DEATH was no stranger to Sunderland folk in 1916 – with thousands fighting for King and Country on the battlefields of Europe.
Black-bordered telegrams were delivered to heartbroken relatives almost daily, as hundreds of soldiers, sailors and the earliest of flyers made the ultimate sacrifice.
But, just a few days before Christmas that year, one Sunderland man was about to die in an altogether different kind of battle – a battle with the hangman’s noose.
“Joseph Deans had seen it all in his 44 years. He had travelled the world in search of adventure and fortune,” said Norman Kirtlan, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Indeed, just in the last year he had returned from mining gold in South Africa – a handsome sun-bronzed man with his pockets full of cash and an eye for the ladies.”
Barbary Coaster Catherine Convery would catch that roving eye – primping and preening as she showed off her new beau around the bars of Monkwearmouth.
But the 48-year-old widow soon came to see a darker side to the tough miner, and his jealousy would eventually drive them apart.
“Sadly for Catherine, there seemed to be no end to Dean’s very unhealthy obsession with her,” said Norman, a former police inspector turned forensic artist.
It was only a short walk from Colliery Square, where Deans had settled after leaving Africa, to the comfortable Devonshire Street home of his beloved Mrs Convery.
For weeks the lovelorn pitman paced up and down the streets nearby, watching and waiting and clutching a crumpled photograph of lost love Catherine in his hands.
“On October 7, 1916, the monster finally unravelled and he threw caution aside, hammering on the door of number 10 Devonshire Street,” said Norman.
“The door was opened by Catherine’s daughter Nora and, when Deans demanded to know if her mother was in, the girl slammed the door in his face.”
Nora quickly collected her sister, Elizabeth, before dashing out of the back door – both girls intent on fetching their mother and bringing her home safely.
But Deans was on the street corner once again and, as soon as the mother and daughters came into view, he shouted: “You won’t be alive tonight, Catherine!”
That afternoon Deans sought out his friend, Thomas Thompson – a miner from Grey Street – and presented him with a watch, chain and two gold rings as gifts.
“They are of no use to me,” he told his pal, before revealing he wanted to renew his gun licence. Chillingly, Deans then pulled the photo of Catherine from his pocket.
“I love every hair of her head,” he added. “And I am going to do her in tonight.”
Thompson immediately warned Deans not to do “anything so stupid or low” as attacking his ex-girlfriend, but the look on Joseph’s face told a worrying story.
All was well, however, for the next 24-hours. On that day, Saturday, the two miners met up again – this time at the Grey Horse in Howard Street.
As the pair supped their drinks, Deans threw a gold ring at Thompson and told him to have it as a keepsake. “I’ll have to do it, Tommy, I cannot bear it any longer,” he said.
Tragically, just as Deans was contemplating murder, Catherine decided to pop into the Grey Horse for a gill or two of ale. Her visit was to prove fatal.
“Deans was talking to cartman John Donkin, showing him an axe and a cut throat razor, just as Catherine was making her way to the pub,” said Norman.
“After paying Donkin the few shillings he owed him, Deans once more pulled out the photo of Catherine and said: ‘This will be the last night for this woman’.”
The bar at the Grey Horse was packed as Deans downed a half-glass of liquor while keeping an eye on the door. At 7pm he saw what he was looking for and slipped out.
A few minutes later, Catherine Convery staggered into the bar, screaming. “He’s murdered me this time,” she gasped, while clutching at gaping wounds to her neck.
“As she collapsed to the ground, blood oozing over her fingers and onto the floor, it was clear her head had almost been severed from her shoulders,” said Norman.
“And, as Catherine slipped from life, her former partner Joseph Deans was in the yard of the Grey Horse, cutting his throat with the razor.”
As police launched a murder hunt, so Joseph – his neck bandaged with a bloody hankie – calmly walked into Barclay Street police station and threw down an axe and razor.
“I killed her with these,” he said, before holding out his hands for the cuffs to be slapped around his wrists.
Just a few days later, on October 17, Deans appeared before Judge Low at Durham Assizes – where he claimed that he had lost his mind through jealousy.
He was, however, found guilty of murder, and later admitted in court: “I killed that woman and I am pleased I killed her.”
There was only one sentence left open to the judge and, donning his black cap, he delivered the death penalty.
“On December 20, 1916, as the death tally over in the hell that was the Western Front reached 156,000, Joseph Deans fell six feet into the gallows,” said Norman.
“He twitched for a few agonising seconds and then slipped from this life into the personal hell that awaited him.”