The Hamsterley Tragedy

(This is taken from a newspaper report kindly loaned by Delycia Quinn.  The report is twenty pages long, so, unfortunately, only a few small extracts can be included. The headings are those of the original document.)

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THE AUCKLAND TIMES, FRIDAY, JULY 3, 1908

The Hamsterley Tragedy

Three Days’ Trial at Durham Assizes

The theory of the defence. Story of Deceased’s wills

One of the most interesting trials for many years past as affecting the Bishop Auckland district was that heard in the Criminal Court as Durham assizes this week.  The case was well-known as the Hamsterley case and it was a trial which witnessed many stages of development. The central figure was the prisoner, Matthew James Dodds, a lame man who followed the occupation of a jointer in the quaint old village of Hamsterley, near Witton-le-Wear and only a few miles from Bishop Auckland…

It was on the 20th February last that the onset of the Hamsterley case was witnessed, the death of the prisoner’s wife taking place on that date.  She was found dead in her own house and the body was considerably burnt. At the Coroner’s inquest, the jury returned a verdict of a non-conclusive character. Subsequent inquiries on the part of the police resulted in the arrest of Dodds and later there was the sensational turn of events in the decision to exhume the body of the deceased from the grave in Hamsterley churchyard. The exhumation duly took place and at the police-court proceedings which followed, Dodds was committed to take his trial at the Assizes on the charge of wilful murder of his wife Mary Jane Dodds. The hearing of the charge at the Police Court occupied a couple of days and the evidence was followed with keen public interest, the circumstances being of a quite remarkable character…

To reply to the charge, the prisoner pleaded not guilty.

Opening of the case

Mr Lowenthal (solicitor for the prosecution) in opening the case said that on the evidence there was a very grave case for the jury’s consideration and judgement. Prisoner was a joiner and for a time was at work at Seven Sisters Colliery but owing to the condition of his bad leg he gave up his work there and worked for his father. The deceased woman was a widow when she was married to prisoner in 1905 and she was about 50 years of age. For her position, the woman was at the time possessed of considerable property having 6 or 7 houses in the village. The jury would be asked to consider to what extent the property was an inducement to prisoner to marry. They lived together very unhappily throughout their married life and, without question, prisoner ill-treated her from time to time and used threats “I’ll strike your — brains out” etc. etc. Even a few days before her death, he was heard to threaten her in this manner. It did not follow, of course, that he ever intended to carry out the threats, but they might have to be considered in considering the case as a whole. Prisoner undoubtedly treated her with great cruelty.

(Mr Lowenthal then listed the wills the deceased made – the first leaving her property to her husband, the second leaving the majority of her estate to a Margaret Jane Pattison and on the 7th January that year, a third will leaving all her property to prisoner. Mr Lowenthal concluded:)

…The jury might have to consider whether the woman was induced to make the third will – which left the whole of the property to prisoner – in the hope that the prisoner would give better treatment…

Not a Drunken Woman

The deceased woman undoubtedly was a woman who, from time to time, took drink though she was not a drunken woman. The evidence pointed strongly to the conclusion that on the 20th February at any rate she was not drunk. On the day of her death she was last seen by any person other than prisoner at two o’clock. He thought they would be able to establish it – that the prisoner was in the house with the deceased from a quarter past two to ten minutes to three. The evidence, too, was that screaming was heard some time after two o’clock and later there was no screaming. The inference was that prisoner had strangled his wife and in order to conceal the crime had place the body in the fender and set fire to it. After the death had taken place, prisoner went to see a woman named Dorothy Hodgkin whom he told that Mary, his wife, was burnt to death… From the position in which the body was found, it was absolutely inconceivable, unless the woman had been quite unconscious or helplessly drunk, that she could have allowed herself to remain in that position, near the fender, whist her clothing was on fire. The policeman was not at the house until five o’clock and he said that when he arrived the body was in such a state that stiffness appeared to be setting in. There was no fire in the grate, but there were large cinders in the hearth and the fire looked as if it had been raked out. Dr. Cunliffe arrived at about 7.30 and there was not much light then for the examination. He formed the opinion that death did not take through shock – which would be the cause of death in such a case as this if death took place from burns – but the did not form any opinion then as to what was the cause of death in fact was, not having made a proper examination.

An inquest followed up… the verdict was that the deceased had apparently died from burns but there that there was no evidence to show how the burns were received.

Definite Line Encircling the Neck

After the inquest, the deceased woman was buried but, subsequently, after the body had been in the grave for 16 days, there was an exhumation and a post-mortem examination. The evidence forthcoming after the post-mortem was such that if the jury accepted it as true it was conclusive as to what produced the woman’s death. There was a definite line encircling the deceased woman’s neck and there was swelling and a marked blue colour above the line whilst below there was the normal white skin. If the Jury were satisfied that death resulted from strangulation there still remained the question as to who did it. If it was caused by another person, he supposed they would not be able to entertain the slightest doubt that the prisoner did commit the dreadful crime, then in the interests of justice and the general public, he asked them to return a verdict of guilty.

(Various witnesses for the prosecution were called to give evidence and be cross-examined by Mr. Shortt, the solicitor for the defence, including:)

George Wilfred Marr, assistant a Robson and Sons shop at Hamsterley, next door to the prisoner’s house who heard: shouting and screaming coming from the prisoner’s house. He listened and could distinguish the voice. It was the prisoner’s wife who was screaming and he heard her say “Oh dear, oh dear, dinnat dee it” He heard this several times…

Jane Braithwaite, a young girl employed at the Cross Keys Inn at the time who: spoke supplying deceased with a gill of beer and later a shillings worth of whiskey on the day in question… Witness heard screams from Mrs. Dodd’s house. Twice, she had seen Mrs. Dodd’s eyes black and on one occasion she showed her black and blue marks on her arm. She has also seen her lips swollen…

Alice Dowson Stephenson, wife of Thomas Stephenson, the landlord of the Cross Keys, who confirmed the above and added that: on one occasion she saw the prisoner kick his wife…

(A number of witnesses described the crime scene. One of the most graphic descriptions was that of the witness, Sarah Jane Wade, the next door neighbour, who said:)

… Later in the day, about twenty past four prisoner came to the house and said “Will you come, Mary Jane’s burnt to death.” She proceeded to the sitting-room of the house and Dorothy Hodgson closely followed. On the hearthrug Mrs. Dodds was lying dead. She raised the right arm. At this time, prisoner was standing at the doorway leading from the kitchen to the sitting-room standing in the doorway, she said “Come Matt, let’s see if she is alive” but he did nothing. At the time, deceased’s clothing was still on fire. She called prisoner’s attention to this and added that the fire must be put out. Prisoner never spoke nor did he do anything, although he could see the reek rising. She noticed the grate and there was no fire in it and very few cinders, though there were big rough cinders lying by the fender. Deceased’s clothes were apparently almost entirely burnt off. There had evidently been a shawl or something around the neck. A piece of a blouse remained on the right arm. The cinders were quite dead out and cold.
His Lordship: Then the fire on her clothes then couldn’t be from those cinders?
Witness: No, sir.
Further, witness said the body was not on the fender at all. Prisoner told her he had lifted her off the fender. The cinders were not in a place where they would have fallen from the fire-grate. She noticed the deceased’s face was dark coloured and her neck was swollen right up to below the ear. The face was not burnt at all and she did not see any burns on the throat. When she raised the deceased’s head, she notice that blood had come from the mouth and on to the hearthrug. The next day she went to the house and the body was still in the same place thought two women were present to lay the body out…

Other witnesses included: Mr. F. H. Livesay, architect, Fritz Youngblut, photographer, P.C.Gould, Joseph Littlefair, a farm labourer, Wm. George Waistell, James Jopling Brown, a medical student living in Hamsterley, The Rev. John Holliday, Vicar of Hamsterley, Elizabeth Ann Marquis, The lad Garthwaite Wilkinson who was engaged emptying ashpits, John Watson, farm labourer and Sarah Jane Wade, the next door neighbour.

Second Day’s Proceedings

The trial was resumed on Tuesday morning.

Further witnesses were called, including: P.C Lowe of Stockton, formerly stationed at Hamsterley, John Thomas Proud, solicitor and coroner, Mary Jane Patterson, Police-Supt. Daley, Bishop Auckland Division, who arrested the prisoner, Dr. Leigh of Bishop Auckland, who was at the post-mortem, Mr. F.W.K. Stock, county analyst, who assisted with the post-mortem and Dr. Pepper, of London, an expert witness on post-mortems.

Conclusion of a Remarkable Case

Mr. Shortt, opened for the defence, and made: a lengthy and powerful utterance. He said he was not yet quite sure whether the case for the prosecution was that the prisoner first strangled his wife and then put her on the fire or whether, as shown by Dr. Pepper, she was in fact living when she was put on the fire. Whichever it was, he hoped to be able to satisfy the Jury that there was not sufficient evidence to justify them in saying that the prisoner did whatever was done…

Denials by the Prisoner

The prisoner, Matthew James Dodds, then gave evidence. He said: he worked at the Seven Sisters Colliery at Cockfield and in the evenings in his father’s workshop. This was the first trouble he had ever been in. He was 44 years of age and had known his late wife all his life. He married her in 1905 and their life had not been altogether happy. He had sometimes used threats though he had no intentions of hurting her.  Regarding lost teeth, cut lips, etc. spoken to by witnesses, she got that by falling off the ashpit wall. She told him she had climbed up to gather eggs, because the eggs used to go to the manure heap. He had been at work and she was in bed when he returned. As to a black eye about last Christmas, she got this by falling against the step of a trap. He was in the house when this took place and his wife told him about it. Regarding the incident of kicking his wife, mentioned by Mrs. Stephenson, as a matter of fact his wife was attacking him and he shoved her away. His wife had been in the habit of calling him awful names and the quarrels had been altogether a bout her drinking habits. As to her being found out at nights, when she used to be drinking she was in the habit of going out…

Regarding the 20th February, he did not himself hear anything screaming on that day.  There was no truth in the suggestion that at any time during the afternoon he was in the house doing injury to his wife. “There is no truth in it at all,” he said, and added that the story he had told the coroner and the police was quite true. He denied having said that his wife gave him any whiskey on that day and he did not know that Wilkinson ha had any until the next day…

He went on to deny giving his wife black eyes and to deny any involvement in the making of the wills.

More Medical Testimony

Dr. A. C. Farquharson of Bishop Auckland was called and described the post-mortem.

Judge’s Summing Up

His lordship (Mr. Justice Grantham) summed up at great length, remarking at the outset that it was a serious case and responsibility was great on everyone engaged in it. Yet, if the jury had no doubt that the effect of the evidence was that the prisoner charged was the person – if they had no doubt that death was at the hands of the prisoner charged, however unpleasant it might be for them, they had a duty to perform to society and must give effect to that view by their verdict. “If you come to the conclusion,” His Lordship continued, “that death resulted from strangulation and that she was strangled by somebody, then I am sorry to say there is no doubt the person must have been the prisoner.”

The judge went on to talk about motives for the murder. The judge’s speech was followed by the concluding utterances of the Prosecution and Defence and the final summing up of the judge.

In Case of Rational Doubt

The jury retired to consider their verdict and the court was adjourned for the usual half-hour lunch time.

When eventually the jury returned, the verdict was awaited with impressive silence. Prisoner stood with both hands firmly gripping the rails in front of him.

The verdict of “Guilty” was pronounced by the foreman of the jury and prisoner was asked if he had anything to say why judgment should not be passé upon him. Prisoner replied in a firm, clear voice “Well, I am not guilty, sir.”

Sentence of Death

The black cap was now placed on the head of the Judge who passed sentence of death on the prisoner, saying: Matthew James Dodds, the Jury have found you guilty of willful murder and I am quite sure the verdict they have passed is the only verdict in accordance with the evidence. No one who has heard the evidence should honestly come up with any other conclusion. It is not for me to aggravate the painful position in which must feel placed at the present time, nor is it necessary for me to go into any causes which may have caused you or induced you to do this. I have only to perform the duty cast upon me and that is to pass upon you a sentence of death. You will be taken from this place to prison and thence to a place of execution and you will there be hanged by the neck until dead and your body will be buried in the precincts of the gaol. May God have mercy on your soul.

Thus concluded one of the most important murder trials ever heard at Durham. The jury were detained over the whole of the three days and it is stated that not since the trial of the notorious Mary Ann Cotton has a jury been “locked up” for so long a period.

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THE AUCKLAND TIMES, FRIDAY, AUGUST 7, 1908

The Hamsterley Tragedy

Execution of Dodds

The closing scene in what is known as the Hamsterley Tragedy was witnessed at Durham Gaol on Wednesday morning, when Matthew James Dodds (43), the Hamsterley joiner was hanged for the wilful murder of his wife, Mary Jane.

After the appeal was heard at the Criminal Court of Appeal, Dodd’s friends hoped that the petition, containing nearly two thousand signatures, might have some effect in getting the death sentence commuted. Their hopes however, were dashed to the ground on the receipt of the following letter by the governor of Durham Gaol (Mr. J. Dillon) on Sunday.

“Sir, – I am directed by the Secretary of State to acquaint you that, having under consideration the case of Matthew James Dodds, now lying under sentence of death in Durham Prison, He has failed to discover any sufficient ground to justify him in advising His Majesty to interfere with the due course of the law. – I am, sir, your obedient servant, E. Blackwell.”

The execution duly took place on Wednesday morning within the precincts of Durham Gaol. The unhappy man walked calmly to his doom and did not utter a single word…
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