Mary Ann Cotton - The West Aukland poisonings.

Mary Ann Cotton has the dubious distinction of being Britain's worst female serial killer and her probable tally of killings would remain unequalled by either sex until the 1980's. She is strongly suspected of 14 or 15 murders, either for gain or to enable her to marry or both, and 21 people who were close to her died over a 20 year period. These comprised of 10 children, three husbands, five stepchildren, her mother, Margaret, her sister in law, also Margaret, and one lover.  Click here for a photo of Mary Ann in her check shawl.

She was 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 East Rainton. Her father was killed in an accident at Murton colliery when she was eight or nine, leaving her and her mother in poverty. Mary Ann bitterly resented this poverty and vowed that she would not live like this as an adult.  At the age of 16 she went into domestic service.

She married for the first time on the 18th of July 1852, to 26 year old miner William Mowbray and moved with him to Cornwall, where they lived for around four years.  Here Mary Ann was to give birth to four children, all of whom died in their first year of life. All the deaths were officially recorded as being from "gastric fever," a common enough diagnosis at that time. William and Mary Ann returned north and lived in the village of Murton, to the south of Sunderland. They later moved into Sunderland where William was injured in an accident and was “cared for” at home by his wife.  In January 1865, William succumbed to the same "illness" and Mary Ann collected £35 in life insurance.

Mary 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.

James Robinson was a shipyard foreman, who had recently become a widower, lived in the Pallion suburb of Sunderland. He advertised for a housekeeper to look after his four children.  Mary Ann moved into his house on the 23rd of December 1866.  Three of these children died of the, by now, inevitable "gastric fever" within a year. James married Mary Ann on the 11th of August 1867 but he refused to have his life insured.  The marriage didn't last as John evicted Mary Ann after he found out that she had made unauthorised withdrawals from his bank account and pawned some of his possessions. He probably didn't realise at the time just what a good decision he had made. Mary Ann then went to look after her elderly mother, Margaret, who not surprisingly did not survive the experience and soon died of gastric fever!

Mary 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 West Auckland and Mary took out life insurance policies on all of them, as usual with the British and Prudential Insurance Company. Predictably, death now entered the Cotton family, firstly Frederick's sister, Margaret died, after Mary Ann found out that Frederick would receive the sum of £60 under her will.  This was followed by 39 year old Frederick himself on the 20th of September 1871. His death certificate gives the cause of death as “Typhoid Hepatitis” (inflammation and failure of the liver, that could have been natural or caused by arsenic).  The next to die was his 10 year old son Frederick, Jr., then the couple’s new baby, Robert Robson Cotton, and finally on the 12th of July 1872, Charles, Frederick's younger son by his former marriage. At some point Mary Ann had moved to No. 13 Front Street in West Auckland, a three story property that is still standing today. She was also seeing her erstwhile lover, 35 year old Joseph Nattrass, who died soon after moving in with her in early 1872. She collected £30 life insurance on Joseph and benefitted under his will.

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.

Mary 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 pregnant.
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.

The 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 Leeds University, a leading pathologist of his day, to examine them. The bodies of Nattress, Charles Cotton, Frederick Cotton Jr. and baby Robert Cotton were all exhumed and found to contain arsenic.  It could not, however, be proved that Mary Ann had administered it.  She was charged with four murders but was only to be tried for the murder of her stepson, Charles Edward Cotton. This was standard practice at the time as the defendant would be sentenced to death if found guilty of a single murder. If the first trial resulted in an acquittal, a second charge could be brought.

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 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”.

The 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.

On the 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 not needed.
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 County Bailiff and finally six male warders and two female ones.  Once on the trapdoors, her legs were strapped and the white hood placed over her head, followed by the noose. Two male warders supported her during this preparation.  Mary Ann’s last words were “Lord Jesus receive my spirit. Oh Lord, have mercy upon me.”  Robert Anderson drew the bolt releasing the trap from under her and she dropped no more than 24 inches (600mm). For a moment she hung still, presumably stunned by the impact of the drop. But then she began to struggle violently, her agonies lasting some three minutes before she dangled lifeless in the pit.  The Under-Sheriff, Mr. Bowser, reportedly fainted.  The black flag was raised over the prison to show the large crowd outside the prison that the sentence had been carried out. Local newspaper reporters recorded the distressing scene.  Just before 9 a.m. a plain deal coffin was bought into the yard and Mary Ann carefully lowered into it, together with the rope.  The prison surgeon, Mr. William Boyd certified her death and gave the cause as asphyxia at the inquest, before Mr. John Favell, the Deputy Coroner.  Following the inquest, a plaster cast was taken of her face and she was buried in the western part of Durham prison at 2 p.m.  She is said to still haunt the site of her old home (since demolished) at 20 Johnson Terrace. This was re-named Darlington Road and there is a park bench where her house once stood.

Mary 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.

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