The snaggle-toothed murderer of Victorian Sunderland

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TODAY we feature a snaggle-toothed murderer who brought terror to Wearside in Victorian times

A REVOLUTION in murder investigations saw police officers combing crime scenes for clues and finger-prints at the dawn of the 20th century.

Just 40 years earlier, however, it was the job of police simply to remove dead bodies from the streets as quickly as possible – so as not to upset sensitive passers-by.

“But for one Sunderland murderer, the lack of crime scene protocols mattered little. He was caught simply because he had funny teeth,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

The day was Carling Sunday: April 2, 1865. At the Grapes Hotel in Dundas Street, traditional festivities were well under way – and drinkers were in the mood to celebrate.

“As the crowd chattered happily, so servant girl Mary Shields heaped piles of carling peas into a frying pan that was already sizzling away with melted butter,” said Norman.

“Daniel Keenan, an elderly foreman at Burdess’s Lime Works in Southwick, was obviously in good spirits, for he ordered a quart of beer to share among those drinking in the bar.

“Some of the men were workmates of his, but others had joined the company for the crack – and, of course, the free peas. Carling Sunday was, after all, a great Lent tradition.”

Most of the men at The Grapes that night were Irish labourers, of whom there were a good number in Monkwearmouth, and all but one was in the best of spirits.

At 5ft 4ins, Michael Fitzsimmons would not have stood out in a crowd, but what he lacked in physical stature he made up for with his mouth.

“Without warning, Fitzsimmons suddenly launched into a verbal assault on Daniel Keenan, who up until that time had been quite the convivial host,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

“Fitzsimmons had taken exception to the sacking of another Irishman, and made no bones about his feelings. As tempers raised, so did the voices of the two combatants.

“But after the carling peas were sent whizzing across the floor, the landlady decided enough was enough. Pointing to the door, she booted both men out into the night.”

When lime kilns employee George Cooke left the pub a few minutes later, heading for his home in Fighting Cock Yard, he discovered the fracas had continued in the street.

Keenan, according to old newspaper reports, was taking a beating and, when he spotted Cooke walking by, called out to his fellow worker: “George – this man has struck me!”

Cooke, ever loyal to his boss, approached Fitzsimmons and demanded: “What have you hit an old man for?” The wee Irishman’s only response was to run over and punch Keenan again.

“Cooke grabbed hold of Fitzsimmons, but suddenly felt a sharp pain as a knife was pushed into his arm. Staggering back, Cooke heard someone say ‘Dan is stabbed and dead’,” said Norman.

“The resulting commotion saw Fitzsimmons make good his escape as police rushed to the scene. Poor Daniel was carried to Dr Smith’s house in Dundas Street, but was beyond help.

“His coat was soaked in blood and he had suffered a two-inch stab wound to the neck. The jugular vein had been punctured and the resulting blood loss had brought about Daniel’s death.”

Police officers immediately launched a search for Fitzsimmons – but received little help. Indeed, the Irishman’s drinking companions were very reluctant to provide many details at all.

“The only description given to police was of ‘a little fella with rather funny teeth.’ Not much to go on, really,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But Sunderland Borough Police were renowned for their ingenuity. Bobbies were posted at every railway station and road out of town. By midnight, Sunderland was in lock-down.”

A full six days later, constables Moffatt and Hornsby were on patrol in Chester Road when a couple of likely suspects wandered nonchalantly past, heading for the Grindon Mill.

Approaching the men, the constables demanded names. “John Kelly,” responded the younger of the two. The other man stuttered a bit, before muttering: “Erm, John Kelly as well.”

“The officers naturally demanded explanations, but the lads assured them that they were cousins and had indeed both been christened John Kelly,” said Norman.

“Well, it could just have been plausible, but then constable Moffatt remembered the description he had been given. Those funny teeth.”

Turning to the younger John Kelly, the officer demanded: “Open your mouth.” The man duly responded, exposing a neat row of gnashers. “On your way,” nodded Moffatt.

But, as the ‘Kelly cousins’ started trudging up the street, the officers suddenly realised they had only carried out one identi-teeth parade. “Come back here, you two!” Hornsby yelled.

“The lads miserably responded, whereupon the elder of the two was ordered to open his mouth for inspection,” said Norman, who now works as a forensic artist for police forces worldwide.

As the diminutive Irishman’s jaw yawned open, PC Hornsby peered inside and immediately exclaimed in triumph: “These are the teeth and nothing else!”

“Thus, John Kelly Mark One, aka Michael Fitzsimmons, was dragged back to the police station – where he was duly charged with murder and remanded in custody,” said Norman.

The arresting officers did not get a chance to give their teeth-identifying evidence at the Assizes, however, for Michael Fitzsimmons had plans to avoid the ‘nonsense’ of a court trial.

“Whilst on remand in Durham Prison, he un-threaded one of his bootlaces and hung himself from the hinges of the great metal cell door,” said Norman.

“The murderer realised he would hang for his crimes anyway, and obviously thought that he would save the authorities the expense by doing the job himself.

“Elsewhere in the country, Carling Sunday is known by its religious title, Passion Sunday. One thing is for sure, passions were certainly raised that night on the old Barbary Coast.”

•Norman will be taking to the stage as Master of Ceremonies for a World War Two concert at Sunderland’s Old Parish Church, in Coronation Street, this Saturday. The event will feature songs, drama and dances from the 1940s, together with tributes to Wearside’s servicemen and women. The concerts starts at 7pm and tickets cost £5 for adults and £3 for children. To book, call 565 4835.