Mary Ann of the Multiple Men
Part 1 of a 2-part case history & review of accused serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing;
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
- doggerel from 1873
Miscarriages of justice can be found in all societies. Commonly, these judicial errors are uncovered only when it is too late—the alleged “criminal” had been executed by the state, either days or years before.
A very plain and cowed Victorian-era British woman may have been such a victim. She was tried in the court of public opinion of poisoning not only three husbands and a lover but many of her own children and step-children as well. The deaths laid at her doorstep numbered 21.
And though she was publicly hanged in 1873, there is enough evidence to call into question the conviction of alleged serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton.
A prime example leading up to mucky justice was the murder of the pregnant Beryl Evans and her infant daughter in a shoddy London flat at 10 Rillington Place (in London’s Notting Hill
As an adolescent, Christie was humiliated by a failed first sexual encounter with a girl. He had been unable to “perform” with her, and when word spread he was taunted with nicknames such as “Reggie No-Dick” and “Can’t-Do-It Christie”. The shame stayed with him the rest of his life leading to chronic impotence. As an adult, Christie could not sustain arousal with a conscious woman (one who could jeer at his lack of “manliness”) or one who was not a prostitute. His dumpy, unsexed wife didn’t seem to mind overly much; she assumed his impotence was a lingering disability from when he was gassed in World War I.
He murdered several female acquaintances as well as prostitutes starting in 1943 by strangulation at first, then later by using a contrived “medical device” that dispensed coal gas from the grubby flat’s gas line. [Crudely processed from burning coal, the domestic gas contained a 15% carbon monoxide content and was used for cooking and had once fueled interior lighting.] Once the women were in a stupor or unconscious from the gas, Christie strangled and sexually assaulted them. [He developed the gassing idea when his first victim put up enough of a fight while he strangled her that she nearly escaped.] The first two victims were temporarily stashed away before being planted in the back yard.
In December 1952, he killed his own wife whom he concealed beneath the floorboards of their living room. He murdered three more women in early 1953, raping their unconscious bodies as they died. Running out of space in the postage-stamp sized back lot, he cached these in a small unused pantry in the back wall of his kitchen, later wallpapering over it to disguise it.
What Reginald Christie could not conceal was the stench of rotting corpses. Neighbors complained of the smells coming from his rooms, Christie moved out in March 1953, and the new tenants discovered his grisly collection. He was found, arrested, tried, and executed for his crimes, hanging on July 15, 1953.
During the course of Christie’s trial it became painfully evident that Beryl Evans’ husband, Timothy, hadn’t killed her and their daughter (or anyone, for that matter). The mildly retarded and trusting Evans had been easily coerced into incriminating himself for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1965, stubbornly refusing to admit the obvious (Christie had confessed to killing Beryl but not the child) a British justice opined in a new inquest that Evans most “probably” killed his wife, Beryl, but not their daughter. This opinion held sway in 1966 when Evans was given a full posthumous pardon for the murder of his 13-month old child (though still on record as suspected of killed Beryl, Evans’ condemnation to death was for the child’s murder only).
Timothy Evans’ case, though, was a clear-cut and easily proved example of an innocent bystander getting caught up in a serial killer’s web of deceit and paying the ultimate price. Other cases, however, are not as readily resolved as the Timothy Evans’ debacle.
Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain and her husband, young children, and 9-week-old infant (Azaria Chamberlain) all spent a holiday camping near Ayers Rock (officially known as Uluru/Ayers Rock since 2002) in August 1980.
During the night, the baby girl was taken away from the camp; Lindy swore “a dingo stole my baby”. [The phrase entered pop culture over the years, altered to “the dingo ate my baby”, as a graveyard-humor excuse for why something unfortunate happened to an innocent person (along the lines of the classic “the dog ate my homework” ploy tried by countless school children in history).]
No one believed Lindy’s story of a dingo, an Australian wild dog, making off with her baby, though she had seen the animal leaving their tent. The baby’s jumper was recovered several thousand yards away from the campsite in the outback, and overly zealous prosecutors took the blood-stained puncture marks around the neck of the garment for stab wounds from a sharp object, such as an ice pick. The body was never found.
The Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists, an apocalyptic Christian sect. It is possible religious prejudices of the Australian masses and Australian authorities played a nasty hand in what followed.
A first inquest placed no guilt on the Chamberlains for the baby’s disappearance, but this finding was quashed by Australia’s Supreme Court thanks to publicity. Lindy and her husband were suddenly under suspicion in the baby girl’s disappearance.
Lindy was a shrinking violet and not dynamic enough to press her case vigorously, though she did maintain her innocence. The couple’s religious persuasion—Seventh-day Adventists—also made them suspect in the public’s mind.
The second inquest was based on purely circumstantial material and conjecture by authorities (which offered up a very contrived theory of the murder involving much staging and effort by the Chamberlains to make it appear as if the baby had been taken by a dingo).
Lindy was charged with murder; her husband, Michael, was charged as an accessory. Lindy was convicted and sentenced to life in prison (where she gave birth to the couple’s fourth child in November 1982).
In 1986, based on new evidence found in the wilderness—the baby’s jacket, not located during the original search—coupled with the fact the infant’s item of clothing was found adjacent to a dingo lair led to a review of the case.
The new evidence did not answer the question of what happened to the baby, but it did cast doubt and ultimately absolved both Lindy and her husband in 1988, and an acquittal was filed. Lindy was released from prison.
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain divorced in 1991, and in 1992 she married an American named Richard Creighton.
A third inquest in 1995 to answer what happened failed to resolve the open issue of the baby’s disappearance.
In 2012, a fourth inquest with better forensic examination and additional physical evidence brought out the truth: a dingo really had taken Lindy’s baby. By then, it didn’t matter; her daughter was still dead, her first marriage was destroyed, she had been imprisoned for three years, she was reviled as a monster, and her life had been turned upside down.
But at least Lindy Chamberlain did not lose her life.
In 1909, Martha Rendell (b: 1871) went to the gallows in Western Australia for allegedly poisoning three of her five “step” children with hydrochloric acid.
The children were those of
Morris decided to decamp for Western Australia, which was in the clutches of a gold rush. Martha left Adelaide and followed the him and his family like a lovesick cow (abandoning her own three illegitimate children by three different fathers) when he moved his wife and brood to the wilds of Australia’s west coast.
There, Thomas finally left his legal wife, and he and Martha established a household together.
Morris’ five children lived with him and Martha, their new “step” mother (the couple had not married as Thomas failed to get a divorce from his lawful wife). They lived in squalor in an East Perth shack; with a diphtheria epidemic raging through the poverty-stricken squat-lands of the Western Australia gold rush settlements, three of the children succumbed to the disease from July 1907 to October 1908.
Suspicious over the deaths of the children, local authorities contrived a case against the homely home-wrecker, Martha Rendell.
A commoner’s home remedy for sore-throat relief (a diphtheria symptom) was painting the back of the throat with a solution of hydrochloric acid (called “spirits of salts”). Authorities used this as circumstantial evidence to claim she slowly poisoned the children. She was convicted of murder; Martha Rendell was executed by hanging (the last woman executed in the state of Western Australia).
A review of her case history tends to support her assertion that the children died of disease and not her murdering them. Her trial was poorly and unprofessionally conducted, and judicial reversible error was myriad (if anyone ever takes the time to posthumously act on her behalf).
Martha was more a victim of social prejudices. Morris could not divorce because it was a scandalous thing, nearly impossible during those years in ultra-conservative Australia. Thus, as an interloper in the Morris marital bed, Martha was a “sinner” by public standards.
Secondly, they were very poor, Martha was uneducated, and with three children she had abandoned back in Adelaide, she was considered callous and selfish.
And, finally, Martha was not a sympathetic woman—she was adulterous, she was surly, unattractive, and slovenly.
Societal prejudices are what helped convict her and condemn her to death on the flimsiest of coincidences. Her “loose morals” by the day’s standards were what led Martha Rendell to the gallows, not murder.
Her case has not been seriously revisited by Australian authorities; Martha Rendell has not been cleared of the child murders that any reasonable person (the “reasonable doubt” standard) could see were not murders at all.
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Martha Rendell had an antecedent for her condemnation at the hands of class prejudice. And Lindy Chamberlain’s giving birth in prison hearkened back to the same woman in history, too.
In England (perhaps one of the most class-conscious countries outside of India), Mary Ann Robson was born in the third week of October 1832 (the date cannot be specified as births were not always properly registered).
Her place of birth was in extreme northeast England, in the county of Durham. The village was called Low Moorsley (since subsumed by the large North Sea coast city of Sunderland).
Roughly 50 miles south of Scotland’s border, Mary Ann’s birth village of Low Moorsley in the early 1800s may just as well have been on another planet as far as Londoners were concerned.
Mary Ann had an older sister named Margaret Jane. The girls’ father was a slaker (a “pitman” or collier).
People from all over England came to the northern lands to work the mines. Most contracts for such work were usually limited to one year (or sooner if the coal vein “ran out” or was no longer profitable with the techniques available). When contracts or coal expired the miner and his family moved on to another community supported by a nearby coal mine. Such places were called “pit villages”.
The Robson family, like many others in England’s north lands, moved frequently to follow the father’s work. Soon after Mary Ann’s birth they moved to East Rainton. When she was eight they moved to Murton (still in County Durham). Mary Ann went to the village school where she was miserable—friends were not to be had for the new girl.
In early 1842 when Mary Ann was nine her father was repairing a pulley wheel over an open shaft at Murton Colliery. He accidentally fell 150 feet (18 m) down the shaft, killing him. In 1843 her mother, Margaret, remarried to a man named George Stott. Reportedly, Mary Ann and her mother’s new spouse did not get on very well.
When she was 16 (in 1848), Mary Ann left home. And while popular belief is that she left to become a nurse at a residence in a nearby village—and with no medical nursing experience, such a job would have been closer to that of a caretaker and housekeeper—the nursing job was incidental.
In a working-class household, stepdaughters of a certain age were notorious prey for stepfathers, and it is possible that George Stott began making advances toward her as she reached sexual maturity. This may have informed the claim that Mary Ann did not get on well with this man. Regardless, she lived away in the nearby village of South Hetton
She stayed on the nursing job for about three years, and then returned to her mother’s house. She took up learning the craft of dressmaking as an apprentice with the hopes of getting a job. Failing that, expectations were that she would find other work.
Or marry and move out.
Coal Miner’s Widow
The marriage option for Mary Ann proved the more expedient. Having struck up a relationship with a collier named William Mowbray, Mary Ann Robson became Mary Ann Mowbray on
Though there are no records to support this (because such registrations, particularly for the English lower-classes, were not considered important) Mary Ann later said that she had four children by Mowbray between the years 1852 and 1856, all born in Cornwall. [The earlier date of 1852 for her first child is a clear indicator that she was pregnant at the time of her marriage to Mowbray; the pregnancy may have been what forced the marriage in the first place.]
All four of these children (unnamed and dates of birth unrecorded) died in infancy. [And infant mortality rates in England then were absurdly high, particularly among the lower classes: poverty, malnutrition, and neglect all contributed as well as a generalized lack of adequate health care and hygiene.]
A new baby the couple named Margaret Jane was born in about 1857. In 1858, just like clockwork, another baby girl was born; she was named Isabella.
In 1860 the little family moved back to England’s northeastern coalfields. They returned to live in the South Hetton/Murton area in the county of Durham. Mowbray found work as a foreman at South Hetton Colliery. Later, he was a fireman aboard a steam vessel.
In June 1860, shortly after returning to the coal villages, three-year-old Margaret Jane (named for Mary Ann’s older sister) died. Another girl was born in about 1862, and she, too, was named Margaret Jane (to replace the one that had died only a couple of years before). A boy arrived in 1863 they named John Robert William; he died in 1864.
Typhus is caused by several species of rickettsia (a rod-shaped bacteria) transmitted by lice, fleas, mites, and ticks. Epidemic typhus, spread by the body louse, is the most severe; it is one of the great scourges of history. It is most often associated with headache, chills, fever, and general pains that begin suddenly; a rash develops soon afterward. Typhus is one of the great scourges of history, associated with crowded, filthy conditions.
William Mowbray took ill in late December 1864. He was attended by a district doctor who advised the sickly man he had typhus, a wasting (and, in those days, usually fatal) disease. Mowbray suffered from high fevers, confusion, toxemia, and delirium. In early January 1865, the doctor advised Mary Ann he did not expect her husband to live more than another week, and he said she could anticipate the worst. Mowbray died before the month was out. He was 39.
It was in this time in England that life insurance—previously the province of the well-off—had become generally affordable for the lower classes. Mowbray had a small policy. Mary Ann collected the £35 that came due upon his death. [This death benefit equaled roughly half a year’s wages for the average manual laborer of the mid 1800s. It is almost $4000 US in 2012.]
While the insurance payout was not a fortune, it allowed Mary Ann to at least survive independently for a short time.
Mary Ann only had two living children, both girls, Margaret Jane II and Isabella (out of the eight to whom she had thus far given birth, all with William Mowbray as the father). She and her daughters decamped from Murton for nearby Seaham Harbour where her mother, Margaret Stott, lived (on the coast near Sunderland).
In April 1865, her 3½-year-old daughter, Margaret Jane II, died, leaving Mary Ann with one surviving girl, Isabella. Mary Ann retreated to Sunderland (a few miles north of Seaham Harbour), leaving Isabella with Margaret Stott.
Mary Ann found work in a sanitarium with an unwieldy name:
House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever
Dispensary and Humane Society
One of the patients there was an ailing engineer, George Ward. Ward, Mary Ann’s age, had been in the infirmary’s care for some time. He and Mary Ann struck up a friendship that blossomed into romance. On August 28, 1865, Ward and she married.
The couple set up housekeeping.
Ward’s health remained fragile, and as time wore on he only got worse. Mary Ann, with her minimal “nursing” skills received at her earlier job as a nursemaid in South Hetton and her experience at the Sunderland Infirmary, tried curative measures on her husband, George. One of those involved bloodletting with leeches. [This was a commonly accepted “medical” practice. However, overly bleeding a patient causes more harm than good as is known today; it was excessive bloodletting that actually killed George Washington, first President of the United States, when he fell ill in his later years.]
Ward, not of the strongest constitution to begin with, probably did not benefit much from his routine loss of blood. He continued to waste away in addition to suffering from his sickly symptoms of intestinal problems and partial paralysis. On October 15, he slipped into a coma from which he never roused, dying on October 20, 1866. He was 33.
His attending physician, a Dr. Evans, remarked upon Ward’s emaciated condition. Certainly aware of Mary Ann’s bloodletting of George (jars of medical leeches were in the home) this doctor later expressed surprise that the man had died as quickly as he had. He was present at Ward’s death, though, and he signed off on the death certificate: “English Cholera and Typhoid fevers, death resulting after 14 days”.
George Ward had life insurance, which Mary Ann collected.
Shipwright’s First Mate
A Sunderland shipwright was Mary Ann’s next love interest.
James Robinson was a recent widower (his wife had died of tuberculosis on or around December 1, 1866). He had five children under his roof to tend, one of whom, a 10-month old, was sick. Robinson hired Mary Ann Robson Mowbray Ward as his housekeeper, and she started on December 20.
On December 23, 1866, after Mary Ann had only worked for the Robinson household a few days, the sick child, John (10 months old) died of “infantile convulsions” (a catch-all term applied in some cases where cause of death wasn’t always clear). The devastated father took Mary Ann to his bed for diversion; by February 1867, she was pregnant.
Mary Ann’s mother sent for her after becoming ill in early March 1867. Mary Ann went to tend her. Margaret Stott improved a bit after Mary Ann arrived, but then relapsed, complaining of stomach pains. Nine days after Mary Ann’s appearance, Margaret died in March 1867 at the age of 54.
After funereal obligations were completed, Mary Ann took her daughter, Isabella (who had been living with Margaret Stott for the past two years) and went back to James Robinson in Sunderland.
In April 1867, Isabella (age 9) developed stomach distress similar to her grandmother’s and she died. That same month, two of Robinson’s other children, James Robinson, Jr. (age 6) and Elizabeth Robinson (age 8), also succumbed from the same gastro-intestinal illness. All three were buried during the last two weeks of April.
Puritanical societal norms still prevailed in the area; a visibly pregnant, and unmarried, Mary Ann was not a proud symbol of morality. James Robinson and she succumbed to societal pressure and wed on August 11, 1867. Their child was born in November of that year, and the couple named her Mary Isabella Robinson. She died several months later in March 1868, after contracting an illness. Another child was born into the household in the spring of 1869, a girl.
James Robinson, meanwhile, was annoyed by his new wife’s insistence that he take out a life insurance policy. He also discovered that money he had given her to deposit in the bank was missing—she had apparently used it on herself instead of putting it away as directed.
She also ran up another £60 worth of debt (in a time when people who could not pay their bills might be thrown into prison or sent to a workhouse if creditors pressed the matter).
Robinson learned his two remaining children were given household items by Mary Ann to pawn, with her taking the proceeds and the pawn tickets from them, swearing them to secrecy.
An enraged James Robinson threw her out of the home. Mary Ann took her infant daughter (by Robinson) when she left.
Back to the Mines
Mary Ann lived on the streets of the pit villages and Sunderland for several months in 1869. Her daughter by Robinson was apparently abandoned into the care of a foundling home or to foster care. Although not proven, it can be assumed she might have turned to prostitution as a means of survival during that time. Or, she may have found other work.
One of Mary Ann’s few friends was a woman her own age named Margaret Cotton who lived in Northumberland (county) in the village of Walbottle (on the Durham-Northumberland county line near the industrial city of Newcastle). In late 1869 (or very early January 1870), Margaret told Mary Ann about her brother, Frederick. He was a pitman just as Mary Ann’s father had been. He was a recent widower who had also seen two of his four children die.
Margaret Cotton had been acting as a surrogate for the two Cotton boys, Charles and Frederick, Jr. Perhaps in an attempt at match-making or to simply remove herself from Frederick’s household and its responsibilities Margaret arranged a meeting between her brother and Mary Ann, who then came on board as a housekeeper. Mary Ann and Frederick apparently got on well as she was pregnant almost immediately with her eleventh child.
Mary Ann and her third husband James Robinson had not divorced in the wake of his throwing her out of his house. Frederick Cotton most likely wanted to “do the right thing” by marrying her now that she was pregnant with his child. Perhaps not wanting to expose her nasty secret (still legally married to James Robinson and not free to remarry), she left Cotton and went to work for a local doctor. This was short-lived—he accused her of stealing from him. She went back to live with Frederick Cotton.
Mary Ann’s friend, Margaret Cotton (still living in her brother Frederick’s house and tending the children) died age 38 in late March 1870 from an undetermined stomach ailment.
With Mary Ann’s very visible pregnancy now an issue of gossip, Frederick Cotton and she were bigamously married on September 17, 1870, in a Newcastle church. [It is probable that Frederick Cotton was unaware that Mary Ann was not legally eligible to marry; she might have told him she was divorced or that her husband had died.]
The baby Mary Ann carried had most likely been born around the day of their “marriage” (in the week or so after). On October 3, 1870, she took out a small insurance policy on the couple’s newborn son, Robert Robson Cotton.
Life insurance on Frederick was paid out to Mary Ann.
Up the street in West Auckland from where Mary Ann and the three children lived was a house inhabited by the Shaw family, headed by a sixty-six-year-old man named George and his wife, 19 years his junior. They had three daughters ranging in age from 9 to 12. They also had a lodger, a terminally-ill miner named Joseph Nattrass.
The Shaws found they needed extra space in their cramped house, space occupied by the ailing Nattrass. Mary Ann had started taking in lodgers in her small home. They gave Nattrass notice, but told him of Mary Ann’s lodging up the street. Introductions were made, and Joseph Nattrass moved in with Mary Ann and the children (late December 1871 to early 1872).
The two became intimate, though it is unclear if their relationship extended beyond a comfortable friendship with occasional casual sexual contacts, most likely out of loneliness. [Nattrass, in his condition, probably would not have made for a very desirable lover.]
This left Mary Ann with only her seven-year-old step-son, Charles Edward Cotton, as well as the failing Nattrass in her care.
Joseph Nattrass’ comforting presence for Mary Ann, in the wake of the children’s deaths, was also short-lived. His condition worsened.
In April 1872, sensing he would not live much longer, Nattrass called two close friends of his to witness a will he was making out; George Hedley and Elijah Atkinson witnessed. In a conversation with both men, in Mary Ann’s presence, he told them that Mary Ann had “been like a wife” to him in his declining health, and she had taken good care of him and had been very kind. It was his desire to leave her his pitiful worldly possessions: his clothes, a watch and fob, and a small sum in a trust account.
Joseph Nattrass died in April 1872. His attending physician, a Dr. Richardson, had administered to him on several occasions before his death from Bright’s disease (which this doctor certified as Nattrass’ cause of death). The doctor also later noted that he had never once heard Nattrass say anything negative about Mary Ann. Nattrass also told the doctor that she was the only true friend he had: she cared about him.
Mary Ann had spotty work as a nurse. She was hired as a nursemaid to an excise officer that was recouping from a bout of smallpox (still a killer in those days, some people did survive the disease only to carry the characteristic pock scars on their bodies the rest of their lives). Her ward was a man she believed was named John Quick-Manning (or John Quickmanning). He was married (not known to Mary Ann), with his wife living in the Darlington area on Durham County’s southern border (about 12 miles—20 km—south of West Auckland) while he recovered.
During Quickmanning’s convalescence, he and May Ann became sexually intimate, and in April 1872 (the month Nattrass died), she was pregnant for the twelfth (and last) time. This extra burden on Mary Ann’s mind weighed heavily—another mouth to feed in her straitened circumstances would not be good.
As the summer months approached, the pregnant and (again) unmarried Mary Ann’s financial situation worsened. She had lost her lodger, Nattrass; her nursing work with Quickmanning was over as he had completely recovered (though he loitered in the area of West Auckland).
In July 1872, a West Auckland parish official named Thomas Riley, knowing of Mary Ann’s need for work, met with her to discuss a job opportunity. A local woman required nursing while she was ill with smallpox. He had thought of Mary Ann as a satisfactory hire because of her recent nursing with Quickmanning.
During the interview, Mary Ann remarked that her step-son Charles was sickly; he had been seen by two doctors, Kilburn and Chalmers (in practice together) who believed the boy’s symptoms of chronic diarrhea and others signs pointed to tuberculosis. They treated him accordingly.
Mary Ann mentioned the boy was a burden on the household in her current financial situation. She casually asked Riley if Charles could be sent up to the workhouse and committed to its care. Riley (who happened to be the assistant coroner for West Auckland) advised her that if the boy went she would have to go with him as well because of his minor status. According to Riley, she made the flippant remark, “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”
She had the chance to cross Riley’s path five days later, and told him the seven-year-old Charles Edward Cotton had died. Apprehensive, Riley went to the village’s police to report Mary Ann on suspicion of murdering the boy. He also hastily talked the boy’s physicians into delaying completion of a death certificate until an investigation could be completed.
Mary Ann, meanwhile, went to her insurance provider’s office. She was told that without a death certificate no money would be paid out on a policy the boy’s father had started and which Mary Ann maintained on the boy. [She had received small payouts on Frederick, Jr., and her own baby in March 1872 upon their deaths.]
A coroner’s inquest convened to examine the death of Charles Edward Cotton. Charles had been attended alternately by two doctors, partners in a local medical practice. In her testimony, Mary Ann said she had administered the medicines prescribed by the doctors as indicated. The only thing she did independently, she said, was use arrowroot on the boy. [Arrowroot is the source of tapioca, and it is harmless, used in cases like the one Mary Ann described as an easily digested food for invalids and children with stomach ailments.] She also stated that Thomas Riley, Assistant Coroner, was making trouble for her because she had refused his sexual advances.
The jury returned a verdict of “death by natural causes.”
Mary Ann Cotton would have been forgotten by history had the matter ended there.
Court of Public Opinion
The local press frothed over Mary Ann Cotton.
Having covered the minutiae of the coroner’s inquest about Charles Cotton’s death, further digging led to titillating revelations, at least in the minds of the average Victorian, easily titillated by such things. People tittered and gossiped over Mary Ann’s seeming promiscuity. [She had been married to each of her father’s children (except for Quickmanning). She had only two known lovers, Nattrass and Quickmanning. This totaled six men in a lifetime, hardly a promiscuity record.]
All of the deaths—21 of them—in Mary Ann’s adult life became lumped publicly under the convenient names “stomach fevers” or “gastric fever”, needing the commonality to point up to something sinister. Taking events out of context, subtly shifting the timeline of her life (forward or backward a month or two here and there), embellishing the circumstances, and fabricating outright lies, the press told a lurid tale of a viciously cold-blooded femme fatale.
The working-class frump, Mary Ann Cotton, was transformed into a succubus who destroyed her own children and step-children, an evil witch who killed her own mother and a best female friend, and a black widow bent on insurance fraud who murdered a lover and three of her four husbands.
And how did she do all this?
According to the fast-and-loose reporting of the day, she managed to escape detection for 20 years through the use of arsenic. Arsenic poisoning, it was conjectured, could mimic the symptoms of all of the diseases that had left death in Mary Ann’s wake (cholera, typhus, etc.). Allegedly, Mary Ann’s “vast” medical knowledge (with her nursing of a handful of sick men) made her an expert in such trickery.
According to the press, this “strikingly beautiful” seductress used her sexual wiles to lure men into her bed, bilked them, and then collected on their insurance policies after she slowly poisoned them.
Thus, Mary Ann Cotton wasn’t a woman upon whom many unfortunate tragedies had fallen but, rather, she was a criminal master-mind, a coldly-calculating serial killer, a poisoner of children, women, and men alike, all for personal gain.
Once the sensationalized details of Mary Ann Cotton’s life were splashed across front pages in northeastern England agitation began. A re-examination of the dead in her wake was demanded, starting with the most recent, Charles Edward Cotton.
A forensic inquiry was convened. Charles’ body had undergone a rudimentary post-mortem exam (on Mary Ann’s kitchen table) at his time of death. From the second inquest (that had returned a “natural causes” death verdict) samples of his internal organs were kept. These were buried—“for safekeeping”—by Dr. Kilburn (one of Charles’ attending physicians before his death) in his backyard.
When it came time for analysis, the small samples were dug up and submitted for testing. Arsenic was found; it was not reported if the concentration was adequate to kill, only that arsenic was detected. Dr. Kilburn contacted police and an exhumation order was executed. Arsenic traces were similarly discovered in the boy’s corpse. A few more bodies, some dead in the ground for years, were hastily exhumed and tested, with some trace arsenic found in them as well.
The pregnant Mary Ann was arrested at her home in July 1873. She was charged with the murder of her step-son, Charles. She was incarcerated in the Durham County jail where she sat for several months; the courts had decided to delay starting her trial until after she gave birth to her baby.
John Quickmanning, her unborn baby’s father, hurriedly left West Auckland upon her arrest. He went back to his wife and his business in the Darlington area (he was a landlord of a local boarding house). He dodged the press and Mary Ann, not speaking with either before he decamped.
On January 10, 1873, Mary Ann gave birth to a girl in the Durham jail. The baby was named Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.
There were further delays in starting her trial when the original prosecutor tapped was suddenly bumped from taking the case in favor of a crony of the Attorney General’s. The sudden substitution had to be argued in Britain’s House of Commons before approval was granted for the new prosecutor to take over. Finally, on March 5, 1873, proceedings got under way.
Mary Ann continued to assert her innocence. “Experts” and others testified either for or against her. The testimony given was absurd and obviously fueled by class prejudice. It was also severely colored by the sensational news stories and pre-trial rumor-mongering. It consisted of much conjecture, supposition, and very poor eyewitness accounts.
What did come out was that no one, ever, had seen Mary Ann Cotton administer arsenic in any form to anyone.
Her house had been searched on July 18, 1873, upon her arrest. No arsenic-containing materials were found. And amusingly, it was one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses who shot down Mary Ann’s house as a possible den of poisonous murder.
A physical search had failed to turn up anything incriminating. As part of that search, Mary Ann’s pots, pans, and kitchen utensils were confiscated and submitted for analysis. In a
The prosecution’s theory was Mary Ann had dosed her family routinely with arsenic dissolved in tea. A professor, Dr. Thomas Scattergood (of the Leeds School of Medicine), had taken the stand to answer questions about whether or not arsenic could be found in her home.
He inadvertently made points in favor of the defense, though, in his smugly superior belief in his position.
Scattergood told the court no traces of arsenic were found on any of the items presented, including the two teapots examined (the possible “murder weapons”). He also said that, if she
If it had been present, even in trace amounts, he would have discovered it. He further drove his point home by saying that he, with his expertise, would have been hard-pressed to remove all traces of arsenic from such surfaces (the implication being that was something a less-erudite low-life, such as Mary Ann Cotton, would definitely not be able to do if he couldn’t).
Dr. Richardson, the physician who had certified Joseph Nattrass’ cause of death in 1872 as Bright’s disease, refused to change his medical diagnosis despite pressure from the prosecution—and Scattergood—to alter his findings to say that Nattrass had been poisoned. Richardson stuck to his guns in front of a judge, insisting Nattrass had died of the disease he recorded. Other doctors stood firm as well, refusing to refute their own cause-of-death conclusions as certified.
More damaging, though, was the ridiculous testimony of an apothecary worker named Thomas Detchon.
Arsenic was used in compounds for certain household cleaners. A common item was a “soft soap” for personal and household cleaning with an arsenic base to kill bedbugs.
By the late 1860s, British law had taken a step to restrict and control the sale of certain substances, and consumer goods containing arsenic were one of them. Customers would have to sign a registry—a “poison” book—for the purchase with a witness (other than a shopkeeper) signing as well.
Testifying with the aid of his shop’s registry book, Detchon (a chemist’s assistant) claimed that on January 21, 1869 (over four years earlier) a woman had come into his employer’s Newcastle shop and asked for soft soap and arsenic (homemakers often mixed the soap with the arsenic themselves in personally-preferred ratios). Detchon was very specific in his testimony, claiming that between the hours of 2 PM and 3 PM this woman asked for a three-penny supply of soft-soap and arsenic.
When he asked for what purpose the woman wanted the arsenic and soap, she claimed it was to get rid of bugs on beds and linen. Seeing she was alone and would not be able to have the second “witnessing” signature inscribed in the shop’s poison book, Detchon advised he could not sell her what she wanted. He then tried to be helpful:
“I told her that I could not sell her the mixture because she needed a witness, but I could sell her an alternative mixture called ‘bug specific’ which we make without needing a witness. She said that she would rather have the other and again I said not without a witness.”
The woman left but came back later with another female, Elizabeth Robson (of Newcastle). The purchaser signed her name in the poison book as “Mary Ann Booth”; Elizabeth Robson, illiterate, witnessed the other woman’s signature with an “X”. The cost of the transaction totaled 6 pence (for an ounce of arsenic and 1½ ounces of soft soap).
Detchon’s was the only tie the prosecution had to link “Mary Ann Booth” to Mary Ann Cotton as a woman who had bought arsenic four years ago. Detchon failed to mention the physical appearance of “Booth”—if his customer had been Mary Ann, she would have been over five months’, and noticeably, pregnant with hers and James Robinson’s last child then. Even so, he pointed to Mary Ann and identified her as “Mary Ann Booth”.
Subsequent testimony by Elizabeth Robson stating categorically that the woman customer whose signature she had “witnessed” was most definitely not Mary Ann Cotton carried little weight.
Finally, the defense suggested that the trace arsenic found in Charles Cotton’s exhumed body could have come from inhaling arsenic used to dye the green wallpaper that hung in Mary Ann’s home. Scattergood, the prosecution expert witness, snorted that such an absorption (by respiration) was impossible; the defense’s point was ignored.
Despite flimsy circumstantial evidence (mostly centered on the symptoms of the dead, already presumed poisoned, possibly mimicking organic diseases), conflicting and confused testimony, and even prosecution witness testimony that clearly supported the defense, the jury retired. After only 90 minutes’ deliberation it came back with a “Guilty” verdict.
The wilds of England’s northeastern coal fields became big news in London with the publicity about Mary Ann Cotton, that insidious poisoner. Upon her conviction, a news agent covering the story for the London Times reported on March 20, 1873:
“After conviction the wretched woman exhibited strong emotion but this gave place in a few hours to her habitual cold, reserved demeanor and while she harbors 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.”
Hastily prepared petitions were submitted on Mary Ann’s behalf to the Home Secretary’s office; these came to naught, and an execution date was set for March 24. Five days before her execution, her prison-born baby was taken away and given over for placement.
The hangman’s job was more difficult than the casual observer might believe. Hanging a person involved more than being able to tie a fancy knot, the infamous “hangman’s noose”. Gallows weren’t always erected permanently—many were portable or even disposable structures built-to-order as needed. Others were packed away then reassembled for executions. The hangman and his help had to build or assemble these.
More importantly, hanging (in the days before the electric chair) was meant to be a humane end for the condemned. The job of hanging was to extinguish life almost instantaneously—the objective was snapping the neck, causing a quick and (believed) painless death.
Good hangmen had worked out charts based on the weight of the victim over the centuries. They learned the “just right” length of rope to use, and the height a person must fall though—with gravity as its only aid—to get the job done correctly and efficiently.
If the rope was too long and the drop similarly high, a convicted person could plummet with enough force to tear his or her head completely from the body. A too long rope with a too short drop meant a murderer might end up standing on the ground beneath the gallows, still alive with a slack rope around his neck.
Worse than either of these scenarios, and the one dreaded by most hangmen, was not getting the rope length or the drop “just right”. If a prisoner fell just far enough, but with his tiptoes touching the ground beneath the gallows he may strain and struggle for an hour before finally tiring and strangling to death.
Another case involves a too-short rope—a person could drop though the trap door but with insufficient rope to allow a “complete” drop to snap the neck, and he or she may hang suspended in mid-air, struggling and kicking his legs while strangling for many minutes (hence the macabre turns of phrase “air dance” and “air jig”).
All of these scenarios have been documented in history.
And crowds came to public hangings to not only see justice done but to see a good hangman at the top of his craft. However, the Durham Prison’s contracted executioner, William Calcraft, was not a good hangman.
Mary Ann wore the same dress she’d been wearing for the past eight months, a black gown she’d been arrested in, well-worn and shabby after her time in prison. She also wore a hairnet that kept her coif parted straight down the middle and in place. She had to be subdued by Evans as she broke into a fit of hysterics; a leather belt with side leather restraints was put around her waist and her wrists placed in the loops attached to the belt. There was enough play in the leather wrist cuffs that she was able to clasp her hands in front of her. A black-and-white checked shawl (or cloak) was draped over her shoulders that partially covered her restraints. She was photographed and then marched out to the gallows’ yard.
In the yard, many members of the press, arranged four deep, were on hand with the privilege of a close-up view of the proceedings. Outside the walls, the rabble milled about with no real vantage point from which to see. All they could do was listen. A small contingent of jail personnel and a reverend surrounded Mary Ann as she approached the steps to the platform. A chair was on the gallows’ deck in case Mary Ann was unable to stand upright (the chair would be placed under the noose and she would have been hung from a sitting position). When asked if she needed the chair, she replied that she thought she would be able to stand on her own. Her checked shawl was removed and dropped on the chair—for some arcane reason her shoes had been removed once she was topside and were put on the flooring near the unused seat.
Mary Ann muttered over and over, “Heaven is my home. Lord have mercy on me”, among other prayers. She also protested her innocence once more as she took her place over the trapdoor. The white hood was drawn down over her head.
Calcraft swung the noose over her neck and cinched it tight. Evans bound her legs with leather straps. Although a signal was supposed to have been given (by an undersheriff ceremonially dropping a white handkerchief to the deck) Evans drew the trap’s bolt prematurely. Mary Ann Cotton dropped only two feet through the trap—Calcraft had bungled. The rope was far too short to allow her to make the more forceful drop that would have snapped her neck. Instead, Mary Ann hung in the trap’s opening, struggling violently and strangling to death. With the minimal freedom of movement she had with her bound hands, she tried to relieve the pressure of the noose.
The gathered onlookers were horrified; Calcraft sprang into action. Standing on the platform, he leaned over the trap hole. He pressed his hands downward on Mary Ann’s shoulders, forcing his weight onto her to further choke the life out of her. She bucked against his pressing, and he forced his weight onto her even harder. She struggled for fully three minutes before becoming still. The front of her white hood was blood stained—petechial hemorrhaging from her nose and coughed-up blood from her throat had sprayed it from the inside.
The law required that an executed person’s body hang for one hour after movement ceased. Calfcraft gave the rope one last tug to insure it would hold. Then he and Evans went off for a special breakfast at the Prison Governor’s office (one of the few bonuses of the executioner’s job).
Mary Ann’s body was drawn up through the trap and freed from the noose about 9:05 AM by Calcraft and Evans. She was lowered to the scaffold’s wooden planks. Calcraft pulled the bloody hood off—her face was swollen and contorted, her eyes half-lidded (with her right eye bulging out of its socket), blood was congealed around her nose, and her mouth was agape with swollen lips and blood stains.
Calcraft took the leather restraints off her body; along with the noose, these were placed in a canvas bag. [These items turned up missing at the required inquest later that day. Calcraft had cached them. He took the morbid souvenirs with him when he went back to London and sold them to an agent of Madame Tussaud’s (London’s premier wax museum, still carrying Tussaud’s name though she had died in 1850). It is unclear if the pieces were ever used in a museum display, but later these artifacts were sold to a private collector in the early 1900s.]
Her body, shoes, and her checker-board shawl were placed in a wooden coffin (painted black), and she was taken up to the prison infirmary. She was officially pronounced dead there. Her head was shaved and a mold was made of her bare skull. [The pseudo-science of phrenology was in vogue then; such a mold could create a cast used to read bumps on her skull to see where her “murderous” tendencies manifested themselves.]
Afterward, she was buried on the prison grounds next to a pair of brothers-in-law, convicted of murder and also hanged by William Calcraft just two months earlier.
“Not Fit to Hang a Dog”
During the time of Mary Ann’s struggles at the end of a rope, the agitated Calcraft (who was basically put in a position of having to commit a hands-on, state-sanctioned murder) was allegedly overheard muttering that he was “an executioner not fit to hang a dog”.
At his special breakfast after the hanging, Calcraft noticed a subdued atmosphere. The others at the meal virtually shunned him; his assistant, Robert Evans, remarked, “All is not well. They say we have throttled the woman rather than hanging her well and truly.” A properly chastened Calcraft said Mary Ann’s would be his last hanging at Durham Prison—he thought it was time to retire.
The undersheriff (who had fainted in the distress of Mary Ann’s struggles) went on record as saying he was “extremely vexed with the executioner”. Another observer said Mary Ann had been “strangled like a rabid dog, with no dignity even in death”. Others chimed in with negative opinions about Calcraft’s lack of finesse.
Worse, though, than mere mutterings from observers was the Surgeon General’s inquest report, required concerning all executed prisoners. William Boyd, the prison’s surgeon, made the initial call that Mary Ann Cotton was indeed dead, and (contrary to what really happened) had died “instantly” (over twenty witnesses to the event said otherwise). Boyd had tried to nuance this report by saying the letter of the law had been complied with: her execution was done by hanging.
After his initial exam, however, Boyd reflected and dashed off a letter the same day to the Home Secretary’s office. Having a change of heart over an incompetent such as Calcraft remaining on the job, Boyd wrote only that Mary Ann had been executed and was dead (leaving out his earlier “died instantly” reference). And in a final inquest held that afternoon, Boyd’s conscience got the better of him and he gave his professional opinion that Mary Ann Cotton had died of asphyxia and not the expected dislocated neck of a “well and true” hanging.
Six months later in 1873, Calcraft botched the execution of another convict, James Connor.
On May 25, 1874, William Calcraft was forced to retire.
Mary Ann Cotton’s case is horrific in the sense that the law operated from a presumption of guilt from the start. She was believed to have poisoned her step-son Charles and it was from that springboard that everyone—the press, the public, and the prosecution in her trial—tried to make the “facts” fit that belief rather than let the facts lead to truth.
Coffins in her day, if people were even buried in them, were not water tight as they are in modern times. No one examined the reality that trace arsenic—a naturally occurring element—could be leached into a buried corpse via groundwater seepage.
Kilburn’s burial of Charles Edwards Cotton’s medical samples in his yard for “safekeeping” could only have resulted in contamination. Any subsequent testing, regardless of outcome, would have been forensically valueless, and should have been declared inadmissible at trial.
Dr. Scattergood had refuted the defense position that Charles Cotton could have inhaled particles of arsenic over time because the green dye in their home’s wallpaper (shabby and degrading) contained arsenic. While probably not resulting in death, this would have led to the positive test result for arsenic in the tainted tissue samples and his body. And as proof of the defense’s reasoned belief, the dye used in such wallpaper, known as “Scheele’s green”, was discontinued in later years because—surprise—chronic cases of arsenic poisoning were uncovered in people exposed to it.
The testimony of Thomas Detchon (the chemist's assistant) was misleading at best and useless at worst. All that he had to offer, which was of no evidentiary value, is that a woman named Mary Ann Booth (testified by another witness as not Mary Ann Cotton) had bought some
The press’ creative license in referring to her as “lovely”, “beautiful” or “seductive” was pure fantasy—Mary Ann Cotton was none of those things.
She was a hard-scrabble woman who grew up in mining communities. A drawing alleging to have been done when she was younger (but of dubious provenance), shows a hardened woman with a sharp face.
Mary Ann Cotton had lived a very harsh life, with much tragedy, and it showed. She died aged 40—she looked every bit of 60 in her last (and possibly only) photograph.
During her last few months of life she was maliciously maligned; it is only those slanders, and her presumed guilt, that survive today, and dominate impressions others have of her.
Mary Ann Cotton could not have been convicted of murder in a modern court using only the so-called evidence presented at her trial.
Even in her day, had she been tried in London it is likely she might have stood a better chance, with the more professional judicial participants there more carefully inclined to accept true evidence and not hearsay and speculation.
But Mary Ann Cotton was tried in the badlands (and in the court of public opinion) among rustics and rubes that saw a “wanton woman” methodically killing her loved ones.
The woman and her case deserve a second look. That is the truth.
Author’s Note: Three of the sources noted in this article’s bibliography represent the very worst of Internet writing. It is personally embarrassing to even cite them as sources, but in fairness, some useful information was obtained (used sparingly, though, to get a sense of time, place, and names). The three in the spotlight of shame are badly written (and one of them purportedly by a criminology professor). They are filled with errors, confusion, out-of-synch timelines, and simple regurgitation of earlier falsehoods.
They also make it clear their authors cannot see Mary Ann Cotton for other than what they have already been told she was, a serial poisoner. The prejudices are clear, and all such rehashes do is to perpetuate misinformation.