Evil Female Murderers. Part 3

Mary Ann Cotton, Britain's FIRST serial killer, She poisoned 21 people including her own mother, children and husbands
The property, centre left, where Mary Ann cotton was living when she was arrested in 1873
Photograph from www.maryanncotton.co.uk writingwomenshistory.blogspot.com
Feeling a little better.
The Medical Certificate in respect of Frederick Cotton showing him to have died of 'Typhoid Hepatitis'.
North Warbottle Colliery
A newspaper cutting on Victorian poisoner Mary Ann Cotton
daily Mail
Mary Ann Cotton was hanged in 1873 at Durham Jail after she was accused of killing 21 people
Mail on Sunday
Daily Mail

Cotton, Mary Ann.                             

Mary Ann Cotton was the first known serial poisoner who was probably responsible for the deaths of 21 people who were close to her. She was only 40 tears of age when she was hanged for her crimes.

‘Mary Ann would find a man with an income, live with him until it became inconvenient, and then murder him.’

Professor David Wilson  

‘This was a woman who was expert at seducing men, she was attractive and intelligent as well as being calculating and ruthless.’

 Supt Stephanie Yearnshire

Mary Ann was born in 1832 in Murton to George and Margaret Robson, nee Lonsdale. Her father was a miner and had an accident when Mary Ann was just 8 years old, when he fell 150 feet (46) metres down a mine shaft and was killed. She had a happy childhood for the first few years but when her mother remarried in 1843 life wasn’t so enjoyable for her after that.

Her mother, married George Stott and Mary Ann didn’t get on with me at all. As a result she moved out of the house when she was just 16 years of age. She became a nurse at Edward Potter’s home in the nearly village of South Hetton, After being there for three years, she returned to the family home where she then trained to be a dressmaker.

In 1852, aged 20 years, Mary Ann married colliery labourer, William Mowbray in Newcastle-upon-Tyne register office: soon after, they moved to Plymouth in Devon… The couple had five children, four of whom died from gastric fever. William and Mary Ann then moved back to the North East of England, where they had, and lost another three children.

William became a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and later a fireman on a steam vessel. He died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865. William’s life was insured by the British and Prudential Insurance Office. They paid out £35 to Mary Ann for her husband’s death. That sum of money was the equivalent to about half a year’s wages for a manual labourer.

Soon after her husband’s death Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham, where she struck up a relationship with Joseph Nattress. He, however, was engaged to another woman and she left Seaham Harbour after Nattress’s wedding. During this time her 3 year old daughter died, leaving her with just one child out of the nine she had borne.

She returned to Sunderland and took up employment at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. She then sent her remaining child, Isabella, to live Isabella, to live with her mother.

One of her patients at the Infirmary was an engineer, George Ward. They quickly struck up some sort of friendship and were married in Monkwearmouth on the 28th August 1865. She was aged 32 by then. Her husband continued to suffer with ill health; in fact he was getting worse. As a result he died in October 1866 after a long illness characterised by paralysis and intestinal problems. The attending doctor gave evidence that Ward had been very ill, yet he, the doctor, had been surprised that the man’s death was so sudden. Once again Mary Ann collected money from the Insurance Company following his death.

James Robinson was a shipwright at Pallion, Sunderland, hose wife, Hannah had recently died. He had a family of small children. He hired Mary Ann as a housekeeper in November 1866. One month later, when James’s baby died of consumption, however; the death was certified as ‘Gastric fever.’ Not long after two more of Robinson’s young children died as well as Mary Ann’s mother and Mary Ann’s remaining child by her first husband all died during the early months of 1867. By this time he turned to his housekeeper for comfort and shortly afterwards found she had became pregnant again.

Mary Ann’s mother was 54 years old when she died in the early months of 1867.

Mary Ann insisted that James should ‘up’ his Insurance contributions to make sure that there were sufficient funds for her and the family should anything happen to him. She continued to keep on at him and it wasn’t long before he started to get suspicious.

After a while together James began to get more suspicious about his wife; they turned out to be justified as he found out that she had run up debts for around £60 behind his back and she had stolen £50 that she had been given to place in their bank. He was furious and then the last straw was when he found out that she had been forcing his children to pawn household valuables for her. He threw her out, which probably saved his life.

Mary Ann was then destitute and having to live on the streets, begging for money where she could. Then one day she met up with a friend, Margaret Cotton who introduced her brother to her… Frederick Cotton was a pitman and a recent widower and living in Walbottle, Northumberland. He had lost two of his four children. Margaret had been acting as a substitute mother to the remaining two children, Frederick (jr.) and Charles. In late March 1870 Margaret suddenly died with an undetermined stomach ailment, dying in tremendous pain. This left Mary Ann to console the Grieving Frederick 9snr). Soon her eleventh pregnancy was on the way.

Frederick and Mary Ann were bigamously married on 17th September 1870 at St. Andrew’s, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and their son, Robert was born in the early months of 1871. Not long afterwards marry Ann learnt that her former lover, Joseph Nattress, was living only 30 miles away in West Auckland, County Durham. He was no longer married. Mary Ann quickly rekindled their friendship and persuaded her husband and the family to move nearer to where he was living. This they did, with Frederick having no idea about Nattress and Mary Ann. Not long after Mary Ann and Joseph Nattress started their romance again. Not long after the move Frederick fell ill and although at one time started to rally, he followed his predecessors to their graves in December 1871 from ‘gastric fever.’ Mary Ann picked up the Insurance money on his life. 

In the bible, Mr Cotton, who moved around the country, has written a morbid verse:

Frederick Cotton is my name England is my nation Wisbeach is my dwelling place and Christ is my salvation. When I am dead and in the grave And all my bones are rotten Take this bible and keep it clean Until I (am) quite forgotten.


Two Lovers:

After her husband Frederick’s death, Nattress soon became Mary Ann’s lodger. She then gained employment as a nurse to an excise Officer who was recovering from smallpox, John Quick-Manning. Soon she became pregnant by him with her twelfth child. It may well be the name of this excise officer in fact as Richard Quick-Mann. (There appears to be no trace of a man called Quick-Manning as an Excise officer but there was a Richard Quick-Mann around at that time. The records at The West Auckland Brewery and the National Archives at Kew have been checked without success for Quick-Manning. The census records, birth, death and marriage records have all been checked and no trace of him was found.

Frederick jr. died in March 1872 and the infant Robert not long after. Then Nattress became ill with ‘gastric fever,’ and died just after revising his will in Mary Ann’s favour.

‘It is hard not to believe that there was some element of enjoyment at the control she exercised – that she was, in other words, a psychopath. I believe she would have enjoyed holding down Nattrass as he died writhing in agony.’

Professor David Wilson 

The Insurance Policy Mary Ann had taken out on Charles’s life still awaited collection; – how strange. 

The Death of Charles Edward Cotton and the Inquest.

Mary Ann’s downfall came when she was asked by a Parish official, Thomas Riley, to help nurse a woman who was ill, suffering with Smallpox. Mary Ann complained that the last surviving Cotton child, Charles Edward, was in the way and asked Riley if the boy could be committed to the Workhouse. Riley, who also served as West Auckland’s assistant coroner, said that she would have to go with the boy. She then told Riley that the boy was very sickly and added, ‘I won’t be troubled long, He’ll go like the rest of the Cotton children.’

Just five days later, Mary Ann told Riley that the boy had died. Riley went to the village police and convinced the police doctor to delay the writing of the Death Certificate until the circumstances could be investigated.

Mary Ann’s first port of call after the little boy’s death was not the doctor’s but the Insurance Office. There, she discovered that no money could be paid out until a death certificate had been issued.

There then followed an Inquest and the jury returned a verdict of natural causes. Mary Ann claimed to have used ‘arrowroot’ to help with the boy’s illness and reported that Riley had made accusations against her because she had rejected his advances.

The local newspapers quickly latched onto the story and soon discovered Mary Ann had moved around the northern part if England and had lost three husbands, a lover, a good friend, her mother and a twelve children, all of whom had died of a ‘Stomach fever.’ Surely a ‘little strange?’

With people reading the newspapers the rumours started to turn to suspicion and a forensic inquiry was set up. The doctor who treated Charles Edward, the little boy had kept samples that he took, and they tested positive for arsenic. The doctor went to the police explaining what he had found.

The police then arrested Mary Ann on suspicion of murder and also ordered the exhumation of little Charles’s body. She was then charged with murder. The actual trial had to be delayed until after the birth of her baby, who was born in Durham Gaol on the 10th January 1873. She had a daughter who she named Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton. 

The Trial.

Her trial commenced on 5th March 5th March 1873. The extra delay was caused by a problem in the selection of the Public Prosecutor. A Mr. Aspinwall was supposed to get this job, but the Attorney-General, Sir John Duke Coleridge, chose his friend and protégé, Mr. Charles Russell. This change of prosecutor led to questions being ‘asked in the House of Commons.

However, it was eventually accepted and the trial commenced and Russell conducted the prosecution. The Cotton case would be the first of several famous poisoning cases he would be involved in during his career, including those of Adelaide Bartlett and Florence Maybrick.

The defence side in this case was handled by Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster, who argued the defence very well stating during the trial that Charles had died from inhaling arsenic used in the dye in the green wallpaper in the Cotton home. At this stage the trial was going well for the defence, and there were people present who thought perhaps Mary Ann may be found ‘Not Guilty.’

The Jury retired and after a long deliberation last just over ninety minutes returned to the court.

The foreman stood up and was asked by the Judge,’ how do you find the defendant?’ His answer came back very clear, ‘Guilty my lord.’ The Judge turned to Mary Ann saying, ‘you have heard what the foreman has said. ‘It is now my duty to sentence you to hanging from the neck until dead.’ 

On the 24th0th March, The Times newspaper reported that ‘after conviction the wretched woman exhibited strong emotion but this gave way in a few hours to her habitual cold, reserved demeanour. And while she harbours a strong conviction that the Royal clemency will be extended towards her, she staunchly asserts her innocence of the crime that she has been convicted of. ‘Several Petitions were presented to the Home Secretary, but to no avail.



Mary Ann Cotton was hanged at Durham Gaol on 24th March 1873 by William Calcraft; she ultimately died not from her neck breaking but by strangulation, caused by the rope being cut to short. 

Nursery Rhyme.

After her death at the end of a rope a nursery rhyme was composed and sung about her, it went something like this: –


Mary Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten,

Lying in bed with her eyes wide open,

Sing, sing, what song shall I sing,

Mary Cotton is tied up with string,

Where, where? She’s up in the air,

And they’re selling puddings for a penny a pair.



Mary Ann Cotton murdered as many as 21 people during the late 19th century Crime Stories.


Not everyone believes that she was a cold-blooded killer

‘I think she was a troubled person, and I believe my research shows that she suffered from depression, but was certainly not – as some authors describe – a psychopath.’

 Ian Smyth Herdman 

Far from being a cold-blooded killer, he believes, she was one of Sunderland Infirmary’s best fever nurses, with a string of experts lining up to be character references at her trial. 

Mr Smyth Herdman, who runs a website dedicated to the case, said: ‘I believe like most Victorian women who had child after child, her life was one of difficulty, she made the best of the situation.

‘Deaths in that era were frequent, the mortality age being very low for adults too.

‘I think she was a troubled person, and I believe my research shows that she suffered from depression, but was certainly not – as some authors describe – a psychopath.’ 


www.amazon.co.uk/ DavidRowland

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.

Books by David Rowland

Spirit of Winsome Winn II

Custer’s English Soldier

Death/Chief Constable Solomon

Brighton Trunk Murders

On the Brighton Beat

Bent Cops

War in the City Vol. 1

War in the City Vol. 2


Spitfires over Sussex

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