IT was almost midnight when would-be paramour John Thompson entered Baines Lane and traced his hands along the sooty walls that would lead him to Maria Fitzsimmons’ filthy lodgings.
Pushing open the door, he took a few wary steps inside the prostitute’s fetid hovel before lighting a candle. The flickering light revealed a lumpy shape beneath the bed.
Reaching out with his foot, the drunken man kicked at the slumped body. “Maria, wake up,” he called. But no answer came.
“Just then, the door rattled and a woman entered the room. She dropped to her knees and felt Maria’s neck for a pulse. There was none,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“She’s dead!” exclaimed the woman. “Aye, dead drunk,” Thompson joked. Tragically, however, Maria Fitzsimmons was indeed dead.
“Police Constable Ellis and Dr Francis were soon at the scene, where they found Maria in a pool of blood. Her face, hair and dress were soaked in it,” said former police inspector Norman.
“Around Maria’s chest and back were nine stab wounds; two had smashed her ribs and one had penetrated her heart. The poor woman would have died within a few minutes of the last blow.”
As news of Maria’s death spread through the streets of the East End, a picture gradually emerged of the goodtime girl’s final hours on that winter’s day of 1869.
“The man that Maria had spent the evening with prior to her death was a sailor. A sailor who had just docked; with a pocket full of money and a lust for a woman,” said Norman.
“Our matelot had been seen by many that fateful day. Tall, thick set and filthy, he sported ginger hair, bushy whiskers and a ‘tache. He also spoke with a thick Irish accent.”
One of those to meet the “belligerent and moody” sailor was Margaret Lafferty, who called to see her pal Maria on the morning before her murder.
The Irishman was still hanging around Maria’s squalid home at the time, and Maria herself told Margaret: “That nasty villain is badly using me and threatening to kill me.”
Margaret tried, and failed, to get the man to leave. Instead, he complained that Maria had stolen his money, and refused to leave until he “got back what was owing to him.”
“After that, Margaret left the room but, upon hearing Maria scream, she returned to find her friend on the floor. The sailor had just smashed his fist into her face,” said Norman.
“During the course of the day, however, the sailor and his beau seemed to resolve their differences. They were seen hand in hand, kissing and cuddling, staggering along Baine’s Lane after a god sup.
“What happened later that night, when the two returned to her lodgings, could only be discerned from the corpse on the gurney and the evidence scattered around her room.”
A murder hunt was launched. Ships along the quayside were searched for the missing sailor, as were the pubs and lodging houses that lined the river – without success.
It would take another 13 years to solve the case – and only then after a letter of confession was sent to East Cross Street police station in Sunderland by an inmate at Pentonville Prison.
“Maria would have long rotted in her grave when Thomas Fury wrote the confession that he hoped would put a noose around his own neck,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“It seems he had been incarcerated on many occasions; this latest stretch for 14 years with hard labour. After all the trials and tribulations of his life, Fury could stand it no longer.
“What better way was there to get him a reprieve from prison meals? Death seemed like a good, if not a pretty final, option.”
Fury’s confession, described as “intelligent and coherent,” brought the sailor back to Sunderland to stand trial for Maria’s brutal death.
“The court heard Maria was a ‘terror to her own kind’. She was feared among her contemporaries for the levels of violence and depravity she was capable of,” said Norman.
“But the hearing was also told Fury had “scratches on his face and a cut finger” when he finally returned to his ship – although he claimed to have been mugged and lost his money.”
Legal arguments abounded, with the defence arguing for manslaughter – much to Fury’s chagrin. Anyone who read the newspapers, they claimed, could have cobbled together the confession.
Finally, and to Fury’s relief, he was found guilty. On May 16, 1882, the Irishman was hanged at Durham Gaol.
“During the post-mortem examination carried out on Maria, the pathologist discovered two half crowns hidden in her stockings,” said Norman.
“It was suspected robbery had been a motive for the murder, and that Maria had been the author of the crime. Maria’s refusal to return the money undoubtedly ended her wretched life.”
l Read more about the seedier side of Sunderland in new book The Dressmakers of Fighting Cock Lane. The book, which costs £4, can be bought from Sunderland Antiquarian Society in Douro Terrace any Saturday morning, or is available by post, adding £1 for postage. Cheques should be payable to Sharon Vincent, at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland SR2 7DX. She can be contacted on 07745 212196.