British Executions

Matthew James Dodds

Age: 44

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 5 Aug 1908

Crime Location: Hamsterley

Execution Place: Durham

Method: hanging

Executioner: Henry Pierrepoint


Matthew James Dodds was convicted of the murder of his wife Mary Jane Dodds 50 and sentenced to death.

He strangled her in Hamsterley on 20 February 1908. After strangling her he placed her in the fire to make it look like she had fallen in and burned to death. At her inquest an open verdict was returned but her body was later exhumed and it was determined that she had been strangled and Matthew Dodds was charged with her murder.

Matthew Dodds was a cripple and his right leg was useless and he wore an apparatus to enable him to walk. He worked at the Seven Sisters Colliery where he was a joiner and he also worked nights in his father's workshop.

Mary Dodds owned five or six houses.

They had known each other all their lives. After they married their lives were unhappy, mainly because of Mary Dodds drinking habits

Screams were heard coming from their house around 2.30pm to 2.45pm on 20 February 1908 and Matthew Dodds was seen to leave his house between 2.45pm and 2.50pm. A neighbour said that he heard Mary Dodds screaming at 2.30pm saying 'Oh dear! Oh dear! Dinna dae it'. He said that he heard Mary Dodds say that several times and that he heard her screaming for about 20 minutes. The neighbour then said that the shouting stopped and he then heard the bolt shot into the door of the side of the house and then the shouting went on as before for another eight to ten minutes before it then stopped after which nothing more was heard.

The neighbour said that he had known Matthew Dodds and Mary Dodds throughout their married life and said that they were not happy together and said that he had seen Mary Dodds with her teeth knocked out and more recently with black eyes. He also said that he had heard Matthew Dodds shout out 'I will strike your bloody brains' and about a fortnight before her death he heard him say 'I'll knock your bloody brains out'.

He said that when he heard the shouting he didn't go to see what it was because it was a regular thing.

Then, at 4pm he was seen by a neighbour pulling up his blind and he then came out and sought assistance saying that he had found his wife burned to death.

He said that he had left his house shortly after 12 noon and had only returned for a minute to fetch a tool at about 2.30pm at which point he said Mary Dodds was sitting between the window and the fireplace in an armchair drunk.

He said then that when he returned at 4pm he found her whole body inside the fender and her head hanging over the end. He said he then pulled her out onto the hearth rug.

His defence said that Mary Dodds had fallen in accidently as the result of a drunken fall or a fit due to some obscure disease of the brain. However, it was said that there was literally no evidence to support either of those theories and abundant evidence to refute them and show that she had been intentionally strangled and then placed in the fire so that it might appear that she had met her death by burning.

Four whisky glasses were found. It was said that one had been given to a man that had cleaned out the ash pit, one glass that Matthew Dodds had drunk, another that Matthew Dodds had thrown on the fire, and the fourth that Mary Dodds was thought to have drunk. A tablespoonful and a half of whisky was found in her stomach.

The fireplace was measured and it was shown that the distance from the top of the grate to the fender was 13.5 inches and stated that Mary Dodds could not have fallen in in the position that Matthew Dodds said she was in.

It was also said that there had been no fire in the grate but that large cinders had been raked out and strewn along inside the fender. A policeman said that the appearance was not of an ordinary dirty fireplace but as though the cinders had been raked out of the fireplace and strewn along the fender. He said that he meant as though a big shovel load such as you would fill a scuttle with.

The policeman also said that he saw a poker which had fresh faeces on it. He said that they were not burnt and were very soft. He said that Mary Dodds also had a cinder clasped in her left hand.

When Mary Dodds was found her knees were drawn up and head bent forward. Her face was dark blue and her lips were swollen. Her body was very much burnt on both the back and front and her clothing was burnt off except at her shoulders and the bottom of her skirt.

The remains of Mary Dodds stays were found underneath the grate at the back. Her clothes were practically all consumed but the two women that had laid out her body thet following day said that they found a portion of Mary Dodds's shawl rolled up in a tight roll and fastened in a constricting band round her neck. They said that it was so tight that they had had to insert their fingers between the band and Mary Dodds's neck in order to allow it to be cut off with scissors.

The woman that laid Mary Dodds out said that amongst other things, she found that Mary Dodds had had a motion of her bowels on her body, but not on the carpet.

Another woman that had gone to lay Mary Dodds out said that she found her lying on the hearth rug and assisted in turning her over and noticed blood that had come from her mouth. She said that her face was blue black and her neck was much swollen, likewise her lips and mouth and face. She said that amongst the cinders inside the fender she found a steel from a corset. She said that all of her clothing was burnt other than a piece of her bodice at the shoulder and a piece of the skirt as well as the piece of shawl that was round her neck. She said that it was tight round her neck and the other woman had to put her fingers under it to lift it whilst she cut it. She said that it was so tight that the flesh from her neck overlapped it.

Matthew Dodds went to see a joiner at 7.30pm and asked him to make a coffin for his wife and he said that he went back with him to his house but said that he could not measure her as she had not been laid out. He said that he went back the next day after she had been laid out and measured her saying that she was about 5 feet or 5 feet one inch tall.

At her inquest, no medical evidence was called and an open verdict was returned.

However, suspicions were later aroused and Matthew Dodds was arrested on 7 March 1908 and Mary Dodds's body was exhumed under a Home Office Order on 10 March 1908.

Her subsequent post-mortem showed positively that her death was due to strangulation. A well-defined line round her neck was found with extreme discolouration and swelling above and normal conditions below. Three medical witnesses for the prosecution confirmed her death was by strangulation and even the medical expert for the defence accepted the conclusion but instead assigned the cause to possibly being the position of the head over the fender. However, there was little or no attempt to explain how the shawl had come to be rolled up like a cord and fastened round her neck.

The police report stated that the evidence pointing to intentional strangulation taken in connection with the evidence of screams being heard at a time when Matthew Dodds had denied being in the house even though there was ample evidence to prove he was, left no doubt that Mary Dodds had been done to death by Matthew Dodds.

The police report then stated that the recent execution of a third will in Matthew Dodds's favour could safely be regarded as a motive for the murder.

After their marriage Mary Dodds made out a will on 8 February 1907 leaving everything, including her property to Matthew Dodds. However, after some incident she had her will re-written on 22 August 1907 and left Matthew Dodds with only £40 and her property to her friends and her cousins. However, in January 1908, Matthew Dodds later convinced her to sign a new copy of the original will leaving everything to him once again. The last will was signed by her brother and a blacksmith in her presence with Matthew Dodds. The blacksmith said that Mary Dodds seemed willing about it but said that she had written an earlier will leaving Matthew Dodds only £40 and that she didn't want anyone to know about the new third will. The blacksmith said that when he asked who had written the will that Matthew Dodds told him that he had written it out as a copy of the original will

After his conviction and death sentence he appealed stating that the judge had mis-directed the jury but his appeal failed and he was executed at Durham by Henry Pierrepoint and Thomas Pierrepoint.

see National Archives - HO 144/883/167254