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The Murderer Who Confessed to Avoid a Lengthy Prison Sentence
There is a widespread perception these days that the inhabitants of the UK’s prisons are on Easy Street. We hear Mr Angry types calling phone-ins to rant about convicts loafing in their cells for 23 hours a day, watching television and playing on games consoles. While this may be a simplified account of the reality of prison life, it is certainly true that the modern prison system is a lot easier than the stringent regime that awaited a convicted felon in the later years of the nineteenth century. I could illustrate this with details of hard labour and bread and water diets, but rather I will relate the tale of a man who felt such despair at his lengthy prison sentence that he went to astonishing lengths to escape from it.
Victorian Prisons: Harsh and Punitive
Hard, pointless toil
While the stereotypical British prison occupation of sewing mailbags serves a useful purpose, convicts in Victorian times were often put to work on completely pointless and fruitless exercises. Here are some examples.
This was a handle fixed to a wall that a convict had to turn thousands of times in a day. The crank, which had a counter fitted to keep track of the number of turns, served no purpose other than to weaken the will of the prisoner.
Prison warders had the power to tighten the crank by means of a screw, thus making it harder for the prisoner to turn. It is widely thought that the slang term ‘screw’ to describe a prison warder came from this practice.
Again serving no useful purpose, the treadmill was a cruel invention that saw convicts put through hours of hard, pointless physical toil.
Giant wooden treadmills housed dozens of prisoners, each separated from his neighbours by wooden screens. The men set about turning the giant rotor by effectively climbing a never-ending staircase.
Another pointless exercise, the shot drill required prisoners pass weighty cannonballs along a line for no other reason than it focused their minds. Alternatively, a single prisoner would be made to carry a cannonball himself.
Anyone caught trying to escape would become even more attached to a cannonball – via a chain shackled to his ankle.
This was the unravelling of tarred rope into individual strands. Picking oakum, like similarly physically punishing manual tasks, was thought to desensitize the nimble fingers of pickpockets.
Unlike the above tasks, picking oakum actually had a useful purpose, as the resultant stripped rope strands were sold.
An unusual confession
The remarkable series of events began rather routinely in August 1879, when a man named Charles Henry Cort was found guilty of robbery and attempted murder at the Old Bailey. The judge sentenced him to fifteen years behind bars and Cort was taken to Pentonville Prison to serve his time. Prison life in those days was austere and brutally punitive, and certainly not to Cort’s liking. He couldn’t face such an utterly miserable future, so he decided to throw in his lot by initiating a bizarre get-out clause.
Cort informed the Chief Warder that he had something to communicate in relation to an unsolved crime, so the latter provided him with a slate on which to write the details. Cort told the warder that he would rather die than serve the remainder of his sentence behind bars, and on the slate he confessed to a murder that had been committed in the Sunderland area thirteen years earlier.
He revealed that his real name was Thomas Fury and at the time of the murder he had been a cook on board the schooner Lollard, calling himself Thomas Wright. Lollard had berthed on the Wear and Fury and a shipmate went ashore in search of women and drink. Fury satisfied both of these desires and he remained in the room of a local prostitute while his shipmate went back on board to sleep.
Victorian Prison Life
The prostitute was Maria Fitzsimmons, a thirty-one year-old with over a score of convictions to her name. She was as much renowned as a thief as a prostitute, and Fury woke from his drunken stupor to find that money had been stolen from his pockets. This discovery caused him to live up to his name and he stabbed Maria ten times, and then shoved her body under the bed. Back on board ship, Fury told other crew members that scratches on his face were from a barroom brawl. No-one had cause to doubt this and when Lollard left port, Fury threw his bloodstained clothing overboard. Maria’s body was soon discovered and the local police were left with a murder they could not solve.
This was a startling revelation by the prisoner and the authorities soon learned that there was indeed a thirteen-year-old outstanding murder of a prostitute in the Sunderland area. Fury was charged with murder and he eventually appeared at Durham Assizes where, due to a technicality, he was obliged to plead not guilty. Defence counsel argued that Fury had not committed this murder at all, but was merely confessing to it in order to escape a lengthy prison sentence by being hanged.
The prosecution claimed that Fury had revealed details of the murder that only the killer himself could have known. This was the line the jury believed and Fury was found guilty and sentenced to death. Just before he was taken down, he threw some papers towards the pressmen who were present. These contained details of his life story and a tirade against the evils of alcohol.
Fury confided to a guard that he had confessed in order to escape the torture of prison. He got his wish at 8.00 am on 16th May 1882 when, after a breakfast of tea, toast and jam, his entire fifteen-year sentence was chalked off by the executioner with a single pull of a lever.
Fury's hand-written notes
The bundle of notes that Thomas Fury threw to pressmen after being sentenced contained an account of his time as a sailor, and details of the various countries he had visited. He was clearly a man of some intelligence who had, like many others before and since, gone off the rails because of alcohol.
His tirade against the 'demon drink' contained the following lines:
I stand charged with the most serious crime which it is thought possible for a man to commit against that society of which you gentlemen form a part.
Gentlemen, my father was a drunkard and my mother forced to become one.
The poor woman was held down by her relatives as they poured rum down her throat until she promised to be more friendly – a queer sociability you may think in this, a Christian land.
As for myself, I know I was a raving drunk before I had reached my eighth birthday and was repeatedly drunk by the time I was 10.
As I grew into adulthood, I began to hate alcohol as I realised its effects on me were to have an irresistible desire to cause injury to others who had given me no provocation.
I have been in prison for more than 13 years out of my last 18 and, during that time, I have only met one prisoner whose crime was not carried out while he was under the influence of drink.
In these few sentences, Fury describes the downward spiral that started in childhood, and ended at the end of the hangman's rope