Marriage, murder, and money: the life of Mary Ann Cotton. Known as Britain’s first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton lived a life of power. She used poison as a way to achieve this power, taking the lives of those who stood in her way.
Using arsenic, Mary Ann Cotton killed her boyfriend, her husbands, her children, her mother; a total of twenty-one people, all for money. She lived, and killed, and loved, and got caught, leaving an interesting story behind.Mary Ann Cotton, born as Mary Ann Robson in Low Moorsley, England, began her journey in this world on the 31st of October in the year 1832.
Mary Ann did not have an easy childhood. At only nine years old, her father died in a mining accident “forcing Mary Ann to become a nurse and support her family” (www.chroniclelive.co). She had to take on many jobs, one of which was a Sunday school teacher. When she was sixteen years old, she ran away from home, but returned three years later to work as a dressmaker. From the time Mary Ann was twenty to the time of her death, her life was filled with poison and murder, but it was also filled with family and children. In 1852 she became the wife of William Mowbray, and together they had eight or nine children.
The family moved frequently in the beginning of their marriage, “but settled in Hendon in Durham in 1856” (historycollection.co). By 1864, all but three of their children were said to have died of gastric fever, “a common ailment that had symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning,” which was Mary Ann’s weapon of choice (www.
britannica.com). After most of his children were dead, William took out a life insurance policy that covered him and the three remaining. This policy left Mary Ann with a large payout when he and two more of their children died of intestinal problems in the year 1865. Mary Ann had a relationship with five more men throughout her life, marrying George Ward, James Robinson, and Frederick Cotton, and seeing Joseph Nattrass and John Quick-Manning. She had a total of four more children, most of whom did not survive.
The excitement of multiple men and an abundance of children did not compare to the mysterious dead bodies that continued to pile up around Mary Ann wherever she went. Arsenic is a lethal poison, tasteless in food, with symptoms that were frequently mistaken for common stomach ailments. Mary Ann used this poison to kill up to twenty-one people throughout her life. From what the officials knew, “Mary Ann’s first known murder didn’t occur until 1865, however, there is a strong possibility that she claimed her first victims much earlier” (historycollection.
co). Eight of the children Mary Ann had with William Mowbray all died of gastric fever leading the world to believe she and her arsenic were responsible for their deaths. After most of her first family had died, Mary Ann took the life insurance money, left her last surviving daughter in the care of her mother, and went off to marry George Ward. He died the following year leaving Mary Ann with yet another life insurance payout. Mary Ann met her next husband, James Robinson in 1866 after taking a job as his housekeeper. Only weeks after Mary Ann’s arrival at this house did one of James’ children die mysteriously of gastric fever.
The following year, in 1867, Mary Ann went back home to see her mother who passed away a week after the visit. Mary Ann took her last surviving child from her first marriage and went back to the Robinson house. By April of 1867, that child and two of Robinson’s own children were dead. In August, Mary Ann and Robinson got married and had two children, only one surviving. After growing suspicious of the constant requests for him to take out a life insurance policy, Robinson kicked Mary Ann out of the house and left her homeless. In 1870, Mary Ann met Frederick Cotton whose sister and youngest child both died later that year. By the end of the next year, Cotton and two more of his children were dead while Mary Ann ran off to enjoy her newly received money from another insurance policy.
After Mary Ann was done with Cotton, she began seeing a man named Joseph Nattrass who later died in 1872. While she was seeing Nattrass, she became pregnant by John Quick-Manning. Making probably the biggest mistake of her life, Mary Ann told a local official that she could not marry Quick-Manning because she was left with Cotton’s seven-year-old son, Charles Edward Cotton. This was the conversation that led to Mary Ann’s undoing. Mary Ann’s murder streak had come to an end.
Charles Edward Cotton died shortly after the conversation with the local official, raising his suspicion. He reported that conversation to the police who found it suspicious as well. Charles’ body was exhumed and examined.
The researchers’ tests “ultimately revealed the presence of arsenic in his stomach” (www.britannica.com).
These results caused officials to exhume the bodies of Joseph Nattrass and two of Cotton’s other children who were determined to have been poisoned by arsenic as well. Mary Ann Cotton was taken to jail, having been charged with the murder of Charles Edward Cotton. On March 24th, 1873, Mary Ann Cotton “was hanged in a bungled execution” (www.britannica.com). The platform from which she was hanged was not high enough to break her neck, leaving the executioner with no choice but to push down on her shoulders until she took her last breath, several minutes later. Twenty-one people lost their lives at the hands of a single woman.
Twenty-one people’s lives were ended because one woman got what she wanted. Mary Ann Cotton is this woman’s name, a name likely never to be forgotten.