Mary Ann Cotton (October 1832 – March 24, 1873) was an English serial killer believed to have murdered up to 21 people, mainly by arsenic poisoning.
Mary Ann Robson was born in the small English village of Low Moorsley, County Durham in what is now the City of Sunderland in October 1832. Her childhood was an unhappy one. Her parents were both younger than 20 when they married. Her father Michael, a miner, barely managed to keep his family fed; he was ardently religious, a fierce disciplinarian with Mary Ann and her younger brother Robert, and active in the Methodist church’s choir.
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.
When Mary Ann was 14, her mother remarried. Mary Ann did not like her new stepfather, Robert Stott, but she liked the things his better wages could buy. At the age of 16 she could not stand the discipline of her stepfather any longer, so she moved out to become a nurse at Edward Potter's home in the nearby village of South Hetton. She served there for three years and then returned to her mother's home and trained as a dressmaker. About this time she met a colliery labourer called William Mowbray.
Husband 1: William MowbrayEdit
Mary Ann, aged 20, married William Mowbray in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; they soon moved to Plymouth, Devon. The couple had five children, four of whom died from gastric fever or stomach pains. William and Mary Ann moved back to the North East 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 WardEdit
Soon after Mowbray's death, Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham, where she struck up a relationship with a 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 1 child out of the 9 she had borne. Nattrass, however, was not gone from Mary Ann's life. 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 own mother, the child's grandmother.
One of her patients at the infirmary was an engineer, George Ward. They married in Monkwearmouth in August 1865. George 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 a husband's death.
Husband 3: James RobinsonEdit
James Robinson was a shipwright at Pallion, Sunderland, whose wife, Hannah, had recently died. James 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 on June 9, 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 James' children. All three children were buried in the last 2 weeks of April 1867.
Four months later, the grieving widower father married Mary Ann. Baby Mary Isabella was born that November, but she became ill with familiar symptoms and died in March 1868.
James, 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 banked. 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 CottonEdit
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 she died from an undetermined stomach ailment, leaving Mary Ann to console the grieving Frederick Sr. Soon her eleventh pregnancy was under way.
Frederick and Mary Ann were bigamously married in September 1870 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 the lives of himself and 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's life still awaited collection.
Death of Charles Edward Cotton and inquestEdit
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.”
Riley replied: "No, nothing of the kind — he is a fine, healthy boy," so he was shocked five days later when Mary Ann told him that the lad 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’s death was not the doctor’s but the insurance office. There, she learnt 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 the accusations 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’s body. She was charged with his murder — although the trial was delayed until after the delivery of Quick-Manning's child.
Trial and executionEdit
Her trial began on Wednesday, 5 March 1873. The delay was caused by a problem in the selection of the public prosecutor. A Mr. Aspinwall was the person who was supposed to get the job but the Attorney General, Sir John Duke Coleridge, chose his very promising friend and protege 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 Florence Maybrick, as well as one of many other criminal cases he was involved in, such as that of Patrick O'Donnell for the murder of James Carey,the informer in the Phoenix Park Murders.
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 May: "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. She was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March, 1873. She died slowly, the hangman having misjudged the drop required for a “clean” execution.