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Forum Home > The Ultimate Crime. > Mary Ann Cotton. 1832 - 1873.

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Mary Ann Cotton,1873, Poisoners, Mass Murder.

Since I included her picture in the " Criminal Intent " Album in the Gallery, there has been a steady level of interest. So much, that I included a second image, made a few days before she was hanged. Non of her alleged crimes were committed in the Blackcountry, nor indeed, is she from the region, but the scale of her supposed evil, continues to arouse interest, even 140 years on. She is, almost certainly, the first properly recorded United Kingdom female serial killer. Mary Ann Cotton, has 20 deaths attributed to her name, 15 young children, 3 husbands, a lover, and possible her own mother. Its extremely difficult to prove that she actually murdered so many, given that at the time, conditions in the overcrowded, dirty, and insanitary little cottages in which most of the population lived, were so poor. Malnutrition, poor food, fever, poverty, and mass unemployment, all contributed towards the early deaths of so many, both young, and old. There will be, among most people's family records, who read this, a record of 8 or 9 children born, only for most of them to be dead, long before the age of 5, and all, it would appear, from natural causes. There is very little doubt that she was guilty of administering Arsenic, to Charles Edward Cotton, the only death she was charged with, and for which she was hanged, on 24th March,1873. You can't really tell from the two images, but she was described as a " well proportioned woman, handsome, and with eyes that held the promise of wonders most men could only dream about ". There must have been some truth in it, for she was never short of male company, in, or out of, marriage.

Mary Ann Robson,  was born about October, 1832, in the little village of Low Morsley, about 4 miles north east of Durham. Shortly after, her father, a coal miner, moved the family to East Rainton, and then to Murton, when a new mine was opened. In 1841, when Mary was 9, her father, doing some repairs at the mine, fell down the shaft and was killed. Her mother wasted no time in mourning his loss, but quickly remarried another miner, George Stott. They did not get on well, her stepfather making it plain that he would not support her, and she was forced into domestic service at South Hetton, about a mile away. She grew into a very attractive young woman, a fact not missed by the local Curate, who took to giving her " extra Bible lessons ", fueling rumours, that he may have broken a few of the commandments he was supposed to be teaching young Mary Ann. On the 18th July,1852, being what is termed as " up the duff ", she married 26 year old William Mowbray in Newcastle Registry Office, and promptly set off for the wilds of Somerset and Cornwall. By 1856, she had 5 children, but on returning to Murton in 1857, four of them had, she said, died of " Gastric Fever ", the sole remaining child being the young Mary Ann. She gave birth again in 1858, and 1859, but in 1861, with another on the way, two of the three died, of " Gastric Fever ". William Mowbray, who never seemed to earn enough money for Mary Ann's likes, took himself off to sea on a steamer, " The Newburn " , trading out of Sunderland, and the family moved again. She gave birth to another child in 1863, but he too was died of the dreaded " Gastric Fever ," in less than a year. Time was running short for William as well, did he but know it, for he had injured his foot at sea, and was now out of work and unable to fullfil his " marital obligations " . In January,1865, William lay very ill in bed with a severe case of, yes you guessed it, " Gastric Fever ". The Doctor did what he could, and there seemed to be a hint of recovery, but next morning, William was stricken with a violent bout of Diarrhoea, and gave up the ghost. Mary Ann Mowbray was seen the next day, with a new dress, dancing in front of a mirror in her front parlour, better off, thanks to a £35 Insurance Payout. The rumours began.

She next selected Joseph Nattrass, a big strapping labourer, but although she quickly got him into bed, he still went off and married another. One of her two remaining children died, ( the usual cause ) and finding herself short of money again, she took a job in the Sunderland Infirmary and met George Ward, who was recovering from a bout of the same sickness that had seen off poor William. With her remaining child at her mothers, she put all her attention into looking after Ward, who was a step up the ladder for her, he was a skilled engineer with a few bob in the bank. Seven months after she saw William safely into his grave, and using her conciderable sexual talents, she married George Ward, on the 28th August,1865 at St Peters Church, Monkwear-mouth. She was a bit premature, for Ward never fully recovered from his illness, and to be fair, what with Mary Ann's sexual appetite, was never likely to either. In October 1866, and now on Parish relief, George Ward, married for just 14 months, was laid to rest in a paupers grave, the cause?, why " Gastric Fever " of course. Two husbands down, two, ( one bigamously ) to go, as we shall see in the next part.

Meanwhile, not far away, James Robinson was having a bit of a nightmare. His wife had just died, and he was contemplating how he would manage to cope with his 5 children. Around November,1866, he advertised for a housekeeper, and employed te second one who turned up, yes, the recently widowed Mary Ann Ward. Robinson worked in the shipyards of the Wear, and earned good money, having a bit in the bank as well as a mortgage on his home. Things went well to begin with, needless to say, Mary Ann had wasted no time in showing him her ample charms, and he had wasted no time in trying them out. Within a month, his youngest son John was dead, killed by the by now familiar " Gastric Fever ". Early the next year, she was pregnant again, and just as life was looking up for her, her mother was taken ill. Forced to leave Robinson for a while, Mary Ann, angry at her predicament, had a rather violent row with her mother and inside two weeks, on 15th March,1867, died with severe stomach cramps. Her stepfather, George Stott, maybe suspecting, but not able to prove anything, threw Mary Ann and her daughter, young Isabella, out his house. She never went back, but returned to the lust driven James Robinson, whose sisters were now warning him to beware of the accomodating Mary Ann. ( Those rumours had reached Sunderland ) In April, two more of his children became ill, closely followed by young Isabella. On 21st, came the first death, the second on 26th, and her own daughter on 2 May. Undetered, and against his families wishes, James Robinson married Mary Ann in Bishopwearmouth Church, on 11th August,1867. She, and it has to be assumed she had not told James of her marriage to George Ward, signed the register as Mary Ann Mowbray. There child was born on 29th November, and died of the by now normal " Gastric Fever ", on 1st March,1868. There may have been a few thoughts that crossed his mind about so many deaths, but it was what happened early the next year that may have saved his life. On being told that the Mortgage on the house had gone unpaid for several months, it didn't take long to find out that Mary Ann had spent it all on other things. She had also pawned or sold a great many of his other possesions. She left the house after a furious row, taking the child with her, and leaving James, much the poorer, ( he, having just discovered she had cleared out his Post Office Savings as well. ) and with his only remaining son to look after. Unable to affect a reconcilliation, and without any other means of support, she took the time honoured route into prostitution. On the 1st January,1869, she dumped her daughter on a neighbour, ( who was eventually returned to James ) upped sticks, and went back to Newcastle. Husband and Wife never spoke again.

Back home in Newcastle, Mary Ann Robinson, as she was, bumped into an old friend, Margaret Cotton, who had a brother recently widowed, Frederick Cotton, where she was currently helping to look after them. He was left with two children to look after, two others having died from Typhus Fever, as did his wife, which was just another fatal desease facing the poor of the time. At first, she cleaned his little cottage in the village of North Walbottle, but it only took a few visits before she was once again, in a mans bed. It wasn't long before poor Margaret became very ill, in total agony with stomach pains, indeed, she died the next day on 26th March,1870. Just for a change, her death certificate said it was Pleuropnemonia. She was of course pregnant again, but instead of taking her usual route, she got a job with a local Doctor, who did of course have a higher social standing. This time she failed, her charms went unnoticed by the Doc, and when rumours of her antics with the tradesmen reached him, he had words with her and he gave her notice. He was lucky as well, for suddenly falling ill, he suspected she was responsible, and threw her out. Only later did he find that she had took his Gold Watch and some money with her. Frederick Cotton was easily pursuaded into marriage on the 17th September,1870, not knowing that she wasn't divorced from the previous one, and again, she signed as Mary Ann Mowbray. ( What some might call a combined Marriage and Death certificate.) She next insured the lives of Fredericks two sons, but her time was rapidly running out, as rumours of her outragious behaviour with the local menfolk began to be known. Despite giving birth to Fredericks child in January,1871, she was soon on the lookout again, and in the village of West Auckland, lived a man she knew well, Joseph Nattrass. The final part is in sight.

The End Game.

Frederick Cotton, who was a hardworking miner, who suffered, as most did, from having to frequently change jobs as mines either ran out of coal, or closed in the tough economic climate. In July,1871, he obtained a post as a Hewer, in a new pit, in West Auckland, the very same one that Joseph Nattrass was also a Hewer at. She soon spotted Nattrass, and in a short while, they were soon " at it ", in the narrow cofines of his little rented room. By now, Nattrass was a widow, his wife having died from Typhus Fever the year before. He now promised to marry Mary Ann, thus ensuring that the life of Frederick Cotton would be just that much shorter than the Lord intended. On the 19th September,1871, in the grim little house in Johnson Terrace, the pain racked body of Frederick Cotton finally lay still. Like the rest, he had died from " Gastric Fever ", and just three months later, Joseph Nattrass moved in as a lodger. Nattrass got on well with the two children, Frederick Cotton, aged 10, and Charles Cotton, aged 7, but true to form, they were in Mary Ann's way. The last man to enter Mary Ann's life, was John Quick- Manning, another step upwards as Mary saw it, for he was an Excise Officer. When they met though, he was a very sick Excise Officer, for he was suffering from Smallpox, and Mary, with her knowledge of nursing, had been called in. He recovered fairly quickly, and was soon feeling better, or as some would say, better after feeling Mary Ann. Someone had to go, so between 10th March, and the 1st April,1872, someone did. Young Frederick was the first, Mary Ann collecting £5.15s insurance money. Next to go was the baby, Robert Cotton, and shortly afterwards, Joseph Nattras painfully breathed his last. He was a strong man, and his convulsions had been terrible to behold. She again collected some insurance money and then found out she was again pregnant, this one being down to Quick-Manning. Non of the money lasted, and she found herself getting only 1s 6d a week in parish relief for young Charles, so, having plans to marry Quick-Manning, she saw the child as being in the way. So confident was she at this stage, that she sent the child down to the Chemists, to purchase the Arsenic with which she now planned to kill him. As Charlie wasn't 21, the Chemist refused, so Mary sent a neighbour instead. Mr Townsend, in a hurry, sold the neighbour, 300 grains of Arsenic, enough to kill a 100 Adults, but did recorded the sale. The child was refused entry into the Workhouse, and a week later, he was dead, but the relief officer, Thomas Riley, was suspicious, and reported the matter to the Police, and Doctor Kilburn. Mary Ann had no inkling of what was coming, not even when the Doctor refused to sign the Death Certificate, thus triggering an Inquest, and more to Mary Ann's discomfort, putting a stop to the insurance payout. Next day, in the " Rose and Crown ", the building adjoining the Cottons house, the Inquest got under way, but Doctor Kilburn did not have enough time to carry out proper tests and the verdict was predictable, " Gastric Fever ".  Mary Ann must have thought she had got away with it again, but Kilburn, was a most determind medical man and the next day conducted a " Reinsch's Test ", which showed enough Arsenic in the childs stomach contents, to kill 5 adults. Mary Ann Cotton was Arrested, imprisoned in Bishop Aucklands Gaol, waiting for her case to be bought before the Magistrates. The atmosphere in the district, thick with rumours, could be said to have been poisonous towards her.

She did not go to trial until after the birth of her child, the father, one John Quick-Manning, had apparently now disappeared from the town. She appeared at Durham Assizes in the March of 1873, and the evidence was somewhat overwhelming. They had dug up the bodies of young Frederick, and found Arsenic, Joseph Nattrass, and found the same. They could not locate the body of her former " husband " Frederick Cotton, among the many paupers graves in the Churchyard, but there's not much doubt they would have found the same cause of death. Found Guilty, Mary Ann Cotton was taken from the condemned cell at 7.50am on the morning of 24th March,1873, strapped and pinioned by William Calcraft, who then pulled the lever, and sent her off into the unknown. The event itself is another story, which I will include in the Case Review Topic, later on.


A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day.  ( See my Blog entry )

December 14, 2012 at 3:51 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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