Murderous mystery of a village pitman

OLD SCENE: The Free Gardener's Arms - where Old Cooper enjoyed an ale or two.
OLD SCENE: The Free Gardener's Arms - where Old Cooper enjoyed an ale or two.
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TODAY in the first of a three-part series, we take a look at crimes and misdemeanours in Easington Lane in the good old, bad old days.

“WHAT fettle, marra??”

Old Cooper’s greeting was a regular feature of Easington Lane life over a century ago and, when the pitman suddenly disappeared, concerned friends sought answers.

“Indeed, when those answers weren’t forthcoming, the village ended up knee deep in a scandal that could’ve been written for a modern soap opera,” said Norman Kirtlan.

Jem Cooper, despite his advancing years, was a fit and happy man. Not only did he work an allotment at High End, but he was often seen supping ale in pubs around the village.

Just a few years earlier, he had set a few tongues wagging after taking in Jane Craggs – a woman 20 years his junior – but the gossip died down as they remained together.

Behind closed doors, however, the pair shared more than a few secrets, including the fact Jem was married – and didn’t want his wife to get the house when he passed on.

“Jem had revealed all to Jane early in their relationship and, naturally, she was a bit put out about the wife revelation – but managed to put it behind her,” said Norman.

“At the same time he also urged her to keep a special promise – to send for his daughter Mary Ann if he died. It was a simple enough request, and so Jane agreed.”

But in May of 1866, as neighbours gathered in the Cooper’s garden at High End for a few drinks, a drunken Jane was overheard to say she wanted to ‘knock Jem out for a day or two’.

The pair had apparently been getting on each other’s nerves but as Jane was not the most popular of villagers, one of the neighbours immediately warned old Jem.

“Cooper laughed it off, but said he’d watch himself. Over the next few days Jane was spotted purchasing laudanum, a strong painkiller, from local stores,” said Norman.

“As of May 14, Jem was very much alive as he was spotted buying cabbage plants from a local gardener, and on May 15 he drew his wages from the colliery offices.

“But that was the last time anyone saw the old chap alive, apart from Jane – of course. When Jem failed to show up for his next shift, fears for his safety mounted.”

Storeworker Lizzie Ridley popped in to see Jane as concerns continued to grow. At first Jane told her Jem “was bad”, but then she claimed he had travelled over to Coxhoe.

But two things just didn’t make sense. The old man’s four-poster bed had obviously been pinned up with curtains – and there was also “an unholy stench on the house”.

A further mystery came to light when servant girl Margaret Scott called to borrow a wheelbarrow – and found burned buttons and charred clothes in Jem’s grate.

But it was miner James Kirkley who would cause Easington Lane to make national headlines – after calling at the Cooper/Craggs house seven days after Jem vanished.

“Ah’m looking for Cooper,” he told Craggs, who repeated the story of the Coxhoe visit. “Ah gave him six shillings to help with his fare,” she added, embroidering the tale.

Kirkley, already retching from the smell that pervaded the house, rubbished her story, telling her: “Jem’s never been short of money in his life and well thou know’st it!”

With that, he headed towards the four-poster and demanded to know what lay beyond the curtains. Craggs refused to let him look – so the pitmen left to find a policeman.

“Village bobby Pc Cuthbert arrived minutes later, wincing when the smell hit his nostrils. He knew this smell well – and it meant a decomposing body,” said Norman.

“After pulling back the curtains of the bed, he found Old Cooper – or what was now left of him. Scores of neighbours packed in behind the officer to take a peek as well.”

Seventy-year-old Jem had been dead for over a week; his tongue protruded from his mouth, his face was black through decomposition and his eyes were swollen and red.

These were sure signs, the officer believed, of strangulation. Indeed, he arrested Jane Craggs on the spot – taking the sobbing woman to Houghton police station in a cab.

“A search of the house revealed several bottles of laudanum and the results of a post mortem seemed to corroborate strangulation,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“Now it just remained to get Jane’s version of events – and she delivered them with aplomb, telling investigating officers that Jem ‘went to bed, coughed a bit and died’.

“The obvious question then was why hadn’t she told anyone. Her answer was that she had promised to let Jem’s daughter know first – and had posted off a letter to her.

“Jane even claimed to have asked a travelling girl to write the note, as she herself was illiterate. But there were more holes in Craggs’s story than in a tramp’s stockings.

“Indeed, Jem’s daughter never received a letter – and the so-called travelling girl was never found either.”

Debates raged across Easington Lane and Britain over whether Craggs had strangled or poisoned Jem. Few doubted, however, that she would swing her for actions.

But when she was dragged before the courts, Craggs found the learned judge in a belligerent mood – arguing fiercely with all and sundry throughout the proceedings.

Indeed, when a medic asserted Jem showed signs of strangulation, His Lordship argued that sticking-out tongues and swollen eyes were often seen in natural deaths.

And, after hearing Jem’s body had been exhumed by the prosecution to obtain his shirt – a fact not shared with the defence before the trial – the judge called a halt to proceedings.

“Craggs left the court a free woman after the judge ordered the jury to return a not guilty verdict,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But what was the truth behind Old Cooper’s death? Well, everyone in Easington Lane would tell you the old boy had been murdered – but it was never to be proved.”

•Look out for another tale of misery from the Easington Lane area tomorrow.