Church in neighbouring Byker. Some reports noted that the mourners had to leave under police cover to avoid the angry mob.
In this period there were numerous cases like Ingram’s in prisons in England and Wales. A much later response to deter these sorts of suicides came in the form of balcony netting that ran between cell floor balconies. Suicide is still a serious problem today with the Howard League report on suicide prevention reporting that 92 prisoners took their life in prisons in England and Wales in 2018 alone.