English serial killer Mary Ann Cotton, born October 31, 1832, and was hanged to death on March 24, 1873, for murdering her stepson Charles Edward Cotton by poisoning him. It is believed that she killed three of her husbands so that she could collect their life insurance policies and may have murdered about 21 people by using arsenic poisoning which caused gastric pain and a fast decline in victims health.
Mary Ann Robson was born on October 31, 1832, to mother Margaret and father Michael Robson who was a colliery sinker. She was born in Low Moorsley, County Durham, England and was baptized on November 11th at St Mary"s, West Rainton. Mary"s sister Margaret was born in 1834 but only lived for a few months and her brother Robert, was born in 1835.
Mary"s life changed for the worst after her family moved to the County Durham village of Murton when she was eight-years-old. Her father fell about 150 feet down a mine to his death in February 1842 at Murton Colliery. The home/cottage they lived in was owned by the mining company, and therefore they would have been evicted, but Mary"s mother married another miner, George Stott.
Mary moved out at the age of 16 to become a nurse in the home of Edward Potter who is also a manager at Murton Colliery. She moved back home about three years later when all of the children was sent to boarding school in Darlington so that her stepfather could train her to be a dressmaker.
Mary was 20-years-old when she married colliery laborer William Mowbray in 1852 at Newcastle Upon Tyne register office, and the couple soon after moved to South West England. The couple did not take long to move back to North East England where William worked as a fireman on a steam vessel and then as a colliery foreman.
They welcomed daughter Margaret Jane, 1856 and Isabella in 1858. Margaret Jane died in 1860, and they welcomed another daughter who was also named Margaret Jane in 1861. The couple then welcomed their son, John Robert William, in 1863, but he died from gastric fever a year later. William and the children were insured by the British and Prudential Insurance office, and Mary collected a ?35 for William"s death and smaller amounts for the children after William died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865.
Mary"s three and half year old daughter who is the second Margaret Jane died from having typhus fever. Mary only had one surviving child now from the nine kids she has given birth to. She sent her daughter Isabella, to live with her mother after she started working at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary, and Humane Society. She met an engineer, George Ward who was a patient and they got married August 28, 1865, but George health kept on deteriorating and died on October 20, 1866, from paralysis and intestinal problems. The doctor said he was shocked that George death was so sudden although he had been very ill. Mary was a merry widow as she collected the life insurance payout for George"s death.
James Robinson"s wife, Hannah recently died, and he hired Mary in November 1866 as their housekeeper. James" baby boy, John, passed away about a month later of gastric fever after Mary"s employment. James sought comfort in Mary which resulted in Mary becoming pregnant with his child. Mary left and went to her ill mother who was sick with hepatitis but was recovering until Mary showed up. Mary"s 54-year-old mother began complaining of stomach pain in the spring of 1867 and died nine days after Mary arrived at her house.
Mary returned home to James home with her daughter Isabella who soon began having severe stomach pain and died the same way James children Elizabeth and James died. Elizabeth, James, and Isabella were buried in 1867 during the last week of April and the first week of May. James did not think anything of it and married Mary on August 11, 1867, at St Michael"s, Bishopwearmouth and their first child, Margaret Isabella was born in November 1867. Margaret Isabella died in February 1868 and their second child George was born on June 18, 1869. James finally started to become suspicious of Mary after she repeatedly insisted that he insures his life and he found out that she had a ?60 debt and had stolen about ?50 that she was supposed to take to the bank. He threw Mary out of the house after he found out that she had the older kids pawning household items and kept George in his custody.
Mary Ann was living on the streets and in desperate need which was soon fulfilled when her friend Margaret Cotton introduced Mary to her recently widowed brother, Frederick. Frederick Cotton
was a pitman who also lost two of his four children and took in Mary to be a mother figure to his two other children Frederick Jr. and Charles. Mary became pregnant with her twelfth child while consoling Frederick Sr. after his sister Margaret died in March 1870 from a stomach ailment.
Frederick bigamously married Mary on September 17, 1870, at St Andrew"s, Newcastle Upon Tyne and their son Robert was born in 1871. Mary soon after learned that her ex-lover Joseph Nattrass was single and living 30 miles away from her, so she became romantically involved with him. She persuaded Frederick to move closer to where Joseph lived, and he moved but Frederick died in December 1871 from gastric fever, and the life insurance policies had been executed on his and his son"s life.
Joseph did not take long to move in with Mary after her husband Frederick died, but Mary began working as a nurse for excise officer John Quick-Manning who was recovering from smallpox. Mary nursed John back to health and became pregnant by John with her thirteenth child in the process. There are no records of John Quick-Manning, but records were found of Richard Quick Mann who was a custom and excise man that specializes in breweries.
Frederick Jr. died in March 1872, and his infant brother Robert died soon after. Joseph Nattrass revised his will for Mary to become his estate inheritance and died from gastric fever not too long after.
Parish official, Thomas Riley asked Mary to nurse a woman with smallpox back to health. Mary made a horrible mistake when she asked for Charles Edward who is the last surviving Cotton boy to be sent to the workhouse. After a few words, Mary told Riley that Charles was sickly and "I won"t be troubled long. He"ll go like all the rest of the Cottons." Charles died five days later, and Riley was convinced that Mary had something to do with his death and went to the police. He then convinced the doctor not to issue a death certificate until the death was investigated. Mary went straight to the insurance office after Charles died instead of the physician"s office and learned that she cannot get any money until a death certificate was issued. A death certificate was later released with the cause of death to be from natural causes, and Mary claimed that Riley made a false accusation against her because she rejected his advances on her.
The local newspapers caught hold of the story and did their own investigation resulting in finding that Mary had moved around quite a bit in northern England. They discovered that three of her husbands died along with her boyfriend/lover, her friend, her mother and 12 of her children. Everyone died from stomach fevers or some form of stomach problems.
Charles Edwards doctor kept samples and retested them and found arsenic leading to Charles body being exhumed. Mary was charged with Charles murder, but the court trial was delayed until she gave birth to her thirteenth baby, Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton on January 10, 1873.
Mary"s trial began on March 5, 1873, and the Times reported on March 20:
"After conviction, the wretched woman exhibited strong emotion but this gave place in a few hours to her habitual cold, reserved demeanor and while she harbors 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."
Mary Ann Cotton died on March 24, 1873, at Durham County Gaol by hanging. She did not die from her neck breaking but from strangulation which was caused by the rope being too short. Many people believe the rope being too short was possibly deliberate.
A two-part TV drama titled "Dark Angel" by ITV was aired on October 31, 2016, with Joanne Froggatt starring as Downton Abbey, fame as Cotton. The second part was aired on November 7, and the drama was inspired by David Wilson (a prominent criminologist) book titled, Mary Ann Cotton: Britain"s First Female Serial Killer.
Bibliographies on Mary Ann Cotton:
Title: Mary Ann Cotton: Her Story and Trial
Author: Arthur Appleton
Publisher: Michael Joseph; 1St Edition edition (October 1973)
Title: The Invention of Murder (2011)
Author: Judith Flanders
Publisher: London: Harper Ress
Title: Mary Ann Cotton - The North Eastern Borgia?
Author: Martin Connolly:
Publisher: West Auckland, Oakleaf Publishing 2012
Songs and Rhymes about Mary Ann Cotton:
The nursery rhyme that was composed after Mary Ann Cotton was hanged on March 24, 1873.
"Mary Ann Cotton, she"s dead, and she"s rotten
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she"s tied up with string.
Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.
Mary Ann Cotton, she"s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string."
- Hardnoise: Serve Tea, then Murder (1991) - reference to Cotton
- The Raveness (English performance poet): Of Rope and Arsenic - about Cotton on her album, The Raveness (2003).
- Attrition"s 2008 album was titled: All Mine Enemys Whispers - The Story of Mary Ann Cotton.
- Macabre: Mary Ann - can be heard on their Grim Scary Tales (2011) album.
- The Dead Milkmen: Mary Ann Cotton (The Poisoner"s Song) - on their album Pretty Music for Pretty People 2014