THE two gravediggers cut an eerie silhouette as they toiled in the early morning mist surrounding a Bishop Auckland churchyard in February 1854.
Their task that day was not to dig a fresh grave, but to dig up a tiny coffin. Once finished, they carried the little white box to a woman waiting silently within the nearby church.
“Her eyes were red from crying, and it looked to the attending police officer as if she had been through the jaws of hell,” said Norman. “One thing was very sure - that hell was going to get worse. Much worse.”
Mary Thompson stood before the white coffin as the shroud was lifted, revealing the battered face of a little girl. As she collapsed in tears, she managed to murmur “Yes, that’s her. That’s my Margaret.”
The tragedy behind Margaret’s death had started to unfold just a few months before, when a gypsy girl hammered at the door of Mary and her husband Richard’s home in Minorca Place, Sunderland.
“Isabella Crozier cut a strange and pitiful figure as she begged for work,” said Norman. “And, although money was tight, stonemason Richard agreed to let her help out around the house.”
Things went well for a while, until little Margaret’s clothes started to go missing. Isabella was accused of the theft, but allowed to keep her job. The next day, however, she disappeared with the 18-month-old tot.
Newspaper appeals and a poster campaign failed to track down the missing pair. Nothing was heard for several months - until a scruffy young gypsy turned up at Bishop Auckland Workhouse with a baby.
“Isabella did little over the next few days, other than sit by the fire holding the thin and malnourished baby close to her,” said Norman.
“But when one of the inmates noticed blood seeping through the baby’s shawl, suspicions were raised. The little girl was found to be stone cold and had been dead for some time.”
Poor Margaret had suffered “massive head trauma” before her death, and investigations revealed “it was clear great force had been used against the defenceless creature.”
And while Isabellla claimed the toddler had “fallen against the bed,” the blood spatters discovered on the mantle shelf told a different story. Margaret had been brutally murdered.
“It transpired that Isabella had lost her own child some years ago, and had thereafter been overcome by a serious mental disorder,” said Norman.
“In her more lucid moments she seemed quite normal, by once pressurised by events - such as the baby screaming - the switch was flicked and she would turn into pure evil.”
As Isabella was led away to face a life in an institution for the criminally insane, Margaret and Richard Thompson faced up to a life without their beloved daughter - all because they tried to help a woman in need.
Sidebar: Body snatchers
BODY-SNATCHING was undeniably a lucrative trade in 19th century Sunderland - but two Scottish medical students who attempted to steal the corpse of a young girl soon fell foul of the law.
John Weatherley, 24, and Thomas Thompson, 23, were indicted at Durham on January 13, 1824, for removing the remains of 10-year-old Elizabeth Hedley from Sunderland Churchyard.
“At the time of her burial, Elizabeth’s father, Captain Hedley of Burleigh Street, had not completed the purchase of her grave, so she was buried in a temporary plot,” said Norman.
“But on December 25, 1823, when this grave was opened up with the intention of removing her to her final resting place, it was found to be already empty.”
Further investigations revealed the body of two-year-old child was also missing from its grave, and the finger of suspicion soon fell on the two Scotsmen - who were arrested within the churchyard grounds.
“Given half a chance, an angry mob would have stoned Thompson to death, and police threatened to hand him over to them if he didn’t tell them where he was lodging,” said Norman.
“Reluctantly, he gave in and told them his address. It was there that officers found the body of Elizabeth, packed in straw in a box, and ready to be sent to an address in Leith Street, Edinburgh.”
A number of human teeth - the trade in teeth also being extremely lucrative - were also discovered, together with receipts for six boxes similar to the one Elizabeth was found packed in.
Thompson pleaded guilty to stealing Elizabeth’s body, while Weatherley argued that he was innocent. Both men were sentenced to three months hard labour and fined sixpence.
Rather surprisingly, perhaps, local newspapers called for leniency in the sentencing, with one stating: “It is known that the living can be served by the dissection of the dead.
“A watchmaker might as well expect his apprentice to make a chronometer by looking at its case, as the public hope to secure the aid of skilful practitioners in surgery and medicine without allowing them an insight into the construction and formation of the human species.”