Wearside Echoes: Enter the dragon with murder plot

BYGONE DAYS: This Victorian cartoon depicts the murder of a pitman at Monkwearmouth.
BYGONE DAYS: This Victorian cartoon depicts the murder of a pitman at Monkwearmouth.
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WEARSIDE woman Eliza Foxall was certainly looking to the future when she insured the life of her young husband for a hefty sum in 1887.

And, with weekly instalments of just threepence, the policy was nothing short of a bargain – especially as she planned to cash it in early.

“Eliza and her husband Henry did not get along too well and in September 1886, after two years of marriage, they parted company,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

During the following months, Eliza spent much of her time in Hartlepool, where she visited a fortune teller and spell-maker called Mary Ann Scrafton. The latter, a well-built woman well into middle age, was renowned for her potions – these being designed to procure life or death.

“Eliza was happy to cross the old hag’s palm with silver to learn what the future had in store,” said Norman, author of new book Murderous Wearside Volume Two.

“Once the usual clouds had cleared from the crystal ball, Scrafton informed her client that she was married to a real bad one and that he would always be that way.”

“I can get shot of him very easily for you,” added Mary – an offer which made twenty-something Eliza prick up her ears in interest. Indeed, she quickly handed over a further five shillings to the witch – more than £100 in today’s money – in return for some very special instructions.

“Put your shoes in the shape of a “T” before bed,” Mary explained. “Eat nothing from 10pm until midnight, and speak to no one from 11.45pm – then everything will be alright!”

“Huh! Five shillings for that load of old twaddle?” said retired police inspector Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Oh yes, there was also the certain matter of a powder that had to be slipped into Henry’s bedtime cocoa. Now that was more like it!”

Eliza opted to return to the matrimonial lodgings in Crowtree Terrace to carry out her evil plan and just days later, took out the insurance policy on poor Henry.

“Is he in good health?” enquired 19-year-old insurance clerk Joseph Armstrong. “Oh yes,” Eliza assured him. “He would have come today, but he is working in a bar.”

“It is customary to see the insured person,” the young apprentice replied. “Does your husband actually know that you are taking out the insurance?”

Eliza, for once, was honest. “No,” came her reply, “but I promise to tell him upon the first available opportunity.” She didn’t, of course.

Back at Crowtree Terrace, Henry Foxall, a man of habit, enjoyed his nightly cup of coffee at around 8pm, before retiring to his bed chamber.

“Funny thing was, his nightcap had started to taste rather odd. Another funny thing was those pains he was having in his stomach and that furry tongue,” said Norman.

“Suddenly, Henry was not at all a well man.”

Life continued as near to normal as possible, however, until Eliza popped out one day to see her aunt, Ann Short, who lived over the river at 12 Rothsay Street.

It was Ann’s usual practice to take in letters for the Foxalls and, shortly after Henry started having his bad turns, Eliza turned up to see if there was any post.

“From Hartlepool?” asked Ann. Eliza nodded. How did she know? “I’ve given it to Henry” her aunt added with a face as straight as a poker.

Eliza’s own face slowly changed colour as she exclaimed: “It was from my mother! You should have given it to me.” Ann was unrepentant.

“Is that so?” she asked. “Well, I’ve heard it read.” Eliza was in lather now. “It...it was a cure for love,” she mitigated, but Ann just laughed.

“It’s a funny cure for love that mentions the last dose not being strong enough and that the next would put him out of his life for good!”

Eliza’s knees buckled and she fainted. Once back on her feet, however, she was forced to return home – where Henry was waiting for her.

“Although he had lost a couple of stones, and had a sudden aversion to bedtime drinks, the poor lad had enough strength to confront his wife about the letter,” said Norman.

“Eliza flew into a rage and, after admitting trying to do away with him, launched into an unprovoked attack and attempted to strangle the life out of the poor bloke.”

After fighting her off, Henry managed to ask what he had been fed to make him so ill.

“Dragon’s blood!” Eliza spat. “From a fortune teller in Hartlepool.”

Henry’s complaint, and the corroboration of a local doctor who testified to the chap’s dwindling bulk, sparked a flurry of activity down at Sunderland police office.

Eliza and Mary Ann Scrafton ended up in adjoining cells and on September 23 1887, more than 2,000 people waited outside the law courts for the pair to make an appearance.

“Those in the public galleries would soon be roaring with laughter as witnesses were asked if they had found any dragon’s blood lying about in Crowtree Terrace,” said Norman.

“Doctor John Wood further entertained the crowds with his monologue on the subject of furry tongues and stuff that might have caused the kind of sickness Henry had suffered.”

“Stuff like mushrooms and crabs?” countered the defence, to loud guffaws of mirth.

“After a silly interlude, where the only two people not finding proceedings amusing were the defendants, they were bailed to attend court at a future date,” said Norman.

“But it wasn’t until after 9pm that the crowds outside thinned sufficiently for the fortune teller and her client to escape into the night.”

Their return trip to the Assizes took place on Match 7, 1888, when the women were charged with administering a “destructive and noxious” substance to inflict grievous bodily harm.

The Sunderland Echo reported both prisoners were pale, drawn and anxious-looking. The fortune teller, it was noted, had lost a lot of weight during her nervous wait for sentence.

“Mary Ann, who had procured the white powder that had caused Henry’s near fatal demise, was sentenced to seven years in prison, while Eliza was awarded five,” said Norman.

“From that day to this, Sunderland has never had another case where dragon’s blood was cited as the substance used to bring about a murder.

“And for five years at least, Henry enjoyed his bedtime cocoa without the fear that it would fur up his tongue and probably finish him off.”

** Murderous Wearside Volume Two costs £7.99. It can be ordered from Norman on 07765 635 128 and is available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society each Saturday between 9.30am and noon. Alternatively, send a cheque for £8.99, which includes postage, to Norman c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX.