THIS is a paragraph of history from The Northern Echo of July 19, 1872. It tells how 150 years ago this week, as a result of growing gossip, a woman had been arrested in West Auckland:

The Northern Echo: The Northern Echo's report from July 19, 1872, of Mary Ann Cotton's arrest

She was, of course, Mary Ann Cotton, Britain's greatest mass murderess.

The Northern Echo: Mary Ann Cotton.

She had moved to the village in 1871 with her fourth husband (her third was still living in Sunderland, so it was a bigamous marriage), Frederick Cotton. He died in September 1871. There was much sympathy for her, but at least his death allowed her lover, Joseph Nattrass, to move in as her “lodger”.

The Northern Echo: SKETCH: Mary Ann Cotton’s home

In March 1872, tragedy swept through her house in Front Street. First her stepson, Frederick, aged 10, died, followed soon after by her baby, Robert, aged 14, followed on April 1 by Nattrass, her lover.

But on the positive side, she was pregnant by an excise officer, Mr Quick-Manning, whom she had been nursing over smallpox. He said he was going to marry her, but her last surviving stepson, a boy named Charles, was regarded as an obstacle to the proposal.

However, Mary Ann publicly prophesized that Charles, despite being healthy, was unlikely to reach adulthood because of the Cotton family’s unfortunate habit of dying young.

Then, on Friday, July 12, he died young.

But at least Mary Ann got £4 10s from his life insurance.

With gossip swirling, Dr Kilburn refused to sign a death certificate, so an inquest was held the following day in the Rose and Crown. The doctor carried out a post mortem on the boy on a table in Mary Ann’s house only an hour before the hearing began, and was a little hazy on the details. Pressed by the jury, he said it could have been gastro-enteritis so a verdict of “natural causes” was reached.

The boy was buried in St Helen’s Auckland, but the gossip grew and grew.

On Wednesday, July 17, it spurred Dr Kilburn into doing proper chemical analysis on the five fluid ounces of samples he had taken from the boy’s stomach. To his horror, he discovered traces of arsenic, and immediately headed to Bishop Auckland police station, arriving at midnight to report his findings to Supt John Henderson.

On Thursday, Supt Henderson and two constables arrived at Mary Ann’s door in Front Street and arrested her in connection with the murder of Charles Edward Cotton. She said nothing. Perhaps she knew the game was up.

The Northern Echo: Mary Ann Cotton.

An Edwardian postcard showing Mary Ann Cotton's distinctive home, where she was arrested 150 years ago this week. Below: A Google StreetView of her home today

The Northern Echo: Mary Ann Cotton's home in Front Street where she was arrested 150 years ago. Picture: Google StreetView

She was taken to Bishop Auckland police station as the police requested permission from the Home Office to exhume Charles’ body.

The Echo finished its historic paragraph by saying: “Considerable excitement prevails.” This was the first intimation that Mary Ann Cotton was on her way to becoming Britain’s greatest mass murderess…