Mary Ann Cotton : Victorian serial-killer

With ITV set to broadcast a two-part drama ‘Dark Angel’, featuring the story of Mary Ann Cotton at Halloween, DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tale of this notorious County Durham serial killer, who claimed the lives of at least 17 people

MARY ANN’S EARLY LIFE

Low Moorsley on the south western outskirts of Hetton-le-Hole was the birthplace on October 31, 1832 of Mary Ann Robson (later Mary Ann Cotton) , one of the most notorious figures in the history of murderous crime.

Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton

During her 40 year life span she was responsible for the deaths, by poisoning, of 17 people, perhaps even more. Many of her victims were members of her own family including her own children. They were poisoned with arsenic though the victims would at first display signs of what was thought to be gastric fever. Her motives, if she really had any, are unknown, but she would often collect insurance money following the deaths of those closest to her.

Mary Ann’s childhood started out ordinarily enough in Low Moorsley. Her parents were staunch Methodists and her father, Michael Robson was a sinker involved in the horrible, itinerant and often dangerous, water-logged job of sinking shafts for new collieries. As an adult Mary too would live an itinerant lifestyle moving from place to place at regular intervals and this probably contributed to her being able to, quite literally, get away with murder.

A view across the countryside from High Moorsley not far from Mary Ann Robson's birthplace. Phot: David Simpson
A view across the countryside from High Moorsley not far from Mary Ann Robson’s birthplace, a little further down the hill. Photo: David Simpson

MARY ANN AT MURTON

Around 1839 when Mary Ann was six years old her family moved from Moorsley to the nearby pit village of Murton. With a population of 98 in 1831 that would rise rapidly into the thousands as the century progressed, Murton was one of many emerging colliery villages that came into being in eastern Durham following the establishment of Hetton Colliery in 1822. The colliery marked the beginning of the deep mining in east Durham and Wearside where the coal lay deep beneath the magnesian limestone escarpment.

Hetton Colliery changed history in East Durham
Hetton Colliery changed history in East Durham

Only a couple of years after the move to Murton, Mary Ann’s father tragically fell to his death down a colliery shaft.  He was only 30 years of age.

Whether this event affected Mary mentally in some profoundly damaging way is impossible to say but deaths in the mine were a common aspect of life that many families had to deal with.  In fact deaths within  families in the mining community were common all round as infant mortality was  particularly high during this period. All of these factors created a climate in which death was common place and death by murder might easily go unnoticed.

Mary Ann’s mother, Margaret, stayed in Murton following the death of her husband and kept lodgers that helped her support her daughter. At the age of 16, Mary Ann left home as it is thought that she did not get along with her mother’s new husband, a miner called George Scott.

Mary Ann went to work as a nurse for a local man at South Hetton and then returned to her mother’s house in Murton after three years, to train as a dressmaker.

THE MOVE TO CORNWALL AND THE DEATH OF HER FIRST CHILDREN

When Mary Ann was 20 years old she fell pregnant and married a colliery labourer called William Mowbray in Newcastle. The couple then moved to Cornwall residing  close to the River Tamar not far from Plymouth in the neighbouring county of Devon.

They resided with Irish navies, with Mowbray working on the railway as a shop steward. The work involved constant uprooting  from place to place as the railway advanced across Cornwall.

19th century map of Cornwall
19th century map of Cornwall

Why Mary ‘s husband had chosen to move to Cornwall for work was not certain. They may have learned of prospects there from one of their neighbouring Murton neighbours back in County Durham. Murton was noted for being home to a very significant number of Cornish miners who had settled there after there were unwittingly brought in to work as strike breakers.

During their time in Cornwall, Mary Ann gave birth to either “four or five children” (Mary Ann was not certain) of which only one, a girl named Margaret, seems to have survived beyond the first few days. Such early deaths in children at that time were not unusual and there is no implication that Mary Ann was involved in their deaths. In fact perhaps it was these events that damaged her psychologically.

Eventually, Mary Ann and William Mowbray were persuaded to return from Cornwall by Mary Ann’s mother where sadly their baby girl, Margaret succumbed to Scarlet Fever in 1860.

SUNDERLAND, SEAHAM AND MARY’S AFFAIR

On return to the North East, Mary Ann’s husband, William Mowbray, found work as a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and then went on to work as a stoker on a steam vessel.

The work brought William and Mary Ann to the rough and tough dockland area of Hendon and the East End in Sunderland, an area noted for its pubs, sailors and houses of ill-repute.

Here Mary and William would have two further children, both girls. The children were named Isabella and Margaret and both survived, for the time being at least. In the meantime with her husband frequently away from home, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a red-headed coal miner called Joseph Nattress of Seaham Harbour.

She fell pregnant – very likely to Nattress – and the infant, named John Mowbray, born at Hendon and baptised at South Hetton died a couple of days after baptism, apparently from ‘gastric fever’ in September, 1864.

It would only be around a year later that William Mowbray, Mary Ann’s first husband died – of Typhus . Interestingly, Mary Ann received insurance of £35 following his death. It was the equivalent to half a year’s wage.

Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour with her two daughters, one of whom, Margaret, died soon after. The remaining daughter, Isabella, went to live with Mary Ann’s mother.

Mary Ann’s relationship with Nattress may have continued for a while but he was engaged to someone else and following his marriage Mary Ann left Seaham and found work as a nurse in Sunderland.

Here, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a patient called George Ward who, like Mowbray, was a stoker. They married in August 1865 at Monkwearmouth. Ward subsequently became ill and died in 1866.

Once again, Mary Ann collected the insurance money.

A certificate gave cholera and typhoid as the cause of George Ward’s death although doctors had been confused by some of the symptoms he had displayed.

The Sunderland port area in the nineteenth century
The Sunderland port area in the nineteenth century

MARY ANN ROBINSON

Next, in December 1866, Mary Ann found work as a housekeeper after replying to a job advertisement posted by a recently widowed shipyard worker in the Pallion area of Sunderland called James Robinson.

Robinson was the father of five children and needed female assistance. Only a day after Mary Ann started working for him his recent baby, by his late wife, died of gastric fever.

During 1867 Mary Ann heard news that her 54 year old mother, who was still the guardian of Mary Ann’s daughter, Isabella, was feeling unwell. Mary Ann went to visit her mother at Seaham.

Her mother started to make a recovery but the recovery was soon accompanied by stomach pains and she lost her life only nine days after Mary Ann had come to visit. When Mary Ann left Seaham, her step-father, George Scott told her to take Isabella with her.

At this time, around February 1867, Mary Ann, was already pregnant by James Robinson when she returned to the Robinson household in Sunderland with Isabella.

Within the space of four days in April 1867, another two children of James Robinson died – the six-year old James and eight year old Elizabeth. Another six days would pass and then on April 30, 1867 Mary Ann’s own daughter, Isabella Mowbray, by then aged around seven years old, would also die.

This must have been an exceptionally difficult time for Robinson but in August, to avoid illegitimacy of their forthcoming child, Mary Ann and James were married at Bishopwearmouth. Their child was born in November 1867 and was named Mary Isabella.

Sadly, little Mary Isabella became ill and died in March of the following year. In June 1869, a second child was born to the couple, a baby boy called George.

Robinson then discovered that Mary Ann was stealing from his bank account and that she was encouraging his surviving children to pawn his belongings to pay off her debts.

It is not known what Mary was spending the money on, as there was no sign that she had purchased anything around the house. It still remains a mystery why she needed the money so desperately and we can only speculate. Perhaps someone with knowledge of her murderous activities, was bribing her.

Robinson threw Mary Ann out of his house which was a very fortunate decision for him to make. He would be the only one of Mary’s husbands to outlive her.

Worryingly, Mary Ann took the baby, George with her, keeping him for a short while. She later handed George over to a friend while she went to ‘post a letter’ but Mary didn’t return. George was returned to his father who maintained in custody of the child.

BIGAMY : FREDERICK COTTON

For a while Mary Ann was destitute and it is not clear what she did with her life at this stage before making contact with an old friend called Margaret Cotton, a spinster in South Hetton.

Margaret told Mary Ann about her brother, Frederick Cotton, a recently widowed miner who lived at Walbottle near Newcastle. Frederick had suffered much tragedy having lost his wife and two of his children.

Mary Ann, presumably sensing that here was another potential victim wanted to meet him. Soon Mary Ann struck up a friendship with Frederick Cotton and after offering him comfort in her usual way moved in with him. Mary Ann then learned that Frederick would receive the sum of £60 upon the death of his sister Margaret – Mary Ann’s friend .

It was only within four weeks of Mary Ann moving in with the Cottons that the spinster Margaret Cotton, who was caring for her brother’s children, was dead.

A few more weeks passed and Mary Ann fell pregnant again this time with Frederick Cotton’s child. In September 1870 the two were married at St. Andrews church in Newcastle.

Of course, Frederick Cotton did not know that Mary Ann was already married.

St Andrew's church, Gallowgate was the venue for Mary Ann's bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton
St Andrew’s church, Gallowgate was the venue for Mary Ann’s bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton

THE MOVE TO WEST AUCKLAND

In 1871 the couple left Walbottle with their new baby boy, Robert along with Frederick’s two children – boys named Frederick (Junior) and Charles.

The  couple moved to West Auckland in south Durham which is said to have been Mary Ann’s choice. There they found themselves living in the same street as Mary Ann’s old flame, Joseph Nattress, with whom Mary Ann once again rekindled her affair.

In September 1871, Mary Ann’s husband, Frederick Cotton became ill  and died two weeks later. Did he ever learn that he had been in a bigamous marriage? We will never know.

Mary Ann was left to look after the three boys.

She received relief payment for two of the boys – Frederick Junior and Charles as they were not her children. Further financial help came in the form of a lodger – Joseph Nattress, who moved in with them. During his stay Nattress seemingly became committed in his relationship to Mary Ann as he was persuaded to alter his will in Mary Ann’s favour.

It was around this time that Mary Ann had started working as a nurse for an excise man called Mr Quick-Manning. There is some dispute about his name but he seems to have worked for a local brewery. He was recovering from small pox and she began nursing him back to health.

He was a much wealthier prospect than Joseph Nattress.

poison

FINALLY CAUGHT

In the spring of 1872, seven-year old Frederick Cotton, along with the new baby, Robert Cotton and the lodger Joseph Nattress all died within the space of twenty or so days. Of the three children in her care, only the seven year old boy, Charles Cotton, survived.

Mary had an insurance policy on Charles which she could claim if he died but in the meantime a parish official and local assistant coroner called Thomas Riley asked Mary Ann if she could nurse a woman who was suffering from small pox.

Strangely, Mary Ann complained that she would if Charles could be accommodated in the workhouse so that he was out of the way. It was explained that this would only be possible if she entered the workhouse with Charles. Her response to this was that Charles was sickly and would soon be dead. “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like the rest of the Cottons” she said.

Five days later Charles was dead, it was yet another of the many tragic deaths that followed Mary Ann Cotton like a dark and sinister cloud. This time, however, things would be very different.

Riley was told the news of Charles’ death and immediately became suspicious. It had occurred to him that Charles had not appeared sickly and he alerted the police, persuading the doctor who was about to carry out a post mortem to delay issuing the ’cause of death’ certificate.

An inquest was then held in the Rose and Crown Inn on West Auckland’s Front Street next door to Mary Ann Cotton’s home but proved inconclusive. The Doctor however, had retained samples of Charles Cotton’s stomach after he was buried and upon examination discovered that it contained arsenic.

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THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF MARY ANN COTTON

Mary Ann was arrested on July 18, 1872 for the murder of Charles Cotton. She kept a wall of silence but investigations soon started to unravel some of the events of her life and suspicions rapidly grew regarding the scale of her evil activities.

The bodies of Nattress, and Charles Cotton, Frederick Cotton Junior and the baby Robert were all exhumed and found to contain arsenic.

Mary Ann’s trial was delayed due to her pregnancy and her child was born on January 7, 1873 and named Edith Quick Manning Cotton. This was an embarrassment for Mr Quick-Manning, who appears to have changed his name and fled. The baby itself was taken into care and its name was changed. It was the only one of her children to survive besides George Robinson.

In the meantime the press had covered every sensational aspect of Mary Ann’s life with a little help from the police who leaked many details.

Mary Ann had no chance whatsoever of a fair trial as the jury had no doubt studied all of these details. She was tried only for the murders that had taken place at West Auckland and was found conclusively guilty on the murder of the boy, Charles Cotton.

On March 24, 1873 she was hanged in the open at Durham Prison in front of an assembled crowd. The executioner, William Calcraft had not left a high enough drop and instead of dying instantly Mary Ann was strangled to death over several minutes.

Executioner, William Calcraft
Executioner, William Calcraft

Mary Ann Cotton’s name soon entered the folklore of the region’s history and as the decades past she was best remembered in a children’s skipping rhyme:

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten,
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.

Above: a folk version of the Mary Ann Cotton song performed by Peg Powler

  • The first episode of Dark Angel, the new two-art drama about the story of Mary Ann Cotton will air on Monday October 31st at 9pm on  ITV It features Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt in the lead role and North East actor Alun Armstrong

 

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