Mary Ann Cotton: A Serial Killer in Long Skirts

    How did England’s first female serial killer manage to poison three husbands and 11 children before being caught?

    Mary Ann Cotton didn’t go easily. When the hangman opened the trap door beneath her feet, the fall was not enough to break her neck. The executioner had to push down on her shoulders to hasten her death.

    Despite her rather gruesome death, there was little public sympathy for Mary Ann Cotton when she was hanged in 1873. She was executed for the murder of her stepson, but it is likely she killed at least 21 people, including 11 of her 13 children, three of her four husbands, and her mother. She is known as England’s first female serial killer.

    Like many female killers going back to ancient times, her method was poison: arsenic. Arsenic was easy to obtain in the 19th century and even easier to administer in food. Victims are likely to experience vomiting and stomach pain along with other easily identifiable signs of the poisoning before their death. It’s still unclear just how Cotton managed to kill so many people over so many years before she was caught.

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    Working class women in the 1800s did not have easy lives, and Mary Ann’s was no exception. She had to go to work early, as a nurse and a dressmaker, after the death of her father in a mining accident.

    In 1852, when she was 20 years old, she married her first husband, William Mowbray, a miner like her father. The couple left the area, moving to South West England. Although reports at her trial included four or five children born to the couple during this time dying young, there is only one birth recorded. Their daughter, Margaret Jane, was born in 1856 and died in 1860.

    When Mary Ann and Mowbray moved back to North East England, they had two more daughters and two sons. Only one of them, Isabella, survived past the age of four. In 1865, Mowbray died, supposedly of an intestinal disorder. After his death, Mary Ann collected insurance for both his death and that of one of their sons, totaling £37 5s. This would have been the equivalent of about six months’ wages at the time.

    Shortly after Mowbray’s death, Mary Ann married husband number two, George Ward. The pair were married in August 1865. After a long illness, Ward died just over a year later, in October 1866. He, too, showed signs of intestinal problems. Mary Ann collected an insurance payout for Ward as well.

    Husband number three, James Robinson, was the only husband to survive his marriage to Mary Ann. She entered Robinson’s house as a housekeeper. When Robinson’s child died—of a gastric illness—he turned to his housekeeper for comfort. Mary Ann was soon pregnant, and they were married. It was at this time that Mary Ann’s mother also died. The official cause was hepatitis, but nine days after Mary Ann arrived to take care of her, she started developing stomach pains and died.

    The sole remaining child from Mary Ann’s first marriage, Isabella, died only weeks later, along with two of Robinson’s children from his first marriage. All three developed intense stomach pains before their death. Isabella’s death left Mary Ann £5 of insurance money.

    Soon, Mary Ann had given birth to two children with Robinson. The first, Margaret Isabella, died at only four months. The second, George, was born in 1869.

    As the death toll grew around Mary Ann, Robinson became suspicious of his wife’s demand that he take out insurance on his life. He also discovered that she had run up debts with local merchants and stolen £50. He threw her out of the house. Luckily, their son George stayed with his father. Unlike most of his brothers and sisters, he survived.

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    Mary Ann’s sudden change in circumstances left her living on the streets. In spite of her history, she managed to find a fourth husband, Frederick Cotton. Frederick was the brother of Mary Ann’s friend Margaret Cotton. When Margaret died of mysterious stomach ailments, Mary Ann was there to console her brother. That led to Mary Ann’s fourth marriage, but Frederick soon followed his sister, dying of “gastric fever”—but not before Mary Ann was able to enact an insurance policy on his life. With no husband, Mary took a lover, who also died.

    Mary Ann Cotton’s killing career lasted 20 years. So how did she finally get caught? It was the murder of Cotton’s son Charles Edward that was Mary Ann’s undoing. She had complained to friends that he was in the way and wondered how to be rid of him. Unable to commit the boy to a workhouse, she used her usual method to kill the boy. Mary Ann then, as usual, went to the insurance office to try to collect.

    But by now people were suspicious. This death was investigated. Arsenic was found in Charles Edward’s system. Mary Ann was quickly sent to trial for the murders of her husbands and children and convicted. Only two of Mary Ann’s children had managed to survive: George, who stayed with James Robinson, and Margaret Edith, born while Mary Ann was in prison awaiting execution. As Mary Ann’s long murderous past was finally brought to light, she went to the gallows … and into history. 

    Featured photo: Murderpedia

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