These 13 unlucky tales date back hundreds of years and tell of a hidden history for the North East, in which many a Geordie met with a gruesome end.
Once upon a time magic was believed to be real, and the last thing you wanted was to be called a witch in old Newcastle.
The stories are drawn from old books, documents and John Sykes Historical Register of Remarkable Events housed in the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Newcastle Library.
Many of the stories feature in the Hidden Newcastle app, developed by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and NE1 Ltd.
1) The murder of the Black Bull landlady
It had been noted on several occasions that the mood of a young man named Sparke became decidedly darker after he’d had a drink. Tragically, nothing was done about it.
On November 24, 1786, he had been drinking with his mother in the upstairs rooms of the Black Bull Ale House in the Flesh Market, where she was landlady.
On coming downstairs he told a maidservant he was going to kill the cat – which he promptly did – before locking the girl out of the premises. She returned next morning and was confronted by Sparke who said that he had been up all night fighting with the devil dressed in his mother’s clothes – and had killed him.
The girl appeared unconcerned, recognising yet another odd episode in his behaviour. But on searching for the landlady who was unusually late, she discovered her battered and bloodied body upstairs.
Sparke was arrested on a charge of murder and committed to Morpeth gaol. However, the assizes took his mental health into consideration along with his temporary, alcohol-induced insanity and acquitted him in August 1787.
2) The visitation of a great dragon
A contemporary observation tells us that on St Nicholas’ Eve (September 5) in 1275, “great earthquakes were felt in Newcastle, with dreadful thunder and lightning, with a blazing star, and a comet in the appearance of a great dragon, which terrified the people”.
It is entirely plausible there was a comet in the sky at this time, a phenomenon that wasn’t well understood so was attributed to religious or spiritual actions.
A 1275 Scottish text, the Chronicle of Melrose, notes that “two comets appeared before the rising of the sun in the month of August”. Certainly with their tails of gas and dust, comets make some of the most stunning spectacles in the night sky.
An earthquake on September 11 1275 damaged Glastonbury Abbey in South West England and it’s said that the tremor was felt in London and almost every other part of England “with churches thrown down”. Perhaps the Newcastle one a few days earlier was an indication of pressure building.
3) The hunt for bogus witchfinders in Newcastle
Persecution of alleged witches reached its height in the mid seventeenth century. Those accused were arrested and examined to locate the ‘devil’s marl.’ It was Lieutenant Hobson’s job to oversee the witch finder’s activities in the old Guildhall.
“You know how it goes with these witch finders. Their victims are denounced by their neighbours. Usually the old, the sick and the lame; it’s their very age and helplessness that condemns them.
“For my part I was obliged to watch, mute witness to cruelty and terror, all sanctioned by the law. Amongst the sad parade of frightened and bewildered women, I recognised one of the accused. A former nurse who’d tended my men during the Great Siege, scarce six years earlier. This was no witch; her crime was to use herbal remedies and harmless potions to cure the sick. When she was dragged whimpering to the chair I paid close attention to this supposed witchfinder at work.
“His tool was a normal cobbler’s awl, used to search for the devil’s mark and, of course she did not bleed. As he stood, the satisfied smirk of a man who’s just earned another 20 shillings in blood money, I could take no more.
“I felled his grinning gaoler with a single blow and seized the instrument from his hand. The manner of his squirming convinced me and, I was right. The instrument was a fake. The point, so seemingly sharp, was as blunt as a doorpost and retracted into the handle.
“I damned him for a vile fraudster and swore I’d drive him and his cohort from the town, by the lash if necessary!”
4) The gruesome plea of Mrs Moffat
A sailor named Wilkinson from Lynn in Norfolk found himself in dire straits in 1800s Newcastle and took to begging around Pilgrim Street.
Having knocked on the door of a Mrs Moffat – who looked after horses – he was presented with bread and cheese and small beer (a low-alcohol drink often given to servants and children).
She then produced a hatchet and told Wilkinson she had suffered for some time with her fingers and would he be so kind as to cut them off? Imagine the reaction. She persisted for some time with her bizarre request, laying her hands flat on the table until he eventually gave in and brought the hatchet down heavily on her outstretched hands.
Three fingers of one hand and two on the other were severed and others badly injured. Mrs Moffat was sent to hospital and Wilkinson eventually to the House of Correction in Carliol Square. It’s recorded that she was later subject to “fits of insanity”.
5) Ghost of Martha Wilson – the Quayside Silky
In the early nineteenth century a heartbroken widow named Martha Wilson hanged herself in her lodgings. As a suicide she was denied a proper burial and her body was later found buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through her heart.
Her ghost was said to haunt the dark alleys by the Quayside near where she lived at the Broad Chare.
“It was dead of winter, middle of January perhaps, and a cold east wind was funnelling up the river. Now I knew the Quayside, knew all its wynds and chares. But that night, near 10 it might be, the place was quiet. I am soulful, none mourns me, and I passed unnoticed in quiet anguish.
“None sought to reason why, only the law’s indifference. I took my own life you see. Denied sacred burial, a crude stake thrust through my tortured heart.
“So it has become my fate to walk these barren streets, where I lived the short space of my unhappy life and was finally driven to end it. In that opaque dark one night, a man followed me. A keelman I judged, there were many. In the cold air he walked, as I walked till I turned into Trinity Chare.
“Taken aback, he followed suit and stood there all uncertain. I turned and raised my pale hand as though to beckon him forward and lifted the veil that he might see what had become of me.
“But he would see nothing, no features, merely emptiness. In that instant, he was gripped by terror, fled like the hounds of hell were at his heels. But I must continue walking in the darkness, I can see no light.”
6) The Theatre Royal tragedy of 1823
The popular Theatre Royal performance of Tom And Jerry (also known as Life In London: An Operatic Extravaganza In Three Acts) had barely begun on February 19, 1823, when gas escaping from a pipe ignited in the auditorium.
The fire was extinguished almost immediately, but the audience panicked and instinctively rushed for the stairs to escape. A cashier had managed to open one barrier but was thrown down the stairs by the sheer weight and pressure of screaming people before he could open the other.
Some fell and were trampled to death while other were crushed and suffocated. In total, seven people lost their lives in the tragedy and many more suffered severe injuries.
The dead were mainly young people – Isabella Parkinson, aged 11, Mary Johnson (16), Dorothy Heaton (17) and Thomas Handyside who was 20. Mary Robson died in the arms of her husband Riddell, himself badly injured. The Theatre Royal was at that time situated on Mosley Street.
7) Doctor Long, purveyor of exotic medicines
A self-styled doctor, Luke Long, claimed to have studied in Edinburgh and London while also serving as a surgeon’s mate on ships trading with African ports.
He was also renowned for his ever-more fanciful stories – adventures, exploits and hairs-breadth escapes – throughout Europe, Africa and America.
Dr Long settled in Newcastle as an apothecary selling the likes of Daffy’s Elixir, Anderson’s Pills and Worm Cakes, and publishing adverts such as: “Mr Long, surgeon on the High Bridge Newcastle, will bleed any poor person gratis at his house every Sunday morning from seven to 10 during the summer seasons”.
But scientific knowledge and public awareness were moving on – while Dr Long was unable to – so he began to supplement his income by selling ribbons, tapes, polishes and brushes.
To the end, however he kept up the old-school professional pretence, dressing completely in black with a white wig, cocked hat and gold-topped cane. He died in Union Street on January 4, 1803.
8) ‘Black Jackie’ Johnson
Late Georgian inhabitants of Newcastle frequently sought the advice of Black Jacky Johnson who lived on Dog Bank. It was said he owned a copy of the great magician Cornelious Agrippa’s manual to the dark arts. He was feared by locals, even criminals were wary of his black magic.
“Now some might scoff and some might sneer but when they’re in dire need it’s Jackie they come to. I’ve the eye you see, not the eyes that gaze out upon the street and see little but the inner eyes which see all.
“The mind is like a foreign land, unmapped territory, whose distant currents and eddies we only dimly perceive. I’d have my client under in seconds, almost before they knew, delving, like a surgeon or an artist to give life to the colours of the mind.
“Now, to business: Let’s say a gentleman needs to call upon a lady but her family is not too keen. Would it not help his path to courtship if he was invisible? Well, first you find a black cat make sure it doesn’t have a single white hair on its body.
“On a Sunday, during the time of divine service, boil the cat for three hours. Cut out the cat’s heart and dry it in an oven, one that’s never been used before, till it’s reduced to a fine powder.
“Conceal this powder in a churchyard, and visit it each night at precisely midnight for seven consecutive nights. On the seventh you will encounter another who will walk with you to the churchyard gate.
“You must give half the powder to him as soon as you arrive. The rest of the powder is yours, and forever after, whenever you carry it you will remain invisible. Trust me, never fails.”
9) The unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy
People were fascinated by Egyptology in the mid-19th Century, so the opening of a sarcophagus at the Literary and Philosophical Society on Westgate Road was a huge coup for the city.
The casket contained the mummified remains of a female which had been obtained by John Bowes Wright in Paris where it had been brought from Egypt by Baron Denton.
Three surgeons opened the well-preserved sycamore case at on March 8, 1830. It took two hours to unwind the nankeen cloth (pale yellow cotton) weighing 50lb 6oz (23 kilos) protecting the body which was found to be “in a remarkably perfect state”.
Her hair was long and reddish but turning grey in places, her teeth were white and had been well cared for, while the skin was sepia brown in colour.
The naked mummy was displayed in a glass case in the gallery room of the Lit & Phil library.
10) Coffin raider
In 1858 the city was scandalised by revelations that the Beadle of All Saints, otherwise a bastion of Victorian respectability, had been recycling lead from coffins to line his own pockets.
This transgression earned him 18 months hard labour.
Some would say his earthbound spirit still wanders the churchyard in darkness, in penance for his earthly betrayal of trust.
“I’m Jack; I am, or was, the beadle here. What’s a beadle, you ask? Well, the beadle is a sort of parish constable. My job was to keep things in order as you might say, keep an eye on church and churchyard, put some stick about, clear undesirables and beggars from church property. I mightn’t rank with the clergy but I was respectability itself.
“The iron railings around All Saints churchyard weren’t intended purely for decoration. These and many like them were erected to deter body snatchers.
“Surgeons were apt to ask few questions if any and 10 guineas is a significant incentive. And that was part of my job you see, to protect the honest dead from the dishonest living.
“I never stooped that low but respectability don’t come that cheap and for all my office looked it was badly paid; plain fact was I was as poor as the church mice and me with a wife and family to keep.
“I watched them coming in their hardwood caskets, garnished with brass, lead lined for comfort in eternity. Any one of these would have cost more than my annual salary.
“Folk in the houses nearby came to believe the churchyard was haunted, mysterious lights glimpsed at night. Kept the curious away and that suited me fine, course it were my lamp they were seeing!
“It was so easy, just to strip out some of the lead lining every time and sell it on, the scrap merchants asked no questions and the guineas mounted.“I moved my family to better lodgings, added a fine gold hunter and chain to my wardrobe, bought new furnishings. And so, by my greed was brought low.
“My deceit was uncovered, my crimes were laid bare. I was paraded through the courts as a common criminal, rubbing shoulders with those I’d despised, my family thrown out and into the workhouse, all was ignominy and shame.
“Pause then as you pass by for you might catch a glimpse of my ghost, doomed to wander in eternal penance.”
11) The two deaths of Robert Matfin
It was only by sheer chance that Robert Matfin reached the age of 77. As a schoolboy in St John’s Charity School, he was pronounced dead and laid in a coffin.
Pupils at the school gathered to sing at his funeral but young Robert, “aroused from his lethargy” by the sweet voices, turned on his side to listen. The coffin-bearers felt the movement and alerted the clergyman who ordered the lid to be unscrewed.
Robert was taken to an aunt’s house in Low Friar Street, wrapped in a blanket, given “some invigorating cordial”, put to bed, and recovered from whatever had ailed him.
In later life he became a keelman but in old age he was banished from the Keelmen’s Hospital where he lived with other retired and needy shipworkers due to his “irregular conduct”.
He was taken in by All Saints Poor House where he died on May 28, 1820.
12) The self mutilation of Susannah Nicholson
What prompted a young washer-woman to harm herself in a horrendous fashion we’ll never know – we can only surmise.
Susannah Nicholson was living in the “narrow and extremely dirty” Back Row, behind Queen Street on the Quayside, when on October 23 1763 she took a small knife and began to hack at her body.
She cut off her nose, both ears and eyelids, most of her lips, part of her breasts, and sliced into her throat before stabbing herself in the side. She survived these gruesome injuries until the following day. A coroner’s verdict was one of “lunacy”.
13) Digging graves to the bitter end
The sexton of St Andrew's Church in Gallowgate (Newcastle’s oldest church) had been preparing for a burial in the churchyard on June 24, 1765 when he was found dead – at the bottom of the grave he had been digging.