Born Mary Ann Robson
Poisoner - To collect
Number of victims: 1 - 21
Date of murder:
1857 - 1872
Date of arrest:
Date of birth: October 1, 1832
Eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three
husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend
Method of murder:
Location: North East
England, England, United Kingdom
by hanging in Durham prison on March 24, 1873
In 1871, 40-year-old Mary Ann
Cotton and her husband, 39-year-old Frederick moved into a home in
County Durham, with his two stepsons and her 7-month-old baby.
Two months later Frederick died of gastric fever and one of Mary's
lovers, Joseph Natrass moved in.
In the space of a month Belle's
baby, Natrass and Frederick's son all died in the house. On the
12 July 1872 the other son of Frederick died, all the deaths
caused suspicion and a neighbour went to the police.
A post mortem was carried out on
the stepson and it revealed him to be poisoned with arsenic. The
bodies of the other dead were exhumed and they showed that arsenic
was the cause of death. Mary was arrested and charged with the
murder of her stepson. She went to trial in March 1873, claiming
that they were accidentally killed by arsenic contained in
wallpaper, but the prosecution had evidence that she had purchased
arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Cotton was suspected of the
murders of 14 people, in her older life twenty one people close to
her died. Her motive was gain, as she would marry, kill and
collect the insurance money, then repeat it again. She was hanged
in Durham prison on March 24, 1873.
(1832 – 1873) was a British serial killer in the 19th century.
Employing poison, she is suspected of murdering up to twenty-one
people. She was the most prolific British serial killer before
She was born Mary Ann Robson in 1832 in the
village of Low Moorsley in Tyne and Wear, Northern England. Her
father was a miner who died when she was eight, and Mary and her
brother were raised by their mother, who was impoverished after
the loss of her husband. Mary's mother later remarried, and Mary
is said to have loathed her stepfather.
Conflict with her stepfather led her to flee the
family home when she was 16. She married in 1852, aged 20, and had
five children, four of whom died in infancy, a high rate of infant
mortality even in the Victorian era. Mary frequently argued with
her husband, who died suddenly in January 1865.
Now widowed, Mary returned to Sunderland and a few
months later got married again, her new husband dying in October
1865 from an unexplained illness.
In 1866, Mary's mother died after a sudden illness.
At the time Mary was enjoying a relationship with a widower, James
Robinson, whom she soon married. Robinson had four children by his
late wife, although two suddenly died soon after he met Mary.
Robinson became suspicious of his new wife, especially when she
kept pestering him to take out life insurance. In late 1869,
having borne him a daughter, Mary walked out on Robinson, who was
the only husband to survive a marriage to her.
In 1870 Mary married another widower, Frederick
Cotton, whose surname she took and by which name she is usually
known, even though the marriage was effectively null and void
because Mary had not legally divorced her previous husband.
Mary Cotton had a son with Frederick Cotton. Soon,
Frederick's sister, two sons from his previous marriage and a
number of friends died after sudden illnesses. Frederick himself
died in December 1871, soon followed by the baby Mary had by him.
Mary quickly remarried, but her new husband quickly died after a
In the spring of 1872, one of Mary Cotton's few
surviving stepchildren, Charles Cotton, whose father had been
Frederick Cotton, died suddenly. Word quickly spread around the
neighbourhood concerning the way so many of Mary's nearest and
dearest had died so suddenly over the previous two decades.
Thomas Riley, a minor government official, was
suspicious of the latest death. Mary Cotton had told him that
Charles had been "in the way" of her plans of getting remarried.
Furthermore, young Charles had appeared very healthy up until his
sudden death, which was supposedly due to gastric fever. Mary
tried to collect on the life insurance she had taken out on
Charles Cotton's life, but the insurance company refused to pay
until the body of the deceased had been investigated more
thoroughly. Charles Cotton's remains were exhumed and a
significant trace of arsenic was found in the deceased's stomach.
Charges soon followed and Mary Cotton was
eventually tried for the murder of Charles Cotton, her final
victim. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
On March 24, 1873, Mary Cotton was hanged. The
execution was botched with Mary failing to die from the initial
drop after the gallow's trapdoor opened. Instead, she slowly
choked to death as she dangled on the end of the noose.
In spite of the fact that she maintained her
innocence to the end, her reputation as the first female serial
killer in Britain stands, and her story is the subject of a
Ann Cotton –
She's dead and she's rotten! She lies in her bed With her eyes
Sing, sing! "Oh, what can I sing? Mary Ann Cotton
is tied up with string."
Where, where? "Up in the air – selling black
puddings a penny a pair."
Mary Ann Cotton (born
Mary Ann Robson in October 1832 in Low Moorsley, County
Durham – died 24 March 1873) was an English woman convicted of
murdering her children and believed to have murdered up to 21
people, mainly by arsenic poisoning.
Mary Ann Robson was born in October 1832 at Low
Moorsley (now part of Houghton-le-Spring in the City of
Sunderland) and baptised at St Mary's, West Rainton on 11
November. Her father Michael, a miner, was ardently religious and
a fierce disciplinarian.
When Mary Ann was eight, her parents moved the
family to the County Durham village of Murton, where she went to a
new school and found it difficult to make friends. Soon after the
move her father fell 150 feet (46 m) to his death down a mine
shaft at Murton Colliery.
In 1843, Mary Ann's widowed mother, Margaret
(née Lonsdale) married George Stott, with whom Mary Ann did not
get along. At the age of 16, she moved out to become a nurse at
Edward Potter's home in the nearby village of South Hetton. After
three years there, she returned to her mother's home and trained
as a dressmaker.
Husband 1: William Mowbray
In 1852, at the age of 20,
Mary Ann married colliery labourer William Mowbray in Newcastle
Upon Tyne register office; they soon moved to Plymouth, Devon. The
couple had five children, four of whom died from gastric fever.
William and Mary Ann moved back to North East England where they
had, and lost, three more children. William became a foreman at
South Hetton Colliery and then a fireman aboard a steam vessel. He
died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865. William's life was
insured by the British and Prudential Insurance office and Mary
Ann collected a payout of £35 on his death, equivalent to about
half a year's wages for a manual labourer at the time.
Husband 2: George Ward
Soon after Mowbray's death, Mary Ann moved to
Seaham Harbour, County Durham, where she struck up a relationship
with Joseph Nattrass. He, however, was engaged to another woman
and she left Seaham after Nattrass’s wedding. During this time,
her 3½-year-old daughter died, leaving her with one child out of
the nine she had borne. She returned to Sunderland and took up
employment at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the
Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. She sent
her remaining child, Isabella, to live with her mother.
One of her patients at the infirmary was an
engineer, George Ward. They married in Monkwearmouth on 28 August
1865. He continued to suffer ill health; he died in October 1866
after a long illness characterised by paralysis and intestinal
problems. The attending doctor later gave evidence that Ward had
been very ill, yet he had been surprised that the man's death was
so sudden. Once again, Mary Ann collected insurance money from her
Husband 3: James Robinson
James Robinson was a shipwright at Pallion,
Sunderland, whose wife, Hannah, had recently died. He hired Mary
Ann as a housekeeper in November 1866. One month later, when
James' baby died of gastric fever, he turned to his housekeeper
for comfort and she became pregnant. Then Mary Ann's mother,
living in Seaham Harbour, County Durham, became ill so she
immediately went to her. Although her mother started getting
better, she also began to complain of stomach pains. She died at
age 54 in the spring of 1867, nine days after Mary Ann's arrival.
Mary Ann's daughter Isabella, from the marriage
to William Mowbray, was brought back to the Robinson household and
soon developed bad stomach pains and died; so did another two of
Robinson's children. All three children were buried in the last
two weeks of April 1867.
Robinson married Mary Ann at St Michael's,
Bishopwearmouth on 11 August 1867. Their child, Mary Isabella, was
born that November, but she became ill with stomach pains and died
in March 1868.
Robinson, meanwhile, had become suspicious of
his wife's insistence that he insure his life; he discovered that
she had run up debts of £60 behind his back and had stolen more
than £50 that she was supposed to have put in the bank. The last
straw was when he found she had been forcing his children to pawn
household valuables for her. He threw her out.
"Husband" 4: Frederick
Mary Ann was desperate and living on the
streets. Then her friend Margaret Cotton introduced her to her
brother, Frederick, a pitman and recent widower living in
Walbottle, Northumberland, who had lost two of his four children.
Margaret had acted as substitute mother for the remaining
children, Frederick Jr. and Charles. But in late March 1870
Margaret died from an undetermined stomach ailment, leaving Mary
Ann to console the grieving Frederick Sr. Soon her eleventh
pregnancy was underway.
Frederick and Mary Ann were bigamously married
on 17 September 1870 at St Andrew's, Newcastle Upon Tyne and their
son Robert was born early in 1871. Soon after, Mary Ann learnt
that her former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was living in the nearby
village of West Auckland, and no longer married. She rekindled the
romance and persuaded her new family to move near him. Frederick
followed his predecessors to the grave in December of that year,
from “gastric fever." Insurance had been taken out on his life and
the lives of his sons.
After Frederick's death, Nattrass soon became
Mary Ann’s lodger. She gained employment as nurse to an excise
officer recovering from smallpox, John Quick-Manning. Soon she
became pregnant by him with her twelfth child.
Frederick Jr. died in March 1872 and the infant
Robert soon after. Then Nattrass became ill with gastric fever,
and died — just after revising his will in Mary Ann’s favour.
The insurance policy Mary Ann had taken out on
Charles' life still awaited collection.
Death of Charles Edward Cotton and inquest
Mary Ann's downfall came when she was asked by
a parish official, Thomas Riley, to help nurse a woman who was ill
with smallpox. She complained that the last surviving Cotton boy,
Charles Edward, was in the way and asked Riley if he could be
committed to the workhouse. Riley, who also served as West
Auckland's assistant coroner, said she would have to accompany
him. She told Riley that the boy was sickly and added: “I won’t be
troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”
Five days later, when Mary Ann told Riley that
the boy had died. Riley went to the village police and convinced
the doctor to delay writing a death certificate until the
circumstances could be investigated.
Mary Ann’s first port of call after Charles'
death was not the doctor’s but the insurance office. There, she
discovered that no money would be paid out until a death
certificate was issued. An inquest was held and the jury returned
a verdict of natural causes. Mary Ann claimed to have used
arrowroot to relieve his illness and said Riley had made
accusations against her because she had rejected his advances.
Then the local newspapers latched on to the
story and discovered Mary Ann had moved around northern England
and lost three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, and a
dozen children, all of whom had died of stomach fevers.
Rumour turned to suspicion and forensic
inquiry. The doctor who attended Charles had kept samples, and
they tested positive for arsenic. He went to the police, who
arrested Mary Ann and ordered the exhumation of Charles' body. She
was charged with his murder, although the trial was delayed until
after the delivery of her last child in Durham Gaol on 10 January
1873, whom she named Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.
Trial and execution
Mary Ann Cotton's trial began on 5 March 1873.
The delay was caused by a problem in the selection of the public
prosecutor. A Mr. Aspinwall was supposed to get the job, but the
Attorney General, Sir John Duke Coleridge, chose his friend and
protégé Charles Russell. Russell's appointment over Aspinwall led
to a question in the House of Commons. However, it was accepted,
and Russell conducted the prosecution. The Cotton case would be
the first of several famous poisoning cases he would be involved
in during his career, including those of Adelaide Bartlett and
The defence in the case was handled by Mr.
Thomas Campbell Foster. The defence at Mary Ann's trial claimed
that Charles died from inhaling arsenic used as a dye in the green
wallpaper of the Cotton home. The jury retired for 90 minutes
before finding Mary Ann guilty.
The Times correspondent reported on 20
March: "After conviction the wretched woman exhibited strong
emotion but this gave place in a few hours to her habitual cold,
reserved demeanour and while she harbours a strong conviction that
the royal clemency will be extended towards her, she staunchly
asserts her innocence of the crime that she has been convicted
of." Several petitions were presented to the Home Secretary, but
to no avail. Mary Ann Cotton was hanged at Durham County Gaol on
24 March, 1873 by William Calcraft.
Mary Ann Cotton also had her own nursery rhyme
of the same title, sung after her hanging on March 24, 1873.
Mary Ann Cotton,
Dead and forgotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.
"Black puddens" refers to black pudding, a type
of sausage made with pig's blood.
COTTON, Mary Ann
Mary Ann Cotton
was no ordinary, spur-of-the-moment killer; her murderous
instincts were alleged to have resulted in the deaths of fifteen,
perhaps even twenty people, including four husbands and eight
children, and she gained the evil reputation of being the greatest
mass murderess of all time.
By the age of
forty she had married three times. Her first husband, whom she had
married in 1852, was a young miner named William Mowbray, by whom
she had four children. All of them just happened to die young,
reportedly from gastric fever. William Mowbray also succumbed to
illness, experiencing severe sickness and diarrhoea, and died in
seemingly grief-stricken at the loss of her husband and children,
drew solace from her friends and cash from the insurance company.
Realising that hospital work as a nurse would be the source not
only of supplies of the poison she needed, but also of meeting
further vulnerable and susceptible victims, she joined the staff
of Sunderland Infirmary where, among others, she tended a patient
named George Ward. So devoted were her ministrations that when he
recovered he proposed marriage, her subsequent promise ‘in
sickness and in health’ only applying to half the phrase, for
fourteen months later, in 1866, he too shuffled off this mortal
coil, but not before he had endowed all his worldly goods to her.
afterwards, still in her widow’s weeds, she met James Robinson, a
widower with three children. They were married in May 1867, and by
December of that year regrettable coincidences also overwhelmed
that family. Not only did James’ two young sons and daughter, plus
William Mowbray’s nineyear-old daughter fall victim to gastric
fever, but a later baby born to Mary and James joined its
stepbrothers and sisters in the local cemetery. James himself had
cause to thank his guardian angel when Mary incensed him so much
by selling some of his possessions that he ejected her from the
The fact that her
husband was still alive did not deter Mary from starting an
intimate liaison with her next prey, Frederick Cotton, a man who
already had two young sons from a former marriage. When he
proposed to her, she bigamously married him, and, being a prudent
wife who had to take care of her future, she took out three
insurance policies, just in case. The number of children in their
family became three when she had a little boy by Frederick, called
Robert, the number of policies thereby increasing accordingly.
Early in 1872 a
James Nattrass attracted her attention. This complicated matters,
Frederick Cotton immediately becoming surplus to requirements –
but not for long. Almost without warning he fell seriously ill,
but by the time a doctor had arrived he was past all medical aid.
Frederick’s 10-year-old son was not long in following his father
to the grave, and Mary’s child, Robert, never reached puberty.
James now became
her lover, but affection wasn’t everything, and eventually Mary
decided that £30, the sum for which he had been insured, was
preferable to the man himself, and so another coffin received an
occupant and another grave was dug.
Mary could have
continued in this manner, unchecked and unsuspected, until her
stock of arsenic, a poison little recognised or diagnosed at the
time, ran out, but for some unaccountable reason, perhaps a rare,
charitable thought, she spared the life of Charles Edward, the
eight-year-old Cotton boy; instead she decided to hand him over to
the workhouse. When told that such was not possible without the
parents also being admitted, she retorted, ‘I could have married
again but for the child. But there, he won’t live long, he’ll go
the way of all the Cotton family.’
Nor did he.
Dispensing with mercy, she dispensed arsenic instead, gastric
fever again being diagnosed as the cause of death.
But news of the
child’s demise reached the ears of the workhouse master and,
remembering the woman’s ominous rejoinder, he notified the
authorities of his suspicions. The child’s body was exhumed and
the amount of arsenic found within the viscera was unmistakable.
And when the corpses of her other victims were disinterred and
their post-mortems produced similar results, the game was up.
In March 1873 Mary
Ann Cotton was charged at Durham with one murder, that of the
young Charles Edward; so overwhelming was the evidence in that
particular case that one charge was considered sufficient, and so
it proved. Throughout the trial the woman in the dock remained
composed and utterly self-assured; having borne a charmed life so
far, she probably saw no reason why it should not continue. She
pleaded not guilty and coolly explained that the arsenic in her
possession was used to kill bedbugs in the house, but when the
judge pronounced her guilty and sentenced her to be hanged, she
fainted in the dock and had to be carried down to the cells.
If she had thought
that because she was pregnant – she had wasted no time in taking a
new lover, a local customs officer, following James’ funeral – she
would escape the gallows, she was sadly mistaken: there was, of
course, no question of executing her while heavy with child, but
once the child was born, the law would take its course. After
giving birth in gaol, she was deprived of her baby and
arrangements were made for her to be deprived of her life in five
The night before
her execution she was heard by her warders to pray for salvation,
a prayer which included James Robinson, her third husband and the
only one to escape her homicidal proclivities. The customs man
might also have congratulated himself on his lucky escape!
at that time dictated that women wore dresses with long sleeves,
plus a veil and gloves, and Mary Ann Cotton’s apparel on her
execution day reflected this, for her veil was the white cap
William Calcraft slipped over her head – nor did he omit the
matching accessory, a hempen necklace. None of the watching
officials saw him hesitate as he prepared his victim, nor did he
waste a moment in operating the bolt.
However, as usual,
nearly three minutes elapsed before the twitching figure ceased
rotating and finally hung deathly still.
from the scaffold, Mary’s body was taken back into the prison
building where, in order to take a cast of her head to be studied
by members of the West Hartlepool Phrenological Society, all her
luxurious tresses were cut off close to her skull. It was later
stated that, far from being kept as gruesome souvenirs, every
severed strand of hair was deposited in the coffin with her body.
Such was the
publicity surrounding the case that shock waves of disbelief and
horror spread across the country when the prosecuting lawyer
described the ghastly deaths of her other victims, and with the
minimum of delay a wax model of her joined the macabre company
already occupying Mme Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the museum
publishing an updated catalogue which endorsed her execution as
expiation ‘for crimes
for which no
punishment in history could atone. The child she rocked on her
knee today was poisoned tomorrow. Most of her murders were
committed for petty gains; and she killed off husbands and
children with the unconcern of a farm-girl killing poultry’.
eternally feminine, Mary Ann was determined to look her best even
for William Calcraft. When the wardresses went to escort her from
the condemned cell to the scaffold, they found her brushing her
long black hair in front of the mirror. As they approached her she
turned and said brightly, ‘Right – now I am ready!’
Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott
21 people including her own mother, children and husbands. So why
has no-one heard of Britain's FIRST serial killer, Mary Ann
By David Wilson,
Professor of Criminology at Birmingham University
February 5, 2012
I pull up outside a house in the Durham mining
village of West Auckland to find an anonymous-looking place: a
slim, three-storey family home distinguished from its neighbours
only by its pretty, blue-grey paint.
There are no clues as to its gruesome past.
Even its original house number has been changed, perhaps from fear
that the evil that was perpetrated here could pass down through
successive generations of residents.
This is the home in which Britain’s first
serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, claimed her final victim. It is
the house in which she was arrested and then taken away to be
incarcerated, before eventually being executed at Durham Jail in
Few have heard of the so-called ‘Black Widow’
killer who posed as a wife, widow, mother, friend and nurse to
murder perhaps as many as 21 victims, living off her husbands
before eventually claiming their estates. Two decades before Jack
the Ripper would terrorise the streets of Whitechapel in London,
Mary Ann Cotton had already become a killing machine, perhaps
murdering as many as eight of her own children, seven
stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an
Even crime aficionados, those familiar with
such names as Shipman, Nilsen, Sutcliffe and West, know little or
nothing of her. She has been largely erased from history and
remains today only a half-remembered local curiosity even in her
native North East.
There is certainly no walking tour retracing
her murderous progress through County Durham, nor sad monuments
erected to honour the memories of her victims. A woman who should
have been a criminal icon has been reduced to little more than a
chilling bedtime story and a Northern nursery rhyme: ‘Sing, sing,
oh, what can I sing? Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string.
Where, where? Up in the air, sellin’ black puddens a penny a
A single book marked the centenary of her
execution. As one of Britain’s leading criminologists and a former
prison governor, I would like to know why. I have worked on police
investigations and with many serial killers. Yet even to me, the
life and terrible work of Mary Ann Cotton were largely a mystery.
And so throughout the spring and summer last
year, I spent time in the North East researching a new book on
this woman who travelled from one pit village to another leaving
only gravestones behind her and who, in doing so, gained real, if
loathsome, historical importance.
Here is not just the first British serial
killer – someone who has killed more than three people in a
period greater than 30 days – but the first to exploit and abuse
the anonymity of a new industrial age.
My search began in the Home Office archives at
Kew, South-West London, in the autumn of 2010. I found the usual
records that measure the criminal careers of Victorian prisoners:
her age, an occasional glimpse of what life had been like before
prison, details of Mary Ann’s court appearances, and some letters
from the governor of Durham Jail before her execution.
But these frustratingly formal scraps of
biographical detail were hardly enough to explain what had caused
Mary Ann to behave as she did, or to explain why she had all but
There was, however, another valuable resource:
scores of local newspapers and fragments of documents and
artefacts in local archives and museums.
Victorian journalists had been adept at
sketching in – and exaggerating – some of Mary Ann’s biographical
background. There was also a crude ‘murderabilia’ market ensuring
that some, at least, of Mary Ann’s correspondence had survived.
What is beyond dispute in an otherwise tangled
search is that she was born Mary Ann Robson in 1832 at Low
Moorsley, a small village near the town of Hetton-le-Hole. It
would have been a hard upbringing. Her father Michael is recorded
as a ‘pitman’, which meant that he worked in the local coal mines.
Soon after her arrival, they moved to East
Rainton, and then to the pit village of Murton. This constant
shifting from place to place was normal for the time and for the
Colliery contracts lasted no more than one
year, and when their time was up, the miners and engineers went
looking for more lucrative work. The mines drew in thousands of
strangers from other parts of Britain, all eager to sell their
labour, so adding to the sense of rootlessness.
Mary Ann’s father was killed in early 1842,
when she was aged nine, apparently plummeting down a shaft while
repairing a pulley wheel at the Murton Colliery. Mary Ann would
have been instructed to find work and marry, which she did on
July 18, 1852, becoming the wife of colliery worker William
First seeking their fortunes in Cornwall –
another region where miners could find work – the Mowbrays
returned to the North East in 1860, and this, so far as we know,
is where the killing began. Her motives will always remain a
matter of conjecture, but a strong pattern emerged: Mary Ann would
find a man with an income, live with him until it became
inconvenient, and then murder him. Numerous children – no one
knows how many – were dispatched with the same callousness.
Her choice of poison was arsenic, favoured by
murderers down the centuries for largely pragmatic reasons. First,
it dissolves in a hot liquid, a cup of tea, for example, so is
easy to administer. Second, it was readily available. Although by
this stage, the authorities had started regulating the sale of
arsenic, a high concentration could still be obtained in a
substance known as ‘soft soap’, a household disinfectant.
There was a third reason, too: as Mary Ann well
knew, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were vomiting, diarrhoea
and dehydration. A busy and unsuspecting doctor was always more
likely to diagnose this cluster of symptoms as gastroenteritis –
especially in patients who were poor and undernourished – than to
According to death and burial certificates, all
her victims had died of gastric ailments.
It seems she also played the role of the
grieving wife and mother to perfection, making it all the more
difficult to be precise about the number of people she may have
I’ve pieced together the trail of deaths
associated with Mary Ann, and it starts with her first family. She
bore William Mowbray, her first husband, at least four children,
three of whom died young.
William died in January 1865, leaving Mary Ann
to enjoy the £35 payout from British and Prudential Insurance,
equivalent then to six months’ salary.
The total of murdered Mowbray children might
have been greater still as, according to Mary Ann’s own testimony,
she had earlier given birth to four children while the family was
in the West Country. She used the insurance payout to move to
Seaham Harbour, a port village in County Durham, so that she
could be close to a lover called Joseph Nattrass.
Throughout her 20-year career of murder,
wherever Nattrass went, she followed. He, too, would eventually
become a victim. The insurance money also allowed her to embark on
a career in nursing at Sunderland Infirmary – a deadly choice of
occupation. There she met George Ward, an engineer who was a
patient in the hospital, and who became her second husband in
August 1865. He died little more than a year later in October 1866
leaving Mary Ann a second insurance payout.
Now a widow with just one living child from her
marriage to Mowbray, Mary Ann was the perfect candidate for
housekeeper to the newly widowed James Robinson, a shipwright at
the Pallion yard on the River Wear in Sunderland. She took the job
in November 1866 only for him to see his baby die a few weeks
Robinson turned to Mary Ann for comfort and yet
again she became pregnant. But then her own mother fell sick. Mary
Ann went to help – only for her mother to die nine days after Mary
Ann returned home. Then Mary Ann’s daughter Isabella, who had
been living with her grandmother, was brought back to the Robinson
household at Pallion. She soon died too, as did two more of
Robinson’s children, all three infants being buried in the last
two weeks of April 1867.
Four months later, Robinson married Mary Ann,
becoming her third husband. Their child, Mary Isabella, was born
that November but died in March 1868. Robinson himself had a lucky
escape. He was intrigued as to why she had wanted his life insured
for a significant sum. He discovered that she had a secret debt of
£60; that she’d stolen more than £50 that she should have banked
on his behalf; and that she had forced his older children to pawn
household valuables for her. He threw her out.
Mary Ann was desperate and, as newspaper
reporters later suggested, was reduced to living on the streets.
But yet again she found a man: her friend Margaret Cotton
introduced her to her brother Frederick, a pitman and recent
widower living in Walbottle, Northumberland.
Margaret was looking after Frederick and his
two children, but she died from an undetermined stomach ailment in
March 1870, leaving the coast clear for Mary Ann.
She and Frederick married bigamously in
September and a son Robert was born in 1871. Frederick Cotton
died in December of that year. Insurance, needless to say, had
been taken out on his life and those of his sons.
Now Joseph Nattrass, her long-term lover, moved
in as her lodger. However, she also found work as a nurse to an
excise officer called John Quick-Manning, who was recovering from
smallpox. As was her habit, she swiftly became pregnant by him
(their daughter Margaret was born in prison while Mary Ann awaited
execution) but, of course, she was still encumbered by her
children from her third marriage. One of her stepsons died in
March 1872 and her own son Robert soon after. Shortly after
revising his will in her favour, Nattrass became sick and died in
The incompetence and heavy workload of local
physicians, the poor nutrition of the urban working class, and
imperfect record-keeping all helped the killings to go
unchallenged. Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s experience as a nurse gave her
perfect access – and she undoubtedly relished monitoring the
painful, protracted deaths of her victims.
The court documents from her murder trial
suggest an element of real sadism at work. Mary Ann’s neighbour
Jane Hedley was one of those who witnessed the excruciating death
Under oath, she told Durham Crown Court: ‘I was
very friendly with the Prisoner. I assisted . . . during the time
of the illness. I saw him have fits, he was very twisted up and
seemed in great agony. He twisted his toes and his hands and
worked them all ways. He drew his legs quite up.’
She describes how he ‘threw himself about’ and
how his murderess – presumably in the guise of caring for him –
was obliged to restrain him with force. It is clear from Jane
Hedley’s account that, by this stage at least, Mary Ann had the
confidence to kill right under the noses of the doctors.
It is hard not to believe that there was some
element of enjoyment at the control she exercised – that she was,
in other words, a psychopath. I believe she would have enjoyed
holding down Nattrass as he died writhing in agony.
There is no doubt, too, that greed was a
powerful motive as, husband by husband, she climbed the social
ladder of a newly mobile society (in which, for the first time,
ordinary people had life insurance).
In a previous, agricultural era, Mary Ann
Cotton’s activities would have been watched, reported upon and
controlled by her neighbours and their informal surveillance.
Only in the age of water power and steam were
people free to leave their agricultural past behind them and shift
restlessly from one settlement to another. In so doing, they could
become whoever and whatever they wanted to be – even a serial
If modern life had allowed her to become the
‘monster in human shape’ later described by the Newcastle
Chronicle, it also provided the means of her eventual detection.
She had poisoned her seven-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton
in the summer of 1872, apparently to clear the way for yet another
new relationship, this time with Quick-Manning. Following a hasty
post-mortem conducted on a kitchen table, the inquest returned a
verdict of death by natural causes.
But this was not enough for the police, the
newspapers and the new discipline of forensic science, all of
which played a part in uncovering her past. It was journalists,
thriving on local gossip, who first prompted the investigations,
soon exposing the tally of dead husbands, lost children, and the
tell-tale signs of arsenic poisoning. And the police – still a
comparatively new force in provincial life – were moved to act.
In 1873, Mary Ann Cotton was arrested, tried
and hanged for the murder of the seven-year-old Charles Edward
Cotton. Some of the child’s remains were exhumed from the garden
of Dr Kilburn, the local GP, who had presumably buried them there
because he harboured doubts about the death. Samples were taken
and, using methods that were for the time revolutionary, the
presence of arsenic was detected by Dr Thomas Scattergood at Leeds
School of Medicine.
Mary Ann’s trial at Durham Crown Court lasted
three days, and after being found guilty she was executed in
Durham Jail on March 24, 1873, by hangman William Calcraft. Even
the way she met her end proved sensational.
From her prison cell, Mary Ann wrote letter
after letter to newspapers protesting her innocence. Further
sympathy was generated when she gave birth in prison to the child
of Quick-Manning and when the baby girl was taken from her before
Then the hanging itself was horribly botched.
The drop below the trap door was too short. Mary Ann was left
jerking on the end of the rope and Calcraft was obliged to press
down upon her to finish the job.
Her desperate self-promotion and the terrible
manner of her execution ensured a strangely sympathetic hearing in
her final months and the immediate aftermath, and this has helped
confuse our understanding of a woman who by any standards was a
quite relentless killer. Had she not been arrested, I am confident
there would have been many more victims.
What little historical analysis she has
received has often been quite naive, citing her as an example of
the hardships endured by women, or even suggesting that she had
been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Perhaps this is why, today, some in the North
East think of her only as ‘a kindly old lady’ from some dim and
distant past. Geography and the methods that she chose to kill
have contributed, too. Her crimes were not committed in one of the
great cities, nor was she the kind of killer who left ripped or
broken bodies on the street.
My search for her ended at Durham Prison, its
flags flying in the wind and its new modern mission statement
proudly on display. I asked to be shown the original gate through
which Mary Ann would have entered prior to her appointment with
the hangman so I could contemplate what, precisely, Mary Ann means
in the modern world.
A prison officer told me that no one ever
escapes from Durham Prison.
Not even Mary Ann, who remains – despite the
odd bit of local lore in the villages of County Durham – long dead
and buried in the prison’s grounds.
Murder Grew With Her: On The Trail Of Mary Ann
Cotton, Britain’s First Serial Killer, by Professor David Wilson,
will be published later this year.
Charles Cotton was dead. The doctor couldn't deny that. His
stepmother, Mary Ann Cotton, claimed the seven-year-old boy had
died from gastric fever, but the neighbors had noticed that
a few too many in the Cotton household had died by similar stomach
ailments in recent months, and gossip and suspicion ran rampant
through the West Auckland neighborhood in County Durham, England.
Slowly, investigators and gossips began looking into the
background of 40-year-old Mary Ann.
they dug, the more Mary Ann's life looked like something out of a
gothic horror novel: a childhood of near-abuse and near-poverty,
an early marriage to flee an unkind stepfather, and a long string
of family members who had succumbed to the mysterious “gastric
fever” or other curious circumstances while Mary Ann was ominously
the small English village of Low Moorsley in October of 1832, Mary
Ann Robson did not have a happy childhood, but neither did most
children born in lower-class England in the early 19th century.
Her parents were both younger than 20 when they married, and her
father barely managed to keep his family fed by working as a miner
in nearby East Rainton. Many who knew her spoke of her prettiness
as a child and claimed that her beauty as a woman easily attracted
many men who crossed her path. This is undoubtedly true, although
a photograph taken of her after her incarceration shows a dowdy
and somewhat plain figure.
father was ardently religious, a fierce disciplinarian of Mary Ann
and her younger brother Robert, and active in the local Methodist
church’s choir and activities. No doubt his daughter feared him
and his punishments. When Mary Ann was eight, her parents moved
the family to the town of Murton, and her father continued working
in the mines until one day about a year after their move when he
fell down a mine shaft to an early death.
would chronicle repeatedly in his classic writings, life for a
lower-class family (especially one headed by a newly widowed
woman) was extremely harsh in 19th century England. The specter of
being sent to a workhouse, or being separated from her mother and
brother, cast dark shadows over Mary Ann’s girlhood and was the
cause of many nightmares.
never went into the workhouse, however, because her mother
remarried. Her new stepfather did not like Mary Ann, and the
feeling was mutual. Mary Ann began looking for an escape from her
childhood home, although she owed one thing to her stepfather: his
salary had kept her and her family from becoming homeless and
destitute. Mary Ann learned at an early age that to avoid the
miserable fate of her nightmares, she had to keep a steady flow of
money coming her way – no matter what the method.
partly to escape the daily life with her stepfather, Mary Ann left
home at the age of 16 to work as a servant in a prosperous
household in South Hetton. The quality of Mary Ann’s work caused
no complaint, although she began what would become a life riddled
with sexual scandals. Soon after Mary Ann began working in the
household, the South Hetton gossips were busy spreading tales
about illicit meetings between Mary Ann and a local churchman.
three years of service in South Hetton, Mary Ann left to train as
a dressmaker and to marry a miner named William Mowbray, by whom
she had become pregnant. After their wedding in July of 1852, the
newlyweds moved around England as William got work at various
mining sites and on railroad construction projects throughout
first four years of their marriage, William and Mary Ann had five
children, although four of them died in infancy or soon after.
Even though child mortality rates were high at the time, this was
a bit extreme. However, Mary Ann and William were probably viewed
as particularly unlucky parents suffering from grievous personal
and William did not have a happy marriage. They argued frequently
about money, as Mary Ann was still obsessed about never becoming
poor. The quarrels grew so heated that William, in an apparent
attempt to get some peace, landed a job on the steamer Newburn
out of Sunderland, and was often away from home. Mary Ann and
the surviving children followed him and took up residence in
Sunderland, and the number of her children lost to indefinable
illnesses continued at an alarming rate.
of 1865, William returned to the house to nurse an injured foot,
and Mary Ann helped him with his recovery. Later that month,
despite a doctor’s care, William died from a sudden intestinal
disorder, which he had not shown evidence of before benefiting
from Mary Ann’s care. Soon after William’s death, the doctor went
to the Mowbray house to console the grieving widow but was
surprised to find Mary Ann dancing about the room in a new dress
she had bought with the money from William's life insurance.
William Mowbray's death, Mary Ann moved her remaining children to
Seaham Harbour, where she struck up a relationship with Joseph
Nattrass, a local man who was engaged to another woman. Apparently
unable to break up the engagement, Mary Ann left Seaham Harbour
after Nattrass’s wedding (and after burying her 3 ½ year old
daughter, leaving her with one living child out of the nine she
had given birth to). Nattrass would reappear in Mary Ann's life
several years later.
decided to return to Sunderland and found employment at The
Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious
Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. Her remaining child,
Isabella, was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, and
would remain in her grandmother's care for more than two years.
Sunderland Infirmary, Mary Ann kept the wards clean with a mixture
of soap and arsenic, and the Infirmary staff admired her diligence
and friendliness with the patients. She chatted with many of them,
but one in particular, engineer George Ward, took a fancy to Mary
Ann. Soon after he was discharged from the Infirmary, he and Mary
Ann were married at a church in Monkwearmouth in August of 1865.
Although now settled into a new marriage and a steady household,
Mary Ann did not fetch Isabella from her mother’s house.
having been released from the Infirmary, George Ward developed
health problems soon after marrying Mary Ann – and despite various
treatments by his doctors, he died in October of 1866 after a long
bout of paralysis in his limbs and chronic stomach problems. The
doctor attending George was accused of incorrectly treating his
patient, a point of view that Mary Ann actively encouraged,
probably hoping to redirect any doubts away from herself.
later, at Mary Ann’s trial, people would wonder why nobody became
suspicious of this woman who left a trail of husbands and children
dead from startlingly similar illnesses over a very short time.
But as Mary Ann had different doctors attend to her dying family
and she relocated frequently, suspicions never built in a single
to her pattern, after George Ward’s death in Sunderland, Mary Ann
needed to move on.
shipwright James Robinson needed a housekeeper to care for his
house and children after the death of his wife, Hannah. In
November of 1866, Mary Ann applied for the position and was hired.
Two days before Christmas, the baby of the family was interred
after having developed, perhaps not surprisingly, gastric fever.
Overcome with the grief of the recent deaths of his wife and then
of his infant son, James turned to Mary Ann for solace and
support. She provided comfort and apparently then some, as she was
soon pregnant with Robinson's child.
marriage seemed in the forecast, but Mary Ann was diverted in
March of 1867 by a sudden illness of her mother. Mary Ann returned
to her mother’s home to help nurse the elderly lady back to
health. As always, one of Mary Ann’s first tasks was to clean the
house from top to bottom with soap and (her favorite cleaning
additive) arsenic, of which she usually had an ample supply.
time Mary Ann arrived, however, her mother was doing much better,
but Mary Ann decided to stay and look after her anyway – and to
visit her own daughter Isabella, who was still living with her
grandmother. Soon after being in Mary Ann’s care, her mother began
complaining of stomach pains and died only nine days after Mary
to the Robinson household with her mother, young Isabella (who had
enjoyed a life of good health while living away from Mary Ann)
soon developed an incapacitating stomach ailment, as did two of
Robinson’s children, and all three were buried within two weeks of
each other at the end of April.
Robinson must have grieved further over the loss of two more of
his children, but apparently did not suspect any wrongdoing on
Mary Ann’s part. He put his mourning aside in time for his wedding
to Mary Ann in early August (at which Mary Ann stated her surname
as "Mowbray" -- apparently her 14-month marriage to George Ward
had slipped her mind). The couple's first child, Mary Isabella,
was born in late November but had succumbed to illness by the
first of March of 1868.
began to become suspicious of his new wife, not only by the
frequency of deaths in the household since Mary Ann's arrival, but
also by her constant requests for money and her pressing desire
for him to insure his life.
punctual in his household finances, James was surprised when he
received letters from his building society and his brother-in-law
detailing debts Mary Ann had run up without his knowledge. He
questioned his remaining children and found that they had been
coerced by their new stepmother to pawn valuables from the house
and give her the money. Irate, he threw Mary Ann out of the house,
and she left – taking their young daughter with her.
1869, after wandering the streets in the kind of life that Mary
Ann had anxiously feared, Mary Ann and her daughter visited an
acquaintance. During the course of the visit, Mary Ann asked her
friend to watch the girl while she went out to mail a letter. Mary
Ann never came back and the daughter was returned to James on the
first day of 1870.
weeks of desperate living, the year 1870 began well for Mary Ann.
Her friend Margaret Cotton introduced her to her brother
Frederick. Like James Robinson, Frederick was a recent widower and
had lost two of his four children to early deaths. His sons
Frederick Jr. and Charles were all that was left of his family.
His sister acted as mother substitute for the family, although in
late March she died from an undetermined stomach ailment – which
left the opportunity wide open for Mary Ann to console the
grieving Frederick and, in an echo of her relationship with James
Robinson, she was soon pregnant with Frederick's child.
were married in September of 1870, Mary Ann again signing the
register as “Mary Ann Mowbray,” ignoring the fact that her surname
was legally Robinson and that she was not divorced from
James, who was very much alive. Mary Ann added bigamy to her
growing list of crimes.
quickly set up housekeeping in Cotton’s house and just as quickly
insured the lives of Frederick Cotton and his two sons.
giving birth to a son, Robert, in early 1871, Mary Ann learned
that her former paramour Joseph Nattrass was not married and was
living in nearby West Aukland. Under some pretense Mary Ann moved
the family there, and she quickly rekindled the relationship with
Nattrass and became less interested in Frederick Cotton.
December of 1871, Frederick died of gastric fever and Joseph
Nattrass soon became a lodger in the three-time widow Mary Ann’s
house. To keep her fears at bay and to keep money coming in, Mary
Ann worked as a nurse to John Quick-Manning, an excise officer
recovering from smallpox. Mary Ann apparently saw Quick-Manning as
a better match than Nattrass, and soon became pregnant by him.
to Quick-Manning was hindered by the presence of the remaining
Cotton household, so Mary Ann apparently went to work quickly and
Frederick Jr. died in March of 1872 and the infant Robert soon
after. Upon the death of her infant, Mary Ann stated that she did
not want to bury the baby immediately, because Joseph Nattrass had
also become ill with gastric fever, and she would wait and handle
both burials at once. Nattrass obligingly passed away soon after
Robert, but not before revising his will to leave everything to
of her husbands, James Robinson, had escaped a relationship with
Mary Ann with his life. Other husbands, children, and most
stepchildren had succumbed to gastric fever or stomach ailments –
except for young Charles Cotton and Robinson’s children. The
Robinson children were safely away from Mary Ann’s motherly care,
but the insurance policy Mary Ann had taken out on Charles's life
still waited to be collected.
The Trial of the
spring of 1872, Mary Ann sent Charles to a local chemist to
purchase a small quantity of arsenic. The chemist refused to sell
the poison to anyone under the age of 21, as was the law.
Undeterred, Mary Ann asked a neighbor to purchase the substance
and in July Charles died of gastric fever.
Ann had either been in the West Aukland area too long – or the
neighbors were more readily skeptical – because suspicions were
immediately aroused in neighbors and physicians.
person Mary Ann told about Charles’s death was Thomas Riley, a
minor government official that she had consulted previously about
the possibility of sending Charles into a workhouse. Riley had
said that it would only be possible if she went with him, which
she declined. She told Riley that the boy was “in the way” of a
marriage with Quick-Manning, and predicted that, “I won’t be
troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cotton family.”
Riley said the boy appeared completely healthy, and so he was
surprised when Mary Ann stopped him only five days later to say
that young Charles had died.
to the village police office and to a doctor and outlined his
growing suspicions. The doctor was similarly surprised to hear of
the news, as he and his assistant had tended to Charles five times
during the previous week and had detected nothing dire, let alone
life threatening, in the young boy. Riley convinced the doctor to
delay writing a death certificate until he could look into the
instead of going to fetch the doctor after the boy’s death,
hurried to the insurance office to collect on Charles’s policy.
She learned that they would not issue the money until they had a
death certificate, so she returned home to get the document from
the doctor. Instead of receiving the certificate, Mary Ann
received the startling news that she would not be receiving a
signed death certificate until after a formal inquest was held.
inquest was held and initial evidence did not indicate death by
unnatural causes. Angry at Riley for initiating the investigation,
Mary Ann told him that he could be responsible for the costs of
boy’s internment would most likely not have been the end of the
story, and Mary Ann would have gone on with her plan to marry
Quick-Manning and probably continue obtaining insurance monies
from other gastric fever victims – but the local newspapers
latched onto the story. They reported on the inquest but also
alluded to the neighborhood gossip that Mary Ann was an active
poisoner. These reports fanned the fires of rumors and hearsay and
the feeling toward Mary Ann within West Aukland became bitter and
suspicious. Quick-Manning was appalled by this type of gossip
about his intended, and was apparently distressed enough to sever
all connections with Mary Ann.
began preparations to leave the area, although her friends warned
her that it would look suspicious if she did. Unknown to her,
however, suspicions were already building and were about to close
in around her. A doctor from the inquiry had kept samples of
Charles’s stomach so that he could test them later in his lab. He
did so, and the samples tested positive for arsenic. The doctor
went to the authorities, who arrested Mary Ann and ordered
Charles’s body exhumed and fully tested. The body of Joseph
Nattrass was also dug up (after six exhumations of other corpses –
the elderly sexton of the church couldn’t remember exactly where
Nattrass was buried) and tested positive for the presence of
arsenic. There was debate and talk of further exhumations, but it
was decided to proceed with the single murder charge of young
Charles Cotton – although the trial was delayed until after the
delivery of the daughter fathered by John Quick-Manning.
began in March of 1873. The prosecution brought forth numerous
witnesses who testified about Mary Ann's purchases of arsenic, the
long list of gastric fever victims in her past, and about her
statements regarding Charles being an obstacle to her marrying
defense claimed that Charles may have obtained the arsenic that
killed him from inhaling loose airborne particles of arsenic that
was used as a dye in the green wallpaper of the Cotton home. The
judge dismissed this theory and the jury retired for only 90
minutes before finding Mary Ann guilty of the murder of Charles
continued to proclaim her innocence and wrote numerous letters to
her friends and supporters. A letter to her estranged husband,
James Robinson, asked him to bring her child and two stepchildren
to visit her in prison. She went on to beg Robinson “if you have
one spark of kindness in you – get my life spared…you know
yourself there has been…most dreadful lies told about me. I must
tell you: you are the cause of all my trouble. If you had not
(abandoned me). I was left to wander the streets with my baby in
my arms…no place to lay my head.”
ignored her letter, so she wrote him again and asked him to visit
her. Robinson sent his brother-in-law to the prison in his stead.
Mary Ann was upset that Robinson did not come himself, but asked
the man about the children and requested that a petition be
circulated in her support. Petitions were eventually created and
signed by Mary Ann’s former employers, ministers, and other
supporters. As her execution date neared, she was cheered by a
letter from the couple who had adopted the infant she and
Quick-Manning had conceived. She replied to the letter, asking the
couple to “kiss my babe for me.”
24, 1873, Mary Ann was led to the scaffold where the elderly
hangman misjudged the logistics of the execution – so instead of
dying quickly, Mary Ann struggled after the trapdoor was released,
and it took at least three minutes for her to be slowly and
painfully strangled by the noose.
are, some of Mary Ann's alleged victims died from natural causes
or reasons other than poisoning by her hands. Later researchers of
the case would estimate her victims as numbering anywhere from 15
to the full count of 21 people who died while living with or near
Mary Ann: ten of her children by various husbands, three of those
husbands, five stepchildren, her mother, Cotton’s sister Margaret,
and her lover Nattrass. Theories of motive range from the
collection of insurance money to the desire to rid herself of
people that she felt were “obstacles” – or a combination of both.
she maintained her innocence to the end, it will never be known
for sure how many victims Mary Ann claimed in her endless quest
for the money that made her feel secure. Her notoriety continues
with her fame as Britain's first female serial killer and in a
popular children's rhyme:
She's dead and she's rotten!
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open.
"Oh, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string."
"Up in the air -- selling black puddings a penny a pair."