A JUDGE rebuked a loophole in the law that enabled a teenager to walk from court in a high profile case that had gripped public attention in Southampton.

With the public gallery overflowing, Harriet Passingham had gone on trial at Hampshire Assizes accused of attempting to murder her widowed employer.

The prosecution claimed the 19-year-old maid had laced the drink of Maria Read with a solution of mercury intended to wipe out bugs at her Bitterne home.

Though she confessed she had given her a doctored drink, the judge intriguingly believed she had not been the prime mover and someone better established in the household had abused her naivity.

Passingham, who had lived at the house for some 13 months, had given Read her customary drink of porter from a pint bottle before dinner but uncharacteristically took it back to the kitchen.

That same evening, March 6, 1867, the pair were joined for supper by Read's daughter and before the meal was served, her employer asked her to pour out another glass into a tumbler.

As soon as she took her first sip, she found the beer disagreeable but strangely took a second mouthful. Within seconds she complained of a severe burning feeling in her chest and accused Passingham of having put something into the drink.

"Ann, what have you done?" she demanded. Passingham made no reply and Read accused her: "You must have done something to it."

This time, the maid explained she had put the contents of the first bottle into the remnants of a second.

"Taste it yourself," Read ordered and the maid appeared to do so.

"I must say it is very bad," she agreed and went to take the bottle away but Read's daughter, noticing there was still a little in it, asked her to leave the bottle in the room.

"By now, I was experiencing a strange feeling, great pains in my chest and a violent burning in the throat," her mother told jurors of her discomfort. "I became very sick indeed and my daughter sent for the doctor, Mr Orsborn. I asked her for the porter which I now had refused to drink but Ann said she had thrown it under the grate.

"The fright has so unnerved me that I have not been well since, and I could not get rid of the taste for four or five days, it burnt me so."

Before Dr Orsborn was called, jurors heard from his assistant Frederick Delfe how he had prepared for Read's daughter a poison containing corrosive sublimate, hydrocloric acid and water suitable for destroying bugs, putting the contents into a six ounce bottle and labelling it with the word 'poison.'

Dr Orsborn tasted the drink which he found as possessing an "intensely disagreeable and metallic taste" and confronted Passingham, demanding to know what it was so he could counter her ill effects.

She explained she had obtained it when one of the servants had been taken ill and the cook had given it to her to clean copper things.

"I have a recollection of her saying something of white vitriol. She took me into an outhouse and showed me a bottle from which she said she poured the stuff into the porter. I asked her whether Mrs Read had been scolding her or had been angry with her but she said no.

"I then asked what could have induced her to do such a thing and she said Mrs Read was so particular and so fidgety, I cannot remember which."

Orsborn duly tested the remaining porter and discovered it contained corrosive sublimate, a very powerful poison and which taken in sufficient quantity would result in death. However, it was free of vitriol.

However he was unable to analyse the contents of the bottle Passingham had given him because there was too little left. "It was perfectly tasteless and colourless and I believe it was water."

Pc Stadden told the trial the teenager had initially refused to accompany him to Pear Tree Green police station but finally consented, confessing on the way she had put only three or four drops of vitriol into the porter and was very sorry for what she had done.

Lucy Gardiner, the cook, confirmed that Passingham had asked her for something to clean the copper and she had given her a tablespoon of vitriol in a bottle.

"I saw her empty it into the copper and she returned the bottle to me. It is still in use at the house."

The prosecution closed their case by reading out the teenager's statement to the police, again saying she was sorry and would not have done it had she not been persuaded to do so.

The judge, Mr Justice Crompton, warned jurors that it was essential for the Crown to prove the poison had not only been administered but also with intent to murder.

"You cannot convict if you believe the intent was to cause grievous bodily harm. A person administering poison with intent to cause grievous bodily harm would only be guilty of murder if the person died. You must infer the intention from the natural consequences of the act but at the same time it is necessary for you to look at the position and education of the prisoner and to be satisfied she knew it was poison and she had adminstered it with the intention of killing her mistress."

The judge also reminded them of her statement that another person in the household had enticed to do it.

"The evidence shows a very slight motive for the act and though there can be no doubt that a man in a higher position in life administered to another corrosive sublimate, the intention must be inferred as that of murder. You must consider whether a person in a position of life as the prisoner had equal knowledge as to the nature of the poison and its consequences."

The jury without hestitation acquitted Passingham and she was discharged.

Discharging her, the judge urged for a change in the law, complaining that a defect in the act of parliament under which the indictment had been framed had prevented other charges of intent from being included.