Who killed Sunderland widow Ann?

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ONE of Sunderland’s great unsolved mysteries features in today’s column.

THE day of April 9, 1834, dawned bright and clear over the coast at Hendon.

“The first coal pickers were already busy on the wet sands, raking over the debris left behind by the receding tide,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“After an hour’s graft, and with his sack already bulging with black gold, William Hay decided to try his luck nearer to the water’s edge.

“What he found there was definitely not coal – and his discovery was to prove to be one of Sunderland’s great unsolved mysteries.”

William’s “discovery” was a dead woman. She looked to be aged around 40, with long black hair and blood around her mouth and ears.

“Her dress was gathered around her waist; something a respectable Georgian gentleman should never see,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

William shouted to another coal picker for help, 15-year-old Wilkinson Craig, and together the two pals dragged the mystery lady to the dry sands below the cliff.

After adjusting her clothes to make the woman decent, they ran to the nearby workhouse to fetch the master, Mr Kent.

“By the time the Exchange clock chimed 6pm, four eminent surgeons were using a workhouse trestle table to perform a post-mortem examination,” said Norman.

“Despite the speed of their investigation, they had a hard time agreeing cause of death. The woman’s purse was still in her pocket – so robbery was ruled out.

“So why were her stays and underclothes bone dry when the outer clothes were wet? And why was her liver so dreadfully damaged, yet there were no external signs of assault?”

By the time an uneasy verdict of wilful murder had been brought about, the Town Watchman was already tolling his bell and calling out for witnesses to come forward.

“One hundred pounds reward is offered for the apprehension of the author of this awful crime ... Widow Woman’s body remains unidentified.”

At 9 Minorca Place, just yards from the workhouse, 13-year-old Susan Lumsden was watching nervously out of her window – hoping and praying her mother Ann would soon return home.

Ann had left home late the previous evening and, although she often enjoyed a good tipple, she had never before stayed out all night. Something was indeed very wrong. A constable’s knock at her door would spell out just how wrong and, after identifying Ann’s remains, the broken-hearted child related the events of the previous evening.

“At shortly after five on April 8, 1834, Ann – a recently widowed lady of meagre means –- had penned a letter and begged her daughter to run to the home of Thomas Hodgson in Hendon,” said Norman.

The girl was to hand over the letter and discreetly await the reply. Discretion was important, as Hodgson was a married man. Thomas’ response was: “Your note has been received and I purpose meeting you near the Engineer’s House, precisely at eight o’clock. Yours & etc.”

“Ann pulled on her black mourning dress, cloak and bonnet and left home 15 minutes before 8pm. Susan would never see her alive again,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But what happened between 8pm and 5am next morning? One by one, witnesses came forward to add yet another piece to the jigsaw.”

One witness, Henry Moor, had been passing by the Barracks at 8.50pm, when he spotted a man and a woman canoodling in the shadow of the building.

“The inquest was told the two clung to each other in a tender embrace,” said Norman. “The woman was looking out over the sea and her face was clearly visible. The man apparently had his back to Town Moor, but his fair whiskers were unmistakable. And coincidentally – Thomas Lumsden’s whiskers were thick and fair.”

Robert Davison, a mariner, had passed the Engineer’s House at 8.40pm. He had seen a widow woman in the company of a chap with sandy whiskers. The woman had been tipsy, he told the inquest.

As Davison collected sea coal, he turned frequently to see the pair walking backwards and forwards along the beach beneath Hendon Windmill.

And, in a moment of drama, Davison told the inquest that at one point he was no more than three yards from the couple. Pointing to Hodgson, he declared: “That is the man I saw, so help me God!”

William and Wilkinson were also called upon to tell the tale of their early-morning find, but the turn of Workhouse Master Kent to take the stand turned into a fiasco. Indeed, after he refused to swear an oath on “religious scruples,” he was sent to prison for a week by magistrate John Davison.

“Just to add to the confusion, the four surgeons then took it in turns to give conflicting evidence, during which it was grudgingly conceded that the woman had been suffocated,” said Norman.

“This would not go down well at Hodgson’s later trial, as the judge would point out that the woman’s eyes were not bulging from her head, so asphyxiation was unlikely.”

Hodgson offered an alibi consisting of publicans and his housekeeper.

But members of the inquest hearing chose not to believe the be-whiskered adulterer – and committed him to Durham Assizes for trial.

“Hundreds packed the court to hear a re-run of the inquest evidence, but this time the hearing was presided over by a judge who suffered no foolishness from the medical profession,” said Norman.

“The prosecution case slowly disintegrated and the learned judge was insistent the witnesses were motivated more by the £100 reward than public spiritedness. He also clouded cause of death by offering a fall from the cliff as a probable cause and, before Hodgson even took the stand, announced there was insufficient evidence to prosecute further.”

Thomas Hodgson walked from the court a free man. But how did Ann Lumsden meet her death – and by whose hands?

“She did not drown and her injuries were insufficient for a fall from the cliffs. And then there were the clothes – some wet, some dry. Yet another conundrum,” said Norman.

“The letter penned by the victim, and Hodgson’s promise to keep the tryst at Sunderland Barracks, must surely have placed the accused at the scene, yet others would swear that this was not the case. Whoever the sandy-whiskered man may have been – if not indeed Thomas Hodgson – his identity and events of April 8 would remain undiscovered.”

l Norman is the author of several local history books. These can be bought from Sunderland Antiquarian Society at 6 Douro Terrace each Saturday morning. 9.30am and noon, or on Wednesday mornings.