Saturday, 5 January 2008

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton (October 183224 March 1873) was an English serial killer believed to have murdered up to 20 people, mainly by arsenic poisoning.

Gastric Fever

Young Charles Cotton was dead. The doctor couldn't deny that. His stepmother, Mary Ann Cotton, claimed the seven-year-old boy had died from gastric fever, but the neighbors had noticed that a few too many in the Cotton household had died by similar stomach ailments in recent months, and gossip and suspicion ran rampant through the West Auckland neighborhood in County Durham, England. Slowly, investigators and gossips began looking into the background of 40-year-old Mary Ann.

The deeper they dug, the more Mary Ann's life looked like something out of a gothic horror novel: a childhood of near-abuse and near-poverty, an early marriage to flee an unkind stepfather, and a long string of family members who had succumbed to the mysterious "gastric fever" or other curious circumstances while Mary Ann was ominously close by.

In his book Mary Ann Cotton: Her Story and Trial, researcher Arthur Appleton notes that Mary Ann Robson, born in the small English village of Low Moorsley in October of 1832, did not have a happy childhood -- but neither did most children born in lower-class England in the early 19th century.

Mary Ann's father was ardently religious, a fierce disciplinarian of Mary Ann and her younger brother Robert, and active in the local Methodist church’s choir and activities. No doubt his daughter feared him and his punishments. When Mary Ann was eight, her parents moved the family to the town of Murton, and her father continued working in the mines until one day about a year after their move when he fell down a mine shaft to an early death.

As Dickens would chronicle repeatedly in his classic writings, life for a lower-class family (especially one headed by a newly widowed woman) was extremely harsh in 19th century England. The specter of being sent to a workhouse, or being separated from her mother and brother, cast dark shadows over Mary Ann’s girlhood and was the cause of many nightmares.

Mary Ann never went into the workhouse, however, because her mother remarried. Her new stepfather did not like Mary Ann, and the feeling was mutual. Mary Ann began looking for an escape from her childhood home, although she owed one thing to her stepfather: his salary had kept her and her family from becoming homeless and destitute. Mary Ann learned at an early age that to avoid the miserable fate of her nightmares, she had to keep a steady flow of money coming her way – no matter what the method.

Mrs. Mowbray

Perhaps partly to escape the daily life with her stepfather, Mary Ann left home at the age of 16 to work as a servant in a prosperous household in South Hetton. The quality of Mary Ann's work caused no complaint, although she began what would become a life riddled with sexual scandals. Soon after Mary Ann began working in the household, the South Hetton gossips were busy spreading tales about illicit meetings between Mary Ann and a local churchman.

After three years of service in South Hetton, Mary Ann left to train as a dressmaker and to marry a miner named William Mowbray, by whom she had become pregnant. After their wedding in July of 1852, the newlyweds moved around England as William got work at various mining sites and on railroad construction projects throughout England.

In the first four years of their marriage, William and Mary Ann had five children, although four of them died in infancy or soon after. Even though child mortality rates were high at the time, this was a bit extreme. However, Mary Ann and William were probably viewed as particularly unlucky parents suffering from grievous personal losses.

Mary Ann and William did not have a happy marriage. They argued frequently about money, as Mary Ann was still obsessed about never becoming poor. The quarrels grew so heated that William, in an apparent attempt to get some peace, landed a job on the steamer Newburn out of Sunderland, and was often away from home. Mary Ann and the surviving children followed him and took up residence in Sunderland, and the number of her children lost to indefinable illnesses continued at an alarming rate.

In January of 1865, William returned to the house to nurse an injured foot, and Mary Ann helped him with his recovery. Later that month, despite a doctor's care, William died from a sudden intestinal disorder, which he had not shown evidence of before benefiting from Mary Ann's care. Soon after William's death, the doctor went to the Mowbray house to console the grieving widow but was surprised to find Mary Ann dancing about the room in a new dress she had bought with the money from William's life insurance.

Mrs. Ward

Soon after William Mowbray's death, Mary Ann moved her remaining children to Seaham Harbour, where she struck up a relationship with Joseph Nattrass, a local man who was engaged to another woman. Apparently unable to break up the engagement, Mary Ann left Seaham Harbour after Nattrass's wedding (and after burying her 3 ½ year old daughter, leaving her with one living child out of the nine she had given birth to). Nattrass would reappear in Mary Ann's life several years later.

Mary Ann decided to return to Sunderland and found employment at The Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. Her remaining child, Isabella, was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, and would remain in her grandmother's care for more than two years.

At the Sunderland Infirmary, Mary Ann kept the wards clean with a mixture of soap and arsenic, and the Infirmary staff admired her diligence and friendliness with the patients. She chatted with many of them, but one in particular, engineer George Ward, took a fancy to Mary Ann. Soon after he was discharged from the Infirmary, he and Mary Ann were married at a church in Monkwearmouth in August of 1865. Although now settled into a new marriage and a steady household, Mary Ann did not fetch Isabella from her mother's house.

Despite having been released from the Infirmary, George Ward developed health problems soon after marrying Mary Ann – and despite various treatments by his doctors, he died in October of 1866 after a long bout of paralysis in his limbs and chronic stomach problems. The doctor attending George was accused of incorrectly treating his patient, a point of view that Mary Ann actively encouraged, probably hoping to redirect any doubts away from herself.

Much later, at Mary Ann's trial, people would wonder why nobody became suspicious of this woman who left a trail of husbands and children dead from startlingly similar illnesses over a very short time. But as Mary Ann had different doctors attend to her dying family and she relocated frequently, suspicions never built in a single community.

According to her pattern, after George Ward's death in Sunderland, Mary Ann needed to move on.

Mrs. Robinson

Pallion shipwright James Robinson needed a housekeeper to care for his house and children after the death of his wife, Hannah. In November of 1866, Mary Ann applied for the position and was hired. Two days before Christmas, the baby of the family was interred after having developed, perhaps not surprisingly, gastric fever. Overcome with the grief of the recent deaths of his wife and then of his infant son, James turned to Mary Ann for solace and support. She provided comfort and apparently then some, as she was soon pregnant with Robinson's child.

A new marriage seemed in the forecast, but Mary Ann was diverted in March of 1867 by a sudden illness of her mother. Mary Ann returned to her mother's home to help nurse the elderly lady back to health. As always, one of Mary Ann's first tasks was to clean the house from top to bottom with soap and (her favorite cleaning additive) arsenic, of which she usually had an ample supply.

By the time Mary Ann arrived, however, her mother was doing much better, but Mary Ann decided to stay and look after her anyway – and to visit her own daughter Isabella, who was still living with her grandmother. Soon after being in Mary Ann's care, her mother began complaining of stomach pains and died only nine days after Mary Ann's arrival.

Returning to the Robinson household with her mother, young Isabella (who had enjoyed a life of good health while living away from Mary Ann) soon developed an incapacitating stomach ailment, as did two of Robinson's children, and all three were buried within two weeks of each other at the end of April.

James Robinson must have grieved further over the loss of two more of his children, but apparently did not suspect any wrongdoing on Mary Ann's part. He put his mourning aside in time for his wedding to Mary Ann in early August (at which Mary Ann stated her surname as "Mowbray" -- apparently her 14-month marriage to George Ward had slipped her mind). The couple's first child, Mary Isabella, was born in late November but had succumbed to illness by the first of March of 1868.

James now began to become suspicious of his new wife, not only by the frequency of deaths in the household since Mary Ann's arrival, but also by her constant requests for money and her pressing desire for him to insure his life.

Always punctual in his household finances, James was surprised when he received letters from his building society and his brother-in-law detailing debts Mary Ann had run up without his knowledge. He questioned his remaining children and found that they had been coerced by their new stepmother to pawn valuables from the house and give her the money. Irate, he threw Mary Ann out of the house, and she left – taking their young daughter with her.

In late 1869, after wandering the streets in the kind of life that Mary Ann had anxiously feared, Mary Ann and her daughter visited an acquaintance. During the course of the visit, Mary Ann asked her friend to watch the girl while she went out to mail a letter. Mary Ann never came back and the daughter was returned to James on the first day of 1870.

Mrs. Cotton

After weeks of desperate living, the year 1870 began well for Mary Ann. Her friend Margaret Cotton introduced her to her brother Frederick. Like James Robinson, Frederick was a recent widower and had lost two of his four children to early deaths. His sons Frederick Jr. and Charles were all that was left of his family. His sister acted as mother substitute for the family, although in late March she died from an undetermined stomach ailment – which left the opportunity wide open for Mary Ann to console the grieving Frederick and, in an echo of her relationship with James Robinson, she was soon pregnant with Frederick's child.

The couple were married in September of 1870, Mary Ann again signing the register as "Mary Ann Mowbray," ignoring the fact that her surname was legally Robinson and that she was not divorced from James, who was very much alive. Mary Ann added bigamy to her growing list of crimes.

Mary Ann quickly set up housekeeping in Cotton's house and just as quickly insured the lives of Frederick Cotton and his two sons.

After giving birth to a son, Robert, in early 1871, Mary Ann learned that her former paramour Joseph Nattrass was not married and was living in nearby West Aukland. Under some pretense Mary Ann moved the family there, and she quickly rekindled the relationship with Nattrass and became less interested in Frederick Cotton.

In December of 1871, Frederick died of gastric fever and Joseph Nattrass soon became a lodger in the three-time widow Mary Ann's house. To keep her fears at bay and to keep money coming in, Mary Ann worked as a nurse to John Quick-Manning, an excise officer recovering from smallpox. Mary Ann apparently saw Quick-Manning as a better match than Nattrass, and soon became pregnant by him.

A marriage to Quick-Manning was hindered by the presence of the remaining Cotton household, so Mary Ann apparently went to work quickly and Frederick Jr. died in March of 1872 and the infant Robert soon after. Upon the death of her infant, Mary Ann stated that she did not want to bury the baby immediately, because Joseph Nattrass had also become ill with gastric fever, and she would wait and handle both burials at once. Nattrass obligingly passed away soon after Robert, but not before revising his will to leave everything to Mary Ann.

Only one of her husbands, James Robinson, had escaped a relationship with Mary Ann with his life. Other husbands, children, and most stepchildren had succumbed to gastric fever or stomach ailments - except for young Charles Cotton and Robinson's children. The Robinson children were safely away from Mary Ann's motherly care, but the insurance policy Mary Ann had taken out on Charles's life still waited to be collected.

The Trial of the Green Wallpapers

In late spring of 1872, Mary Ann sent Charles to a local chemist to purchase a small quantity of arsenic. The chemist refused to sell the poison to anyone under the age of 21, as was the law. Undeterred, Mary Ann asked a neighbor to purchase the substance and in July Charles died of gastric fever.

But Mary Ann had either been in the West Aukland area too long - or the neighbors were more readily skeptical - because suspicions were immediately aroused in neighbors and physicians.

The first person Mary Ann told about Charles's death was Thomas Riley, a minor government official that she had consulted previously about the possibility of sending Charles into a workhouse. Riley had said that it would only be possible if she went with him, which she declined. She told Riley that the boy was "in the way" of a marriage with Quick-Manning, and predicted that, "I won't be troubled long. He'll go like all the rest of the Cotton family." Riley said the boy appeared completely healthy, and so he was surprised when Mary Ann stopped him only five days later to say that young Charles had died.

Riley went to the village police office and to a doctor and outlined his growing suspicions. The doctor was similarly surprised to hear of the news, as he and his assistant had tended to Charles five times during the previous week and had detected nothing dire, let alone life threatening, in the young boy. Riley convinced the doctor to delay writing a death certificate until he could look into the situation further.

Mary Ann, instead of going to fetch the doctor after the boy's death, hurried to the insurance office to collect on Charles's policy. She learned that they would not issue the money until they had a death certificate, so she returned home to get the document from the doctor. Instead of receiving the certificate, Mary Ann received the startling news that she would not be receiving a signed death certificate until after a formal inquest was held.

A brief inquest was held and initial evidence did not indicate death by unnatural causes. Angry at Riley for initiating the investigation, Mary Ann told him that he could be responsible for the costs of Charles’s burial.

The young boy's internment would most likely not have been the end of the story, and Mary Ann would have gone on with her plan to marry Quick-Manning and probably continue obtaining insurance monies from other gastric fever victims – but the local newspapers latched onto the story. They reported on the inquest but also alluded to the neighborhood gossip that Mary Ann was an active poisoner. These reports fanned the fires of rumors and hearsay and the feeling toward Mary Ann within West Aukland became bitter and suspicious. Quick-Manning was appalled by this type of gossip about his intended, and was apparently distressed enough to sever all connections with Mary Ann.

Mary Ann began preparations to leave the area, although her friends warned her that it would look suspicious if she did. Unknown to her, however, suspicions were already building and were about to close in around her. A doctor from the inquiry had kept samples of Charles's stomach so that he could test them later in his lab. He did so, and the samples tested positive for arsenic. The doctor went to the authorities, who arrested Mary Ann and ordered Charles's body exhumed and fully tested. The body of Joseph Nattrass was also dug up (after six exhumations of other corpses - the elderly sexton of the church couldn't remember exactly where Nattrass was buried) and tested positive for the presence of arsenic. There was debate and talk of further exhumations, but it was decided to proceed with the single murder charge of young Charles Cotton – although the trial was delayed until after the delivery of the daughter fathered by John Quick-Manning.

Her trial began in March of 1873. The prosecution brought forth numerous witnesses who testified about Mary Ann's purchases of arsenic, the long list of gastric fever victims in her past, and about her statements regarding Charles being an obstacle to her marrying Quick-Manning.

The defense claimed that Charles may have obtained the arsenic that killed him from inhaling loose airborne particles of arsenic that was used as a dye in the green wallpaper of the Cotton home. The judge dismissed this theory and the jury retired for only 90 minutes before finding Mary Ann guilty of the murder of Charles Cotton.

Mary Ann continued to proclaim her innocence and wrote numerous letters to her friends and supporters. A letter to her estranged husband, James Robinson, asked him to bring her child and two stepchildren to visit her in prison. She went on to beg Robinson "if you have one spark of kindness in you – get my life spared…you know yourself there has been…most dreadful lies told about me. I must tell you: you are the cause of all my trouble. If you had not (abandoned me). I was left to wander the streets with my baby in my arms…no place to lay my head."

Robinson ignored her letter, so she wrote him again and asked him to visit her. Robinson sent his brother-in-law to the prison in his stead. Mary Ann was upset that Robinson did not come himself, but asked the man about the children and requested that a petition be circulated in her support. Petitions were eventually created and signed by Mary Ann's former employers, ministers, and other supporters. As her execution date neared, she was cheered by a letter from the couple who had adopted the infant she and Quick-Manning had conceived. She replied to the letter, asking the couple to "kiss my babe for me."

On March 24, 1873, Mary Ann was led to the scaffold where the elderly hangman misjudged the logistics of the execution – so instead of dying quickly, Mary Ann struggled after the trapdoor was released, and it took at least three minutes for her to be slowly and painfully strangled by the noose.

Chances are, some of Mary Ann's alleged victims died from natural causes or reasons other than poisoning by her hands. Later researchers of the case would estimate her victims as numbering anywhere from 15 to the full count of 21 people who died while living with or near Mary Ann: ten of her children by various husbands, three of those husbands, five stepchildren, her mother, Cotton's sister Margaret, and her lover Nattrass. Theories of motive range from the collection of insurance money to the desire to rid herself of people that she felt were "obstacles" - or a combination of both.

Because she maintained her innocence to the end, it will never be known for sure how many victims Mary Ann claimed in her endless quest for the money that made her feel secure. Her notoriety continues with her fame as Britain's first female serial killer and in a popular children's rhyme:

Mary Ann Cotton --
She's dead and she's rotten!
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open.

Sing, sing!
"Oh, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string."

Where, where?
"Up in the air -- selling black puddings a penny a pair."


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