Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Up in the air
Selling black pudding a penny a pair.
-Children’s nursery rhyme
Her exact death toll remains somewhat conjectural since her method of choice — arsenic poisoning — so closely mirrored gastroenteritis. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration were hallmark symptoms of both afflictions, and as Mary Ann’s many children succumbed in such conditions over the years, they were easily chalked up to just another childhood mortality among the vast ranks of working poor.
At age 20, she wed a coal miner (her father had been one too, but fell to his death in a mine shaft years before). In the twelve-plus years of their marriage, she bore William Mowbray at least four children. Three died in childhood of — so the death certificates read — gastric ailments. William himself died of one too in January 1865, and Mary banked 35 quid in life insurance on the occasion.
Mary’s own testimony would eventually indicate at least four other children by Mowbray from when they lived in Plymouth. These were the circumstances for a repeat killer to thrive: when a mother can be eight or nine bodies into her career, every one of them close family members, and nobody has bothered to notice. She was said to be a consummate actress in her grief.
With Mowbray and her ample brood — of whatever size — off her hands, Mary Ann now made a career of disposable short-term marriages to men who could support her for a while, and then would mysteriously drop dead of a gastric problem with life insurance policies naming Mary Ann.
An engineer named George Ward, married in 1865 and died in 1866.
A widower named James Robinson had the good fortune to throw Mary Ann out of the house in 1869 for stealing. But that was only after five children in the household mysteriously died (three by Robinson’s previous marriage, one of Mary Ann’s and Robinson’s, and the last surviving child of Mary Ann and William Mowbray). Mary Ann also dipped out of that household for a bit to care for her ailing mother, who also then died within days. Robinson would say after his former wife’s arrest that he had been suspicious of all the dead kids and her eagerness to insure him, but nothing so strong it would lead him to, say, call the police.
In 1870, she found a Northumberland miner name of Frederick Cotton, who gave her the name by which history knows her. Only after Cotton dropped dead — and her lover Joseph Nattrass dropped dead — and a stepson and her own son by Cotton both dropped dead — did the black widow finally come to official attention. That happened when the mother, desperate to fob off her inconvenient last child, incautiously implied to a village overseer in Walbottle, Northumberland where she had moved to wed Frederick Cotton that young Charles Edward Cotton was likely to die soon.*
When he did so, that official had the death certificate held up to examine the boy’s body. Though arsenic’s symptoms were difficult to distinguish from less sinister medical conditions, the mid-19th century had seen the advent of an effective scientific test for toxin: the Marsh test. The end of the arsenic era would be the ensuing decades’ march towards ever more powerful forensic tests that could put the lie to the “gastroenteritis” diagnosis.
The Marsh test easily did so when applied to Charles Edward Cotton. All it had taken these twenty years was for someone at last to suspect something. Her trial of the “West Auckland poisoner” over a few days in early March — delayed because she was pregnant with one last child when arrested — saw intense public interest, and an easy conviction.
She only dropped her pretense of innocence, partially, on the morning of the hanging itself, under the persistent questioning of her Wesleyan minister “when, after some hesitancy, she said, ‘I believe that I poisoned the boy.’ She was also minutely questioned about the other cases of poisoning, and when it was urged that they could not have been accidental, she made no reply, but turned aside, leaving it to be inferred that she had been the cause of the other deaths.” (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1873)
* She was remarking on the difficulty that care of Cotton’s son posed for her intended next marriage/victim. “T’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long,” she said … which looks foolishly self-incriminating in print, but she had probably said such knowing-wink nothings to others before without trouble, seeing as even the wholesale deaths of several men’s entire progenies had not formerly sufficed to attract an inquiry.
Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.