Local historian Keith Johnson looks at the tragic accidental death of a young Preston woman...
Sadly, cases of poisoning were a common occurrence in Victorian times and in early May 1852 rumours of such an event in Preston were found to be true.
The melancholy occurrence that caused considerable sensation in the town surrounded the death of a young woman, of the name of Margaret Hartley.
She resided with her parents in Spring Street and the painful rumour soon spread that she had met her death by swallowing a dose of arsenic, administered in mistake.
On the first Monday of May the coroner Richard Palmer held an inquest at the Town Hall in view of the body of the unfortunate victim. Her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Hartley, was called as the first witness. She stated that her daughter had been 30 years old and had been in a poor state of health for some time. At about 11 o’clock on the previous Saturday morning she had made her daughter some gruel using arrowroot. The arrowroot was generally kept on a shelf in the kitchen.
She stated that she had gone to the shelf and had taken from out of a paper there what she thought was arrowroot.
She tasted of the material twice by dipping her finger in it, but found nothing peculiar in it, and she never suspected that it was not arrowroot. She then made gruel of it, and sweetened it, and then gave it to her daughter to drink, before doing so, taking a sip of it herself.
After her daughter had swallowed a portion of it she complained of it being rather warm; whereupon her sister, who was also in the house, inquired as to where her mother had got the arrowroot. She told her from off the shelf and the daughter replied that it was arsenic and not arrowroot.
The mother horrified at the thought she had poisoned her daughter immediately gave her a mixture of meal, warm water and butter which she swallowed immediately, the result being that she vomited quickly and freely.
Dr. Fearenside and his assistant arrived shortly afterwards and applied proper remedies, but the patient became noticeable weak, and not in a condition to battle the sickness, death ensued within four hours.
Evidence was then submitted regarding the arsenic. It was stated that arsenic was bought about 18 months earlier to destroy mice. There was only a pennyworth and they used a large portion of it at the time.
The remainder was put in a paper, and placed upon a shelf in the cellar. It had remained there until they had the white washers in to paint the cellar, at which time it was moved into the kitchen. Mrs. Hartley being completely unaware of it and mistakenly using it with tragic consequences.
The inquest jury, under the direction of the coroner, took little time in returning a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ by poison.
The ill-fated young woman was a much loved member of the local Wesleyan body and a large number of the congregation followed her funeral procession to St Peter’s graveyard where she was interred on the following Wednesday morning.