Though on the whole, serial killers tend to be male, there have been a fair number of female mass murderers. There’s currently a two-part docu-drama on ITV in the UK about Britain’s first female serial killer: Mary Ann Cotton.
Cotton was born on Halloween 1832 in the small village of Low Moorsley in County Durham England. Her parents were Michael and Margaret Robson. When Mary Ann was 11, her father died in a mining accident, plummeting 150 feet down a mine shaft. Three years later, her mother remarried. George Stott wasn’t a man Mary Ann got along with. This familial conflict caused Mary Ann to flee the family home at age 16.
By 20 she was working as a nurse and married for the first time. She gave birth to five children, four of who died in infancy of gastric fever. The couple moved to the northeast of England where they had and lost three more children. It is said that later, Mary Ann would struggle to recall just how many children she had at this point in her life. In January 1865, Mary Ann’s husband, William Mowbray, died suddenly, of an intestinal disorder similar to that of his children. His life insurance paid out £35 which was the equivalent of half a year’s wages.
With her one remaining child and the insurance payout, Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham. There, she became employed at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. She sent her daughter Isabella. While working at the infirmary, Mary Ann became friendly with George Ward, a patient there and was married for a second time a mere 10 months after the death of William. Thirteen months after their nuptials, George was also dead, also of intestinal problems. Once again, Mary Ann collected the life insurance money George had.
In 1866, Mary Ann was hired as a housekeeper by widower James Robinson. Shortly after beginning work, Robinson’s infant son John, from his deceased wife Hannah, died of gastric fever. A second of his four children would also die, leaving him with two. Never suspecting his housekeeper, James turned to Mary Ann for comfort and soon the pair were a couple.
A short while later, Mary Ann’s mother became ill, so Mary Ann, being the loving daughter she was, returned to home to care for her. Nine days after her daughter’s arrival, Margaret Robinson was dead. This, despite word from her doctor that she was on the mend. It should not surprise you, by now, to learn that Margaret also succumbed to an “undetermined stomach ailment”. Do you see a pattern yet?
When Mary Ann returned to her beloved James, she brought her daughter Isabella with her. Within a short span of time, not only was Isabella dead, but James’ other two children by Hannah, Elizabeth and James. All three children were buried in April of 1857. Still, James married Mary Ann on August 11, 1857. Their first child, Margaret Isabella was born in November of that year, but died by the following March. Mary Ann became pregnant again, this time giving birth to a son, George, in June 1869. By now, James was growing suspicious of his new wife, especially when she consistently pestered him to take out a life insurance policy on himself. But the straw(s) that broke that old camel’s back were two-fold. First, Mary Ann had run up debts of £60 behind James’ back, not to mention stealing a further £50 that should have been deposited into the bank. Second, he learned that she’d been forcing her step-children to pawn items from the household prior to their deaths. He kicked Mary Ann out and retained custody of George. They would be the only two survivors of Mary Ann. She was kicked out of the house.
You’d think by now that someone would’ve noticed something and brought all these deaths to the attention of the authorities. Perhaps James Robinson, since he’d lost so much under Mary Ann’s attentions, but he said nothing. And so, the murders continued…
Mary Ann met her fourth and final husband, Frederick Cotton, after being introduced to him by Mr Cotton’s sister, Margaret. Mr Cotton was a recent widower, living in Northumberland. Mr Cotton had lost not only his wife, but also two of his children, with Margaret serving as a surrogate to the two remaining children, Frederick Jr and Charles. Frederick was in need of a housekeeper and Mary Ann was able to fulfill that role. Surprise surprise, Margaret died soon after Mary Ann was hired, in March 1870 of, you guessed it, an undetermined stomach ailment. Margaret was a wealthy woman and all of her money went to her brother Frederick. And Frederick turned to Mary Ann for comfort. Mary Ann was soon pregnant and Frederick married her, despite the fact that she was technically still married to James Robinson. He’d merely kicked her out, remember? A few weeks after this illegal marriage, Mary Ann took out life insurance policies on her two stepsons.
After Mary Ann gave birth to Robert Robson, the family of five moved to West Auckland. Incidentally, they happened to find a house on the same street as a former flame, who was now unmarried. It is here that our murderess became reckless, no longer willing to wait years or even a few months before snuffing out the family. Frederick Sr. quickly and quietly died and just as quickly and quietly, one Joseph Nattrass moved into the home as a “lodger.”
No sooner had Nattrass moved in, though, than our Black Widow had her sights set on someone new. Mary Ann became nurse to an excise officer recovering from small pox by the name of John Quick-Manning (or perhaps Richard Quick-Mann as there’s no record of a John Quick-Manning existing). With a new man in her sights, Mary Ann quickly dispatched those in her way: Frederick Cotton, Jr. died of gastric fever; infant Robert Robson died from teething and convulsions; while Joseph Nattrass died of typhoid fever. Incidentally, typhoid fever closely mirrors that of poisoning by arsenic which was Mary Ann’s method.
Free and clear yet again, she became pregnant for the 12th time by Quick-Manning. But there was still one dependent left: her stepson Charles Edward Cotton. She perhaps resented his living status most of all because he wasn’t even her child, of her own flesh and blood. And he had to go. Yet it was this small boy who would prove to be her ultimate downfall.
In the midst of trying to get rid of him a semi-legitimate way – sending him to a workhouse – she inadvertently revealed her ultimate intentions to a local man by the name of Thomas Riley. When little Charles did, in fact die, Riley went to the authorities and reported Mary Ann. There was an inquest and associated post-mortem, but it was ruled a natural death, sending Mary Ann on her merry way. However, popular gossip soon pressured the doctors to reexamine the child’s body and it was soon discovered that arsenic was in his stomach.
Mary Ann was quickly arrested and put on trial for the murder of Charles Edward Cotton. While his death was initially the only one she was accused of, soon things blossomed into a trial for multiple murders. The trial began on March 5, 1873 and by March 20th she’d been convicted. Four days later, she was hanged for all the murders she’d committed. She died not from her neck breaking, as is common, but by strangulation, the rope being rigged too short. Apparently the executioner chosen for the job was known to botch several executions and preferred using a short rigged rope. It was meant to bring a quicker end, but sometimes that didn’t work and so he was obliged to push down on the criminal’s shoulders to end the suffering.
So, how could a woman such as Mary Ann continually murder those she allegedly loved? Surely she wasn’t born with murder in mind. Her biographer, Tony Whitehead, writing in 2000, had this to say:
…she may have “snapped” in 1864, when William was out to sea and she was stuck with the children. Somewhere around this time, she discovered what arsenic could do to the human body. She also figured out how easy it was to mix it into a cup of hot tea.
Was Mary Ann a sociopath, hooked on the power of killing the innocent? Was she a capitalist, climbing the social ladder of husbands in a desperate attempt to gain some autonomy? She was clearly striving for something, but it’s unclear what she wanted most. Money? Freedom? Other people’s pain? She never stopped moving and plotting, but despite all her frantic action, she only ever spun in circles. She must have seen marriage and motherhood as a form of imprisonment, but every time she broke free, she immediately locked herself up again. She killed one husband only to marry the next; she poisoned one child and soon became pregnant with another. Mary Ann Cotton wanted a different life for herself, but she could never break free from her hall of mirrors, reliving her history time after time.
Mary Ann Cotton: England’s First Serial Killer
The Big Book of Female Killers: Mary Ann Cotton, the Arsenic Queen
Mary Ann Cotton