TODAY we look at the tragic case of a Wearside woman who could – and perhaps should – have been branded a serial killer.
THE job of a Victorian doctor was a tough one – especially when attending to the needs of Sunderland’s poor.
One old stalwart, Dr Watson, found himself at the centre of a real mystery in August 1885: the case of a woman who was very nearly a serial killer.
“The tragic story started to unfold when he was called to visit Elizabeth Simpson, who lived in a squalid room at Garden Street,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Elizabeth needed Watson’s help for her new-born daughter, Isabella, who was suffering from a catalogue of health issues and said to be in a highly agitated state.”
The first thing Watson noticed on entering the hovel was the strong smell of drink on Elizabeth’s breath. This was not unusual, he told a later inquest, in this part of town.
“Elizabeth was nursing her four-day-old daughter on her knee, and both mother and baby were showing signs of great distress,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.
“Elizabeth’s condition could be put down to the amount of liquor she had consumed, but Isabella’s condition was something quite different.”
“What are you feeding the child on?” demanded the doctor, after spotting crumbs around the baby’s mouth. “Biscuits” answered the woman, leaving Dr Watson dumbstruck.
“Biscuits!” the doctor echoed. “That is most improper, feeding a four-day-old baby with biscuits.” After a stern telling off, he prescribed some medicine and went about his duties.
“Needless to say, Isabella slipped from life before the day was over. Then the good doctor had a sudden thought – hadn’t eight of Elizabeth’s other babies died in similar circumstances?
“This was a job for Coroner Crofton Maynard – and the police.” A few days later, at the Newcastle Arms Public House in Sunderland Street, the jury were sworn in for an official inquest and the sad case of Isabella Simpson unfolded before an astonished crowd.
“Elizabeth Simpson was being her usual belligerent self, and a battle royal would soon be raging betwixt herself and Dr Watson,” said Norman.
“Indeed, when Coroner Maynard asked about Isabella’s diet, Elizabeth claimed she had been unable to produce breast milk, and therefore fed the poor mite on biscuits from birth instead.
“But Dr Watson contradicted this, saying he was sure he had seen evidence of breast milk on the woman’s clothing. A barrage of accusations and arguments then followed.”
Eventually, Coroner Maynard asked the question most people in the jury and watching crowd had been asking themselves: “Why didn’t you get some cow’s milk instead?”
“Because I fed my other children on biscuits,” the unrepentant woman answered.
“How many children have you had?” she was asked.
“And how many are still living?”
“One,” replied Simpson.
“The coroner – as well as everyone else there present – let out a collective gasp of astonishment,” according to newspaper reports of the case at the time,” said Norman.
“According to Elizabeth, all of her children had died within a few days of being born – and all had been fed on biscuits. That one had actually survived was nothing short of a miracle.”
Coroner Maynard was obviously left disgusted by her answer. “There is not another woman in England that has had 10 children and would not know feeding them on biscuits was killing them,” he spat out.
Simpson, however, was unmoved. Indeed, it was only when midwife Mrs Finnegan brought up the evidence of breast milk on Simpson’s clothes again, that the ‘grieving mother’ rallied herself to speak.
“She started calling all persons medical a bunch of liars, but the coroner was left in a quandary. Was the feeding of the biscuits to her baby wilful murder, or was it due to ignorance?” said Norman.
“Eight of her children had died in similar circumstances, so surely she would have learned by now! Hadn’t the learned doctor been convinced that Simpson was quite capable of breast feeding?”
Eventually, Coroner Maynard opted to adjourn the tragic case to allow a post-mortem examination to be carried out on little Isabella – to find out, once and for all, just what had killed her.
He warned Simpson to expect swift justice at the gallows, however, if her daughter’s death by convulsions was found to have been sparked by a deliberate action.
One week later, a rather sheepish Dr Watson appeared before the coroner to announce that the child’s stomach had been found to contain only a tiny amount of milky fluid – and nothing else.
“At only four pounds in weight, little Isabella was in a desperate state. To make matters worse, the child only had one kidney. But, significantly, there was no evidence of biscuit feeding,” said Norman.
“The coroner was most unhappy about many aspects of this case, but had to reluctantly agree the only proper verdict was that Isabella Simpson had died from convulsions brought about by improper feeding.
“Elizabeth Simpson was once again a free woman, but she did not set foot into Sunderland Street until she had been given a very stern dressing down by the coroner.”
Nodding towards the woman, Maynard told her: “You have only escaped going to trial for murder by the skin of your teeth. Let this serve as a warning to you and everyone else who has children.”
The coroner had little doubt that eight tiny lives had been lost due to Elizabeth Simpson’s scant regard for the welfare of her new-born children, but was unable to act without further evidence.
“Had Dr Watson been able to convince the inquest that the act was deliberate, then Simpson may have been facing charges as the second serial killer in Sunderland’s history.
“She, like Mary Ann Cotton a few years before her, would have become a household name.
As it was, she and her nine dead babies were confined to obscurity – until now that is.”
•Find out more about Wearside’s history by visiting Sunderland Antiquarian Society at 6 Douro Terrace. The society’s archives are open each Wednesday and Saturday from 9.30am-Noon.