MIDWIFE Elizabeth Rackstraw was a woman beloved of generations of Wearsiders – cheerfully delivering 7,000 babies into the world.
But her kind smile and caring ways hid a world of personal misery – especially after the tragic death of her youngest daughter in 1925.
“Elizabeth welcomed life into the world every day, but she couldn’t stop her daughter’s brutal murder,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Poor Henrietta Rackstraw had her throat cut from ear to ear with a razor by her jealous fiancé, who then committed suicide beside her body.”
Elizabeth Rackstraw, nee Morris, had been born in Wingate in 1868 and married her first husband, Wearside engineer Thomas Rackstraw, at 17.
The couple made their home at 19 Ward Street, sharing it with two other families, and had three children - Elizabeth, Jane and Richard.
But, at the turn of the century, Elizabeth – a certified midwife – divorced Thomas and married his brother. George Gray Rackstraw, instead. The newly-weds moved to 32 Henry Street East, where the union produced three more children – George, Thomas and finally Henrietta in 1905.
“Records show George, who worked as a cartman, died in 1915. Henrietta was just ten at the time,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.
“The family remained at Henry Street in Hendon and, in 1925, life seemed brighter for Henrietta after she became engaged to boilermaker John Strong.”
Henrietta’s happiness was not, however, to last long. Indeed, her death at the hands of Strong would make national headlines that spring.
The evening of May 18, 1925, began uneventfully, after Strong called at the Rackstraw home and Henrietta welcomed him into the front room.
She then started playing the piano for Strong and, as the couple looked so “very cheerful”, her brother left them alone to enjoy the music.
“He was absent for only a short time and, after returning, trod in something he thought was paint,” said Norman, now a forensic artist.
“Closer inspection revealed, however, the substance was blood – and he immediately forced his way into the room to see what had happened.”
On entering the room, the brother spotted 20-year-old Henrietta lying in a pool of blood. Strong, 21, was lying with his arms across her.
Despite the summoning of immediate help, neither Henrietta nor Strong could be saved. Elizabeth, who had helped so many, was left desolate.
“An inquest into the deaths was held just days later, when one of Henrietta’s sisters was called to the stand to give evidence,” said Norman.
“The shocked woman revealed Strong had been of a “jealous disposition” - and had even threatened “to do Henrietta in” just the night before.
“The sister later mentioned the comment to her husband, who thought it was a joke.
“Tragically, there was no humour at all in the statement.
“Indeed, that the act was premeditated was evidenced by the fact Strong stole a razor from his brother-in-law to carry out the deadly deed.”
Few, however, had realised just how jealous Strong was. Indeed, Elizabeth herself gave evidence claiming the couple never, ever quarrelled.
But one witness at the inquest, a Dr Rodgers, provided shocking evidence which revealed, once and for all, just how dangerous Strong had been.
“Rodgers was of the opinion that the murder had been done while the girl had her back to Strong,” revealed a newspaper article on May 20.
“She had evidently been playing the piano at the time, for the cut - which was an extensive one - reached from ear to ear.”
Initial reports into the deaths of Henrietta and Strong suggested they could have been the result of a suicide pact, but Rodgers ruled this out.
“The nature of the cut on Henrietta did not suggest she had done it herself,” he told the shocked inquest.
“But the cut which was on the man’s throat, done by a right-handed man, was evidently self-inflicted. Both then bled to death,” he concluded.
In summing up the case, coroner J.F. Burnicle ruled there could be “no doubt that Henrietta met her death” through the actions of Strong.
But he struggled to find a motive for the crime, suggesting that perhaps Strong may have had a “morbid disposition” beneath his cheerfulness.
“Whatever made Strong attack Henrietta with a razor will forever remain a mystery,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“But one thing is certain; her mother never recovered from her death.
“Elizabeth Rackstraw saw much good - and evil - before her death in 1942.”
l Look out for more tales of misery next week.