"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."
On 24th March 1873 Britain's first femail serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton met her maker at the end of William Calcraft's rope. She is believed to have killed 21 people by the means of arsenic poisoning between 1865 and 1872.
Mary Ann Cotton, was born Mary Ann Robson in October 1832 in Houghton-le-spring, County Durham to Michael and Margaret Robson (nee Lonsdale). In December 1841 Mary's father, a coal miner, fell 150 feet to his death down a Murton Colliery mine shaft. Her widowed mother soon married George Stott in 1843. Mary did not get on well with her step father and left the family home at the age of 16 to become a nurse to Edward Potter. Three years later she returned to the family home.
Mary Ann Cotton.
At the age of 20 in 1852 Mary Ann married colliery labourer William Mowbray. They had nine children together, seven of which died in infancy from 'gastric fever'. In January 1865 William died of an unknown intestinal disorder. At the time his life was insured with British and Prudential Insurance, Mary collected the £35 pay out, nearly half a year's wages.
Soon after William's death Mary moved to Seaham Harbour and struck up a relationship with Joseph Nattrass. Joseph was already engaged to another women and reluctant to break off the engagement. Mary left Seaham after Joseph's wedding and returned to Sunderland, where her 3 year old daughter died, leaving only one surviving child, Isabella, whom she sent to live with her mother.
Mary Ann gained employment as a nurse at Sunderland Infirmary, where she met her second husband George Ward. They married on 28th August 1865. George continued to suffer greatly with ill health before he died in October 1866 of intestinal problems. The doctor attending his case confirmed that George was an ill man, but his sudden death was unexpected. Mary Ann collected the insurance money from her second husband's death.
Sunderland Royal Infirmary taken in 1900
In the November of 1866, James Robinson hired Mary as a housekeeper. James was recently widowed and when his baby died of 'gastric fever', he turned to Mary Ann for comfort, she soon became pregnant. When Mary Ann's mother became ill she immediately went to nurse her. Although Margaret began to get better she started to complain of stomach pains before she died aged 54 in the spring of 1867, just nine days after Mary Ann's arrival. Isabella was then brought back to live in the Robinson household where she soon developed stomach pains and died, along with two of James's other children. All three children were buried in the last few weeks of April 1867.
James soon became suspicious of his wife's actions when she insisted that he insure his life. He discovered that she had run up debts of over £60 as well as stealing £50 she was supposed to bank. The last straw came when he found out she had been forcing the remaining children to pawn household items. James eventually threw Mary Ann out, an action that was to save his life.
Desperate and living on the streets Mary Ann turned to her friend Margaret Cotton, who introduced her to her recently widowed brother Frederick Cotton. Margaret had been acting as a stand in mother to Frederick's two young children, Seven year old Frederick Jr and five year old Charles. In March 1970 Margaret was to die from and undetermined stomach ailment, leaving Mary Ann to comfort the grieving Frederick. Mary Ann bigamously married Frederick in the September of 1870, their son Robert was born in the February of 1871.
The home of Frederick and Mary Ann Cotton, Front Street, West Auckland.
Mary Ann soon discovered that her ex lover Joseph Nattrass was living nearby and no longer married, she wasted no time in rekindling their affair. Frederick was to go to his grave in December of that year. After Frederick's death Joseph moved in with Mary Ann as her lodger, shortly afterwards Mary Ann became a nurse to Excise Officer John Quick-Manning. She was soon to become pregnant by him with her twelfth child. This presented a problem for Mary Ann, now certain family members were in her way. Young Frederick Jr was to die in 1872, followed soon after by the infant Robert. Joseph fared no better and died from 'gastric fever' not long after he had revised his will in Mary Ann's favour. Mary Ann had still to collect the insurance policy she had taken out on young Charles's life.
Mary Ann's first port of call after poor Charles's death was the insurance office, where she found out no payment would be made without the death certificate. An inquest into Charles's death was held, where Mary Ann claimed Riley's accusations against her were due to her spurning his advances. A verdict of natural causes was returned. Mary Ann may have gotten away with murder had the local papers not picked up on the story. They soon found out that Mary Ann had moved about northern England, leaving a trail of dead loved ones behind her, all of whom died of stomach complaints.
The Times reported on 20th March 1873 ~
"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."
Execution site at Durham Gaol.
Several petitions for mercy were raised with the Home Secretary, but to no avail, Mary Ann Cotton was hanged at Durham Gaol on 24th March 1873, bringing an end to Britain's first serial killer.