Maria Fitzsimmons was murdered on 20th February 1869, and, despite the fact that several men were arrested for her murder, charges against them were dropped, and, by the end of the year, it seemed that, just like the Jack the Ripper murders nineteen years later, the perpetrator of the crime had escaped justice.
However, in 1882, a confession from a convicted felon provided the breakthrough that meant that the killer of Maria Fitzsimmons was finally brought to justice.
The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette broke the story of the confession in its edition of Wednesday, 12th April, 1882:-
THE MURDER MARIA FITZSIMMONS
CONFESSION OF THE CRIME
PRISONER BEFORE THE MAGISTRATES.
“The murderer Maria Fitzsimmons has made a confession of the crime, and yesterday was brought to Sunderland from Pentonville gaol, in the charge of two warders and two police officials.
He was undergoing 15 years’ penal servitude for attempted murder and burglary in Norfolk, having been tried and found guilty, under the name of Charles Henry Cort, at the Summer Assizes at Norwich in 1879. His real name is Thomas Fury, but he has several aliases, one being Thomas Wright and another that under which he is at present undergoing sentence.
The police authorities have always looked upon him as the murderer, and he would have been brought to Sunderland in 1879 and charged with the crime had not some of the important witnesses been dead, and the chain of evidence thus very much interfered with.
The prisoner, we believe, about month ago, confessed to the crime, and negotiations have been going on between the police and gaol authorities since then, the matter being kept very quiet.
Yesterday he was brought to Sunderland, and, on arrival at the station, he was placed in a cab and driven to the police office, very little attention being attracted.
PARTICULARS OF THE MURDER
The circumstances of the crime will be still remembered by many of the inhabitants of Sunderland.
At the time of the terrible occurrence, great public excitement was created. Baines’s-lane, in the early part of the century a respectable locality, had become the very reverse, and at the period in question was frequented by those who eked out a miserable livelihood by prostitution and felony. In this lane resided Maria Fitzsimmons, a prostitute who had figured in the police dock no fewer than 23 times, and was said to be held in fear by her compeers in profligacy – a terror to evildoers, although she was one herself.
She lived alone in a wretched three-storey tenement, to which, on the evening of Friday, the 19th February, 1869, she was seen to conduct a seafaring man, about 5ft. 6in. in height, and wearing fustian trousers, a brown coat, a blue guernsey, and a cap with a cheese-cutter peak. He spent the night there, and he and the wretched woman were seen drinking together in various public-houses in the neighbourhood the next morning. It was supposed that she had robbed him, and he was heard to accuse her of having “fleeced him.”
About eleven o’clock in the forenoon, the neighbours on the opposite side of the lane heard cries of “Murder!”, and on the two women going into the passage they found her standing with her hair dishevelled, and she complained that the man, who was standing beside her, was attempting to choke her, but he replied that she had put her hand into his pocket and robbed him. At that time Maria was drunk and the sailor was sober.
About one o’clock Fitzsimmons crossed the lane to the house of a person named Dorothy Wilkinson, and said that a man was after her, and in a few minutes the same man came quietly into the room, and asked her to go over and get his coat and stockings and he would say nothing more about the money. She denied that she had got any money, whereupon the man went over to her, and, kissing her, asked her to go over with him the house. They wound their arms round each other in a most affectionate manner, and went out.
Shortly after this, the man was observed to pull her back by the shoulders from the window, where she was calling for Mary Carter, and this was the last time that she was ever seen alive.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE BODY
A few minutes past ten o’clock that night, a woman named Jane Kelly came from Newcastle to see Fitzsimmons, and, going upstairs, into the room she found all in darkness. She felt something wet and slippery on the floor, and on putting her hand down near the bed it came into contact with the foot of woman, presumably Fitzsimmons. Kelly became alarmed and left the house, but she returned again with the first person she met whom she knew, Martha Noble, and, on getting a light, a horrible sight presented itself to their stricken gaze. Underneath a small wooden bed lay the body of Maria Fitzsimmons, the face being covered with blood, which had flowed in a large dark stream a considerable distance across the floor. The dress which she had on was completely saturated.
The police were communicated with, and when the late Dr. Evans examined the body he pronounced life to have been extinct some hours. There were marks of a blood-stained arm on the bed, on which the horrible deed had apparently been committed, and from which the murderer – for such some person or other had now become – had lifted her and shoved her underneath.
As soon as the news of the murder spread, large crowds assembled in the neighbourhood, and the next day too the people crowded the locality, interchanging views on the matter.
Drs. Evans, Francis, and Abrath held a post-mortem examination, when the full extent of the awful crime was revealed.
In the region of the heart, and on a space not larger than the palm the hand, were found no fewer than ten wounds from a sharp double-edged knife. Three of the blows had penetrated the heart, making wounds large enough to put a finger into.
The unfortunate woman could not have lived more than a few minutes.
On turning the body other, two large wounds were discovered on the back. The heart was found to be wounded in five different places, but three only of the wounds were from the outside, the others having been inflicted without wholly withdrawing the knife.
The knife had also been turned, thus making a fearful wound in the heart, and the cartilage of the third rib was partially cut, while that of the fourth and fifth was completely severed.
It afterwards seemed that the person who had committed the murder had been robbed by the deceased, for on her stockings being removed, two half-crowns were found in the feet of them – two half-crowns which there is little doubt cost her her life.
It was also found that, whoever the party was who did the deed, he had on the same afternoon left his muffler at a beerhouse in the lane for a quart of beer.
TRACKING THE PRISONER
The police, of course, were soon engaged in making inquiries, the murderer, whoever he was, not being discoverable.
Intelligence of the crime was conveyed to the various police stations throughout the country. A large number of persons were taken into custody as more or less answering the description of the man who had been seen in the company of deceased. But it was found out in each case that the party was not the real culprit
Several of the ships on the Wear were inspected the police, among the others being the Lollard, a little bottle-ship belonging to the late Mr. John Candlish.
In after years, very little doubt was entertained that the real perpetrator of the crime was on board the Lollard, but it was stated that the man who was suspected, Thos. Wright – or more properly, Thomas Fury – was not the man who was in the company of Fitzsimmons.
Fury was then in prison at Norwich.
The person who was able to make that statement is now dead.
FURY HEADS TO LONDON
Fury, whether the suspicions concerning him were correct or not, went to London in the vessel, and then absconded, stealing from the ship a quantity of clothes.
Among this clothing was a pocketbook containing a full confession of the murder and a portion of the supplement to The Sunderland Times containing an account of the murder and the inquest. This pocketbook and paper were afterwards picked in the Serpentine.
About a week after that, Fury went to two of the London detectives and asked them if they had heard of the murder of a woman at Sunderland, and they replied that they had and that there was a reward of £100 offered for the apprehension and conviction of the murderer.
He said that he could lay them on to him, and for a week or ten days he kept communication with them.
THE ARREST OF CONNOR
After that, he took them down Ratcliffe Highway, at Wapping.
He there went into a public-house, and found a man named Connor on a seat. The landlord, on being asked by Fury who he was, said his name was Connor, and that he was a waterman. Fury then awakened the man, and, on the pretence of giving him a job at Hammersmith, for which he was to receive £2, took the young man to the City to a bar in Fetter-lane, off Fleet-street, the detectives, of course, following all the way.
He called for a pint of beer for Connor, but while he was drinking it, said, “There you are,” to the detectives, and Conner was taken into custody.
During the time that this inquiry was going on, Fury wrote in pocket-book belonging to the detectives, his writing was to correspond with the writing in the pocketbook that was found in the Serpentine of the full confession of the murder, as already stated.
DETECTIVE ELLIOTT BECOMES SUSPICIOUS
Intelligence was received in Sunderland that a man was in custody in London for the murder of Maria Fitzsimmons, and Detective Elliott proceeded to the metropolis the next day.
At this time, the pocket-book and the information had come from London, and on arriving there Mr. Elliott found that Connor had been before the City magistrates, and had been remanded. He went to Fleet-street that night for the purpose of seeing the man who was in custody, and from the inquiries which he made he found that the man who was apprehended had come to London by rail, and not ship, so that he concluded he could not be the man who had committed the murder.
Mr. Elliott, we believe, informed the London detectives that he wanted the man who came from Sunderland in the Lollard, at the same time showing them a copy of the statement which was contained in the pocket-book found in the Serpentine.
He was sure that the party who was informing the London police could not know much about the circumstances of the case unless he had been in Sunderland at the time of the murder. But the London detectives would not allow him to see the man, and very unwittingly mentioned to him what Mr. Elliott had said.
Suspicions became more grounded when Fury immediately afterwards made himself scarce, as no doubt he would think that they would then be in possession of information of who the right man was.
On the following morning, Mr. Elliott went down to Wapping, and hunted up a man who was in the same ship as Fury and knew him well. Connor being shown to him among a number of other men, he said that he was not the man who was in the Lollard.
THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER
Connor was of course liberated, and, curiously enough, at the very door of the court, a mysterious letter was given to one of the London city detectives by a postman. The letter was dated that day, from Clapham, and was something to the following effect:-
“Don’t you convict any person for the murder of Mary Fitzsimmons. I am the murderer, and if I am not taken in a few days, I intend to give myself up.”
The detectives went to the place where Fury had been provided with lodgings, but he was not there. In fact, he was never seen after the information which Mr. Elliott had given the detectives was made known to him.
Mr. Elliott, who, of course, at the time did not know that it was Fury with whom they had been in communication, returned to Sunderland, after remaining in London for about three weeks.
A PREVIOUS CONVICTION
It was found that Fury and his mother were tried at the Central Criminal Court in 1864 for burglary, and were sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.
The record of their trial was found in the Old Bailey records, which showed that the mother had been tried as Mary Gathney, and he as Thos. Fury.
Mr. Elliott, no doubt thinking that Fury would be likely to be near his mother, who was then on ticket-of-leave, made a search for her, and ultimately found her in Bermondsey Workhouse.
From the early part of April, 1869, however, the police were for a long period never certain of the whereabouts of Fury.
FURY IN CUSTODY IN NORWICH
In the second week in July, 1879, however, they received information from the Metropolitan Police that he was in custody at Norwich.
The Sunderland police communicated with the force at Norwich, enclosing a photograph of Fury, which had been obtained from Portland convict prison, and a reply was received that he had been identified from the photograph as being the same man who was there in custody for two charges of felony and two charges of attempted murder.
He was, the Norwich police stated, in custody under the name of Henry Charles Court, and was to be tried on the 6th August, 1879. It appeared that he had robbed a man of his horse and cart and some clothing on the highway, and on being pursued by the man and another, he turned and inflicted some serious wounds upon both men with a sharp knife, and succeeded in escaping.
He was afterwards arrested in an outhouse, when not only the articles stolen from the man with the cart were found, but some articles which had been stolen from a school which he had burglariously entered after stabbing the men.
The Sunderland authorities decided that, owing to the death of Dr. Evans and Connor, the disappearance of other witnesses, the absence of the letter which had been written, presumably by Fury, warning the police not to convict the wrong man, and other difficulties which the lapse of time had placed in their way, they would not proceed with the case, and he was left in the hands the Norwich Police.
He was afterwards sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude.
BEFORE THE MAGISTRATES
At the Borough Police Court today, before the Mayor, Mr. J. N. Wilson, Mr. J. W. Wayman, and Ald. McKenzie, the prisoner was brought up and charged with having murdered Maria Fitzsimmons on the 20th of February, 1869.
There was no excitement whatever about the door of the Police Court, the knowledge that the murderer was coming up being known to very few beyond the circle of the police officials. Mr. the Deputy Town Clerk, appeared to prosecute.
THE PRISONER IN THE DOCK
The prisoner was placed in the dock between two constables and he appeared to be perfectly calm and collected, exhibiting no evidence of excitement whatever. He was dressed in the convict garb, with collar fitting close up under the chin, and stood between the two policemen in military fashion.
He is a strong and stoutly built man, his limbs being well-set and powerful, and his face is long and expressive of great determination; while a high forehead, and a couple of sparkling eyes give evidence of shrewdness and intelligence.
With undoubted indications of being a clever and desperate scoundrel, he is such a character that very few would care to encounter.
For years he has devoted his mental and physical capacities to the commitment of crimes and misdemeanours, and he has undergone various terms of imprisonment and penal servitude.
After the crime, he enlisted, was subsequently tried by court-martial for a serious offence, and sentenced to a period of imprisonment.
His character is a very bad one, bidding fair to rival that of the notorious Charles Peace, and the motive for making the confession of the crime is likely to be a thirst for notoriety, and the possibility of escaping by a sudden coup de main, as sincere repentance of the atrocious crime which he committed thirteen years ago.
The chief-warder and assistant from Pentonville were in court.
BOUND OVER TILL FRIDAY
Mr. Bowey said:- “The prisoner, Thomas Fury, is at present a convict undergoing penal servitude for a term of fifteen years, having been convicted at Norfolk Assizes in August, 1879, for attempted murder.
He is charged today with having, on the 20th February, 1869, in this borough, wilfully and with malice aforethought killed and murdered one Maria Fitzsimmons.
Mr. Nicholson, Chief Constable, will produce the warrant, and, upon that, I have to ask your worships, on behalf of the prosecution, that the prisoner may be remanded until Friday. On that day I will ask your worships whether you will fix a special sitting, so that, if possible, we may take all the evidence in one day.”
Mr. Nicholson was then sworn, and produced the warrant against Thomas Fury, alias Wright, for having murdered Maria Fitzsimmons on the 20th of February, 1869.
The Mayor:- “We will adjourn the case until Friday morning at half-past ten o’clock.”
The witnesses were then bound over to appear on Friday.”
SENTENCE OF DEATH
Fury was tried at the Durham Assizes on Thursday, 27th April, 1882.
The Gloucester Citizen reported on the outcome of the trial in its edition of Friday, 28th April, 1882:-
“Thomas Fury was charged on his own confession, at the Durham Assizes on Thursday, with the wilful murder of Maria Fitzsimmons, in Sunderland, thirteen years ago.
The woman, who was of ill repute, was found dead, with twelve wounds to her body, evidently inflicted with a knife, but her murderer could not be traced until the prisoner recently confessed to the crime whilst undergoing a term of penal servitude in Pentonville Gaol.
After being found guilty prisoner produced a written statement, containing a homily on drunkenness, with references to his own life, and on being interrupted by the Judge, he handed the manuscript to the reporters.
Sentence of death was passed in the usual form.”
Thomas Fury was executed at Durham Gaol on the morning of Tuesday, 16th May, 1882.