Mary Ann Cotton

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Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton


Mary Ann Cotton was one of Britain's worst ever serial killers. In terms of sheer numbers, her final grisly estimated tally of 21 outstrips even such notables as Peter Sutcliffe or Jack the Ripper. More than that - among her victims were numbered even her own children.

Yet despite this roll call of infamy and the usual opprobrium reserved for female child killers (see: Myra Hindley) her name has all but disappeared from the annals of serial murder. Today, her house still remains, practically unchanged from the days when it played host to her gruesome poisonings.

Her background was typical of the era. Her father was a miner and like many workers of the time led a peripatetic existence - moving from one part of the country to another in search of work.

In 1842 - when Mary Ann was only 10 - her father joined the sad roll call of mining deaths when he fell down an open shaft while repairing a pulley wheel. In an era before the welfare state, Mary was working and married as soon as she was able to. In 1852 she married William Mowbray and the pair moved to Cornwall in the endless search for employment. Equally typically of the age, she began to have children (accounts differ as to whether she had four or five to Mowbray).

Either way, all but one of her children died of gastric ailments in their infancy. 

Moving back to the North East, William found apparent security as the foreman at South Hetton Colliery but in 1865 he too died of an intestinal disorder. On his death, Mary Ann claimed a 35 insurance payout - around 6 months' wages at the time.

This pattern of deaths among those close to Mary Ann due to conditions of the digestive system would become one of the key components of the case against her.

Using the money from William's death, Mary moved to Seaham Harbour to live with Joseph Nattrass and take up employment as a nurse. For the next 20 years, Nattrass would be with her until his own death, but in the meantime Mary Ann married again, to George Ward an engineer and patient in her care. In August 1865 they married, but a little over a year later Ward was dead: meeting his end in October 1866.

In November 1866, the widowed mother of one became housekeeper to James Robinson - a Sunderland shipwright. Within weeks of her taking his employ, one of his own babies died.

Shortly afterwards, Mary Ann herself was pregnant again and it is assumed that Robinson was the father, having sought solace with Mary following the death of his child. At this point, Mary Ann went back to her mother on hearing the news that she was gravely ill. 9 days after she arrived, her mother was dead. Mary Ann returned back to Robinson with her own daughter Isabella.

Within weeks Isabella was dead - swiftly followed by two more of Robinson's children. All 3 died and were buried within weeks of each other in April 1867.

Despite the shadow of death that had followed her seemingly wherever she went, Robinson was in Mary Ann's thrall, and the two married and had a chile of their own - Mary Isabella - in November 1867. With perhaps predictable and not a little suspicious timing, she too died in March 1868.

Around this time Robinson also discovered that Mary Ann had been defrauding him. She had attempted to get him to insure his life for 60, had stolen 50 of his money that she was supposed to have banked, and that she had hoodwinked his older children into selling some household items and giving her the proceeds. Unsurprisingly, she was thrown out of the house and onto the streets.

Ever resourceful, Mary Ann got in touch with her friend Margaret Cotton. She was looking after her brother Frederick and his children while he worked in the mines in Walbottle and Mary Ann quickly made designs on the pitman. Her sister died of undiagnosed stomach troubles and Mary Ann married Frederick within months.

By now, the tale must be a familiar one: shortly after the life of he and his sons had been insured, Frederick died suddenly in the December of 1871.

Joseph Nattrass was still a close associate of Mary and swiftly moved in with her while she found work as a nurse to recovering excise offer - Joseph Quick-Manning, who had been earlier stricken with smallpox. Despite his health troubles, Cotton swiftly fell pregnant.

Around this time, Cotton was struck by yet more deaths: one of her stepsons from the Robinson marriage (and who, as you may remember, had been insured) died, followed by her own son Robert in March 1872.

Despite the trail of death that had followed his friend wherever she went, Joseph Nattrass amended his will in her favour, only to die himself in April 1872.

Finally, she was arrested following the death of another of her children, Charles Edward in 1873.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 30th April 2012 | © Weird Island 2010-2020
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