IT is a question which has long occupied the minds of criminologists – what turns someone into a murderer?
“Not every killer is a Ted Bundy or a Mary Ann Cotton – most are ordinary folk like you or me,” said local historian and retired Northumbria Police inspector Norman Kirtlan.
“If the ingredients are right, we are all capable of murder.”
in the early years of the 20th century, the ingredients for murder had been simmering for some time for Southwick man Alfred Johnson.
“Unemployment, drink and a family of nine people all crammed into two small rooms in Suddick Street were bad enough,” said Norman, who works as a forensic artist for the police.
“But add to that explosive mix a lazy, work-shy criminal son, and it was only a matter of time before matters came to a head. On Tuesday, November 10, 1903, the scene was set for a tragedy.”
Alfred treated himself to a few drinks that night, though he could barely afford it, before leaving the Sun Inn to collect his youngest children from a neighbour’s house.
But, as he ushered them into the terraced cottage he shared with another family, Alf was immediately confronted by his eldest son, Ernest, lounging on the sofa.
“The lad was half dressed and drunk as usual. To make matters worse, Ernest was also in a dark and belligerent mood,” said Norman, who unearthed details of the story in old newspapers.
“The only money coming in at the time was 15-year-old John Johnson’s eight shillings a week pit wages and, with nine mouths to feed, the family was desperate for every penny.
“But, when Alfred enquired if Ernest was going to get himself a job instead of lounging about all day, his son simply answered ‘No!’”
As far as Alfred was concerned, enough was enough – and he ordered Ernest out of the house.
“If he wouldn’t work, then he would certainly not be taking food from the plates of the other bairns,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
Alfred ran into the kitchen and picked up a knife. Not for the first time, Ernest and he squared up – but young John stood between them and pleaded for sanity to prevail.
Eventually Ernest fell back on to the sofa, resuming his idle pose. Alfred, however, stood with his back to the fire, the knife still in his hand, staring at his work-shy boy and seething at his idle ways.
Then, fuelled by anger and drink, 54-year-old Alfred finally snapped.
“Running across the room, he plunged the knife into Ernest’s head, smashing it through his skull and into his brain,” said Norman.
“Without waiting to see the consequences of his actions, he ran from the house and up to Southwick Green, where he saw Police Constable Henderson on his evening patrols.”
Breathlessly, Alfred told the officer what had happened, repeatedly telling him, “He’ll be all right, though. I left the knife sticking in his head.”
But, as the two men made their way to Suddick Street, young John was doing his best to tend to his dying brother – pulling the knife out of his head and throwing it to the floor.
“Upon arrival, PC Henderson called for the assistance of a Dr Carruthers, who offered what little help he could to the dying man,” said Norman.
“Ernest was taken to Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital, where, despite the efforts of medical staff, he died the following day.”
Alfred was charged with the murder of his son and, standing in the dock a few weeks later, he had little option but to accept the consequences of his actions.
“He told the court Ernest had hurt his feelings for many years, but that he was sorry for what he had done. His apology was not, however, enough and he was sentenced to hang,” said Norman.
In a strange turn of fate, just before he was due to be executed, the Home Secretary granted Alfred a reprieve. Penal servitude for seven years would be his eventual fate.
“Alfred Johnson was just another ordinary man who could take the drudgery of life no longer,” said Norman. The ingredients for murder were all there, packed into two small rooms in Suddick Street. All it took was a good drink and a sharp knife.
“The Johnson family never stood a chance.”
l Look out for more grisly tales from Norman in Wearside Echoes next week, and on his website at www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk