WEARSIDE ECHOES: Crime and punishment - Victorian style

Durham Jail July 1957 old ref number 18-2068
Durham Jail July 1957 old ref number 18-2068
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THE date of August 2, 1875, saw three County Durham murderers brought together for the first – and last – time, to face the punishment metered out by cost-cutting Victorian officials.

“The first was a young woman, Elizabeth Pearson, who was found guilty of murdering her uncle at Gainford, between Barnard Castle and Darlington,” said local historian Colin Clifford.

“Elizabeth had taken over as housekeeper for her uncle, James Watson, following the death of his wife. Soon money and small objects began vanishing, and James became suspicious.”

The poor health suffered by James left him unable to take action and, as her petty crimes went unpunished, so it was claimed Elizabeth started to plot his death to claim his money.

“To this end, she added two packets of Beatties powder, a strychnine-based rat poison, to his medication. He immediately doubled up in agony and fell to the floor dead,” said Colin.

“But James’s son became suspicious of his father’s death, which had all the symptoms of poisoning, and obtained a post mortem examination. It revealed large quantities of strychnine in his stomach.”

Elizabeth pleaded not guilty at her trial, claiming she had no reason to murder her uncle and that the poison must have been administered by the lodger who had since left.

“Unimpressed, the jury took just one hour to find her guilty and the judge, Baron Huddlestone, pronounced the death sentence,” said Colin, who lives in Grangetown.

The second murderer with a date with justice on August 2, 1875, was labourer Michael Gilligham, 22, who had been found guilty of killing fellow Irishman John Kilcran ‘without provocation.’

Kilcran was fatally injured after being attacked by a gang of Irish youths in Darlington on April 10, 1875. Witnesses testified Gilligham struck Kilcran about the head with an iron bar.

“Medical evidence showed Kilcran died from severe brain injuries, the bar having pierced his forehead,” said Colin.

“Mr Justice Huddlestone sentenced Gilligham to hang with no recommendation for clemency, owing to the severity of the ‘unwarranted attack’ which had cost a young man his life.”

The third case with a link to August 2 involved Durham man William McHugh, who was tried for the murder of Thomas Mooney at Barnard Castle on April 11, 1875.

“A witness testified that he saw McHugh, accompanied by another man, William Gallagher, drag Mooney down into Fryers Yard in Barnard Castle,” said Colin.

“The victim, who seemed insensible either from injury or drink, was then placed on top of a wall and pushed into the river, although Gallagher refused to help McHugh with the final deed.

“Mooney was lost in the swirling waters of the River Tees.”

Both McHugh and Gallagher stood trial for murder at Durham Assizes. Gallagher was found not guilty, however, although the judge condemned his failure to stop McHugh and save Mooney.

McHugh tried to plead his innocence too, but the evidence and witness statements were ‘overwhelming’ and Judge Barron Huddlestone donned his black cap to deliver his verdict.

“There is a common thread between these three crimes. Well, not a thread but a rope,” said Colin. “On August 2, 1875, at 8.03am, all three were executed by hangman William Marwood at Durham.

“Apparently, hanging two or three people at a time was a common occurrence, as it saved on the cost of erecting the scaffold, as well as payments for the hangman’s expenses.”

* Look out for another crime and punishment story from Colin in Wearside Echoes next week.

Sidebar: Other hangings in Durham during the decade of the triple execution

* January 13, 1873: Hugh Slane and John Hayes, for the murder of Joseph Wain, at Spennymoor.

* March 24, 1873: Sunderland-born Mary Ann Cotton, for poisoning her step-son, Charles Edward Cotton, at West Auckland. Other crimes suspected.

* January 5, 1874: Charles Dawson, for the murder of Margaret Addison at Darlington; Edward Gough for the murder of James Partridge near Marley Hill and William Thompson, for the murder of his wife at Annfield Plain.

* December 28, 1874: Hugh Daly, for the murder of Philip Burdey at Dipton.

* July 6, 1876: John Williams, for the murder of his brother-in-law, John Wales, at Edmondsley.

* July 30, 1878: Robert Vest, for the murder of John Wallace, on a ship docked in Sunderland.

* November 16, 1880: William Brownless, for the murder of Elizabeth Holmes, at Evenwood, near Bishop Auckland.

* May 16, 1882: Thomas Fury for the murder of Maria Fitzsimmons, stabbing her in the breast at a house in Baines Lane, Sunderland.