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Cotton [née Robson; other married names Mowbray, Ward, Robinson], Mary Annfree

(1832–1873)
  • J. Gilliland

Cotton [née Robson; other married names Mowbray, Ward, Robinson], Mary Ann (1832–1873), poisoner, was born at Low Moorsley, co. Durham, on 12 October 1832, the elder daughter of teenage parents, Michael Robson (d. 1846), miner, and his wife, Mary, née Lonsdale (d. 1867). She is reputed to have killed by the administration of arsenic at least eighteen people, although some estimates place the total considerably higher. There is no evidence that she was deranged; her motives were apparently the desire for improvement to her circumstances and for frequent changes of sexual partner.

Mary Ann Robson was a pretty child with dark hair and eyes; she was a chapel-goer and, in her teens, a teacher at a Wesleyan Methodist Sunday school. Rumour later circulated that as a child she had pushed a boy to his death down a pit shaft. Her father died in a pit accident in 1846; her mother subsequently married George Stott, and opened a school in Murton. Mary Ann had worked as a nursemaid for three years before returning to help her mother with the school and to learn dressmaking. On 18 July 1852, and already pregnant, she married William Mowbray, a 26-year-old labourer, at Newcastle register office. They travelled around the country for several years in search of work, producing several children, all but one of whom died, possibly from natural causes. About 1856 they returned to Hendon, near Sunderland, where three more children were born; the eldest of these four survivors died within the year. Mowbray took out a life insurance policy on the three remaining children and his own life, and died in September 1864; two of the children rapidly followed him, the cause of death being given as diarrhoea, a common killer in those times. No suspicions were aroused, and Mary Ann collected about £30 from the insurance.

The remaining child was sent to live with Mary Ann's mother, and the widow took up with one Joseph Nattrass, who soon left her to marry another woman. She became a nurse on the fever ward of Sunderland Hospital, where she earned praise for her work from the doctor in charge, and married, on 28 August 1865, a good-looking patient, George Ward, an engineer. She had hoped that this marriage would improve her social position, but Ward's ill health prevented him from working; he died from ‘fever’ in October 1866. A month later she became housekeeper to James Robinson, shipwright, a widower with five children, and soon became his mistress, bearing him a child. The youngest of the Robinson children died in 1867. At about this time Mary Stott asked Mary Ann to resume the care of her surviving daughter by her first marriage, and, after Mary Ann had removed a quantity of household goods from the Stott house, Mary Stott died unexpectedly on 15 March 1867. Mary Ann returned to Robinson and her prospects of marriage. Her daughter and two of the Robinson children died in the last days of April and early May 1867; despite the disapproval of his three suspicious sisters, Robinson married her on 11 August 1867 at Bishopwearmouth church. Another child soon arrived and departed, but a second was to survive its mother. In 1869 Robinson began to suspect, correctly, that his wife was cheating him over the housekeeping money and his building society savings; she departed with the baby (whom she soon abandoned with friends, and who was returned to its father), and never returned.

For a while Mary Ann lived with a sailor, whose possessions she stole while he was at sea, and early in 1870 she became housekeeper, and in due course mistress, to Frederick Cotton of North Walbottle, a widower with three children. (Mary Ann had known his sister, Margaret, when she was in service.) By April 1870 Margaret and the youngest Cotton child were dead, and Mary Ann was pregnant. Cotton married her, bigamously, on 17 September 1870 at St Andrew's Church, Newcastle. The family moved from Walbottle to Johnson Terrace, West Auckland, after neighbours accused Mary Ann of poisoning their pigs, to which she had taken a dislike. Cotton would not insure the family as Mary Ann had hoped, and by September 1871 she was grieving ostentatiously for Cotton and two of the children, and was in receipt of funds provided by sympathetic neighbours and free coal from local mine owners.

Again ‘widowed’, Mary Ann found that her former lover Joseph Nattrass, now a widower himself, was living nearby, and he became her lodger. He made a will in her favour, and, her fancy having been taken by an exciseman called Quick-Manning, by whom she was yet again pregnant, Nattrass died on 1 April 1872, leaving her £10 and a watch. Mary Ann's only encumbrance now was her seven-year-old stepson, Charles Edward Cotton. On poor relief herself, Mary Ann tried to have him placed with an uncle or in the workhouse. The master of the workhouse, a shopkeeper named Riley, became suspicious when she predicted that Charles, a scrofulous, macrocephalic child, whom the neighbours said she maltreated, would soon follow the rest of his family into the grave. When the boy died on 12 July 1872 Riley informed the local police, who held an inquiry. A slipshod autopsy did not reveal any sign of poisoning, and Mary Ann indignantly accused Riley of attempting to besmirch her reputation. But the doctor, who had visited Charles Edward the day before his death, carried out a second examination of the contents of the child's stomach. This revealed the presence of arsenic. The bodies of Nattrass and two of the Cotton children were exhumed and found to contain arsenic (Frederick Cotton's body could not be found). Mary Ann, who was deserted by Quick-Manning, was arrested and charged with the murder of Charles Edward Cotton.

The trial was postponed until after the birth of Mary Ann's baby in January 1873, eventually taking place before a smartly dressed audience between 5 and 7 March at the Durham assizes. The defence argued that the child had inhaled arsenic fumes from green paint on the wallpaper; this defence was plausible, especially as there was no evidence that she had administered the poison, but evidence was offered that Mary Ann had purchased arsenic, ostensibly for treating bedbugs, and the results of the exhumations of the other victims were admitted as evidence. She was found guilty, and an appeal to the home secretary was refused. She was executed in Durham gaol, making no confession, on 24 March 1873 by the notoriously clumsy hangman William Calcraft, and hung choking for three minutes before she died. She was buried in the gaol on the same day. Her responsibility for the other deaths which had surrounded her was retrospectively surmised. Mary Ann Cotton, the ‘Lucretia Borgia of the North’, was, as far as can be ascertained, Britain's most prolific female killer; a street rhyme, beginning

Mary Ann CottonShe's dead and she's rotten

kept the memory of her crimes alive in the north-east.

Sources

  • A. Appleton, Mary Ann Cotton: her story and trial (1973)
  • The Times (5 Oct 1872), 9f
  • The Times (7 Oct 1872), 10f
  • The Times (13 Dec 1872), 10d
  • The Times (26 Feb 1873), 11e
  • The Times (6 March 1873), 10f
  • The Times (7 March 1873), 11e
  • The Times (8 March 1873), 11e
  • J. Robins, Lady killers (1993)
  • J. Robins and P. Arnold, Serial killers (1993)
  • M. Farrell, Poisons and poisoners (1994)
  • J. H. H. Gaute, Murderers' who's who (1979), 73–5
  • Cox's reports of cases in criminal law, 12 (1875), 400–03
  • B. O'Donnell, ‘Mary Ann Cotton, Britain's mass murderess’, The mammoth book of killer women, ed. R. G. Jones (1993), 182–8
  • T. Manners, Deadlier than the male (1995)
  • A. Vincent, A gallery of poisoners (1993)
  • D. Dunbar, Blood in the parlour (1964), 20–24
  • R. S. Lambert, When justice faltered (1935), 108–37
  • J. R. Nash, Look for the woman (1981), 106–8

Likenesses

  • portrait, repro. in north of England newspapers, 1873
  • print, repro. in Illustrated Police News (16 Nov 1872)
  • woodcut, repro. in Appleton, Mary Ann Cotton