Wearside Echoes: Murderous Mackems

PUB SCENE: The Clipper Ship Hotel in Victor Street - close to where Jane's home was.
PUB SCENE: The Clipper Ship Hotel in Victor Street - close to where Jane's home was.
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JANE Rigg lay dying on the fireside rug of her neighbour’s home just days before Christmas 1888 – with Catholic clergyman Dr Morgan refusing to leave her side.

“He watched and waited for any last words she may be capable of speaking. Never in his life had he seen a young woman in such a pitiful condition,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Jane’s eyes were swollen and blackened, her neck bled from a deep cut and her thumb was slashed to the bone. Her body was covered in so many bruises that he could not count them.”

Just three days earlier, when Mary Ann Carter called at Jane’s flat in Victor Street, Monkwearmouth, things had seemed fine.

“They even sent out to Dundas Street for a mountain of peas and pies and beer,” said retired police inspector Norman, author of a soon-to-be-published book on Murderous Mackems.

“When Jane’s husband Billy Riggs came back home for a while, the mood darkened, but he ate his share and went back out on the beer.”

Billy’s return after several more pints was to end in bloody murder.

“He came home with a drinking pal, who asked how Billy’s last stretch in prison had gone,” said Norman. “Jane immediately stiffened, as she knew this chat could lead to violence.

“Billy had earned his two months in jail for beating Jane senseless back in August, time that he would not have had to endure if Jane hadn’t grassed him to the police.

“As Billy’s pal asked the questions, Jane frantically whispered: ‘Shhh! Please let the subject drop.

“But it was too late. Once the friend had gone, Billy decided it was time for revenge.”

Picking up a knife, Billy yelled “I’m going to murder you!” As their three small children cowered in a corner of the tiny room, he brandished the blade in her face.

“Jane fought off blow after blow,” said retired police officer Norman, who now works as a forensic artist.

“When the knife flashed at her face, she grabbed at the blade to protect herself.

“She screamed as it sliced through the flesh of her thumb but, as Rigg came at her again, he did not miss.

“The knife pared the flesh of her neck and blood spurted out on to the walls.”

Jane collapsed on to the floor with a thump. Upstairs, Mary Robson and her 17-year-old son heard the poor woman moaning in pain until well after 2am the next day – but did nothing to help.

“As she lay on the blood-stained floor, with the kids screaming around her, Jane knew this would probably be the last time Billy Rigg would be able to hurt her,” said Norman.

“It is not clear how long she lay bleeding but, the next day, she found the strength to pick herself up and drag herself a few doors along the street to her best friend’s house.”

Hannah Hull could not believe what she was seeing as Jane collapsed in front of her fire. Her friend’s hair was caked in blood, her eyes almost shut and her body blackened by bruises.

Hardly able to speak, Jane begged Hannah to send a telegram to her mother in South Shields. “Tell her to come at once. Tell her I’m almost done,” Jane urged. Hannah obeyed her wishes.

Later that night, Billy Rigg paid an unexpected visit to the South Shields home of Jane’s sister, Catherine Donnelly, who obviously couldn’t believe the man’s gall.

“How’s your wife?” she asked, to which Billy answered: “I didn’t know that anything was the matter with her!” The reply prompted her to reveal details of the telegram.

“Rigg told his astonished sister-in-law that it was the best news he had heard all day, then he threw a key at her. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘I’ve locked her in – I’m going to Scotland.

“Back in Monkwearmouth, police were called to investigate the assault and Detective Constable Atkinson, visited the Rigg’s rooms in Victor Street.

“He found the place almost wrecked, with blood splashed on the walls and floors. The three terrified bairns were still there, shivering in their nightclothes.”

As Jane lay dying on the hearth mat of her neighbour’s home on December 11, 1888, Rigg was finally tracked down – wandering the streets as if nothing had happened.

He was arrested following a fist fight with a police officer and, after hearing the news, Jane’s friends carried her back home – where she was laid gently on her own bed and given the last rites.

Two months later, on February 23, 1889, Rigg appeared before Durham Assizes and was sentenced to be hanged. In a strange turn of events, he was reprieved at the last minute.

“Such was the feeling of anger that this violent thug had escaped the noose that the folks of Sunderland launched a petition to reverse the decision,” said Norman.

“Just as a people’s newspaper should, the Echo volunteered to hold the petition in their offices. Sadly, Rigg died in prison.”

l More tales can be found on www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk