It’s been a while since I’ve blogged in general, but rather than write about something banal, I’ve chosen to once again take up some of my history lessons. I know I always find it interesting to learn about the past, and I’m hoping you out there do as well. This installation is about an English serial killer and “black widow” Mary Ann Cotton.
Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Robson was born in a poor mining village called Low Moorsely in Sunderland, England in October 1932. Her father was a strict disciplinarian and was fiercely religious. When Mary Ann was 8, her parents moved the town of Murton in Durham County. Shortly after the move, Mary Ann’s father died after falling down a mining shaft at Murton Colliery. In 19th century England, losing a father and a source of income for a poor family was detrimental. Mary Ann was now at risk of being separated from her mother and brother to be sent to a workhouse. Luckily, Mary Anne was spared this fate when her mother remarried when Mary Ann was 14 years old.
Mary Anne did not like her stepfather, Robert Stott, but did like the things his better wages could afford. At the age of 16, when Mary Anne decided she could no longer stand Stott’s discipline, she moved out to find a job as a nursemaid for an aging coal mine manager, Edward Potter, in the nearby village of South Hetton. After three years of work, Mary Ann returned to her mother’s home and trained as a dressmaker. Before long, Mary Ann met a local colliery worker named William Mowbray.
On July 18, 1852 at the age of 20, Mary Ann married William Mowbray in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Shortly after, the couple moved to Cornwall where William worked as a nanny and Mary Anne devoted herself to producing 5 children. Of these children, four sons died in infancy as victims of what was presumed to be “gastric fever”. William and Marry Ann moved back to Durham where they had, and lost, three more children to the same gastric fever. At the time William was worked as a foreman at the South Hetton Colliery. In 1864, the couple moved to Herndon where William accepted a position as a fireman on a steamship. His life was then insured by the British and Prudential Insurance office. In January 1865, shortly after William was injured on the job and laid off, he unexpectedly died of an intestinal ailment that was suspiciously similar to the gastric fever that ailed his deceased children. Mary Ann collected at payout of £35 from the insurance company, equivalent to about half a year’s wages for a manual labourer at the time.
Shortly after William Mowbray’s death, Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham where she struck up a relationship with a man named Joseph Nattrass. Unfortunately, her lover was engaged to another woman and Mary Ann left Seaham shortly after Nattrass’ wedding. During this time, Mary Ann’s 3½ year old daughter died of gastric fever, leaving Mary Ann with one remaining living child of the 9 she had borne by this time. She sent this remaining child, Isabella, to live with her Grandmother Robson-Stott.
In order to support herself, Mary Ann returned to Sunderland and took up a position as a nurse in the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. One of her patients at the infirmary was an engineer named George Ward. They married in Monkwearmouth in August 1865. When George lost his job as an engineer, he began to suffer from ill health characterized by vomiting and diarrhea. In October 1966, George succumbed to his illness. The doctor later gave evidence that although Ward had been ill for a long time, he death was rather sudden. Once again, Mary Ann collected the insurance money from her husband’s death.
Within weeks of her husband’s death, the widow Ward took up a position for a widower shipwright, James Robinson, at Pallion, Sunderland. One month later, Robinson’s infant died of gastric fever. In his grief, James turned to Mary Ann for comfort and she soon became pregnant. In March of 1867, Mary Ann’s mother became ill, so she returned to Seaham Harbour to take care of her. Although her health initial began to improve, Mary Ann’s mother started to experience stomach pains. She died at age 54, nine days after Mary’s arrival.
Mary Ann returned to the Robinson household, her daughter Isabella (from her marriage to William Mowbray) in tow. Shortly after her arrival, Isabella developed bad stomach pains and died. Another two of James’ children quickly followed and all three children were buried within the last 2 weeks of April in 1867. Four months later, James and Mary Ann were married. Their daughter Mary Isabella was born in November, but died in March of 1868 of familiar stomach issues.
Meanwhile, James had become suspicious of his wife’s insistence of that he insure his life and of the high mortality rate in his household. James discovered that Mary Ann had run up debts of over £60 pounds without him knowing, and had stolen £50 from him that she was supposed to have banked. Finally, after discovering that Mary Ann had forced his children to pawn valuable household items, he threw her out. James Robinson is to be considered lucky, as he narrowly avoided an early grave. As it was, Mary Ann helped herself to his savings and fled.
Desperate and living on the streets, Mary Ann fled to Walbottle, Northumberland. Here her friend Margaret Cotton introduced Mary Ann to her brother Fredrick Cotton, a pitman and widower who had lost two of his four children. Margaret Cotton had been acting as a surrogate mother to her nephews Fredrick Jr. and Charles. However, in late 1870, Margaret died of an undetermined stomach ailment, leaving Mary Ann to comfort the grieving father. Soon Mary Ann fell pregnant.
Although she was still married to James Robinson, Mary Ann married Fredrick Cotton Sr. in September 1870. Their son Robert was born six months later in early 1871. Soon after, Mary Ann learned that her former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was leaving in the nearby village of West Auckland and no longer married. She decided to rekindle their relationship and persuaded her new family to move closer to him. In Decemer 1871, Fredrick Cotton Sr. died of gastric fever. His live and the life of his sons had been insured.
After Fredrick Sr. died, Joseph Nattrass became a lodger in the home Mary Ann shared with the three remaining children. However, Mary Ann had her eyes set on someone new. She had become nurse to John Quick-Manning, a customs officer recovering from smallpox. The two struck up an affair, and Mary Ann fell pregnant with her twelfth child. In March 1872, the fully insured Fredrick Cotton Jr. and Mary Ann’s infant son Robert died. Shortly after, Joseph Nattrass fell ill with gastric fever and died. Conveniently, he had just changed his will in Mary Ann’s favour.
The insurance policy for Charles Edward Cotton still remained for collection, and he was now the only barrier between Mary Ann and John Quick-Manning. However, he would lead to her downfall. Mary Ann tried to have him sent to live with one his uncles but was refused. Then when asked to nurse a woman ill with smallpox by the parish official, Thomas Riley, Mary Ann asked if Charles might be sent to the workhouse. When Mary Ann was told she would have to accompany him, she replied saying he was sickly and would soon “go like the rest of the Cottons”. Riley was shocked when five days later the seemingly healthy Charles died. Riley went to the police and an inquest was held. He requested that the death certificate be delayed until the inquest was over, dashing Mary Ann’s ability to claim the insurance money. The jury returned with a verdict of that Charles dided natural causes and Mary Ann protested that Riley made the accusations after she rejected his advances.
However, the local newspapers soon discovered that Mary Ann had moved all over northern England, losing three husbands, a friend, her mother, and a dozen children to ‘stomach fevers’ along the way. This was the first time that a connection was made. Rumour turned into suspicion and forensic inquiry. The doctor to had performed Charles’ autopsy has kept tissue samples that tested positive for arsenic. Mary Ann was charged with murder, but the trial was postponed until after she had given birth to her final child in January 1863.
Mary Ann Cotton’s trial began on Wednesday, 5 March 1873. During the trial, the defense argued that Charles Charles died from inhaling arsenic used as a dye in the green wallpaper of the Cotton home. However, the level of death that followed Mary Ann in her past could not be ignored. The jury deliberated only 90 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict. Mary Ann was hanged at Durham County gaol on 24 March, 1873, and died a slow choking death, as the hangman used to apply the older “short drop” technique for executions.