IT is not clear who had been frying Jack Richmond’s bacon – but it certainly wasn’t his wife.
“Elizabeth Richmond’s frying pan had not been used in love for some time, and the poor woman was none-too-pleased,” said Norman Kirtlan, who has just penned a book on Wearside murders.
“And so it was, on June 25, 1881 – when Jack finally returned home and produced four rashers – that Mrs R stood with her hands on her hips and enquired exactly what she should do with them.”
“My breakfast!” said Jack, nodding towards the rashers of best belly. “Fry my breakfast.”
Elizabeth, however, had had enough. Folding her arms across her pinny, she refused to do as she had been ordered.
“It was clear that something was going to sizzle that morning, and it wasn’t going to be Jack’s bacon sarnie,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
Jack’s visit to his Harper Terrace home was witnessed by a neighbour, Mrs Armstrong, who reported a “crash and a thud” followed just minutes later – before Jack hurried back out into the street.
“Being a good neighbour, she dashed downstairs. Pushing open the Richmond’s door, she saw what she believed to be a bundle of washing, with a big pool of blood underneath it,” said Norman.
“Her screams brought neighbours from near and far.
“Two of the less squeamish lifted Elizabeth. Blood oozed from her skull, and pieces of bone and brain were matted in the poor woman’s hair.”
Meanwhile, so an inquest into Elizabeth’s death at the Mountain Daisy pub was told, Jack Richmond made his way along Hylton Road, telling “all and sundry” about what he had done.
Millfield resident Hannah Patterson was the first to bump into him, with Jack wasting no time in telling the startled lady: “Be quick up and see her, as I’ve finished her this time.”
News of the savage beating quickly reached the ears of local bobby PC Hutton, who had to push through a packed crowd of onlookers to reach Mrs Richmond. She was still alive, but only just.
“Calling for a lad to fetch the ambulance barrow, he looked around the kitchen for evidence,” said Norman. “And there it was, lying under the table, a very bent and very bloody poker.”
As Elizabeth was carried off to the hospital, so her husband was confessing all to local hairdresser Alexander Sunley.
After revealing that Elizabeth had refused to fry his bacon, Jack added: “And then she turned and seized me! The passion got the better of me and I lifted the poker again and felled her with it. I left her for dead.”
The bones of Elizabeth’s skull were left “in shards” by the attack, while her brain a “pulpy mess”. It took several hours, however, for her to die.
In a strange twist of fate, Jack was duly sentenced to death at the gallows – but for some reason a petition was raised by Sunderland folk. He was reprieved and served a custodial sentence instead.
“It seems as though, while bacon very definitely sent Jack into a sizzle, porridge had the opposite effect,” said Norman.
“Seven years later, on May 11, 1888, the Sunderland Daily Echo carried a small article concerning Jack’s rehabilitation – and revealed he had been released.”
Sidebar: Shocking murder
A murder shocked the village of Bishopwearmouth in Victorian times – and brought work at Robson’s Flour Mill to a very sudden halt.
“Elizabeth Cook was struggling to make ends meet in the spring of 1888, just as so many other people were,” said Norman. “But a knock at the door was to change her life.”
The caller was Mary Stockdale, who carried her baby Robert and looked “bedraggled and tired” as Elizabeth invited her into her rooms in South Johnson Street.
“It’s the babby I’ve come to see you about, Bessie,” said Mary. Elizabeth looked puzzled. She knew the five-week-old child was illegitimate, but didn’t want to be drawn into a debate.
Mary reassured her: “I’ve got a job now, Bessie, and I need someone to look after him; half a crown a week if you can do it.” Elizabeth was happy to help and a deal was struck.
As spring slipped into summer, Robert and his “new mother” thrived. It was a match made in heaven – until Mary turned up in late September with the troubles of the world on her shoulders.
“I know a farmer that wants a baby,” she told Elizabeth. “I’m going to give him away.” Elizabeth was unhappy, but could do nothing. In the end, however, the deal fell through.
“At this time, Mary was living with the Hunter family at Gibson Terrace, just off Chester Road,” said Norman.
“The Hunters were aware their servant slipped away now and again to see her child.
“But on February 2, 1888, just as the bells of St Michael and All Angels church were ringing out for evening mass, she paid a visit to Mrs Cook which lasted a lot longer than normal.”
It was a filthy night, with a howling wind and rain that bounced up from the pavement. “I’ve come for the bairn, Bessie,” Mary told her.
The Cooks tried their best to deter Stockdale from taking the child, but Mary was insistent. “It’s my bairn and I’ll do what I want!” she told them.
Later that evening, when an out-of-breath and sweating Mary arrived back at the Hunters, she was very much alone. Little Robert was nowhere to be seen.
Just one day later, as William Clark, a fireman at Robson’s Flour Mill, was on his usual morning patrol, he spotted something bobbing up and down in the factory pond – a baby.
“Mary answered herself when Police Inspector Carter rapped at the door of the Carter’s home. “You’ll have to come to the station with me,” he told her.
“I really do not know what I’ve been thinking about. I could not have been in my right mind,” the distraught women told officers when questioned.
“Never a truer word was spoken,” said Norman. “Mary most definitely was not in her right mind when, for reasons no one could possible fathom, she collected Robert from the Cook’s house.
“She carried the screaming child to the tall limestone walls that surrounded the mill, and threw him over the wall and into the pond. Within a few minutes, face down in the water, he drowned.”
It took a jury just 15 minutes to return a verdict of wilful murder against Mary, and she was sentenced to hang. Her sentence, however, was eventually changed to life imprisonment.
“Sometimes a crime is committed which doesn’t make sense. No matter how hard we try, we cannot find a motive that will fit the circumstances This is just that sort of crime,” said Norman.
** Norman’s new book Murderous Wearside costs £7.99. It can be ordered from him on 07765 635 128. Alternatively, send a cheque for £7.99 to Norman Kirtlan, c/o the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Sunderland Minster, High Street, Sunderland SR1 3ET.