A DEEPLY intriguing story was running in the Darlington & Stockton Times of 150 years ago under the headline “Mysterious death at Pittington”, with each week’s instalment stranger than the last.

The unfortunate deceased was Mary Brown, a servant girl who worked at Mr JW Kirkup’s farm. She died – mysteriously – a fortnight before she was due to marry George Barrott, one of Mr Kirkup’s farm workers.

The inquest into her death was held in the Bonnie Pit Laddie in Pittington, where her aunt, Philis Brown, laid into Mr Kirkup.

She said “she believed the deceased’s master caused her death…I think it is her master that has given her something. I know he had offered to take liberties with her before. She told me about it at the time, but asked me not to say anything about it as her time was getting short. She said if she left before her time was up she would not get her wages.”

The aunt was asked whether anyone else would have had the same opportunity as Mr Kirkup to poison the girl. The aunt agreed anyone could have tampered with Mary’s food or drink, but then made the incendiary allegation: “Mr Kirkup has been guilty of such like before, and has been punished for it.”

The fiancé, Mr Barrott, then took the stand. He said he had dined with Mary on the day she died without suffering any ill-effects. He said he had been working in the field alongside Mr Kirkup at the time Mary died.

But then he added: “Deceased told him that the master had wanted to take liberties with her. He had never said anything to Mr Kirkup because deceased asked him not to so, as it would make a great deal of disturbance.”

Mr Kirkup himself wasn’t called to give evidence but he was in the pub and obviously rather annoyed by what he was hearing. He accused Mr Barrott of “stealing away a man’s character”.

Mr Parker, surgeon of Easington Lane, was called. He had conducted the post mortem on Mary in which he found she was pregnant with twin boys. He had found no evidence of poisoning but said he believed death was caused by anodyne posion, and he had sealed up the contents of the stomach “in a little spirits of wine” for expert analysis.

Then three letters were passed to the coroner, Crofton Maynard. They had been sent to Mary, but the D&S doesn’t reveal the identity of the author.

“The coroner, after perusing one, said it was of a most filthy character, and totally unfit to be read in the presence of females,” said the D&S. “It transpired that the deceased was much annoyed on receipt of the letters, and let her aunt see two of them. The third she had burnt.”

What was the filthy character of those letters, and who was the sender? Could it have been Mr Kirkup? In some hubbub, the inquest was adjourned for a fortnight.

On May 15, 1869 – two days after Mary’s planned wedding day – the paper returned to the story. An analytical chemist, Mr Marreco had yet to complete his work on the contents of the stomach, but new evidence was presented that Mary “had been acquainted with the use of morphia, habitually taken by a sister of her master, Mr Kirkup”.

Morphine, of course, is an addictive painkiller derived from opium.

Mr Marreco said there was no trace of morphia in Mary’s stomach, but the jury were decided.

“The jury are of the opinion that there is no evidence to show the true cause of death,” said the D&S Times. “They are also of opinion that no blame whatever attaches to Mr Kirkup.”

The inquest then terminated, even though the father of Mary’s twins was never identified, even though the contents of her stomach were never fully analysed and even though the author of the filthy letters was never revealed.