Textbook Example of Wrong

Part 2 of 2-part case history & review of accused serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton

. . . I saw him have fits; he was very twisted up and seemed in great agony.
     - Jane Hedley, trial of Mary Ann Cotton, March 1873


The public complains loudly and with an agonized collective voice when a murderer “gets off”. 

Examples of classic haywire justice can be found in any period in history.  Lizzie Borden was acquitted for the August 1892 hatchet murders of her step-mother and biological father.  In the early 1990s, O. J. Simpson was set free for the murder of his ex-wife and a male friend of hers after one of history’s longest murder trials.  Casey Anthony’s July 2011 “Not Guilty” verdict in Florida in the death of her toddler daughter left many shaking their heads.  These are but three instances of almost certainly guilty defendants literally getting away with murder. 

But the “blind” scales of justice can easily swing the other direction with innocent people put to death or imprisoned for crimes they most certainly did not commit. 

Timothy Evans was hanged in Britain in 1950 for the murders of his infant daughter and wife, Beryl.  Three years later, it was learned his downstairs neighbor, a necrophiliac serial killer named John Reginald Halliday Christie, had strangled and raped not only Beryl Evans, but six other women as well (including his own wife whom he stored under the floorboards of his ground-floor flat).  Timothy Evans, in light of this miscarriage of justice, was granted a posthumous pardon in 1965 by Britain.

Martha Rendell of Western Australia was hanged on October 6, 1909, for the poisoning deaths of three of her five “step”-children (she was unmarried to the man with whom she shared a bed).  Though the children had succumbed to an epidemic strain of diphtheria from July 1907 to October 1908, she was put on trial and executed.  Martha Rendell remains a murdering stepmother in the eyes of Australia – her case has not been reviewed by the government with the intent of clearing her name

Mary Ann of the Multiple Men
There are parallels between Martha Rendell’s case in Australia and one in Britain occurring over a quarter-century before Martha was first condemned in the court of public opinion and then executed after a poorly-run jury trial. 

Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873) was a working class British widow executed under accusations of serially poisoning nearly all of her children and step-children, her mother, a Mary Ann Cotton (frontispiece, Mar 24, 1873)Credit: public domain; photomanipulation by authorfemale friend, three out of four husbands, and a lover.

The last death in her household in July 1872 was that of seven-year-old step-son Charles Edward Cotton.  The boy was being treated for symptoms of what two attending physicians had concluded was tuberculosis.  His body was given a cursory examination while it was stretched out upon Mary Ann’s kitchen table.  He was determined to have died of natural (disease-related) causes.

A suspicious assistant coroner, however, knew of some of the tragedies that had befallen the Cotton household (her fourth husband, Frederick Cotton, had died in December 1872; another Cotton step-son and her son with Frederick, Sr., both died in March 1872).  He went to police and created enough of a stir that a more formal inquest was held to re-address the boy’s cause of death.  This inquest went in Mary Ann’s favor, and the death remained on record as a naturally occurring one.  

The press, and rumor-mongering, however, created a sensation about Mary Ann’s life based on her testimony at that hearing.  This led to digging into her background and movements over her lifetime, and it was learned that much death had followed Mary Ann Cotton wherever she went. Between the years of 1852 to 1856, she had four infant children die.  And over the 12 years starting in 1860 she lost many biological children, several stepchildren, three husbands, a woman friend, her mother, and a lover. 

Tissue samples from the second inquest had been retained by one of Charles Edward Cotton’s physicians for future analysis.  His method of safekeeping was to bury these in his back yard.  With enough public speculation fueled by a rampant, luridly sensationalized press that typified the dowdy Mary Ann Cotton as a beguiling, bloodthirsty, and greedy femme fatale, the doctor submitted his buried samples for analysis.  The tissues tested positive for traces of arsenic.

Mary Ann Cotton was arrested in July 1872.  She remained imprisoned until her trial started in March 1873.  Though she was officially charged only with the murder of her step-son, “evidence” of other poisonings was brought up (in effect, everyone in her life who had died). 

Based on the flimsiest of circumstance, Mary Ann was condemned to death.  She was executed in a botched hanging (strangling for several minutes before dying instead of having her neck snapped as should have happened).  Her executioner had to help hasten her death by pressing down on her shoulders from the gallows’ platform.  

She was buried in the prison cemetery next to two murderers.  And since then, the four-time married Mary Ann Robson Mowbray Ward Robinson Cotton has gone down in history, like Lucrezia Borgia, as a presumed serial poisoner. 

Crowdsourcing: Assuming Facts not in Evidence
General public access to the World Wide Web starting in the early 1990s was both a boon and a bane.  The inter-connected computer network had previously been an informational exchange system between military organizations and universities. Once opened to the masses the world’s knowledge and experiences could be made available by contributors putting forth arcane and valuable material for all to see. 

One of the most admirable uses of the Internet illustrating this loftier goal is Project Gutenberg, a brilliantly conceived and far-reaching Web project that has quietly digitized and uploaded classic and esoteric literary works.  Popular works are, of course, represented.  But it is the lesser-known writings that make the site priceless.  Some of the more obscure works available through Project Gutenberg would otherwise never be accessible to anyone outside the realm of academia or without visiting a remote library’s special collections treasures

Crowdsourcing: Lightweight on TruthCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2013

Unfortunately, just as with any populist medium (television, for example), once the Web was accessible to the masses the good was very soon overwhelmed and outweighed by the bad.  “Chat rooms” and “bulletin boards” became early forums for any pseudo-intellectual or crackpot with a theory and enough readers and tenacity to keep his or her idiotic ideas alive and flourishing. 

Even today, fresh contributions can be found on-line in many of these seemingly immortal falsehoods, these chestnuts of conspiracy lovers: 

  • Hitler survived World War II: he got away, living out his days in Argentina, in an elaborate escape plan involving an escape tunnel, a submarine, and by leaving a dead look-alike in his bunker to be discovered by the Red Army advancing on Berlin
  • US President John F. Kennedy was murdered as the result of an extremely elaborate conspiracy involving the Mafia, the Soviet Union, the CIA, and Kennedy’s vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson.       
  • And, of course, the redneck’s favorite: Bigfoot, complete with “proof” in the form of shaky videos and blurry photographs, roams the American wilderness and is seen frequently

Absurdities such as these aside, the Internet has evolved into a medium that largely uses a concept called “crowdsourcing” to promulgate information.  The idea behind crowdsourcing is that many people expounding on the same subject can create a helpful and valid body of work on that subject, one that is both exhaustive and authoritative.  And while it is possible to build such a wondrous body of knowledge on any given subject, it rarely happens. 

Crowdsourcing has not lived up to its expectations.  Research, if done at all, is dodgy and incomplete, and the veracity of source material is not questioned.  The final “product” of any crowdsourced subject may carry the weight and opinions of hundreds if not thousands of contributors.  And yet, the “facts” and conclusions drawn from them can still be wrong. 

Time and again the majority has been shown to be amazingly ignorant.  This was commonly seen on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (a once wildly popular game show that debuted several years ago).  This quiz show allowed contestants – stumped for an answer on a multiple choice question – to poll the studio audience.  There were many instances where 90% to 99% of the audience chose an answer that was incorrect.  If what the majority believes is wrong to begin with, then the “answer” (no matter how many believe it) is still wrong. 

The Yahoo! Answers web-site is another exemplar of misinformed crowdsourcing.  The site poses a question, and its readers supply answers.  Others vote on which is the “best” answer.  On almost any given day on nearly any topic this site has a “best” answer to a query that is either woefully inaccurate or totally incorrect.  Popularity doesn’t make it right.

Crowdsourcing promotes that “wrongness” for at least two key reasons.  The first is that too many writers who tackle certain subjects of genuine substance are frankly either too daunted or (more often) simply too lazy to do the real work of research and verification.  The typical Web writer will choose a topic, pull up two or three relatively related on-line articles (rarely are non-Web sources used), and effectively re-write what has already been done.  The “new” piece carries all of the factual errors, misinformation, and downright lies of its source matter.  The writer fails to question: he or she merely accepts what has been already posted as “truth” because so many before have reached similar conclusions to the topic at hand.  No insight or analysis is offered.

The other major problem with crowdsourcing is that (unlike the early and venerated Encyclopedia Britannica, for example) there is no peer review for what Web writers espouse.  Rarely, a reader may come to the fore with valuable and useful information to correct a misstatement.  Or, a reader may fill in a blank space in the narrative.  For the most part, though, most things go scholastically unchallenged and uncorrected on the Internet – anyone absurdly writing that Hitler was abducted by aliens instead of dying in his bunker will not suffer the repercussions that a professional journalist or author would.  But just because the Internet does not have such high standards does not mean anyone should continually accept and regurgitate crowdsourced information. 

Mary Ann Cotton – presumed serial poisoner – is a prime example of what is wrong with Internet “research” and “writing”.  She and her history also go toward illustrating what is wrong with the world’s ideas about class and social norms.  

And no matter how many people say it or repeat it or even believe in it (e.g.,the Amityville Horror, the Cottingley Fairies, ghosts, Bigfoot, et al), a lie cannot be turned into truth, no matter how much crowdsourcing is applied to it.

Arsenic Is Not Poisonous
Mary Ann Cotton’s current reputation is predicated on the repeated belief she poisoned using arsenic.

Arsenic (symbol As) is a semi-metallic element widely distributed in nature.  It is a member of the same elemental group that includes phosphorous, antimony, and bismuth.  Arsenic appears in trace amounts in many foods, such as the potato.  It is rarely found free in nature; it combines with other substances forming arsenical compounds easily.  Arsenical compounds were known to the early Greeks who used them as pigments.  The same compounds were familiar to the ancient Egyptians who used them in producing metal alloys.

Pure arsenic is not poisonous.  That bears emphasis: pure arsenic is not poisonous.  It is some arsenical compounds that are poisonous.

Compounds of arsenic have been used variously over the centuries as ingredients in medicines and for commercial use.  For some people – gourmands and others known as “arsenic eaters” – it was a salting on food.  The two most commonly available arsenical compounds recognized for their commercial potential and used early in human industrial efforts were arsenic trioxide (As2O3) and arsenic pentoxide (As2O5).

Elemental arsenic & arsenic trioxideCredit: stock images; composite & captioning by author

Arsenic trioxide, the most important industrial-use arsenical compound, is a white, crystalline, gritty powder.  Arsenic trioxide is the main source for almost all other commercially produced arsenical compounds.  It is known by the common names “white arsenic” or simply “arsenic”.  It formed the base for many weed killers.  It was also the active ingredient in “Paris green” (an early insecticide), and it found use as a fixative (a “mordant”) for textile dyes.  Taxidermists and museum curators used it to preserve hides.

Arsenic trioxide is extremely poisonous.  It is only slightly soluble in water, leaving more behind as residue than would be ingested through a liquid tainted with it (such as tea, the medium by which her accusers allege Mary Ann Cotton poisoned her victims).  It dissolves better in concentrated sulfuric acid, and it does dissolve readily in alkaline solutions.

The other better known compound, arsenic pentoxide, is not uniform in appearance.  It is a white amorphous material, and unlike its near-relative arsenic trioxide, it does readily and completely dissolve freely in water, creating another compound, arsenic acid (2H3AsO4).  And, just like arsenic trioxide, arsenic pentoxide is extremely poisonous.

A third compound (CuHAsO3, a green precipitate) was known as “Scheele’s green”.  This material was once used as a pigment for tinting wallpaper.  Its use was discontinued after many years because it was traced as the clear cause of many cases of chronic arsenical poisoning.

Arsenical compounds were used to treat leukemia and psoriasis.  And, like metals such as mercury, arsenic was once also used in treating syphilis (with an arsenic-based compound called “arsphenamine”).

“I done been pizened!”
Arsenic poisoning” should more properly be termed “arsenical compound poisoning” because pure arsenic is not poisonous.  However, common use of the word “arsenic” when referring to any arsenical compound (most often arsenic trioxide) means the lay person cannot distinguish between the two terms.  Regardless, there are two medically defined types of arsenical poisoning, acute and chronic. 

The acute form occurs when a person ingests a toxic quantity of a poisonous substance over a very short period.  Symptoms appear promptly and the victim dies within three days.  However, the limited time before death is horrific.  The process starts with a feeling of dryness and constriction of the throat, difficulty in swallowing, and epigastric pain.  Nausea and vomiting may follow.  Then, diarrhea sets in accompanied by severe colicky pains.  Delirium, weak pulse, convulsions, and/or general paralysis lead to death. 

The chronic case of arsenical poisoning may perhaps be more insidious.  Death is lingering if it happens.  [And in one infamous case in the US a mother slowly poisoned her own daughter for years.  Starting in her early teens, the girl was always sickly and weak, and doctors could not find what ailed her until she was an adult.  Though she survived the experience, it left the young woman debilitated, sickly most of her life, frail, and with stunted growth.]

Chronic arsenical poisoning is a frequent, though often unrecognized, result of continued absorption of small amounts of arsenic through the gastro-intestinal or respiratory tracts.  One way this cumulative action occurs is from inhalation of dust of arsenic-containing dyes whether from textiles (as in a mill) or from old wallpaper tinted with Scheele’s green.  It can also come from eating foods sprayed with arsenic-based insecticides or weed killers.  Today, most textile manufacturers use products other than arsenicals for “fixing” dyes.  This leaves ingestion of foods (fruits and vegetables) sprayed with arsenicals as the main non-deliberate source of chronic arsenical poisoning for most clinical cases.

There are three distinct variants of chronic arsenical poisoning.  One consists of symptoms of irritation of the gastro-intestinal and upper respiratory tract.  Another type presents with over-growth of the keratin skin-structures, with the development of numerous warts, ridges on the fingernails, peeling of the skin, and coarseness of the hair.  The last form manifests itself in inflammation of the peripheral nerves, causing weakness and loss of sensation in the wrists and ankles. 

Undiagnosed and untreated, chronic arsenical poisoning leads to palsies, lethargy, and apathy.  Death may occur given enough time; the victim, already debilitated, usually succumbs to a more opportunistic infection or by “wasting away” (failure to thrive).

Chronic poisoning was mostly relieved by removing the source of the arsenical compound from the patient’s environment and letting Nature take its course.  It was only during World War II that an antidote to arsenical poisoning was discovered.  The original research was intended to find a remedy for injuries caused to soldiers exposed to the arsenic-containing nerve gas, Lewisite. 

The substance discovered was called British anti-lewisite (BAL).  BAL became used for treating not only the victims of Lewisite nerve gas attacks but for those who “took the cure” (a euphemism for the protocols of syphilis relief in the days before penicillin was discovered) and were exposed to too many heavy metals in the process. [And the development of the pre-marital blood test was for no other reason than to find if one or the other partner had syphilis.  The “cure” (before penicillin) was lengthy, and many people failed to complete the protocols and had not been cured, or failed to disclose they had ever contracted it, or simply lied outright.  The blood test at least allowed disclosure to forewarn a potential spouse.] 

And finally, arsenic poisoning mimics symptoms of other heavy metal poisonings.  Mercury poisoning produces palsied shaking and trembling.  In the haberdashery trade of the Victorian-era, mercury was used to treat beaver pelts in the making of beaver felt for hats.  Long term exposure to mercury and its vapors left workers with trembling hands, muscular tics, and the delirium of mild psychosis.  The “hatter’s disease”, whose source was then unclear, spawned the phrase, “mad as a hatter”.  It also informed the character of The Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) classic Alice in Wonderland.  [Gold poisoning causes nearly identical symptoms.]

Presumption of Guilt: Insurance Fraud
When recreating Mary Ann Cotton’s biography, with the focus on the later allegations of her being a serial poisoner, most modern writers assume, from the start, she was guilty.  This is because no one is willing to consider that a gross miscarriage of justice may have been perpetrated in her case or willing to tackle the research necessary to raise the issue.

Death was a very well-known fact of life to the Victorians, and in particular it was a constant visitor upon the households of the working classes.  They were impoverished, malnourished, lived in appalling conditions with regard to sanitation and personal hygiene, and their jobs were hazardous.  With these harsh realities in mind, life insurance could mean the difference between destitution and survival.

Those who like to claim Mary Ann murdered her loved ones for the insurance money point out that she collected death benefits in several cases from policies.  Claims are made that she took out insurance behind her husbands’ backs or without the knowledge of others. 

Except for the years she spent in Cornwall, England (1852-1860), Mary Ann, her brood, and husbands all lived most of their lives in the mining towns of northeastern England in County Durham near Newcastle (to the near north in Northumberland County).  There was no such thing as mine safety – on any given day, a man may go to work in a mine and not come home.  [This happened to Mary Ann’s father when she was nine – he fell 150 feet down a shaft and was killed.] 

Life insurance had only recently been made affordable for the lesser classes.  Previously, insurance underwriters would not have wanted to issue policies on such people with hazardous jobs and living conditions guaranteeing short life spans (a bad financial investment – such policies would not translate into many premiums in the coffers before having to be used to pay out on an early death).

Over the years 1852 to 1860, Mary Ann saw all of five of her children born up to that date die either in infancy (failure to thrive) or as toddlers from diseases.  Three more children died in 1864, 1865, and 1867.  This was not an uncommon thing as infant mortality rates were high; England was also in the throes of a developing influenza epidemic in the 1850s that raged later in the century. 

Mary Ann’s first husband was named William Mowbray.  He and Mary Ann had been married for about 13 years before he died of typhus (a common and deadly disease).  He was only 39 years old.  He had taken out life insurance on himself sometime before – as a miner knowing the hazards of his job, he knew he needed to provide for his family upon his demise. 

She claimed a £35 death benefit.  While this (equivalent to about $4000 US today) was a windfall, it represented only six months’ wages for the average working class man in her day.  [This is hardly the fortune worth killing over, and there seems to be nothing collected on the eight children she had with Mowbray (one, a girl, died just a few months after him, possibly having contracted typhus from the father).]  

Mary Ann’s remaining child, a girl named Isabella Mowbray, was farmed out to Mary Ann’s mother before Mary Ann met George Ward.  Ward was an engineer and a patient when she met him at an infirmary where she worked.  The pair married in August 1865.  Ward was never hale and hearty during the marriage.  He continued to decline after brief periods of seeming recovery.  He died in October 1866, the last five days of his life spent in a coma after malingering a couple of weeks.  He was 33.  His doctor cleared his death certificate: “English Cholera and Typhoid fevers, death resulting after 14 days”.  Mary Ann collected on whatever insurance Ward had (again, a small sum, not a fortune).

Mary Ann then met a shipwright (a carpenter who repaired ships and helped construct them) named James Robinson.  His wife had died in December 1866 of tuberculosis leaving him with five children, including one that was ill.  Mary Ann hired on as his housekeeper, and three days later his sick infant son (10 months old) died from “infantile convulsions”.  She and Robinson became intimate in the wake of the baby’s death, and she was pregnant by February 1867.

Her mother became deathly ill in March 1867, and Mary Ann went to tend to her.  Nine days later the woman died at the age of 54.  Mary Ann apparently collected nothing from her mother’s death – the woman had married a man named George Stott in 1843 after Mary Ann’s father died.  Thus, there was no material motive to kill her mother.

Taking her daughter Isabella with her, Mary Ann went back to James Robinson’s household.  A month later two of his children and her own Isabella died.  No insurance moneys were transacted in Mary Ann’s favor here – Robinson would have been the beneficiary for his children and it doesn’t appear there was anything on Isabella. 

She and James Robinson finally married in August 1867.  The baby she carried was born in November 1867, but the infant girl died in March 1868.  Again, if there had been any insurance on the child, James Robinson, as head of the household, would have likely been the beneficiary and not Mary Ann.  Another baby girl was born into the household in the spring of 1869.

Much has been repeated about James Robinson’s alleged upset over Mary Ann’s insistence that he take out life insurance on himself.  Considering she had seen two husbands die on her, and Robinson had experienced the deaths of his wife and some of his own children as well, it was a reasonable and sensible request.  But it wasn’t her alleged badgering over life insurance that led to their separation.  She had run up heavy debts and had allegedly taken £50 Robinson had entrusted her to bank and squandered it.  This, too, was not enough of an offense for him to put her out of his life.  The end for their relationship came when he discovered Mary Ann had been putting his two remaining children up to taking valuables from the home and pawning them, turning the proceeds over to Mary Ann.

He threw her out.  She took her last biological child with her when she left. 

From her marriage to Robinson, she netted perhaps £60 worth of consumer goods and services and the £50 he alleged she “stole” in addition to the small change garnered from hocking household goods.  Again, these quantities are not enough to murder over, and she did not receive a penny of insurance money in the deaths of Robinson’s children.

Mary Ann lived on the streets for awhile, giving up her baby girl for placement. A friend, Margaret Cotton, made an introduction of Mary Ann to her brother, Frederick Cotton.  He was a coal miner and a widower with two children already dead.  Two more children remained in his (and Margaret Cotton’s) care.  Mary Ann came into the Cotton household first as his housekeeper.

Close quarters bred familiarity, and Mary Ann was pregnant by February 1870.  Margaret Cotton) Frederick’s sister, died of a stomach ailment in March 1870.  Though Mary Ann was still married to her third husband, James Robinson (Mary Ann and he had not gotten a divorce) she and Frederick Cotton married (bigamously) in a church in September 1870.  Her baby by him was born around that time, and on October 3, 1870, Mary Ann took out a life insurance policy on the boy they named Robert Robson Cotton.

The Cottons moved to West Auckland in the middle of Durham County.  In December 1871, Frederick Cotton died of a gastrointestinal illness.  Mary Ann collected a sum upon his death. 

If Mary Ann Cotton was indeed a murder-for-profit opportunist she was very bad at it.  The amounts she received were small, and upon her husband’s death, she had to take in lodgers in their home to make ends meet. 

One of these was a very ill man named Joseph Nattrass.  He had been ejected from his lodgings down the street from her place because his landlord (a family man named George Shaw) needed more room in the home.  Nattrass and Mary Ann became fast friends and perhaps casual lovers as well. 

Shortly after Nattrass became part of her household, her step-son, Frederick Cotton, Jr., and her son by James Robinson (Robert) both died toward the end of March 1872. The only child left in the house was step-son Charles Edward Cotton.  Nattrass’ condition worsened, and he died of Bright’s disease (a kidney ailment he’d suffered long-term) in April 1872.  He was 35.

Before he died he called two friends to attest his wishes that Mary Ann receive his worldly goods.  Upon his death, she got those items: a watch and fob, his clothes, and a small sum of money he’d tucked away in a trust account.

Mary Ann found work at an infirmary.  There she struck up a sexual relationship with a married man named Quickmanning who was a patient recovering from smallpox.  She became pregnant with his child the same month Nattrass died.  When Quickmanning recovered and no longer needed care, Mary Ann was approached by a local official to see if she wanted other work.

Thomas Riley was the assistant coroner, and he knew of a woman with smallpox who needed nursing.  He was aware of Mary Ann’s experience of late handling such cases, and he came to her with a job offer.  During their conversation she said that her remaining step-son (7 years old) had been sickly.  He was attended by two partners, Drs. Chalmers and Kilburn.  These physicians were treating the boy for symptoms they diagnosed as tuberculosis.  Mary Ann had been given medicines from them to administer, and she also tended to him herself.

She commented to Riley, though, that the boy was becoming a burden with the household’s financial situation very poor as it was.  She asked if it was possible to commit him to a workhouse.  Riley told her that wasn’t possible unless she went, too, as an indigent.  To that, Mary Ann made an off-the-cuff remark that would end her life: “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”

Charles Edward Cotton died five days later in July 1872.  His body was placed on the home’s kitchen table and examined by his doctors.  They pronounced him dead of natural causes. 

Riley, recalling her desire to be shed of the boy and her remark about “I won’t be troubled long”, was suspicious of the boy’s death and alerted police.  He also cajoled the boy’s doctors into not issuing a death certificate yet (necessary for Mary Ann to collect death benefits). 

At a second inquest hearing, the boy’s body was exhumed.  Mary Ann was questioned extensively and her history (of many dead children and husbands) was revealed.  She said that outside the medicines the doctors had prescribed for the boy, the only thing she had given him was arrowroot.  [This was a common, easily digested starchy substance, derived from the plant of the same name – it is from this tapioca is derived.]  Also in her testimony she said the reason Thomas Riley, Assistant Coroner, had instigated this newer proceeding was because she refused his sexual advances. 

The inquest found the cause of death was as originally determined by Dr. Kilburn: “not suspicious”.

No Peace
The press and public got hold of the details of Mary Ann’s life (four husbands, many dead children, insurance payouts) and made her into a monster in the eyes of society though there was no proof she had committed any murders, let alone any other crimes such as insurance fraud. A sinister agenda was ascribed to her – because of her nursing experience, many believed, she was able to diabolically use poison to simulate the symptoms of other diseases and thus fool doctors and insurance companies alike.  Arsenic poisoning seemed the most likely as it was readily available to the masses in household goods and some patent medicines.  

At her second inquest, Dr. Kilburn (who, with his assistant, Dr. Chalmers, had attended her step-son in his illness) had taken some internal organ tissue samples for later testing if necessary.  He buried these in his back yard “for safekeeping”.  As soon as the public outcry against Mary Ann kicked up, he dug up his materials and had them tested.  The samples contained arsenic traces.

Public agitation and the detection of arsenic in the samples led to Mary Ann’s arrest for murder in July 1872.

A search of her house by police, led by Sgt. Thomas Hutchinson, failed to produce any arsenic or arsenic-containing materials.  And though Charles Edward Cotton had been given medicines for Mary Ann to use on him, no empty medicine bottles turned up, either.

The pregnant Mary Ann was remanded to the Durham jail.  Trial start was suspended until after she gave birth.  Her baby’s father, Quickmanning, quickly decamped for his wife and home in the Darlington area (in southern Durham County), avoiding reporters and Mary Ann alike.  In the wake of her arrest the press went wild, fabricating lurid and salacious details of a cold-blooded sexual predator that seduced and murdered for gain.

Bad Medicine
Mary Ann gave birth to a baby girl in prison in January 1873. Her trial, due to some administrative delays, did not start until March 5, 1873.

The prosecution’s case rested on the presumption that Mary Ann was guilty of murder.  Though she was only charged with the murder of Charles Edward Cotton, other “evidence” of past murders was produced.

Dr. Thomas Scattergood, attached to the Leeds School of Medicine, was the prosecution’s star witness.  Among the items confiscated for testing from her home were her cooking utensils andDr. Thomas ScattergoodCredit: public domain some other kitchen ware.  These items, according to Scattergood, contained no traces of arsenic. 

He helpfully (and inadvertently) pointed out that if Mary Ann had used any of the household goods tested for administering poison traces would have been found.  His claim was that she, as a lay person, had not the means to thoroughly remove such evidence – he said he personally would have been hard-pressed, though he could do it, to remove such traces thoroughly with the means at his disposal.  [This should have gone in favor of the defense.  The clear implication was she had not used anything in her home to dispense poison.]

To quell concerns about the provenance of the items taken as actually belonging to Mary Ann, Sgt. Hutchinson had displayed them and asked neighbors to come and have a look.  Some Sgt. Thomas HutchinsonCredit: public domain; photomanipulation by authorpositively identified two teapots of Mary Ann’s, saying she used them often.  [Thus, what were established as her teapots, flatware, and pots and pans, according to the testimony of Dr. Scattergood, could not have been used to poison anyone.]

Charles was under the care of two doctors at the time of his death.  Medicines (liquid preparations) had been given for Mary Ann to dispense.  Testimony revealed some interesting possibilities. 

Arsenical compounds were present in some medicines, and other applications required stronger concentrations of the substance.  The storage area from which the boy’s doctors got their preparations was supposed to be segregated, with arsenical compounds separated from the more common, and presumably less noxious, ingredients.  Testimony given by Dr. Kilburn revealed confusion about whether or not anything poisonous could have been handed over to Mary Ann to inadvertently dose the boy with.  He stated bottles with arsenicals were in a secure place on a specific shelf of his surgery rooms, well away from the ordinary medications.

His partner, Dr. Chalmers, though, told a different story on the stand.  While he concurred that arsenicals were segregated he thought the location of their shelf was actually very near the shelves of “regular” medicines, as close as being on a shelf below the non-toxic items. 

The implication from this contradictory testimony is that Mary Ann may have indeed poisoned her step-son with an arsenical compound, but it was done in error.  The conclusion to draw is that one or the other doctor (likely Kilburn for reasons to be seen) grabbed the wrong bottle, and the boy could have been poisoned that way (at Mary Ann’s hands, but not her fault).

In support of this, it was known Mary Ann had medicine bottles on hand from the boy’s illness when she was charged.  Sgt. Thomas Hutchinson reported two material pieces of eyewitness testimony about the search of her home.  First, he said that Dr. Kilburn had been present in her house when the search was conducted.  In his words: “I think that he [Dr. Kilburn] took some of the empty medicine bottles away.” Dr. Kilburn rebutted, “I removed nothing from the house except what was sent to the forensic examiner Dr. Scattergood, I took no bottles away, which had any medicine in them.”

There are some points to consider in Sgt. Hutchinson’s and Dr. Kilburn’s testimony.  Hutchinson reported Kilburn was to have gathered up medicine bottles for submission to Dr. Scattergood for analysis, and he believed Kilburn had done so – Hutchinson turned up no empties in his search of her home.  However, Scattergood never got any such bottles among the other household items to be tested, and thus, there could be no evidence analyzed as to their former contents.

Kilburn, in a subtle semantics issue, stated he took no bottles away “which had any medicine in them”.  This statement is truthful, not perjury, if he had only taken away empty bottles that, of course, would not have medicine in them.  The implication here, not addressed at trial, is that Kilburn saw, to his horror, an empty medicine bottle or two that clearly were labeled for poisonous material – given over in error – and he removed them and disposed of them without their being tested, all to divert a malpractice issue.

Beyond the trace arsenic being found in Charles Edward Cotton’s body (and in a couple of others introduced later in the trial), there was no evidence to support Mary Ann Cotton as having poisoned anyone.

Apothecary Man
In mid 19th Century, British law required anyone buying arsenical compounds to sign a records’ book at the point of purchase.  This was a means of tracking sales of potentially lethal materials.  Furthermore, the person signing the book had to have another person witness his or her signature by signing as well. 

Many of the working class were plagued with head and body lice and fleas, and most slept with bedbugs as companions.  To keep these pests to a minimum a home remedy had been concocted.  This was s soft soap into which arsenic (more likely the arsenical compound, arsenic trioxide) had been mixed.  People used it to wash their personal and bed linens, their lousy heads, and to scrub away bedbugs. 

A major problem facing the prosecution was no one could even confirm Mary Ann had ever purchased arsenic in any form.  They needed a smoking gun and had none.  In perhaps her trial’s lowest moments, an eyewitness to such a purchase was produced.  This man, Thomas Detchon, had been a chemist’s assistant at a shop in Newcastle. 

Thomas Detchon appeared in court with his employer’s “poison” book (the registry log) in hand.  Using the book as reference, he testified that over four years earlier on January 21, 1869, between the hours of 2 PM and 3 PM a woman had entered his employer’s shop.  She asked for “three pennies” of soft soap and arsenic.

He asked for what she wanted the soap.  The woman said it was to clean buggy beds and linen.  Detchon noted she had come in alone and, therefore, would have no independent witness to attest the purchase.  He told her he couldn’t sell her the arsenic and instead offered up an alternative that didn’t contain it and which didn’t need such government oversight.  The woman told Detchon that she preferred the arsenic problem-solver, and she left.  She came back later with another woman, named Elizabeth Robson.  The customer was given an ounce of arsenic and an ounce-and-a-half of soap, totaling six pence.  She signed the poison book: “Mary Ann Booth”.  Elizabeth Robson witnessed Booth’s signature with an “X” (the mark of the illiterate). 

Mary Ann Cotton had never been named “Booth”.  Regardless, Detchon pointed at Mary Ann in the courtroom and said she was indeed the woman who had bought arsenic from him more than four years ago.

This was what the prosecution needed to hear: Mary Ann Cotton, a/k/a, Mary Ann Booth, had once bought arsenic! And Detchon’s was the only instance of a provable arsenic purchase made by anyone named Mary Ann.

Detchon’s testimony is laughable in retrospect.

Out of the gate, it was known Mary Ann Cotton lived in Sunderland in County Durham on the coast of the North Sea in January 1869 with her third husband, James Robinson.  She was Sunderland (England) & environs mapCredit: American Peoples Encyclopedia, 1963; framing, adulteration by authornearly 6 months pregnant with their last child at the time.  Sunderland was a relatively large town; Mary Ann, unless she clearly intended to do harm and wanted to avoid suspicion in her place of residence, would have had absolutely no need or cause to travel the roughly 10 miles (as the crow flies) northeast to Newcastle to make such a purchase.  Furthermore, any traveling she would have done in her day, considering where the family lived and their means, would likely have been done on foot.  It doesn’t seem reasonable for a heavily pregnant woman to walk over 20 miles round-trip to get something she could have found in her own city.

It is presumed that the Court was familiar with what Detchon meant when he said “arsenic”, but today it is unclear.  It was unspecified.   If the “arsenic” was elemental arsenic, it is not poisonous to humans.  If the material sold was arsenic trioxide that, of course, is very poisonous but barely soluble in water, though it is soluble in soap, an alkaline.  The best conclusion is Detchon meant arsenic trioxide.  And how to poison someone with soap, short of making him or her eat it, was not brought out at trial – arsenic trioxide would not dissolve properly in tea, the prosecution’s working theory of administering the poison. 

Another thing Detchon failed to notice about this woman of January 21, 1869: Mary Ann Cotton was about 5½ months along in her pregnancy with hers and James Robinson’ last child.  Detchon didn’t mention his customer was visibly pregnant.

Finally, Elizabeth Robson was called to the stand.  Under oath, she stated categorically that the woman for whom she witnessed a signature was indeed a Mary Ann Booth, and the Booth woman was most certainly not Mary Ann Cotton.  Elizabeth’s assertion fell on deaf ears.  Only Detchon’s “certainty” held sway with the jury.

There are some minor points in Detchon’s testimony that could call into question one thing not  noted at the time, but certainly would have gone against Mary Ann.  Obviously, Mary Ann could have used an alias and Elizabeth Robson was lying.  Credence to this can be gained by simply looking at Elizabeth’s surname: “Robson”.  Mary Ann Cotton had been born Mary Ann Robson.  And considering the clannish nature of the people of the coal fields, intermarrying, etc., Elizabeth Robson may very well have been a near relative, by blood or through marriage.  Thus, her credibility could be called into question.  Certainly, she could have lied for her kin.

It also would have been of great evidentiary value for the prosecution if Detchon could have stated that “Mary Ann Booth” was obviously pregnant when he saw her.  Not mentioning his customer’s maternal condition should not go against him, however.  Considering the voluminous clothing worn by women of Mary Ann’s day, the clerk’s failure to notice whether or not a female customer was pregnant could be forgiven. 

But one thing that could have resolved the matter satisfactorily apparently never even entered anyone’s mind when it could have been readily addressed.  Detchon testified in court with his shop’s “poison” book – signed by Mary Ann Booth – in his possession.  Mary Ann Cotton could write; samples of her signature could have been easily produced. [One such sample is includedMary Ann Cotton, known signatureCredit: murderpedia.com; from Oct 1870 insurance application here from the insurance policy she took out on infant Robert Robson Cotton, on October 3, 1870.]  All the defense had to do was ask for a quick comparison between Mary Ann’s known signature and that of “Mary Ann Booth” as signed in Detchon’s poison book.  Even a casual inspection might have been able to exclude her, but it wasn’t done.  [And if an image of this book’s relevant page or the book itself could ever be inspected it would speak volumes one way or another.]

“How’d it get in there?”
The critical question for the lay person, if Mary Ann Cotton did not use an arsenical compound to poison those around her, is “How did arsenic find its way into any dead bodies?”

Most of Mary Ann’s alleged victims were buried in the manner of the lower classes. Embalming was just becoming popular by the late 1860s, but was financially out of reach for the working poor.   Most would be lucky to get a wooden casket.  Many, however, were buried wrapped in shrouding.  Others may have gone into the ground with no protections between them and the earth.  As arsenic is found in soil, it could easily have washed into any buried body, finding its way into much of the body’s tissues.  

Charles Edward Cotton’s tissue samples included sections of internal organs.  When these tested positive for arsenic, the only conclusion drawn by the prosecution was that he had been fed the poison some time before death, and that is what killed him.

What was overlooked, or perhaps not even known then, is that arsenic and some of its compounds can be found in soil and groundwater in many places.  The fact that Dr. Kilburn buried the boy’s samples before testing (unknown how long they were in the ground) could have resulted from contamination by natural means.  [And, regardless, his actions in a modern court would not withstand scrutiny.  The samples would’ve have been subjected to too many contaminants making them worthless as evidence.]

Another very plausible theory, in light of what Sgt. Hutchinson testified to, was that Dr. Kilburn (or his partner Dr. Chalmers) had simply grabbed the wrong “medicine” from the wrong shelf, giving Mary Ann a poison instead of a curative.  She, then, would have innocently fed this to the sick child, killing him in the process.  And the disappearance of any empty medicine bottles, though specifically earmarked for analysis by Dr. Scattergood (which he never received), may point up a medical man’s negligence.

Front Street (last home of Mary Ann Cotton)Credit: public domain; adulteration by author

The defense also raised a valid – though disregarded – point that Charles may have inhaled particulate containing arsenic from the home’s bright green wallpaper.  A popular dye used to tint wallpaper was arsenic-based and traded under the name “Scheele’s green”.  And while many people exposed to arsenicals (the chronic cases) do not die, any mild arsenic poisoning, along with his tubercular condition, may have expedited his death. 

Dr. Scattergood, the prosecution’s “expert” witness, denounced the suggestion, stating it was impossible for arsenic particles to be inhaled and enter the stomach and vital organs of a human body.  [The Lancet, a widely respected academic journal, almost concurrently published findings that arsenical compounds could indeed be inhaled and absorbed into the body via mucous membranes in addition to being introduced from an open wound.  The Lancet forwarded numerous reports on the subject to British lawmakers, insisting upon a ban of all household goods containing arsenicals, including wallpaper.  It was estimated that by the early 1860s over 600 tons of Scheele’s green-dyed wallpaper had been manufactured and sold.  Later, once proven beyond doubt as a source of chronic arsenical poisoning, Scheele’s green was pulled from use.]

Finally, although Mary Ann’s body was given an examination after her death by “judicial asphyxia” no chemical analyses were performed on her remains.  Such testing, had anyone bothered to do it, likely would have turned up arsenic in her body from casual environmental ingestion (food, inhaled particulate, handling arsenical-based home cleaners and hospital materials).  If arsenic was found in her remains it could only be presumed the prosecutorial minds of her day would have concluded she was also poisoning herself along with her alleged victims to throw off suspicion. 

There remain a few other loose ends to examine in Mary Ann Cotton’s history. 

One of the first ideas to dispense with is that Mary Ann was a beguilingly beautiful siren.  She was anything but, though many Web writers continue to parrot phrases such as “seductress” or Mary Ann Cotton (Mar 24, 1873)Credit: public domain“strikingly beautiful”, or “lovely” or “exquisite” or any other adjectives referring to exceptional female beauty (contemporary press portrayals, completely unfounded).  These terms are found in on-line source material, and Web writers simply repeat them without question or thought, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  [One of the more absurd articles uncovered describes her as just such a ravishing vixen in a passage right next to her photograph!]

A picture, of course, is worth thousands of such false words, and it can bluntly be seen that Mary Ann Cotton was no Helen of Troy.  Rather than being an ephemeral vision of divinely delicate and seductive femininity, she was a plain woman with a frowsy appearance.  There was nothing bewitching about her; those descriptions were created by the press to titillate a gullible public into buying more newspapers.    

She was also not promiscuous.  She was married to all but one of her children’s fathers.  She had two lovers (Nattrass and Quickmanning, who fathered her last child).  She had neither of these men while she was married, thus ruling her out as an “adulteress” as also popularly believed. And, for all anyone knows she and Nattrass may have not had a very active sex life, considering his declining health.  The only thing known for a fact – because she turned up pregnant by him – is that she and Quickmanning had sex at least once (and perhaps, only once). 

At her trial, the prosecution alleged (through witness statements) that Mary Ann had brutally beaten her stepson four days before his death.  The beating was unimaginably severe—she allegedly used not only her hands, but her feet and knees to kick and abuse him.

If that had been true the boy’s body would have shown clear evidence of bruising and abrasions.  When Dr. Kilburn had examined Charles’ body on Mary Ann’s kitchen table his report noted nothing of the kind: no bruising, cuts, or contusions.  It was during that exam that Charles’ death was determined as “not suspicious”.  Despite official reports to the contrary, public outcry against Mary Ann was so pervasive that the jury put much weight on the alleged beating, and accepted it as a fact, contrary to what the boy’s physicians noted. 

Without blinking an eye, most current Web writers take it for granted that Mary Ann and the sickly Joseph Nattrass had a torrid and longstanding love affair.  Some claim the time span of this affair was 20 years.  [This would place the start of it in 1852, about the time of Mary Ann’s marriage to William Mowbray – Nattrass would have been about 15 years old then, making this date absurd.] 

Other purportedly reasoned sources say the affair began after her first husband’s death (this would have been after January 1865, within a few months of Mary Ann’s tending her mother in Seaham Harbour).  Nattrass, of Sunderland, allegedly was engaged (in 1865) when he and Mary Ann began an affair, but he went ahead with his wedding plans, leaving Mary Ann out in the cold.  Another source claims that Mary Ann’s movements during the rest of her life were in pursuit of him, following him wherever he went by goading her husbands into moving wherever Nattrass was.

None of this is true.  Joseph Nattrass, about five years younger than Mary Ann, was confirmed as having married in 1860 (not in 1865).  He and his wife resided in the northeastern area of Durham County, along the sea coast.  Mary Ann and William Mowbray had been living at the literal other end of England in Cornwall from 1852 to 1860 (the time she allegedly started her affair with Nattrass).  When they came back to Durham County in early 1860, the Mowbrays moved to the South Hetton area.  She had two more children with Mowbray in 1862 and 1863.  There is nothing to prove Mary Ann was dissatisfied in her marriage to Mowbray enough to seek solace in the arms of another man.  There is nothing to support claims that she knew Nattrass before he became her boarder in 1871.

The belief that the two were lovers most likely stems from Nattrass’ verbal “will” attested by two of his friends in Mary Ann’s presence.  He was genuinely appreciative of her care and in her lodging him in the first place.  He described her as “like a wife” to him.  He could have meant only that she was a good helpmate or domestic or any number of other things, not necessarily that she was performing “wifely duties” in his bed. 

Nattrass had been very ill with a diagnosis of Bright’s disease for several years before becoming Mary Ann’s lodger and possible part-time lover in 1871.  He was attended by a Dr. Richardson up to his demise.  A neighbor, Jane Hedley, helped Mary Ann in tending to Nattrass as his condition worsened.  Hedley, at Mary Ann’s trial, described Nattrass’ behavior just before death:

“. . . I saw him have fits; he was very twisted up and seemed in great agony.  He twisted his toes and his hands and worked them all ways. He drew his legs quite up.”

She further mentioned Nattrass “threw himself about”, and Mary Ann had to forcibly restrain him as he had seizures.  Dr. Richardson certified Nattrass’ death as from Bright’s disease.  The doctor also refused in court to cave in to pressure from both the prosecution and its star witness, Dr. Scattergood, to change his opinion from disease to arsenic poisoning as the cause of death. 

Mary Ann, however, may very well have killed her second husband, George Ward, accidentally.  George had been sickly when Mary Ann met him, and during the course of their brief marriage he did not regain robust health.  He began failing late in 1866. 

His attending physician, a Dr. Evans, was treating the man for cholera and typhoid fever (very similar to the disease typhus that killed her first husband, William).  Dr. Evans noted she used medical leeches on the man.  Bloodletting was a commonly applied procedure dating back centuries but still accepted in those days.  The idea was that allowing blood to flow freely released toxic agents and helped restore the body’s balance of “humors” (blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile, also known as “ichor” and “choler” respectively). 

Evans saw nothing wrong with applying leeches to the very sick Ward.  He did, however, express surprise when Ward died more quickly than Evans had thought possible.  Excessive bloodletting is dangerous.  It perhaps did not occur to Dr. Evans that Ward – described as emaciated upon his death – might have been hastened to the grave by this accepted medical practice.

Leeches were obtained from doctors.  These were loaned out as needed, and when “full”, they were traded for fresh specimens.  Thus, medical leeches rotated around a community.  Mary Ann’s leeches, used on George, were never reported as mysteriously dying – if she had been poisoning him, it would stand to reason that her borrowed leeches would be poisoned as well.

A word about her last lover (whom Mary Ann believed was named “John Quick-Mann” or “John Quick-Manning” or “John Quickmanning”) is also necessary.  A more intrepid on-line source actually took the time to attempt research into a brief biography of this man.  However, under that name, no information was developed.  Reviews of records, though, turned up a Richard Quick Mann as a likely candidate for the enigmatic John Quickmanning.  This man was a custom-and-excise officer, specializing in breweries, and it is plausible that Richard, a married man, had given Mary Ann a false name. 

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Mary Ann Robson Mowbray Robinson Cotton was hanged in a badly botched execution (in which she strangled to death over several minutes) on March 24, 1873.  Her baby girl, born in prison and named Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton, was taken away from Mary Ann five days before her execution.  The infant was placed for adoption.

A review of Mary Ann Cotton’s case only points to one thing: a grave miscarriage of justice was committed.  The physical evidence brought forth was tainted.  Hearsay and conjecture were allowed.  And reasonable science was dismissed because a professor (Scattergood) didn’t believe certain physical realties (such as inhaling arsenic could cause the substance to find its way into a body’s organs).

The “eyewitness” testimony, too, was hopelessly flawed and should have been weighed more carefully.  Thomas Detchon, if this were truly a fair trial with an impartial judge and jury, could only truthfully testify that a woman claiming to be a Mary Ann Booth had bought an arsenical compound in his shop four years ago, and she was accompanied by a woman named Elizabeth Robson.  That is all he could have testified to, and it was irrelevant to Mary Ann’s trial in the death of Charles Edward Cotton as “evidence”.  [Not brought out in court was that no one in Mary Ann’s life died during the entire year of 1869.  If she had bought arsenic from Detchon, and if her intent was murder, she waited a long time—15 months—to use it: the next death attributed to her was of her friend, Margaret Cotton, in March 1870.]

The neighbor, Jane Hedley, described Nattrass’ death scene.  Using the terms she did (which can match those of anyone in the final stages of many a debilitating and terminal illness) her testimony was subverted into a certainty that his symptoms matched those of arsenic poisoning (though Dr. Richardson insisted the man died of Bright’s disease).  

Dr. Kilburn’s and Dr. Chalmers’ confusion and conflicting accounts about exactly where in their surgery they kept arsenical compounds can lead to reasonable doubt.  Mary Ann could have been given poison accidentally by one or the other of them, and she innocently fed it to the ailing child.  Sgt. Hutchinson’s belief that Kilburn had collected empty medicine bottles for Scattergood’s analysis, with Scattergood never receiving them, tends to show Kilburn may have guiltily disposed of them.

And her jury, not sequestered and already having formed a negative opinion of her from a rabidly slavering press and a gossiping public (she was a vixen, she was a killer, she was an Mary Ann Cotton (endpiece)adulteressCredit: public domain; photomanipulation by author, she killed for profit, etc.), had already made up their minds.  To them she was guilty because of circumstance and negative popular opinion. 

The “reasonable doubt” standard was not applied in her case.  The only thing that can be said about her trial beyond a reasonable doubt is that it was a travesty. 

This is a woman whose life was filled with tragedies beyond the ken of most.  Based solely on what is factually known, not supposed or presumed, she killed no one by arsenical compound poisoning.  And thanks to an early version of populist networking – print and word-of-mouth – facts of her early life were confused and sensationalized; newspapers, in a frenzy to capture readers, dispensed much false or confused information.  Furthermore, her neighbors vilified her based on what they heard. 

Thanks to shabby justice, Mary Ann Cotton’s contemporaries literally crowdsourced her to an undeserved death, struggling and strangling at the end of an executioner’s rope. 


Part 1: Presumed Serial Poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton

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