On Saturday, 20th February, 1869, the body of Maria Fitzsimmons was found under the bed of her room at 44 Baines’s Lane, Sunderland.
The Shields Daily Gazette, published the story of the circumstances behind the murder in its edition of Monday, 22nd February 1869:-
MURDER AT SUNDERLAND
“A most horrible murder was discovered to have been committed at Sunderland, on Saturday night last, the victim being an “unfortunate” named Maria Fitzsimmons, and the supposed murderer an Irish-Yankee seaman, whose name is at present unknown.
The deceased was an Irishwoman, 34 years of age, and well known to the police, having been some 23 times before the magistrates charged with drunkenness and robberies. She resided in Baines’s Lane, one of the worst parts of the east end of Sunderland, a locality that is the home for the lowest class of Irishwomen of her class and thieves. She occupied the middle portion of a miserable three-storeyed house – one room a storey, the upper and lower parts being untenanted.
The man, whom there is little doubt committed the murder, had been with her all Friday night, and they were drinking together on Saturday morning. In one public-house he appeared to have some money, and several half-crowns were seen in her hand. Later in the day, he was in a beer-house kept by a man named Dignan, in Baines’s Lane, where he left a neck scarf for a pint of beer.
CRIES OF MURDER
About eleven o’clock in the forenoon, some neighbours on the opposite side of the lane where the deceased lived heard cries of “Murder,” and, going across, found her standing at the head of her stairs, the man being in the house. She alleged that he had attempted to choke her, while he accused her of attempting to rob him. They were both pacified, and left in the house together.
About one o’clock, Fitzsimmons went to the room of a girl named Wilkinson, on the other side of the lane, and while she was sitting there the sailor followed her in, and wanted her to return home and give him his coat and stockings, in which case he “would say nothing about his money.” He then kissed her, and they left with their arms round each other’s neck, apparently on the most amicable terms.
Some time later on in the afternoon, the deceased was again heard shouting murder from her window. The man was seen behind her to pull her back; but as she was drunk all the morning, though the man was sober, little attention appears to have been given to her.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE BODY
Nothing more was heard or seen until ten o’clock at night, when a woman who had come to Sunderland from Monkwearmouth to see the deceased, went to her house. She found the outer door open, went upstairs, and, the room door being on the latch, opened it, and found all in darkness. She then went out, and meeting a girl named Nodle, they went back to the house, having first got a light.
On entering the room they were horror-stricken at beholding a pool of blood on the floor, which had flowed from under the bed, and looking underneath it, saw the body of Fitzsimmons. They did not at first suppose she had been murdered, but pulled the body out, and found she was dead. Her face was covered with coagulated blood and her clothes were soaked with gore, which had flowed from wounds on the breast.
THE POLICE ARRIVE
The police were quickly informed of the circumstance, and Mr Evans, surgeon, was summoned, but he was of no use, as the woman had been dead for some hours, and was cold and rigid.
An examination of the bed led to the belief that the woman had been sitting on the edge of it when the murderer had struck her a series of blows with a sharp-pointed small-bladed knife on the region of the heart.
Not less than ten wounds were discovered on a space not larger than the palm of a man’s hand. Three of these blows penetrated to and entered the heart, making a hole large enough for the insertion of a finger.
The dress and the chemise of the deceased were shown to correspond by cuts. In the opinion of the medical man, death must have been instantaneous.
After receiving the wounds, the woman must have fallen back on the bed, and the murderer seeing her dead, lifted the body off, and placed it under the bed, putting it well behind, to escape the observation of anyone entering the room.
TIME OF THE MURDER
He was not seen to leave e the place, and the state of the body showed that the crime must have been committed some time in the afternoon; it is supposed that he remained alone in the house with the body of his victim until darkness enabled him to steal away unobserved.
He had not been seen before that morning, and though the police had obtained a description of his appearance, they knew nothing of him beyond that.
During the night many shops were searched, but no traces of him could be obtained.
When the intelligence of the crime was made known, the most intense excitement prevailed, and during yesterday crowds gathered discussing the circumstances.
Yesterday morning, Mr Evans, Mr Frances, and Mr Arbrath, surgeons, made a post mortem examination.
Chief-Constable Stainsley and the detectives are busily engaged in endeavouring to trace the criminal.
Yesterday, officers were despatched in various directions, and the police have hope of tracing the murderer.
After the post mortem examination, some females discovered two half-crowns concealed in the stockings the deceased wore.
DESCRIPTION OF THE MURDERER
The supposed murderer is believed to be an Irish-Yankee seaman, who had been in her company, and was heard to say that he belonged to a ship at Pallion.
He described as being 5 feet 8 inches high, between 25 and 30 years of age, and a fair and fresh complexion, with a turf of ginger hair on his chin about an inch long.
His dress consisted of a dark “cheesecutter” cap, blue flannel shirt, blue worsted guernsey, ribbed front, but with a “rent” in one of the shoulders ; moleskin trousers, coburg boots, and a brownish coloured reefer, which he sometimes wore on his arm.”
THE SUNDERLAND MURDER
CAPTURE OF THE SUSPECTED MURDERER
The Cambridge Independent Press, on Saturday, 27th February 1869, broke the news that a suspect who answered the description had been arrested:-
“The man suspected of the murder of Maria Fitzsimmons. at Sunderland, on Saturday night, was captured on Wednesday at Middlesborough.
When the coal trimmers at the dock were getting dinner, about noon, one of them read an account of the coroner’s inquest at Sunderland from a newspaper, which also contained a description of the suspected murderer. It was noticed that a sailor appeared very nervous at hearing the description read, and somewhat abruptly left.
Police-constable Tyreman, of the Marlesborough police, was on duty near the spot, and after a smart walk effected a capture at Cargo Fleet, about half-a-mile from the dock.
The prisoner was taken to the police station, and was found to answer the description. He said he came from the United States, was of Irish extraction, that he landed from a ship at Shields last week, was at Sunderland at the time of the murder, and left for Middlesbrough on the Sunday morning.
The authorities at Sunderland were immediately apprised of the capture. At seven o’clock the same night, an officer and woman arrived from Sunderland.
The prisoner gave the name of Chas. Wight, and said he was a native of Massachusetts. The woman thought that this face had a resemblance, and the police decided to detain him for further identification.”
THE SUPPOSED SUNDERLAND MURDER
The Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury Saturday, 6th March, 1869:-
“The man Charles Wight, who was arrested on suspicion of having murdered Maria Fitzsimmons at Sunderland, was taken before the magistrates at Middlesborough the 25th ult. He was committed to prison for ten days for wandering about without any visible means of subsistence.
His description in all respects tallies with that of the fellow for whom he had been taken, excepting that he wears a moustache.
A detective from Sunderland, and one of the witnesses at the inquest, came over with Superintendent Saggerson, but the witness, although struck with the resemblance, failed to identify the prisoner as the murderer; and two more witnesses were brought to Middlesborough, who, on seeing the prisoner, pronounced that was not the man.
Wight has not been able to give any good account of himself, and singularly enough, admitted having been Sunderland at the time of the murder.”
THE BAINES’S LANE MURDER
CAPTURE OF THE SUPPOSED MURDERER
However, as is revealed by the following article, which appeared in The Newcastle Journal on Thursday, 11th March, 1869, another suspect had been arrested:-
“Richard Anderson, formerly a soldier, was brought up before the Sunderland Magistrates yesterday, charged with the murder of Maria Fitzsimmons.
Two witnesses deposed to having seen him with deceased the night before and the morning of the murder.
Prisoner declared he was out of Sunderland ill at the time.
The case was remanded for week.”
THE SUNDERLAND MURDER
DISCHARGE OF THE PRISONER
A week later, The Newcastle Daily Chronicle, on Thursday, 18th March, 1869, revealed that Anderson had been cleared of having committed the murder:-
“The man Richard Anderson, who was apprehended a week ago on suspicion of being the murderer of Maria Fitzsimmons, was, yesterday, brought on remand before the Sunderland magistrates, when Mr. W. W, Robson stated that the prosecution did not consider their evidence sufficient to convict the prisoner, and would, therefore, advise his discharge.
Had the man told a truthful story at first be probably would not have been detained in custody for the time he had been.
It was found instituting inquiries that he had not come from, or been in, Aberdeen, as he had stated on being apprehended.
The prisoner was then discharged.”
SUPPOSED SUICIDE OF
THE SUNDERLAND MURDERER AT HARTLEPOOL
Then, on Saturday, 27th March, 1869, The Morpeth Herald, revealed that the murderer may have committed suicide:-
“On Monday afternoon, an inquest at the Borough Hall, at Hartlepool, some very startling facts were brought to light, which go far to prove that the murderer of the woman Maria Fitzsimmons, some few weeks ago, at Sunderland, has perished by drowning – probably by suicide, at Hartlepool.
On Saturday afternoon, the body of a man about 35 years of age, was taken out of the old harbour by a pilot’s assistant and one of the county police, which evidently had been a long time in the water.
A subsequent comparison of the dress the body was clothed in with the description of the Sunderland murderer, presented so many resemblances to justify the police laying the description before the coroner – the more so as the man could not be identified either in person or by his clothing.
After the jury viewed the remains, which presented a sad spectacle of decomposition, Mr. Coroner Settle took down the following evidence:-
THE PILOT’S EVIDENCE
Wm. Storey, pilot’s assistant, was the first witness, and he deposed to finding the body floating down the old harbour, on Saturday afternoon, and that, with some assistance, he got it to the side, and taking it out of the water, handed it over to the police.
He seemed to have been some time in the water.
P.C. Kay, of the county force, came up and took charge of the body. In his (witness’s) opinion the deceased was a landsman.
CONSTABLE KAY’S EVIDENCE
P.C. Kay said that he saw the last witness catch hold of the body, and helped to land it. After they did so, he searched the body, but found nothing at all upon it. It was greatly decomposed and discoloured, more particularly about the face.
Witness believed the deceased to have been 35 years of age ; his height about 5ft. 9in.; and of stoutish build; complexion fair; but he could not see what was the colour of the eyes. His nose was flat, and the face rather round than long. Hair light brown, and a “chin-ender,” which was redder and darker than the hair.
Witness quite believed that the body closely resembled that of the printed description of the murderer of Maria Fitzsimmons, issued by the Sunderland police authorities. He had on a brown double-breasted reefer jacket, with a thin blue jacket beneath it, blue striped shirt, fustian trousers, laced boots, which had been a good deal worn and the soles mended, and a pair of socks. The boots had toe-caps on. He wore no braces, but a leather belt.
SERGEANT HURWORTH’S EVIDENCE
Sargeant Hurworth, also of the Sunderland police, gave corroborative evidence as to the dress of the deceased, and expressed an opinion that in several respects it answered the description of the murderer of Maria Fitzsimmons, which bore the date March 10th, and was the fourth one which he had seen.
Thereon was also a reward offered by the Government for his apprehension.
DR STAMP’S EVIDENCE
Dr. Stamp gave evidence to his examination of the body, which he said he believed to have been a long time in the water. It was greatly decomposed, and the cheeks much swollen. The face was of a rather round type. The colour of the eye was not discernable. The bridge of the nose was broken. He believed drowning to have been the cause of death, as there were no other marks of violence, and this might have been, and most likely was, done after death on its coming into contact with something hard. The hands were clenched. Had the injury to the nose been done life it could not have caused death nor have accelerated it.
THE CORONER SUMS UP
This concluded the evidence, and the Coroner proceeded to lay before the jury the leading features of the case.
He laid particular stress upon the remarkable way in which many of the leading points in the description of the deceased were identical with those set forth in the placard describing the person believed to have committed the Sunderland murder; a fact which he held would, although it had nothing whatever to do with the duties the jurors were called on to perform, justify him in causing a complete copy of the depositions to be forwarded to the Sunderland police authorities, as if they by those means became satisfied that the two men were one or the same person, a vast amount of trouble and expense would be saved.
After a few moments of consultation, the jury returned a verdict, “That the deceased, unknown man, came to his death by suffocation, caused by drowning.”
THE APPREHENSION OF THE SUPPOSED SUNDERLAND MURDERER IN LONDON
However, on Saturday, 17th April, 1869, The Morpeth Herald revealed that yet another suspect had been arrested, this time in London:-
“On Monday afternoon, at the Justice Room of the Guildhall, London, Peter Connor was placed at the bar, before, Mr. Alderman Owden and Mr. Alderman Couston, in the custody of David Hawks and James Hann, two of the detective officers of the City of London police force, charged on suspicion of “wilfully murdering Maria Fitzsimmons, on the 20th February last, in her room in Baines’s Lane, Sunderland, by stabbing her in the breast in several places.”
The prisoner, when taken into custody, gave the name Peter Connor – under which name he stands charged – and his address and occupation, 4, Red Lion Court, Red Lion Lane, Wapping, lighterman.
The name of the man who is supposed to have committed the murder is Thomas Wall.
The case was watched behalf of the police by Inspector Scott, and there was a great degree of interest manifested in the proceedings by the public, who densely thronged the court.
On the prisoner being placed at the bar, he looked round the court somewhat anxiously, as if in quest of his friends, but, though he did not apparently recognise anybody, he wore a smiling demeanour.
JAMES HANN’S TESTIMONY
James Hann, examined by Mr. Martin, the chief clerk stated that he was a detective officer in the police force of the City of London.
On Saturday night, about ten o’clock, I was in the Falcon public house, in Fetter Lane. I was in company with Hawks, another officer, and I saw the prisoner there.
I told him that I was a police officer, and that I was going to take him into custody on suspicion of murdering a woman in February last in Baines’s Court or Baines’s Lane. I believe I said in Sunderland.
He said that he knew nothing about it, and that he never was in Sunderland in his life.
In endeavouring to remove him from the public house, he resisted very violently, but, with assistance, we took him to Fleet Street Station. There he was charged on suspicion of murdering the woman in Baines’s Lane, Sunderland.
He then made the same answer that he did before, that he never was in Sunderland, and was never further than Gravesend in his life, sea.
QUESTIONS FOR THE OFFICER
Alderman Owden:- “What led to your suspicion of him?”
The Witness:- “He answered the description of this bill” (producing the description of the supposed murderer).
The Witness added that a telegraphic message had been sent to Sunderland for witnesses of identification, but they could not be there until late that evening.
Alderman Owden (to the prisoner):- “I should have been glad to take the case this evening, but find the witnesses will not be here. You must be remanded till tomorrow.”
The Prisoner:- “Well, I can only say that I have worked for the last twelve years for Messrs. Wellock and Co., lightermen, Black Raven Court, Seething Lane, and if the foreman was here he could tell you all about me.”
The witness Hann:- “I have made inquiries there, and they do not know anything about him. He gave his mother’s address.”
The prisoner said that he had been working as a lighterman at the Victoria Docks for months past, and he could prove it.
Alderman Owden said that he must remand the case till next day, for the attendance of witnesses from Sunderland, and the prisoner was then removed in custody to the House of Detention.
INSPECTOR ELLIOTT SENT TO LONDON
The telegram from London, announcing the apprehension of the supposed murderer, was received by Chief-constable Stainsby in Sunderland about ten o’clock on Sunday night, and he sent a reply to the effect that he would send an officer.
Inspector Elliott was accordingly despatched by the first train on Monday morning, and he telegraphed to Mr. Stainsby that night that the prisoner was in Newgate, and could not be seen till Tuesday.
This afternoon, at the Guildhall police court, Peter Connor was again brought before Mr. Alderman Stone on the charge of being concerned in the wilful murder of Maria Fitzsimmons, on about the 20th of February last.
This morning, when the accused was placed at the bar, the evidence given by the detective officer having been read over, James Gilhowley said:_
“I live at 5, Baines’s Lane, Sunderland. The prisoner is not the man, though is like him in the face. That man standing in the dock, and who I see for the first time today, is not so tall as the man who has been suspected of the murder.”
Mr. Alderman Stone said that he must confess that the appearance of the man at the bar did not at all correspond with the description given in the handbills of the supposed murderer, and that the man at the bar would be discharged.
The result did not create much surprise, as the appearance of the prisoner and that of the suspected murderer as described was widely different.”
Evidently the police were thrashing about in the dark as far as suspects went and it seemed that the murder of Maria Fitzsimmons was destined, just like the Jack the Ripper murders nineteen years later, to become one of the Victorian periods unsolved crimes.
However, the case would be solved in 1882.