In 1888, the nation was gripped by the gruesome murders committed by Jack the Ripper in London’s Whitechapel.

One-hundred-and-twenty years ago this week, it was feared that Jack may have switched his attention to a County Durham village. Andrew White investigates.

WHEN boilerman John Fish stumbled upon the horribly mutilated body of a young woman lying by a railway line it sparked panic in a tiny North-East community.

The woman’s body, found lying near a colliery railway in County Durham on Saturday, September 22, 1888, had deep wounds on each cheek and her abdomen had been ripped open, leaving her bowels protruding.

The ferocious attack would have been enough to cause alarm in itself – but it was the remarkable similarity to probably the most infamous murders of all time that heightened the fear of villagers.

For weeks previously, the national and regional press, including The Northern Echo, had been carrying a series of lurid reports about several shocking murders in the East End of London.

These fiendish crimes were later attributed to the as yet unnamed Jack the Ripper, whose so-called Autumn of Terror in the capital horrified and fascinated the public in equal measure.

Less than two weeks before the Durham murder, the Echo reported that the population was “panicstricken”

following the death of Annie Chapman, whose body had been ripped open in a seedy London back yard.

The murder was the fourth of its kind in only a few months in the East End – although only two of those are now thought to be genuine Ripper victims.

The North-East victim was 27-year-old Jane Beadmore (spellings of her surname vary in reports from the time) who was found lying beside a wagon-way at Eighton Banks, near Birtley.

She was a short, stout, popular girl in poor health, who was last seen by her family at 7pm on the night of her death.

The Northern Echo reported the “dastardly murder” on the following Monday and was already drawing a comparison with “the Whitechapel deeds”.

The inquest was opened the following morning, by which time the crime was attracting national headlines because of its similarity to the atrocities committed by the East End butcher.

A lurid report in that day’s London Echo read: “It is impossible to adequately describe the excitement which prevails in Birtley and the surrounding district.

“A terror seems to have seized the little village, and to have paralysed its ordinary energy.

“Further particulars by no means diminish the fiendish brutality of the crime, and the circumstances disclosed are sufficient justification for the thought which was uppermost in everybody’s mind when the news first became known, that the Whitechapel murderer had been at work.”

The London police, fearing that the Whitechapel fiend had fled north as life was becoming too hot in the city, acted immediately.

Dr George Bagster Phillips, who had performed the post-mortem examination of the body of Annie Chapman, and would feature prominently in subsequent Ripper murders, left London for Gateshead in the company of Inspector Thomas Roots of the Yard.

It appears that any link with the Ripper was quickly ruled out by the medical man, but the diligent Insp Roots spent several hours speaking to local officers and making sketches of the scene of the crime.

THREE days later, Dr Phillips was back in London to attend the inquest of acknowledged Ripper victim Chapman.

When approached at the inquest by a journalist, the doctor ruled out any connection with the Birtley murder, claiming that it was “evidently not done by the same hand” and dismissing it as “a clumsy piece of butchery”.

It appears that the local police were of the same opinion and by now they had a suspect who was much closer to home – William Waddell.

Waddell, 22, a general dogsbody, had been “keeping company” with Jane Beadmore for two years. He had been drunk and seen in animated conversation with her on the night of her death – and he had now disappeared.

That same day, the London Evening News reported: “Inspector Roots, of Scotland Yard, has expressed the view that the Birtley affair is nothing more than a clumsy imitation of the mutilations that took place in the metropolis.

“An anxious search is still being made for the man Waddle (sic), whose mysterious disappearance since the day of the murder has naturally excited grave suspicions.”

There were initial fears that Waddell may have been in hiding in a local pit, or taken his own life by throwing himself into a mineshaft – but those theories were soon dismissed.

By the following Monday, Waddell had still not been found and he was now firmly established as the prime suspect, but by now nation’s attentions were once again fixed on the Ripper murders with the discovery of two more mutilated women in the East End.

Later that day, Waddell, already being described by the Echo as “the Birtley Murderer”, was finally apprehended in the village of Yetholm, near Kelso, in the Borders.

Confused and disoriented, Waddell – whose front teeth were now missing – had spent the week wandering around villages on the Scottish borders asking for work, but fleeing whenever he was offered a job.

His capture aroused great interest, with people lining the railway track hoping to catch a glimpse of him on the train carrying him from Berwick to Newcastle.

But the subsequent inquest into Jane Beadmore’s death, which concluded on October 24, did not find that Waddell had committed the murder, as expected.

Instead, the jury returned an open verdict, which gave Waddell and his defence team some hope for the trial.

The Echo’s report of the trial noted that Waddell, who had pleaded not guilty to murder, was very presentable and “possesses none of the physiognomical characteristics of a person capable of so horrible a tragedy”.

The prosecution produced several witnesses who testified they had seen Waddell with the victim that night. But the most damning evidence came from PC Thomas Syke, who testified that Waddell had told him he must have been “out of his senses” to do such a thing.

Waddell’s defence team called no witnesses, but contended that the evidence against him was merely circumstantial.

The jury, however, was unimpressed and took less than half an hour to return a guilty verdict. The judge passed a death sentence.

The day before his execution, set for Wednesday, December 19, Waddell confessed his crime in Durham jail.

Waddell attributed the murder to his being so drunk he lost his mind and that he must have been deranged by reading the accounts of the Whitechapel murders in London.

He became the 89th victim of Victorian hangman James Berry, who recalled that the condemned was unafraid and silent as he walked to the scaffold – a reaction which made him nervous.

THE Northern Echo reported a single paragraph to the execution. It said: “Yesterday morning, precisely as the Cathedral clock chimed eight, Berry, the hangman, drew the fatal bolt of a noisy-working wooden arrangement on which William Waddle, the Birtley murderer, pinioned and haltered, stood; a trapdoor swung with a crash precipitating the culprit into a pit below. His neck was broken, his life was destroyed, and, according to the theory of our present law, justice was satisfied.

Four reporters were present.

They got scant information, and were practically ejected from prison after the ghastly tragedy was played out. The hangman left for the South by the 9.50 train.”

There is little doubt that Waddell did murder Jane Beadmore, but the suspicion that she was instead a victim of Jack the Ripper has lingered.

Crime writer Patricia Cornwell named Victorian artist Walter Sickert as the Ripper in her 2002 book Portrait of a Killer and attempted to pin a number of other murders on him, including the Birtley atrocity.

But she made several glaring factual errors, including stating that the Birtley crime had gone unsolved.

Her assertions prompted researcher Alan Sharp to debunk her theory in an attempt to dispel the notion of Jane Beadmore as a Ripper victim once and for all.

In the periodical Ripper Notes, he wrote: “William Waddell bears no comparison with Jack the Ripper. He was just a spurned lover who killed while in a drunken rage.

There was no planning, no malice aforethought.”

And he added: “It speaks volumes about the state of the nation’s nervous condition at that moment in history that this murder became such a well-reported news story. In truth, it is a sad story of two lives wasted bringing devastation to those who loved them.”