Mary Ann Cotton - The
Ann Cotton has the dubious distinction of being
born Mary Ann Robson on the 31st of October 1832 at Low Moorsley,
a small village near the town of Hetton-le-Hole in
Co. Durham, to a Methodist couple, Michael and Margaret Robson. Soon afterwards
the Robsons moved to nearby
married for the first time on the 18th of July 1852, to 26 year old miner
William Mowbray and moved with him to
Ann then took a job at Sunderland Royal Infirmary as a ward attendant. In this
role, she had free access to the hospital's drug stocks.
While working at the Infirmary, she met George Ward, a patient there, the couple marrying on 28th of August 1865. George too, began to get symptoms of poisoning and was to remain married just 15 months, before he died on the 21st of October 1866. Naturally, Mary had taken out a life insurance policy on him as well as benefiting under his will.
Robinson was a shipyard foreman, who had recently become a widower, lived in
the Pallion suburb of
Ann's next (bigamous) husband was to be another widower, Frederick Cotton, whom
she married on the 17th of September 1870 and by whom she had become pregnant
with her sixth child Robert Robson Cotton, born on the 18th of January 1870.
The new family moved to No. 20 Johnson Terrace in
Young Charles Cotton was seen as an impediment to Mary's love life and so on the 6th of July 1872, she offered him to the local workhouse. They would not accept him on his own without her so clearly another means of removing him had to be found. Arsenic as usual provided the solution! The manager of the workhouse, Thomas Riley, who had interviewed Mary, became suspicious when he heard of the death of Charles on Friday the 12th of July 1872 and reported it to the police. The boy had appeared to be perfectly healthy six days earlier.
Ann, who was now unencumbered by children and relationships, began an affair
with the local excise officer, Mr. Quick-Manning, by whom, as usual, she became
So many deaths in one household looked increasingly suspicious and after the death of Robert Cotton, Dr. Kilburn ordered a post-mortem which discovered a large amount of arsenic in the child's body. Arsenic always tends to deposit itself in the fingernails and hair even when it has left the stomach. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are in many ways similar to gastric fever (gastro-enteritis) and include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever, cramps, lethargy, convulsions and dizziness. By this time there was a reliable method for testing for arsenic. In 1841 a German chemist named Hugo Reisch published a description of a test method whereby metallic arsenic was deposited on copper foil from hydrochloric acid solution. The Reisch test, as it became known, was used in this case.
Mary Ann was arrested on the 18th of July 1872, charged with the murder of Charles Cotton and remanded in custody by the magistrates to stand trial at the Spring Assizes of the following year. She was pregnant at the time and would give birth to a baby girl on the 10th of January 1873, christened Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton, who was cared for by her mother in prison.
police now sought permission to exhume the bodies of those who had been close
to Mary Ann and called on the services of Professor Thomas Scattergood from
Mary Ann was tried before Mr. Justice Archibald at the Durham Assizes of March 1873, her trial opening on Wednesday, the 5th. She pleaded not guilty and was represented by Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster who put forward a defence that Robert had been poisoned accidentally by the arsenic contained in the green floral wallpaper which formed a poisonous dust when cleaned with soft soap. This was not as fanciful as it may sound today. Arsenic really was used in some wallpaper dyes at the time. The prosecution, led by Sir Charles Russell rebutted the defense case by pointing out that at least 10 of her alleged victims had never been in the "arsenic room." Sir Charles Russell was also able to show that Mary had actually purchased arsenic. Thomas Detchon, an assistant chemist, told the court that "I remember a woman four years ago coming to my masters’ shop between 2.pm-3pm on January 21st of 1869 and asking for three-penny’s worth of soft-soap and arsenic. She gave her name as Mary Ann Booth, and that is the person who I see in the prisoners dock. She wanted it to kill bed bugs on beds and linen. “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”.
trial lasted five days and the jury brought in their verdict after about an
hour's deliberation. Mr. Justice Archibald donned the black cap and passed
sentence upon her, saying :
"In these words I shall address you, I would earnestly urge you to seek for your soul that only refuge which is left for you, in the mercy of God through the atonement of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It only remains for me to pass upon you the sentence of the law, which is that you will be taken from hence to the place from whence is that you came, and from thence to a place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and your body to be afterwards buried within the precincts of the gaol. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul." On hearing her sentence Mary Ann exclaimed, "Oh no! Oh no! She had to be carried from the dock in a state of collapse.
Extraordinarily, there was some public sympathy for Mary Ann and a petition was got up for a reprieve, possibly because of her baby. The Home Secretary declined this, however, so five days before her execution baby Margaret was taken from her and placed with a childless couple for adoption. They were William and Sarah Edwards from Johnson Terrace who had been married for a number of years.
Saturday before the execution Mary Ann was visited by her step-father George
Stott to whom she proclaimed her innocence.
The simple gallows, comprising two uprights and a crossbeam with a
double leaf trap set at ground level, was erected over a brick lined pit in the
condemned prisoner’s exercise yard and hidden from direct view until Mary Ann
and her escorts rounded a corner. The
site of the gallows used for these private executions is shown here. The outline of the pit being clearly visible. The uprights were brought out for each
execution and slotted into sockets and then the beam bolted to the top of them.
William Calcraft, assisted by Robert Anderson (Evans), had been hired by the
under-sheriff to carry out the execution. There had been some discussion as to
whether she should be hanged strapped to a chair in case she was in a state of
collapse. The pit beneath the trapdoors
was apparently widened to accommodate this, although in the event the chair was
The execution was set for 8.00 a.m. on the morning of Monday, the 24th of March 1873 and Mary Ann breakfasted on just a few sips of tea. Throughout her time in prison she had refused religious counsel but during her last few hours, became most devout and contrite and told the Rev. Mr. Mountford that she might have killed the boy. She prayed with three Wesleyan ministers and the three matrons who guarded her round the clock in the condemned cell and recalling her childhood Sunday school lessons, declared her favourite hymn to be "Rock of ages."
It is said that Mary Ann made the warders wait to escort her to the gallows while she brushed her long black hair. When she was ready, she let the hangman pinion her wrists in front of her with a leather strap and place a further leather strap around her elbows and upper body. Wearing a coarse black and white checked shawl, Mary Ann walked resignedly to the gallows assisted by Warders Appleton and Dodds and accompanied by the Rev. Bennett (also given in some accounts as the Rev. J. C. Rowe). Calcraft and Anderson followed them, with the three Wesleyan ministers behind them. Then came the Under-Sheriff, Mr. Bowser, the deputy under-sheriff, Mr. Marshall, My. Pyle, the
Ann seemed to have become addicted to murder by arsenic poisoning when she
found how easy it was to do, how she could get away with it, and how each
killing could earn her a small amount of life insurance or remove some
inconvenient person in her life or both. It is often said that the first murder
is the hardest - it gets easier the more one does. Today it would be much more
difficult to get away with so many murders of this sort but in those days,
public hygiene standards were low and child (and adult) mortality rates very high.
By moving around and through her frequent changes of name by new marriages, she
was able to get different doctors to sign death certificates without raising
suspicion. Communications were very limited - there were no telephones in 1873,
so the doctors were unlikely to talk to each other and post-mortems were rarely
carried out on deaths that appeared natural. Gastric fever was a common cause
of natural death at this time.
Mary Ann also seemed to have a magnetic attraction for men - she was never without one in her life!
An ITV dramatisation of this case, entitled “Dark Angel” was released in October 2016.