IN front of a huge crowd on Framwellgate Moor, on July 22, 1799, Mary Nicholson, the Little Stainton poisoner, was launched from the gallows towards eternity. The rope around her neck held her weight for “some little time” as she dangled in midair.

But then it snapped, and she plummeted several feet to the ground.

The historian William Longstaffe says in his 1854 book that young Mary was “in a horrible state…to the great distress of the lookers on, some of whom had come a great distance”, but other accounts say that she was quickly revived and was soon able to “converse with her relatives” for an hour while her fate was decided.

Many in that large crowd felt that she should escape a second hanging because she had been reprieved by the Almighty himself. They had great sympathy with the appalling predicament that the orphan girl had found herself in, and those with a legal turn of mind felt that the sentence of death had been unjust as Mary – although she had poisoned five people – had not intentionally murdered anyone…

Without parents to look after her, Mary, who was also described as being “of weak intellect”, had found employment as a servant with John Atkinson, a farmer who lived at Little Stainton, a hamlet to the north-east of Darlington. The Atkinsons were an outwardly respectable family but, it was said, Mr Atkinson had “taken very great liberties with her and treated her in a very cruel way”.

So great were the liberties and so cruel were his ways that by April 1798, Mary could stand them no longer. On a day when she knew Mr Atkinson was away from home, she went shopping on Darlington market and bought some arsenic, which she said needed for washing some sheep.

Back in Little Stainton, she mixed the arsenic with some flour which she knew old Elizabeth Atkinson – Mr Atkinson’s mother – would turn into his favourite pudding ready for his return from his long day on the road.

Mrs Atkinson did as expected, but when Mr Atkinson arrived home, he refused the pudding, saying he had already eaten on the journey, and went straight to bed.

Old Elizabeth Atkinson was extremely frugal, and unwilling to see the pudding go to waste, next morning she mixed it with some other ingredients and baked a large family cake for breakfast. All the family of Atkinsons partook, and all of the family of Atkinsons fell gravely ill.

A medical man was summoned, and by skilful application of some remedies, he saved four Atkinsons from death’s door.

The fifth – Elizabeth – lingered in great pain for weeks until she died on July 31, 1798.

Mr Atkinson had no doubt of Mary’s guilt, but perhaps fearful of his own terrible crimes coming to light, he turned her out, saying that if she never again came near Little Stainton, he would take no action against her.

With nowhere to go, Mary wandered the moors to the north of Darlington for days until, at nine o’clock one evening, she desperately knocked on the door of the Ord family’s farmhouse at Newton Ketton, only a couple of miles from the scene of her crime. The Ords had just turned in for the night, but they took Mary in on the proviso that she return to Little Stainton next day and face the music.

She did as requested, flinging herself upon the Atkinsons, telling them she could find no rest until they decided her fate. They handed her over to the constables, and she stood trial for murder of Elizabeth Atkinson at the Durham Assizes.

“She stood in court alone, without a friend, without a soul to speak in her behalf, and was condemned to die,” says the historian Longstaffe.

Usually in those days, justice was dispensed within days – in the past we told of the Grazing Nook murder, between Bedale and Leyburn, in 1826 when the culprit was found guilty on the Friday and hanged on the Monday.

But the charge against Mary was obviously flawed. She had never intended to kill the old woman and, other than mixing the flour with arsenic, she had had no hand in her death – it was, in fact, the unfortunate Elizabeth who had baked the contaminated cake on two different occasions before consuming part of it. Her death, it could be argued, was just accidental.

Mary was given a temporary reprieve while 12 judges sitting in the Common Law Court in Westminster considered the case. She was held in the Bridewell cell beneath Elvet Bridge in Durham – now a pub – where she worked as housekeeper to the gaoler. Indeed, she became so trusted, that she was allowed to come and go as she pleased, performing her errands through the streets of Durham and never, despite the ghastly prospect of the gallows in front of her, did she try to run away.

In June 1799, 11 months after Elizabeth had been poisoned, the 12 judges handed down their judgement: Mary was guilty of murder and should hang.

And so, on July 22, 1799, she was taken on the executioner’s cart to Framwellgate Moor where, in front of the large crowd, the rope snapped and she survived.

The authorities decided this was not divine intervention, and found a second rope, and so an hour later, Mary was forced once more onto the cart where the noose was put around her neck…

“…and so ended the butchery of poor unfortunate Mary Nicholson”, says Longstaffe, bringing his story to an end.

ANOTHER story pops out from the pages of Longstaffe concerning Alwent, which is the area between Gainford and Staindrop. It is a very ancient area, with the remains of a deserted medieval village and a water-powered cornmill which is said to be the best preserved in County Durham.

It was also once a fruity area as Longstaffe tells how in 1311, John de Alwent admitted in from of Bishop Richard Kellaw, of Durham that he had committed adultery with Agnes de Raby and Annabella De Durha,

To compound his sins of the flesh, John was unable to prove that he had not committed the same naughtiness with Christiana Clergis, Annabella de Castle Barnard and Emma le Aumbelour.

Bp Kellaw, who came from Kelloe, sentenced the philanderer to be dressed only in linen and whipped around Gainford parish church for six consecutive Sundays. The he should be taken to Darlington market place and whipped around there on six consecutive Mondays “during that part of the day when it should be most thronged”.

The vicar of Gainford was charged with making sure thatJohn de Alwent appeared for his punishment. If the vicar were to fail, the bishop ordered that he should be excommunicated.