Uncovering serial killer Mary Ann Cotton

WHEN he began researching the life of North East murderer Mary Ann Cotton, criminologist Professor David Wilson thought it was just an exercise in ruling her out of inclusion in his planned book on Britain's serial killers.

Mary Ann Cotton

OUTSIDE of the North East, few have heard of Mary Ann Cotton, and even in this region her story is not commonly known.

Yet for her crimes, the woman nicknamed the “Black Widow” should be mentioned in the same breath as Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper, Fred West and Harold Shipman.

Renowned criminologist Professor David Wilson of Birmingham City University admitted he had barely heard of her when researching a book into this country’s serial killers.

“I was aware of this character Mary Ann Cotton who was executed in 1873 having been convicted of murder,” he said.

“But technically she was not a serial killer who have to have killed three victims over a period of more than a month to warrant the title.

“I delved into it and discovered there were a series of other charges waiting in the wings should she be found not guilty. It was then I realised I was in fact dealing with a serial killer and that piqued my interest. I set out to see what I could determine.”

His investigation saw him trawling official records in Newcastle and London and also visiting Cotton’s old stomping ground in County Durham.

“The more I investigated her the more I realised there were a lot myths, rumours, half truths and frankly untruths about Mary Ann Cotton.

“I asked myself why were there so many rumours, half truths and untruths about her? Why had she all but disappeared? Why did some claim she was a victim of a miscarriage of justice, seeing her as a rather sad and abused woman who characterised women more generally at that time.”

She was born Mary Ann Robson in October 1832 at Low Moorsley (now part of Houghton-le-Spring in Sunderland) and baptised at St Mary’s, West Rainton on November 11. Her father Michael, a miner, was ardently religious and a fierce disciplinarian. When Mary Ann was eight, her parents moved the family to the County Durham village of Murton, where she went to a new school and found it difficult to make friends. Soon after the move, her father fell to his death down a mine shaft at Murton Colliery.

In 1843, Mary Ann’s widowed mother, Margaret married George Stott, who Mary Ann did not get along with. At the age of 16, she moved out to become a nurse in the nearby village of South Hetton. After three years there, she returned to her mother’s home and trained as a dressmaker.

In 1852, at the age of 20, Mary Ann married colliery labourer William Mowbray at Newcastle register office and they soon moved to Plymouth, Devon. The couple had five children, four of whom died from gastric fever.

William and Mary Ann moved back to the North East where they had, and lost, three more children. William became a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and then a fireman aboard a steam vessel. He died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865.

William’s life was insured by the British and Prudential Insurance office and Mary Ann collected a payout of £35 on his death, equivalent to about half a year’s wages for a manual labourer at the time.

It is believed, but not proven, that the four children who died in the South East were her first victims followed by her husband and there three children in the North East. The reason is the manner of their death, gastric ailments whose symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration were the same of those who had suffered arsenic poison.

Arsenic was favoured by murders down the centuries for pragmatic reasons. Firstly, it dissolves in hot liquid and is easily administered, also it was readily available. Although at this time the authorities had started regulating its sale, a high concentration could still be obtained in a substance known as “soft soap”, a household disinfectant.

Because of the similarity of symptoms of arsenic poisoning and gastroenteritis, a busy doctor dealing with poor patients was less likely to suspect foul play. Mary Ann’s method of administering the drug was said to be via tea poured from a pot.

A tea pot said to belong to her is kept at Beamish Museum in County Durham and David headed there.

He said: “I don’t believe it actually belonged to her. The provenance letter is too vague for me.”

Mary Ann used the insurance payout from William Mowbray’s death to move to Seaham Harbour so she could be close to a lover called Joseph Nattrass.

Throughout her 20-year career of murder, wherever Nattrass went, she followed. He, too, would eventually become a victim.

The insurance money also allowed her to embark on a career in nursing at Sunderland Infirmary where she met George Ward, an engineer who was a patient in the hospital, and who became her second husband in August 1865. He died little more than a year later in October 1866, leaving Mary Ann a second insurance payout.

Now a widow with just one living child from her marriage to Mowbray, Mary Ann was the perfect candidate for housekeeper to the newly widowed James Robinson, a shipwright at the Pallion yard on the River Wear in Sunderland. She took the job in November 1866 only for him to see his baby die a few weeks later.

Robinson turned to Mary Ann for comfort and yet again she became pregnant. But then her own mother fell sick. Mary Ann went to help – only for her mother to die nine days after Mary Ann returned home. Then Mary Ann’s daughter Isabella, who had been living with her grandmother, was brought back to the Robinson household at Pallion. She soon died too, as did two more of Robinson’s children, all three infants being buried in the last two weeks of April 1867.

Four months later, Robinson married Mary Ann, becoming her third husband. Their child, Mary Isabella, was born that November but died in March 1868. Robinson himself had a lucky escape. He was intrigued as to why she had wanted his life insured for a significant sum. He discovered that she had a secret debt of £60; that she’d stolen more than £50 that she should have banked on his behalf; and that she had forced his older children to pawn household valuables for her. He threw her out.

Mary Ann was desperate and, as newspaper reporters later suggested, was reduced to living on the streets. But yet again she found a man.

A friend, Margaret Cotton, introduced her to her brother Frederick, a pitman and recent widower living in Walbottle, Northumberland.

Margaret was looking after Frederick and his two children, but she died from an undetermined stomach ailment in March 1870, leaving the coast clear for Mary Ann.

She and Frederick married bigamously in September and a son Robert was born in 1871. Frederick Cotton died in December of that year. Insurance, needless to say, had been taken out on his life and those of his sons.

Now Joseph Nattrass, her long-term lover, moved in as her lodger. However, she also found work as a nurse to an excise officer called John Quick-Manning, who was recovering from smallpox. As was her habit, she swiftly became pregnant by him (their daughter Margaret was born in prison while Mary Ann awaited execution) but, of course, she was still encumbered by her children from her third marriage. One of her stepsons died in March 1872 and her own son Robert soon after.

Shortly after revising his will in her favour, Nattrass became sick and died in April.

The incompetence and heavy workload of local physicians, the poor nutrition of the urban working class, and imperfect record-keeping all helped the killings to go unchallenged. Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s experience as a nurse gave her perfect access – and she undoubtedly relished monitoring the painful, protracted deaths of her victims. The court documents from her murder trial suggest an element of real sadism at work. Mary Ann’s neighbour Jane Hedley was one of those who witnessed the excruciating death of Nattrass. In 1873, Mary Ann was arrested, for the murder of the seven-year-old Charles Edward Cotton. The local village overseer Thomas Riley had become suspicious because of a conversation he had with Mary Ann shortly before the boy’s death.

After asking her if she would be marrying Quick-Manning, she said she couldn’t because of the boy, adding: “t’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long”.

Some of the child’s remains were exhumed from the garden of Dr Kilburn, the local GP, who had presumably buried them there because he harboured doubts about the death. Samples were taken and, using methods that were for the time revolutionary, the presence of arsenic was detected by Dr Thomas Scattergood at Leeds School of Medicine.

David said: “He was the person that really grabbed my imagination in terms of writing about the case. I don’t like writing about them from the killer’s point of view. I tend to write from the perspective of the victims.”

Mary Ann’s trial at Durham Crown Court lasted three days. After being found guilty, she was executed in Durham Jail on March 24, 1873, by hangman William Calcraft.

Even the way she met her end proved sensational. The hanging itself was horribly botched. The drop below the trap door was too short. Mary Ann was left jerking on the end of the rope and Calcraft was obliged to press down upon her to finish the job. David said: “I found her repulsive. She wasn’t a victim of a miscarriage of justice. She was a functioning psychopath who did not deserve any sympathy.”

:: Murder Grew With Her: On The Trail of Mary Ann Cotton, Britain’s First Serial killer by Professor David Wilson, will be published later this year.


FOUR UNNAMED CHILDREN were born down south between 1852 and 1856. No birth, baptism, death or burial certificates can be found for them, only Mary Ann’s testimony says these children existed.

MARGARET JANE MOWBRAY Daughter, aged three, died June 1860, Murton/South Hetton, County Durham.

JOHN ROBERT WILLIAM MOWBRAY Son, died aged one, September 1864, South Hetton.

WILLIAM MOWBRAY First husband, died aged 39, January 1865, South Hetton.

MARGARET JANE MOWBRAY Daughter (named after elder sister), died aged three, April 1865, Seaham Harbour, County Durham.

GEORGE WARD Second husband died aged 33, October 1866, Sunderland.

JOHN ROBINSON Son of Mary Ann’s future husband James Robinson, died aged 10 months, December 1866, Sunderland.

MARGARET STOTT Mother died aged 54, March 1867, Seaham, County Durham.

JAMES ROBINSON JNR Stepson died aged six, April 1867, Sunderland.

ELIZABETH ROBINSON Stepdaughter died aged eight April 1867, Sunderland.

ISABELLA JANE MOWBRAY Daughter died aged nine, April 1867, Sunderland.

MARY ISABELLA ROBINSON Daughter, died aged three months, March 1868, Sunderland.

MARGARET COTTON Sister-in-law died aged 38, March 1870, Walbottle, then Northumberland.

FREDERICK COTTON SNR. Fourth husband died aged 42, December 1871, West Auckland.

FREDERICK COTTON JNR Stepson died aged 10, March 1872.

ROBERT ROBSON COTTON Son died aged 14 months, March 1872, West Auckland.

CHARLES EDWARD COTTON Stepson died aged seven, July 1872, West Auckland.


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 pudding a penny a pair.


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