England: Mary Ann Cotton – Victorian Poisoner
You are listening to: The Evidence Locker.
***Support for today’s episode Evidence Locker comes from Best Fiends and June’s Journey.
Engage your brain with fun puzzles and collect tons of cute characters. Download Best Fiends FREE on the Apple App Store or Google Play. That’s FRIENDS without the R – Best Fiends!
While you’re there, also check out the intriguing hidden-object mystery game, June’s Journey. Transport yourself right into the middle of a 1920s murder mystery and join us in playing June’s Journey today.
You can find links to both Best Fiends and June’s Journey in the show notes or on our website.
Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.
The walls of the house at 20 Johnson Terrace, West Auckland in County Durham had seen the recent deaths of four people. It was the house where Mary Ann Cotton sat by her husband, Frederick’s bedside as his health deteriorated rapidly before his death in September 1871.
By March the next year, her stepson, Fredrick JR as well as her own baby Robert had also perished. She had taken in a lodger, a lover whom she had known for many years, Joe Nattrass. Before long, Joe became sick too. Mary Ann was a trained nurse and tended to him with the greatest of care and affection. Neighbours came around every day and helped Mary Ann – the poor woman had lost so much already…
Dr Richardson visited every day and diagnosed Joe’s condition as Typhoid Fever. This deadly disease caused the deaths of many people living in the impoverished mining villages of England’s Northumberland. Joe knew he was probably going to die.
When the doctor asked him if he had taken his medicine to help the symptoms, Joe said that he hadn’t. It was clear that Joe preferred listening to Mary Ann – she was his best friend after all, and she had tended to so many patients during her lifetime, she knew what she was doing. She made him soup and tea and washed his aching body.
A neighbour, who was there to help Mary Ann saw that Dr Richardson was frustrated with his patient. She said:
“Dr Richardson asked Joe if the pain had left him. He said no. Dr Richardson then said if he could stop purging, he thought he would get better. Joe said: This is no fever I have… The doctor said if he knew better than him, it was no use his coming.”
Joe was not convinced that he had Typhoid Fever. He was suffering a great deal, fighting to stay alive. On the 1st of April 1872, Joe Nattrass succumbed to his illness. The cause of death on his death certificate said ‘Typhoid Fever’. But Joe himself had said: This is no fever I have…
Joe Nattrass was not the last person to die at 20 Johnson Terrace that year. And soon people were beginning to wonder if the caring Mary Ann Cotton could perhaps be an Angel of Death?
Mary Ann Robson was born in Low Moorsley, England on the 31st of October 1932 to working-class, teen-parents Michael and Margaret. Her father was a sinker in a coal mine, a specialised position reserved for skilled tradesman. Michael and Margaret had another daughter, who died as a baby. Then, when Mary was three years old, her brother Robert was born.
Mary Ann’s family moved around a lot, all around the Durham County area. It was common for miners to be reassigned to another mine when their one-year contract was up. The family relocated with the husband and father and lived in the closest miner’s town. Mining companies usually provided a cottage for the family, but that was where the perks ended. Households were poor, and living conditions were rough.
In mid-19th century Durham County, most of the men worked in the mines. Most women were wives who kept house and raised children in harsh circumstances. Growing up as a miner’s child, a person did not have great prospects to rise above one’s station in life. Boys grew up to be miners and girls grew up to be ‘miner’s lasses’.
The Robsons were well-regarded in the community. Mary Ann’s Sunday school teacher at their Methodist church said that she never missed a lesson and that she was…
“…a girl of innocent disposition and average intelligence and distinguished for her particularly clean and tidy appearance.”
We’ll take a quick break for a word from one of our sponsors, Best Fiends
Best Fiends is the mobile puzzle game everyone’s talking about. With more than 100 Million downloads, you can’t go wrong with this 5-star rated game. If you’re not playing yet, get on it!
That’s the sound of me playing level 380, Towering Threat. The objective is to defeat five slugs while I’m collecting 25 bees and 80 flowers. Whenever I find a minute, I grab my phone and unwind by blowing up stuff, pimping up my characters and seeing how quickly I can move through the levels. I just unlocked a bumblebee called Beebert and love his bespectacled face. His personal power is the X-bomb, which comes in super handy when I’m collecting elements.
As I progress, the levels become more and more challenging. Best Fiends is challenging enough to keep me engaged, but at the same time it doesn’t stress me out. Like connecting the dots of a true crime mystery, I need to employ my problem solving skills to work my way through the levels of Best Fiends.
Engage your brain with fun puzzles and collect tons of cute characters. Trust me, with over 100 million downloads, this 5-star rated mobile puzzle game is a must play! Download Best Fiends FREE on the Apple App Store or Google Play. That’s FRIENDS without the R – Best Fiends! Find the link in the show notes.
Now, let’s resume today’s episode of Evidence Locker.
In February 1842 Mary Ann’s father, 26-year-old Michael, died in a tragic accident at work. While he was repairing a pulley wheel at the Murton Colliery, he fell 150 feet to his death, down the mineshaft. Mary Ann, who was only 9 years old at the time, saw how her dad’s body was delivered to their home. He was on a wheelbarrow, stuffed into a coal sack with ‘Property of the South Hetton Coal Company‘ printed on it. The worker’s cottage was provided to the family by Michael’s work, so when he passed away, Margaret and her two young children were forced to move out.
Mary Ann was forced to quit school and start working to help support her family. She was good-looking, and as she became a young woman, she caught the attention of the opposite sex. Her mother married George Stott in 1843, who was also a miner. In a time when men needed wives to keep their house and raise their children, women required husbands to provide food and housing. Marriage was a practical arrangement. It was common to re-marry soon after one lost a spouse.
Mary Ann did not have a good relationship with her stepfather because he was a strict disciplinarian and staunchly religious. She realised she had to get out, and left home at the age of 14 and found a job as a live-in nursemaid. Her boss was Edward Potter, a mine manager, at the mine where her father had worked. Years after Mary Ann had left the Potter home, her boss Edward still remembered how beautiful he thought she was.
Being a nursemaid was a demanding job. The Potters had 12 children, and Mary Ann did not only have to tend to the kids but was also expected to cook, clean and make fires. The days were long, and there was not a lot of freedom. However, working at the Potter’s home, referred to as ‘The Hall’ was a prestigious as a servant’s job could get. Mary Ann would also have seen how a wealthy household operated, how the ‘other half’ lived.
But she could not stay in this job forever. Once all the Potter children left home for boarding school, Mary Ann moved back to her mother, brother and George Stott and learnt the art of dressmaking. She reconciled with George Stott, who probably treated her more like an adult by this time. She referred to him as her father, not stepfather. Mary Ann taught Sunday school to smaller children, and was a devout Christian who trusted in God’s will for her life. Mary Ann remembered her time back home, and although it must have been hard growing up in the impoverished miner’s village, she recalled:
“I was happy then, and them was days of joy…. There was none on earth who [was] happier than I was then.”
On the 18th July 1852, 19-year-old Mary Ann married William Mowbray, who was 15 years older than her. Like her father, and most men in town, William worked in the mines. They married at the registrar’s office in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The fact that they did not get married in church suggests that Mary Ann was pregnant at the time.
The newlyweds headed south after the wedding, they found their home in Plymouth. William worked on the railways, and Mary Ann stayed at home. This was a challenging chapter in their lives, a roller-coaster of happiness and tragedy. They had five children in five years, of which four passed away.
In 1857, broken by the sadness, William and Mary Ann decided to move back home with their only surviving child, a one-year-old daughter called Margaret Jane. Back in Durham County, William had no trouble finding a job, as the mining industry was booming. For a moment, Mary Ann’s adult life resembled her childhood family. Married women weren’t allowed to work, their job was to focus on the home and children. Some ruled their households with iron fists, but in society, they still had to answer to their husbands. William worked hard and provided for his family, and the hand-to-mouth existence of a miner’s wife was harsh for Mary Ann.
Their daughter, Isabella, was born in 1858. But the family of four, became a family of three again when little Margaret Jane died of scarlet fever. She was only four years old. When Mary Ann, still grieving, gave birth to another baby girl the next year, they named her after her sister, Margaret Jane. Two years later the Mowbrays had a little boy, who they called John Robert William. He only lived for a year – he died after a fatal bout of diarrhea in 1864.
In the seven years since William and Mary Ann were back home, they had and lost three more children. Later, Mary Ann couldn’t remember exactly how many children she had and lost during this time, she was clearly not profoundly connected to them. William got out of the mines and took various jobs, like being a foreman at a factory and later as a fireman on a steam vessel, which means he was away a lot, leaving Mary Ann to take care of the home and their two remaining daughters by herself.
In January 1865, William was booked off work after injuring his foot. Strangely, his condition took a turn for the worse when he developed an inexplicable intestinal disorder. Mary Ann cared for him as best she could. After a couple of weeks, William passed away due to Typhus fever and diarrhea. In fact, the records state that his attack of diarrhea was so severe, he died within hours of the onset.
After 13 years of marriage, Mary Ann was left to fend for herself and her two girls. Fortunately, William was insured through the British Prudential Insurance office, and after his death, Mary Ann received £35. This amounted to half a year’s salary in cash. William had also taken out burial insurance for their baby John Robert, which he never claimed. So Mary Ann received an additional £2 and 5 shillings.
The young widow appeared to be grief-stricken after the loss of her husband. Still, a story was going around town, that Dr Gammage, the physician who had tended to William during his illness had peeped through the widow’s window and saw her singing and doing twirls in front of the mirror once he was pronounced dead.
Mary Ann wasn’t planning on sticking around to face nasty rumours, so she used the insurance money to set herself up in a new town. With her two remaining children, she moved to the bustling village of Seaham Harbour. Because she was widowed, she was allowed to work, but her dream was to make a living as a dressmaker.
Mary Ann made and sold dresses from home, something she had quite a talent for. She hung the dresses outside her house, and her 7-year-old daughter Isabella was in charge of selling them. It was clear that Mary Ann had an entrepreneurial spirit, and she wanted to rise out of poverty. However, selling dresses to dirt-poor miner’s wives wasn’t the ticket. This was terribly frustrating because Mary Ann always felt she was destined for more extraordinary things in life. She wanted more, and money would give her a better life. In David Wilson’s book, Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer, Richard Lambert is quoted, saying that Mary Ann was:
“…a pleasant and interesting woman of considerable energy, intelligence and ability for her station in life.”
One newspaper article referred to her as an ‘English Borgia’ – comparing her to a member of the infamous Spanish noble family. She was tall and slender, with dark hair and gentle-eyes. It’s quite easy to understand that there was something special about Mary Ann.
We’ll take a quick break for a word from our sponsors, June’s Journey.
If you love murder mysteries, June’s Journey is the perfect game to get stuck into. It’s a hidden-object mystery game set in a sprawling upstate New York mansion, during the roaring twenties. If you like The Great Gatsby, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
June Parker arrives home after her sister and brother-and-law have been found shot dead in their home. Police have ruled it a murder-suicide, concluding that, after a couple of drinks, they got into an argument after which Harry shot Clare, then pulled the revolver on himself. The story unfolds as you, the player, help June discover family secrets, supporting the theory that the Van Burens were in fact murdered.
Each new scene takes you further through the thrilling murder mystery story, exploring hundreds of beautiful, colourful, carefully painted scenes. Hidden objects reflect the vintage style of the time. When you reach the ‘Estate Foyer’, you have to look for a gramophone, a rubber stamp, a pocket watch – among other things.
It is super relaxing to play the game and satisfying to find clues to help you solve the case. The fact that I can go wild with construction on Orchid Island, makes me feel like I’m right there, on the grand estate, in the nineteen twenties.
To join more than 3 Million murder mystery enthusiasts and puzzle solvers around the globe, download June’s Journey for free from the App Store or Google Play, by clicking the link in the show notes.
Now, back to today’s episode…
While living and working in Seaham, Mary Ann met and fell in love with a married man called Joseph Nattrass. As the romance blossomed, tragedy struck again. Three-and-a-half-year-old Margaret Jane (the second one), died of typhus fever. Mary Ann sent her only child, Isabella, to live with her mother and stepfather in nearby New Seaham.
In 1865, 33-year-old Mary Ann Mowbray had lost not only her husband but also seven children. She lived alone and supported herself as an independent woman, a widow with no children in her care. She saw Joe in secret, but he soon left, moving away with his wife. Mary Ann threw all her energy into her new job, working as a nurse at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery of the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society.
This was in the years of Florence Nightingale’s rise to prominence, and nurses had a lot of respect in society. They were seen as the serene guardians of hygiene and health – it was a much-coveted job. Exactly what training Mary Ann received at a nurse, is not clear. Many sources say she did not do much more than clean the wards, changed bedding and washed the patients. It was essentially a workhouse, where the impoverished elderly would come to live out their days. There was nothing glamorous about the job, and it hardly paid anything.
It was at the infirmary where she met a strong and handsome, but illiterate fellow called George Ward. Mary Ann married him only seven months after the death of her husband William, in fact in the same year. But again, marriage in Victorian England was a matter of practicality and widowed people re-married as quickly as they could find someone to settle down with. The wedding took place in at St Peter’s Church, and there were no friends or family present.
George was an engine driver on a steamboat, so like William Mowbray, he wasn’t home all that often. But also, because of the illness that landed him in the infirmary where he met Mary Ann, he couldn’t work that often. The couple was married for about a year, and all the while, George struggled with ill health. He was seen by many doctors, and he complained about stomach cramps and a tingling sensation in his hands and feet. Two doctors visited him at home and kept a close eye on his condition. Because of his health-issues, George couldn’t work, and the couple had to live on four shillings a week welfare money. Sources also speculate that George did not satisfy Mary Ann in the bedroom. Not surprising, considering he was violently ill and she was quietly pining for Joe Nattrass.
In October 1866, 15 months after they got married, tragedy struck again, George succumbed to his mysterious intestinal illness. The cause of his death was stated as ‘English cholera and typhoid fever’. Again, Mary Ann had the foresight to take out life insurance, enough to help her along. She took a housekeeping job, a month after George’s death, working for a shipbuilder, James Robinson. James’ wife, Hannah, had passed away and left him with five children, one was only a baby. Mary Ann arrived on the 20th of December, and the following day, little baby John was dead. His cause of death was ‘convulsions’.
James was overcome with grief – he had lost his wife and his son. Mary Ann supported him through his challenging time, and the two became intimate. Mary Ann took charge of the household, and everything ran smoothly for a while. Soon, somewhat scandalously, Mary Ann fell pregnant by James. But as soon as she found out, she had to leave, as her mother was ill and needed her. Margaret Stott was diagnosed with hepatitis and was on the mend, but she needed some help to recover. While Mary Ann was with her mom and stepdad, she took some household items to keep. Margaret realised her daughter was effectively stealing from them and confronted her about it. Within nine days of Mary Ann’s arrival, 54-year-old Margaret, who had almost recovered from hepatitis, passed away.
George Stott was not impressed with his stepdaughter’s attitude towards her mother in her dying days and wasn’t keen on staying in contact with Mary Ann. He was also not up for raising Mary Ann’s daughter Isabella Mowbray and told Mary Ann to take her back to James Robinson’s home. Whether James was aware of the fact that Mary Ann had a child or not, no one knows, but it is clear that there were tensions in the home. James had three sisters, and they all disliked Mary Ann.
Mary Ann did not stand back and took charge of the home, this time not as a servant, but as the lady of the house. The pregnant lady of a busy place with five children, the father of her unborn child who was reluctant to marry her. But the headcount in the Robinson home was soon to be diminished. By the end of April 1867, two of James’ children, eight-year-old Elizabeth and six-year-old James, were dead. Also Mary Ann’s own child, once the apple of her eye, nine-year-old Isabella Mowbray passed away from gastric fever.
The three heart-wrenching funerals were held in the last week of April and the first week of May, one after the other. What James Robinson probably did not know, was that Mary Ann was paid 5 pound 10 shillings and 6 pence in life insurance money for Isabella. The only children left in the house were young William Robinson and his sister Mary Jane.
With Mary Ann obviously pregnant, James Robinson agreed to marry her in the summer of 1867. None of Mary Ann’s or James’ family members attended the wedding. His sisters made no secret of the fact that they did not support their brother’s choice. James, on the other hand, conceded to them that he did not have much choice, seeing as though Mary Ann was pregnant by him. He felt it was his duty to take care of her and their child.
Their baby daughter, Margaret Isabella, was born in November. Sadly, the infant only lived for four months before she also passed away from convulsions. The following year, in 1869, James and Mary Ann had a son called George.
James Robinson became agitated when his wife insisted he took out a life insurance policy. Her insistence made him uncomfortable. Besides, he did not believe that life insurance was a wise way of spending one’s money. James realised that the numbers in his bank book weren’t adding up. He was shocked to discover that Mary Ann had run up debt of more than £60. That was almost double the amount of the insurance money she received after the death of her first husband, William Mowbray. She had made adjustments in their building society book, James saw right through it, as it wasn’t very sophisticated.
Mary Ann had also coerced James’ son William into pawning household items, and then she kept the money. £50 that James had given Mary Ann to deposit had also gone missing. This was a very significant amount of money at the time. James was furious, and as soon as Mary Ann went away for a couple of days, he boarded up the house and moved in with one of his sisters. He was done with Mary Ann. Mary Ann was furious, as she saw James as her ultimate meal ticket, the man who could give her the life she had always wanted. Of all her husbands, James was by far the one with the most money.
In a desperate attempt to get him back, Mary Ann left baby George with a friend in December 1869, saying she was going to post a letter. She never returned. George was reunited with his dad, who raised him, along with William and Mary Jane.
Some months later, Mary Ann wrote James, asking if he could come and see her and bring the baby. James said no. That was the end of that. A stance that most likely saved not only his life but also his son’s.
At the beginning of 1870, Mary Ann was destitute. She had no job and nowhere to live. It is believed that the newly single Mary Ann spent some time working in a laundry at a home for fallen women in Sunderland. But she was not about to give up.
The one and only true friend that Mary Ann had through the years, was an unmarried woman called Margaret. They met while working at The Hall, Edward Potter’s home when they were both teenagers. When James Robinson kicked Mary Ann out, it was Margaret who introduced her to her brother, Frederick Cotton. Frederick worked as a coal miner and had recently lost his wife and two children. Margaret, who had spent most of her adult life as a servant, gladly stepped in to help her brother take care of his children. She confided in Mary Ann that she had saved an amount of £60. Margaret planned to leave the money to Frederick when she died one day.
Margaret invited Mary Ann to visit her for a couple of days. Margaret was living with Frederick, so Mary Ann spent a lot of time with the widower. Two is company, three is a crowd. But that was about to change when Margaret fell ill and passed away at the end of March.
By April, Mary Ann was pregnant with Frederick Cotton’s child. She left for a while and took a job as a housekeeper for a German doctor. Again, Mary Ann was taunted about everything she couldn’t have. A year before, she was the lady of a house, but there she was, cleaning someone else’s home, yet again. A fate she could not escape. By the end of summer, she returned to Frederick. With the help of two of his friends, they reconciled and got married on September 17th, 1870.
Although James Robinson had kicked Mary Ann out, she was still married to him. But Mary Ann did not disclose this to Frederick or anyone else, so their marriage was bigamous. Mary Ann and Frederick’s son, Robert Robson Cotton was born a couple of months after they got married.
Marital bliss was short-lived, as Mary Ann learnt that her ex-lover, Joe Nattrass, was living in West Auckland, only 30 miles away. Since she had last seen Joe, his wife had passed away, so for the first time since they met, he was available. She wasn’t. Mary Ann had to be near Joe and convinced Frederick to move to West Auckland, where they found a place on the very same street where Joe lived. Frederick found a job in the mines, and Mary Ann was seeing Joe behind his back. But Frederick didn’t suspect anything, because he was battling a strange illness… In September 1871, after being married to Mary Ann for just over a year, Frederick Cotton passed away due to ‘typhoid illness’.
Not long after Frederick’s death, his ever-grieving widow, always shrouded in mysery duly collected the life insurance money. Mary had no husband and was the single mother of three children: Frederick Jr, Charles Edward and her own baby Robert Robson Cotton. She took in a lodger, well, her lover Joe Nattrass – only three months after Frederick’s death.
Mary Ann found a job of caring for a man called Quick-Manning, who was recovering from smallpox. Quick-Manning worked as a tax officer at a local brewery and lived down the road from Mary Ann and Joe. Mary Ann rather liked Quick-Manning, and he reminded her of James Robinson. Well, in the sense that he was of a higher social class than her. He wasn’t married, and Mary Ann sensed an opportunity to escape poverty once and for all and became his lover.
Her home life was complicated, living with two stepsons, her baby and her lover for many years. At the beginning of March 1872, Frederick Cotton Jr died, followed shortly by the death of baby Robert Robson. Joe Nattrass pledged his loyalty to Mary Ann and changed his will in favour of her, because, according to her, he had said that she was his ‘best friend’. Soon after the paperwork was done, he suffered a bout of gastric fever and grew violently ill. Mary placed the body of little Robert Robson in Joe’s room, waiting for Joe to die so she could bury them at the same time and spare some funeral expense. It was like a bad omen, reminding him of the fate that awaited him. Joe passed away on the 1st of April 1872.
That is three deaths in Mary Ann Cotton’s home in the space of one month. The only healthy, living person, besides Mary Ann living in the house was eight-year-old Charles Edward Cotton. Although she was frugal, Mary could somehow always afford another life insurance policy. This time, she insured the life of the last remaining Cotton.
Mary Ann tried to send Charles Edward to an uncle, but the uncle refused. Mary Ann received welfare money for Charles Edward, but it wasn’t only about the money. The boy was in the way. He became more and more of an inconvenience to Mary Ann, who realised that if she had any chance of becoming Mrs Quick-Manning, bringing her stepson into the picture would ruin everything.
Local shopkeeper and administrator of poor-relief funds, Thomas Riley, grew concerned about the well-being of Charles Edward. Mary Ann came to Riley and asked if Charles could be placed in a workhouse. This was a social services home, providing food and shelter to those in need, in exchange for labour. Riley said that the workhouse wasn’t an orphanage. If Mary Ann needed help, she needed to move into the workhouse WITH Charles and work there herself. Mary Ann did not like the idea and shrugged it off. She said to Riley:
“I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”
Five days later, Mary Ann had solved the problem. By July 12th Charles Edward Cotton, like the rest of his family, was dead. When Riley heard about the child’s death, he went to the police and insisted they investigated the matter before issuing a death certificate. Mary Ann was furious when she visited the insurance company and learnt that they would not release funds without a death certificate.
A coroner’s inquest was held, members of the community gathered in a pub down the road. At the same time, Dr William Byers Kilburn conducted an autopsy of young Charles on the kitchen table in Mary Ann’s home. The doctor could not find any evidence that Charles had been murdered and had to rule that the boy had died due to natural causes.
Mary Ann kicked up a scene and said Riley made the false accusation against her because she shunned his advances. She insisted that, because of the trauma caused to her, she should receive compensation to pay for Charles’ burial – which she did.
This case caused a sensation in West Auckland, and local newspapers decided to cover the story. Journalists dug up Mary Ann’s past and found that, in total, she had lost three husbands, eleven children, her mother and her friend Margaret.
Dr Kilburn was suspicious when he conducted Charles Edward’s post mortem examination. He had an uneasy feeling about the boy’s death and kept samples of the boy’s stomach contents. He decided to have another look and used the Reinsch test to determine if there was arsenic present. In conducting this test, the doctor took a piece of the stomach tissue and boiled it with hydrochloric acid and water. Then he inserted a copper coil, and low and behold, a dark coating gathered on the coil, indicating the presence of arsenic. To confirm his findings, he also sent samples to the leading forensic scientist of the time, Dr Thomas Scattergood in Leeds. He came to the same conclusion.
Charles Edward’s body was exhumed, and Mary Ann was charged with his murder. She was arrested at her home, a week after the boy’s death, on the 18th of July 1872. Mary Ann shocked police by telling them that she was pregnant with Quick-Manning’s baby. Because of this, the trial was put on hold until she had given birth. Quick-Manning did not want anything to do with Mary Ann or the baby that she claimed was his.
A further order was issued by police to exhume the bodies of Joe Nattress, her stepson Frederick Cotton Jr and her own baby Robert Robson Cotton. Crowds gathered to witness the macabre operation of digging up the recently deceased bodies. Again, samples were sent to Dr Scattergood, who found that they had all been poisoned. In fact, Joe had four times the lethal amount of arsenic in his body.
In Victorian times, arsenic was readily available in stores, it was as easy to purchase as bleach or laundry soap. It was odourless, colourless and would only show up after a death. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning compare with symptoms of typhoid, typhus and gastric fever: headaches, fever, general pain and cramping. In the case of typhoid, symptoms include either constipation or diarrhea.
Also, diagnoses of the time weren’t always spot-on. Victorian doctors used the terms typhoid and typhus interchangeably when in actual fact they are quite different. Typhoid fever occurred in places with poor sanitation and caused by salmonella bacteria found in contaminated water or milk. Typhus fever, on the other hand, was due to over-crowding. Its main characteristic was a rash, caused by lice. Typhoid fever was prevalent along the east coast Northumberland at the time, besides mining accidents and consumption, it was one of the leading causes of death.
A neighbour, Mary Ann Dodds, told police that Mary Ann Cotton had sent young Charles Edward to the chemist to buy arsenic and soft soap because she wanted to clean a bug-infested mattress. The chemist refused to sell arsenic to the boy, as it was illegal. Eventually, Mary Ann convinced her neighbour, the other Mary Ann, to buy it on her behalf. The two women made up the mixture and cleaned the mattress together. However, they did not use all the arsenic, and Mary Ann Dodds remembered Cotton putting it in a jar in a storeroom. This proved to police that Mary Ann Cotton had the poison in her home, and they were convinced that she knew how to use it to end her victims’ lives. She served them soup and tea, as arsenic dissolves in warm liquid and the taste of the tea or soup would have masked the flavour.
On the 10th of January 1873, baby Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton was born in Durham County Gaol. Mary Ann gave her daughter to her former neighbours (William and Sarah Edwards) for adoption. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that:
“The parting of the wretched mother with the child was a very affecting one.”
In the end, only two of Mary Ann’s children survived: Margaret Edith and George Robinson.
From the moment Thomas Riley first accused Mary Ann Cotton of murdering her stepson, she maintained her innocence. While in prison, she wrote letters to neighbours and childhood friends – even to her ex, James Robinson – asking for their support. Many of her letters were published in newspapers, and some people began to feel sympathy for her plight.
The trial of Mary Ann Cotton began on the 5th of March 1873. She maintained her innocence, but on the advice of her solicitor, did not speak in her own defense. The trial was a spectacle and was well-covered in newspapers of the time. There was not an empty seat in the courtroom, the crowd mainly consisting of women. If people could not find seats inside, they waited outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman who had done the unthinkable. Mary Ann was demure, pale, not quite the siren she had been made out to be in earlier days. While sitting in the accused dock, she breastfed her baby. Many people believed this was an attempt to gain sympathy from the jury.
Her defense tried to create reasonable doubt in blaming the chemist for selling Mary Ann the arsenic, instead of bismuth powder, commonly used for diarrhea. When that didn’t seem to cause enough doubt, he claimed that the arsenic present in Charles’ body, came from inhalation of wallpaper containing arsenic. Mary Ann herself was convinced the arsenic was mixed in with Arrowroot and said that Charles Edward ingested it without knowing what he was eating.
The renowned forensic toxicologist, Dr Scattergood, was called to the stand, and his remark squashed the wallpaper-theory. He claimed that inhalation would have caused suffocation, which was NOT how Charles had died. He also said that the most likely way the arsenic was given to Charles was in powder form, like when it was mixed with soft soap.
At the end of the week, Mary Ann was convicted of the murder of her stepson, Frederick’s child, Charles Edward Cotton. The jury deliberated for only one and a half hours, and she was sentenced to death by hanging.
The Times reported on the verdict, saying:
“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.”
Petitions were sent to the Home Secretary by friends and neighbours. Mary Ann’s last lodger William Lowrey, wrote to local newspapers to garner up support for Mary Ann. He also kept in regular contact with her while she was in prison, and told her that her lawyer sold her belongings to cover legal fees. The petitions written by Lowrey and others didn’t help; Mary Ann’s fate was sealed.
Mary Ann Cotton has been called Britain’s first female serial killer. Which brings about the question of nature or nurture. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Who knows what effect seeing her father’s body delivered to their home in a bag had on the young Mary Ann. In most cases, she didn’t seem to kill for the sake of killing. Her reasons were driven by practicality. Whenever things weren’t working out the way she wanted them to, she would clear the decks, and start from scratch.
As was the case of baby John Robinson. It didn’t take Mary Ann long to see the challenges of her new job: a motherless infant would have made caring for the other four children and household a highly demanding task. Also, by acting soon after she arrived, there was no suspicion of her. She probably administered arsenic without anyone noticing. Tending to a crying baby when she knew all too well how it all would end.
Typically, a poisoner chooses this method of murder because there is no blood or physical violence. The killer can remain detached, while revelling in the power of playing God, deciding who lives and who dies.
In reality, the arsenic poisonings committed by Mary Ann would have been messy. Most of her victims vomited and had severe diarrhea, but with poor in-house sanitation. The filth and stench of her dying victims must have been horrendous. She was the one who cleaned it all up, who tended to them. Her time as a nurse probably helped her cope with it. A neighbour, who later testified against Mary Ann, described Joe’s agony. This quote from her statement has been tweaked from the original Victorian Northumberland English used:
“Mary Ann waited on him and was constantly with him. I saw no one else wait on him. Mary Ann gave him anything he required. Joe Nattrass was sick several times and purged. Occasionally he complained of pain at the bottom of his bowels. I saw him have fits, he was very twisted up and seemed in agony. He twisted his toes and his hands and contorted them all ways. He pulled his legs up. He was throwing himself around a good deal, and Mary Ann held him and had to use great force. He was unconscious when having these fits. After the fits were over, he sometimes said it was a very strong one and sometimes said it was not.”
She also committed her murders in full view. She was the caring mother and wife who lovingly nursed her loved ones throughout their suffering. Mary Ann called doctors herself and was convincing in her feigned concern about the health of her family. She made endless cups of tea – laced with arsenic, of course – to make it look like she was caring for them. It is one of the cruellest way imaginable to kill someone. It is prolonged, and the victims suffer a great deal.
One can wonder why she always kept one or two children alive? Perhaps because they were useful to her. Maybe it was to cast suspicion away from her, that she was a mass murderer who killed the whole family, when in fact, she did it bit by bit, one after the other. That in itself is a form of torture – they’ve lost their siblings and a parent. Even at a time in history when the mortality rate was high, this must have been terribly traumatic. Witnessing the violent suffering and being unable to help… It must have been torture in itself. William Robinson saw his whole family wiped out before suffering the same fate. As did Isabella Mowbray. They were eight and nine years old, about the age Mary Ann was when she had lost her own father. They were left to deal with the grief and loneliness, just to eventually get killed too.
Mary Ann’s deeds went undetected for a long time. In the mid-nineteenth century, the infant mortality rate in Durham County was 180 per 1000 live births. In England today, it’s 6 per 1000. The fact that she moved around and that the insurance company did not have a centralised data system kept her under the radar for decades. She had many incarnations, and when she was done, she would kill everyone around her to get into a new situation.
Somewhere in the heartless story of a cold-blooded murderess lies a twisted love story too. Why one can wonder, did Mary Ann kill the love of her life, Joe Nattrass? Joe does seem to be the only man, probably beside her first husband William, whom Mary actually cared for.
She had waited for so many years to be with him, but the reality of daily domestic life, living with her dead husband’s children, was perhaps not quite as romantic as she had hoped it would be. She also realised that with Joe, she would never rise above her station, as he was just a miner. Quick-Manning was her ticket out of poverty, but Joe was a complication. When he told the doctor:
“This is no fever I have…”
…did he know?
Mary Ann Cotton was spared a public execution, and on the 24th of March 1873, 20 reporters gathered at the gallows in Durham County Gaol. Her executioner was William Ong Calcraft, who had quite a reputation of finding pleasure in his job and made sure the condemned suffered before he launched them into eternity. He had many fumbled executions behind his name and was known to drink heavily.
On the day of Mary Ann’s execution, a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the prison walls, waiting for 8am.
Reports said that after finishing her last refreshment – a cup of tea – she brushed her long black hair and said she was ready. As she walked to the gallows, she held her head high and took her place on the trap doors, pale and trembling. She muttered continuously, but no one could hear what she was saying. The only sentence they could make out was:
“Heaven is my home. Lord have mercy on me.”
Calcraft had shortened the rope, and instead of breaking her neck, making death instant, Mary Ann was strangled to death. It took three agonising minutes of Mary kicking and gasping, desperately trying to breathe… Calcraft stepped closer and pushed her down to make sure she lost consciousness. Witnesses were horrified at the brutality of the botched execution. In fact, Calcraft himself announced his retirement at breakfast on the same morning after Mary Ann’s execution.
She was buried in the prison cemetery at Durham County Gaol, with her shoes still on.
After her death, she became an almost mythical creature, someone who had existed in folklore. The Newcastle Chronicle described her as a ‘monster in human form’. A skipping rhyme made its rounds, and little children sang the haunting words: Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead, and she’s rotten…
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.
Mary Ann was only ever convicted for the murder of Charles Edward Cotton, none of her other victims. There are no birth records of the babies she had and lost in Plymouth. It is possible she suffered miscarriages or that the babies were still-born. Because there is no record of their existence, it is unclear if she actually killed any of them. There is also the possibility that she had many more victims, whose causes of death were incorrectly documented. It seemed like whomever dared fall in love with Mary Ann, had stepped into the spider’s web, with the black widow – ready to strike…
We’d like to thank today’s sponsors, Best Fiends and June’s Journey.
- Download Best Fiends FREE on the Apple App Store or Google Play. Engage your brain with fun puzzles and collect tons of cute characters. Trust me, with over 100 million downloads, this 5-star rated mobile puzzle game is a must play! Download Best Fiends today. That’s FRIENDS without the R – Best Fiends!
- This show was also made possible by June’s Journey. To join more than 3 Million murder mystery enthusiasts and puzzle solvers around the globe, download June’s Journey for free from the App Store or Google Play, by clicking the link in the show notes or on our website.
If you’d like to read more about this case, have a look at the resources used for this episode in the show notes.
Also visit and like our Facebook Page at facebook.com/evidencelockerpodcast/ to see more about today’s case. If you like our podcast, please subscribe in Apple Podcast or wherever you are listening right now.
This was The Evidence Locker. Thank you for listening!
©2020 Evidence Locker Podcast
All rights reserved. This podcast or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a podcast review.