Murder may be thankfully rare in our nation, but that just makes it all the more disturbing when such crimes hit a community. Now, in major new series Murdertown, Katherine Kelly is pursuing the facts about some of the most puzzling cases to have faced detectives in various locales. Testimonies from the police, the press and those personally affected by the crimes are woven together for a fascinating insight into the dark sides of these towns and cities.
In Sunderland, Katherine Kelly pieces together a case which unfolded in the early 90s, when the bodies of teenage boys began to be discovered. The police originally assumed the deaths were accidental. In fact, they had a sexual predator on the loose, a man who would become known as the Sunderland Strangler.
The episode also looks at the very different, but no less disturbing story of innocent Dean Pike, who senselessly perished in a fire set by vengeful arsonists who had targeted the wrong house. In a poignant twist, it was later revealed young Dean had recently written a letter to God, saying 'I am very happy with all the people in the world that don’t go around killing other people for no reason.'
The Children’s Disaster
No serial killer or deranged arsonist can compare to the forces of fate which caused one of the most heartbreaking losses of life in Sunderland’s history. This was the Victoria Hall disaster of 1883, which unfolded at a big afternoon performance by travelling entertainers. The promise of 'conjuring', 'talking waxworks' and 'living marionettes' brought in droves of local kids, many without adult supervision, to pack the auditorium of Victoria Hall.
Things took a terrible turn at the end when the performers announced kids would be given free toys as they left the hall. Children in the upper circle rushed for the stairs, but the way the doors at the bottom of the stairwell had been bolted in such a way that only one person could pass through at any one time. The inevitable bottleneck caused a fatal crush.
As one account put it, 'Children tumbled head over heels…The heap became higher and higher, until it became a mass of dying children over six feet in height.'
No fewer than 183 children died, in a disaster that plunged the nation into mourning. The person who bolted the doors was never identified, and the hall itself was destroyed in a World War Two air raid. The disaster also directly led to the invention of the now-familiar push-bar emergency exit doors.
Women who Kill
But what of deliberate murders in Sunderland and the surrounding area? By some sinister quirk, the region has seen a number of female killers who’ve hit the headlines over the years. One of the most recent is Zoe Warren, the 'glammed-up party girl' and 'evil temptress' (as local newspapers called her) who savagely turned on her partner, Mark Shaw.
Shaw had been bound, beaten and stabbed in a jaw-dropping assault which left him reportedly looking 'like the Elephant Man'. Drug addict Zoe and her accomplice, another user called Keiran Adey, turned on each other during the ensuing trial, each blaming the other for killing Shaw. Most chillingly, Zoe took to Facebook after the death was discovered, to post a garbled paragraph of fake anguish, saying 'Ya wer my BEST FRIEND and soul partner'.
For so brutally slaughtering her 'soul partner', Zoe is now serving a life sentence. Meanwhile, just this year, a breakthrough in a cold case has put another woman in the dock. Her name: Karen Tunmore. Her alleged crime: the murder of teenager Scott Pritchard, way back in 2004.
Scott was found bludgeoned outside his own home, in a crime which led to hundreds of police interviews and thousands of pieces of potential evidence being gathered. Scott’s own father was initially the prime suspect, before being cleared by the CPS. Now, all this time later, Karen Tunmore has confessed to the killing. A while before the confession, she allegedly told a friend that she is 'gannin away' to jail. With her sentencing coming up later this year, she’s got her wish.
'She’s Dead and She’s Rotten”
The most notorious female killer in the region’s history operated long before all of this. Her name was Mary Ann Cotton, and she claimed untold lives during the Victorian era. An outwardly charming and compassionate woman, she was later unmasked as a serial killer who poisoned her husbands, her own mother, and her numerous children and step-children. All of this, just to collect insurance money.
Her victims died in prolonged agony, their symptoms put down to 'gastric fever' and 'diarrhoea'. One infant’s arsenic-soaked death was even put down to teething troubles. After years of murder, she was only caught when she openly predicted one of her step-kids wouldn’t trouble her for much longer.
Put on trial for that child’s eventual murder, she claimed the death had been accidental, due to arsenic dust coming off the wallpaper. The argument didn’t convince, and her eventual hanging gave her a taste of the pain she had inflicted on so many others: the drop didn’t break her neck, and she choked slowly to death. A nursery rhyme was soon composed in her dubious honour. It’s opening words: 'Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten'.