C is for Mary Ann Cotton

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.
Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton

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.

Frederick Cotton Medical Certificate

Medical certificate showing that Frederick Cotton died of ‘typhoid hepatitis’.

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.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

14 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 1st August 2012

    Clever, callous, cold-blooded!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Leslie 1st August 2012

    That’s quite the story! You had me spellbound!

    abcw team

  • Wanda 1st August 2012

    I was spellbound too. Hanging on every word, right up to the hanging!!! My,my I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie.

  • Wanda 1st August 2012

    I just added my new URL.

  • janis 1st August 2012

    I too am surprised the BBC has not made a mini series of this tale!
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Katherine 1st August 2012

    Creepily captivating! Couldn’t conceive a more chilling customer. Or creature!

  • Mara @ Weighty Matters 1st August 2012

    Wow. That’s really the only comment I can come up with: Wow!

  • Reader Wil 1st August 2012

    Wow! what a cold blooded criminal! She was actually not very clever, for she used the same way of killing over and over again. Or… the people around her were not alert enough, for it all happened in a short time. Thank you for this captivating story.

  • john 1st August 2012

    look at THAT face
    guilty as charged!

  • Laurie Kazmierczak 2nd August 2012

    They had life insurance back then? Had never heard the rhyme. Thanks for such a compelling story♫♪

  • Ann 3rd August 2012

    Wow, do most serial killers do their own children in?? What a monster.

  • Carol Carson 3rd August 2012

    Your chronicle of this cruel and cold-hearted woman was captivating!

  • Trevor Rowley 4th August 2012

    Sadly, Ann, poisoners do seem inclined to kill their own family members. A few years after the above mentioned story had started to fade into history, another Englishwoman with ill-intent was “up to no good.” In 1886, Mary Ann Britland was living with her husband, Thomas, at 133, Turner Lane in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire (not many miles from where I’m writing from) along with their two teenage daughters. Britland worked in a local cotton mill by day and earned extra income by working in a local public house as a barmaid in the evenings. In the early part of that year, she bought “Harrison’s Vermin Killer” from a local chemist’s shop to get rid of mice at her home. She even signed the poison register as the law required at the time. Shortly after, her daughter, Elizabeth, died and Britland was able to obtain the insurance payout of £10 (no doubt a decent sum to a working class family in those days). A month or two later, her husband, Thomas, died and, yet again, Britland was able to obtain another insurance payout. Seemingly, at this stage, the authorities had no suspicions about either of these two deaths. A local family on the same street, Thomas and Mary Dixon, were so sympathetic towards the grieving widow that they invited her to stay at their home until, no doubt, she had recovered from her grief. What people didn’t realise at that stage was that Britland and Thomas Dixon had been having an affair behind the backs of their unsuspecting spouses. Within weeks of this new living arrangement, Mary Dixon was dead also. By now the authorities had finally had their suspicions aroused especially as the two Marys had been sharing the same bedroom on the night of the death of Mary Dixon. An examination of the body revealed that the cause of death was poisoning from exactly the same substance that Britland had used to eliminate her vermin problem. It subsequently came to light that the same poison had killed Elizabeth and her father, Thomas Britland. Mary Ann Britland’s trial revealed that Elizabeth had been killed because she knew about her mother and Thomas Dixon and Mary Dixon had been killed to enable Britland to be with the man she really wanted, Thomas Dixon. The same year, Britland was found guilty of her crimes and became the first woman to be hanged at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison where she protested her innocence when being dragged to the gallows by two hefty prison warders.

    There is still a 133, Turner Lane but this is now a fairly modern town house built by the local authority about twenty or thirty years ago. The Junction Inn public house is only a matter of yards away – could well have been the same place where Mary Ann Britland served beer most evenings all those years ago and gave the customers a wink and a smile.

  • rhymeswithplague 8th August 2012

    I don’t know whether it makes a difference over there in Jolly Old England, but over here in the former colonies hanged and hung have two distinct meanings. Curtains are hung; people are hanged. Also, to say “he was hung” (a vulgarism) implies in certain circles that he had a large (and therefore attractive, or at least to be envied, I suppose) set of genitalia. Therefore, when I read in your first sentence that Mary Ann Cotton was hung in 1873, my first thought — my mind being in its default double entendre mode — was that Mary Ann was a male transvestite who had not yet had “the operation”….


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