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 Mary Ann Cotton: serial poisoner and murderer

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  • Mary Ann Cotton was only when 40 she was executed for the murder of Charles Cotton, her stepson. During her life, 21 people close to Mary Ann Cotton died, many through probable arsenic poisoning. How did this happen?
  • Mary Ann Cotton, nee Robson, was born in 1832 in Murton. Her father was a pitman who was killed when Mary was 14. At the age of 16, Mary became an apprentice dressmaker. She left home aged 20 after marrying William Mowbray, a timekeeper. The couple moved to Devon where they had five children.
  • Five years later the Mowbrays moved back to Co. Durham. By this time, four of the children were dead. The couple moved around before finally settling in Sunderland. In this intervening period Mary gave birth to another three children. Not only did these children die but so did William Mowbray. As a result of the deaths, Mary claimed £35 in insurance payments.
  • By this time, Mary was working as a nurse in Sunderland Infirmary. Whilst working here she met and later married a patient called George Ward. Ward, an engineer from Sunderland, died fourteen months after his wedding.
  • A month after Ward's death, Mary Ann found employment with James Robinson, a shipyard foreman. Robinson was a widower with a family of small children and had advertised for a housekeeper. Just one week after starting work, Robinson's ten month old son died from convulsions. The death was certified as gastric fever. More deaths followed. Two more of Robinson's children, Mary Ann's remaining child by her first husband and Mary's mother all died in the early months of 1867. Despite these deaths, Robinson married Mary Ann. The couple had two more children, one of whom died before reaching its first birthday. The Robinson marriage was not a happy one. Mary Ann got the family into debt sparking rows with her husband. At some point, it seems that she suggested her husband take out life assurance. Perhaps already suspicious, Robinson refused and Mary left.
  • In 1870 Mary was introduced to Frederick Cotton by his sister, Margaret. Cotton was a widower. His wife had died of consumption and he had lost two children to typhus. Although Mary had no connections with these deaths, Margaret died very shortly after from severe stomach pains. Nevertheless, in September 1870 Mary, who was by this time heavily pregnant, married Frederick Cotton. The marriage was bigamous since she was still married to Robinson. A week later, Mary Ann took out insurance on her husband and his two sons.
  • The Cottons moved to West Auckland where a similar pattern started to emerge. Just over a year after they were married, Frederick Cotton became ill and died. Mary already had a new lover, Joseph Nattrass, who moved in three months later. Mary still needed to work, however, and found employment as a nurse to a Mr Quick-Manning, an excise officer who was suffering from smallpox. It was not long before Mary became involved with Quick-Manning and in the following weeks her stepson, son and Nattrass all died.
  • Mary soon became pregnant with Quick-Manning's child but he refused to marry her. Mary was forced to take in lodgers and find extra work to make ends meet. In summer 1872 she was asked by the assistant overseer, Thomas Riley, whether she would be available to look after another smallpox patient. Mary said that this was not possible because she had to take care of her stepson, Charles. She asked Riley whether Charles could enter the workhouse without her and when told that this was not possible said something along the lines of "Perhaps it won't matter, as I won't be troubled long." Charles died a week later. Riley was so shocked that he reported the matter to the local police.
  • The initial inquest found returned a verdict of death by natural causes but the doctor ordered to carry out the post mortem had decided to run some tests on the stomach and other organs. These tests revealed the presence of arsenic. Mary Ann was arrested and some of the bodies of her previous victims were exhumed. Traces of arsenic were found in all their stomachs.
  • Mary Ann Cotton was charged with the murder of Charles Cotton, Joseph Nattrass, Frederick Cotton and Robert Ronson Cotton although she was eventually tried only for the murder of her stepson, Charles. Mary denied murder but she was found guilty on March 8 1873 and sentenced to death. Having already given birth to her final child, a girl, in January, there was nothing to prevent the sentence from being carried out. Mary Ann Cotton was hanged on 24 March 1873 in Durham prison.


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