|This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
Not many people have heard of Mary Ann Cotton, but when she was hung in 1873 she had gained infamy as Britain’s first recognised serial killer having murdered as many as 21 people.
She was born in County Durham in 1832, the daughter of a miner who was ardently religious and a fierce disciplinarian. He died in a mining accident and her mother married again, but her daughter did not get on with her step-father.
At the age of 20, Cotton married William Mowbray and the couple moved to Devon where they had five children, four dying of gastric fever. They returned to the north east and William died of an intestinal disorder in 1865, leaving Cotton to collect a £35 insurance payout, equivalent to six month’s wages.
Only one of her nine children, Isabella, had survived and she went to live with her grandmother while Cotton took work at House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society.
While at the infirmary, she started a relationship with one of the patients, George Ward, and the pair were married in August 1865. However, he died in October 1866 after a long illness characterised by paralysis and intestinal problems and Cotton again collected the insurance money.
His doctor later gave evidence evidence that although Ward had been very ill, he had been surprised that the man’s death was so sudden.
Within a month of Ward’s death, Cotton was working as housekeeper for the widower, James Robinson, and she became pregnant by him soon after.
It was at this time that Cotton received news that her mother was ill and she left to ‘care’ for her. Although her health had been improving, her mother died after complaining of stomach pains nine days after Cotton’s arrival.
Her daughter, Isabella, returned to Robinson’s house with her mother, but developed bad stomach pains and died soon after, as did two of Robinson’s children. The three were buried within two weeks at the end of April 1867.
Cotton then married Robinson and their daughter, Mary Isabella, was born soon after before she too developed stomach pains and died.
Robinson then discovered that Cotton had stolen £50 from him, as well as secretly running up debts of a further £60, and when he found out that she had been pawning household items he threw her out. It was a decision that probably saved his life.
Cotton was now homeless and desperate when her friend, Margaret Cotton, introduced her to her brother, Frederick. He was a widower with two children that her friend cared for, but Margaret too was to die from an undetermined stomach complaint in 1870, leaving the field clear for Cotton to become pregnant yet again, this time by Frederick.
The couple married bigamously in 1870, but then Cotton heard that a former lover, Joseph Nattress, was living in a village nearby. She rekindled their romance and Frederick Cotton soon followed his predecessors into the grave. But not before he had taken out life insurance.
Nattress moved in with Cotton as both lodger and lover and her life became even more complicated when she found work as a nurse to an excise officer recovering from smallpox by whom she became pregnant with her twelfth child.
Conveniently, Nattrass became ill with gastric fever, and died — just after revising his will in Cotton’s favour.
It was at this point that her murderous schemes began to unravel. Frederick Cotton’s son, Charles, was still in her care and she tried to have him committed to the workhouse when she was offered work nursing a woman ill with smallpox.
The parish official said that the boy would have to stay with her to which she replied ‘I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.’ Five days later he was dead.
Cotton’s first stop was the insurance office, but the official was suspicious and persuaded the doctor to delay writing a death certificate until the circumstances could be investigated.
A coroner’s court was convened and Cotton claimed that the official had made allegations against her because she had spurned his amorous advances.
The local newspaper, smelling a juicy story, began investigating and discovered that Cotton had managed to lose three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, and a dozen children, all of whom had died of stomach fevers.
The doctor who had attended young Charles Cotton re-tested samples from the body and found evidence of arsenic poisoning and she was tried for and found guilty of murder. The Times reported:
‘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.’
Mary Ann Cotton was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March 1873 and is commemorated in a children’s rhyme:
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.