Mary Ann Cotton: Female Serial Killer of the 1800s

Mary Ann Cotton was an English serial killer convicted of poisoning her stepson Charles Edward Cotton in 1872. She supposedly did it using arsenic, a terrible poison that causes intense gastric pain and results in a rapid decline of health. He was not her only victim as it is likely she also murdered a total of twenty one other people, including three of her four husbands, eleven of her thirteen children, and other relatives and friends.

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary Ann was born on 31 October 1832 at Low Moorsely, a small village in north east England, to staunch Methodists, Michael Robson, a colliery sinker, and Margaret Londsale. Two years later Robson and Londsale had another girl who died a few months after birth. They then had a boy born in 1835 whom they named Robert. When Mary Ann was about five, her family moved to the village of Murton, a rural agricultural hamlet in County Durham. During her childhood Mary Ann was described as “exemplary” and regularly attended the Wesleyan Sunday School in Murton. It was also said of her that “[she] was regarded as a girl of innocent disposition and average intellect.”[1]

Five years after the family moved to Murton, Robson died in a work accident in February 1842. It happened when he fell down a narrow 300-foot mine shaft. His body was returned to his wife in a wheelbarrow inside a sack stamped, “Property of the South Hetton Coal Company.” Unfortunately, the cottage where his widow and children lived belonged to the mining company and so probably to avoid eviction, within a year or so, Lonsdale married another miner named George Stott.

When Mary Ann was sixteen, she left home and became a nurse in the nearby village of South Hetton working for Edward Potter, a manager at Murton Colliery. She also trained as dressmaker. Then, in 1852, at the age of 20, Mary Ann married a colliery pitman and laborer named William Mowbray. They then moved to South West England and had six children. The birth of a daughter named Margaret Jane was recorded but none of the deaths of the other children she bore were registered even though it was required at the time.*

Mary then had two more daughters and a son. Her husband died in January of 1865 from an intestinal disorder in Sunderland. Mary Ann collected £35 from British and Prudential Insurance upon his death. She had also insured the lives of her children and had collected some money for those deaths too.

After Mowbray died, for a short period Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham. There she had a relationship with Joseph Nattrass. However, she eventually returned to Sunderland and met and married her second husband George Ward in August 1865. He was an engineer at the Sutherland Infirmary.

County Durham in North East England. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By this time only one of Mary Ann’s nine children was still alive. Ward then died on 20 October 1866 after suffering several months of illness characterized by paralysis and intestinal problems. The coroner recorded the cause of death as English cholera and typhoid. Mary Ann again collected insurance money for Ward’s death.

A month after Ward’s death, James Robinson, a shipwright, hired Mary Ann as a housekeeper. He then got her pregnant. In the meantime, Mary Ann’s 54-year-old mother fell ill in the spring of 1867 with hepatitis. Mary Ann immediately went to Seaham Harbour to help her and although her mother began to recover, she complained of stomach pains and then died nine days after Mary Ann’s arrival.

In the meantime, Robinson and Mary Ann’s relationship continued and he married her at St Michael’s, Bishopwearmouth on 11 August 1867. Their first child was a girl named Margaret Isabella. She was born in November but became ill and died in February 1868. Their second child George was born on 18 June 1869.

After their marriage, Mary Ann began to insist that Robinson get life insurance. This made him suspicious and then he discovered that she had run up debts of £60 and that she had stolen more than £50 from him. In addition, he learned she had been forcing his older children to pawn household valuables. That was the last straw and he threw her out and retained custody of their son George.

Mary Ann was desperate. She had nowhere to go and was living on the streets. Fortunately, her friend, Margaret Cotton, introduced her to her brother, Frederick Cotton Sr., who lived in Walbottle, Northumberland. He was recently widowed and worked as pitman. Margaret was acting as a substitute mother to his children, Frederick Jr. and Charles, but then she got ill and died from an undetermined stomach ailment. That left Mary Ann to console the grieving Frederick Sr. In addition, she had gotten pregnant by him and was now carrying her twelfth child. On 17 September 1870, she committed bigamy when she married him at St Andrew’s, Newcastle Upon Tyne. As Mary Ann Cotton she gave birth to their son, Robert, a few months later, in early 1871.

Mary Ann learned that her former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was living in the County Durham village of West Auckland and was no longer married. She wanted a relationship with him and persuaded her new husband to move to West Auckland. She then secretly rekindled her romance with Nattrass.

Location of West Auckland in County Durham. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Frederick Sr. died in December of 1871 from “gastric fever.” After his death, Nattrass soon became Mary Ann’s lodger, and, in addition, she also gained employment as nurse working for an excise officer recovering from smallpox. He was named John Quick-Manning,** and she became pregnant by him with her thirteenth child.

Like she had done earlier, Mary Ann Cotton had taken out life insurance policies against Frederick Sr. and his sons. Frederick Jr. died in March 1872 and her infant son, Robert, soon followed. Nattrass also became ill and died after he revised his will in favor of Mary Ann. The only life insurance policy still awaiting collection was for Charles Cotton.

Mary Ann came under suspicion after she was asked by a parish official named Thomas Riley to help nurse a woman who was ill with smallpox. At the time Riley was also serving as West Auckland’s assistant coroner. Mary Ann told Riley that to nurse the woman she would need him to commit her stepson Charles to a workhouse.

“He refused to give such order, and [Mary Ann Cotton] then strongly complained of having to support the child. She made this complaint several times. On one occasion she stated that she could have been married to her late husband’s brother, but for the child, and, after saying so added, ‘But he won’t live long; he shall go like all the rest of the Cotton family.’ [Riley] said, ‘You don’t mean to say that a healthy boy like him will die?’ but she replied, ‘Oh, yes.’”[2]

Five days later Mary Ann Cotton informed Riley that Charles had died. Riley was suspicious and went to the village police and convinced the attending doctor to delay writing a death certificate until the circumstances could be investigated. Mary Ann not realizing that a death certificate had yet to be issued went to the insurance office and discovered that no money would be paid out until a death certificate was forthcoming.

In the meantime, Riley raised suspicions with authorities about Charles’ death and an inquest was held. Mary Ann Cotton claimed during the inquest that she used arrowroot to relieve her stepson’s illness, and in addition she alleged that Riley had made false accusations against her because she had rejected his advances. Her story seemed credible and the jury returned a verdict of natural causes. However, Riley continued to insist that Mary Ann Cotton was guilty of murdering her stepson.

In the meantime, a local newspaper became interested in the story and began to investigate. They quickly discovered that Mary Ann Cotton had moved around northern England. They also learned that she had suffered many losses including three husbands, her mother, a friend, a lover, and eleven children. Moreover, nearly all those who had died did so from sort of stomach related illness. Suspicion and rumors then gave rise to a scientific investigation by Doctor William Byers Kilburn.

He had attended Charles while he was ill and had kept various samples taken from the boy. These were tested and it was discovered that they contained arsenic, the same poison used by the Frenchwoman Madame Marie Lafarge to kill her husband. Kilburn then went to police and Mary Ann Cotton was arrested and charged with murder.

Madame Lafarge. Author’s collection.

Authorities procured an exhumation of Charles’ body and a trial date was set. However, because Mary Ann was pregnant, the trial was delayed until she delivered her thirteenth child in the Durham Gaol on 10 January 1873. It was a girl whom she named Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.

When the trial began the prosecution was led by Charles Russell. He was assisted by Mr. Greenhow, Mr. Bruce, and Mr. Trotter. They called several of Mary Ann’s neighbors as witnesses. According to The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, witnesses gave rather unflattering portraits of Mary Ann Cotton. They also “stated that the prisoner alone had tended the child [Charles] during its illness, and several bore evidence as to the violent usage which the child had been subject to at the hands of the prisoner.”[3]

Mr. Campbell Foster and Mr. Part were responsible for the defense of Mary Ann Cotton. After Kilburn testified and reported finding arsenic in the boy’s body, Foster asked him what color the wallpaper was in the child’s room because it was around this time that Paris green and Scheele’s green were being linked to arsenic poisonings. Thus, the defense was, trying to suggest that it was the wallpaper that killed him and not Mary Ann giving him poison:

“Kilburn stated that it was not green, and that even had it been he did not think death could be caused by it. He had read of arsenical poisoning by wall-paper, but he felt dubious as to whether death could be thus produced.”[4]

Mary Ann Cotton - Arsenic

Image of what arsenic could do to a person. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Dr. Scattergood of Leeds College of Medicine also received samples of the boy’s stomach and viscera. He examined these and testified for the prosecution. Scattergood’s findings and conclusions were then reported by The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser:

“The stomach contained nothing in the shape of food except a minute bit of onion skin; but on applying the best scientific tests for analysis, he found it contained arsenic. There were traces of the same poison in other parts. … The appearance of the body pointed to repeated doses of the poison rather than to a large dose at any one time. … From two to three grains of arsenic would be sufficient to kill an adult, and about half that quantity would cause the death of a child. … From the appearances he had seen … he had come to the clear and undoubted opinion that the deceased died from poison by arsenic.”[5]

When the defense questioned Scattergood, he admitted that he had heard of wallpaper “being injurious” to someone’s health, but he also stated that he had never heard of anyone dying from it. He also testified that floating particles could be inhaled but that only a small amount could be diffused from wallpaper, an amount which he did not believe could be lethal. In addition, Scattergood also commented about soft soap and arsenic being used by the housekeeper to clean the house and the bedstead in the boy’s room and admitted to the defense that if Charles was playing in the room were the arsenic had been used and that if he was eating something that dropped on the floor, he might have eaten some arsenic particles. However, when re-examined by the prosecution, Dr. Scattergood stated that nothing changed his mind about Charles having been poisoned by arsenic.

Kilburn and Scattergood also spoke about the similar symptoms displayed by the three other persons that Mary Ann Cotton was accused of murdering – Nattrass, Frederick Jr., and Robert. The doctors noted that in all cases arsenic was found in each body. In addition, the prosecution attempted to show that Mary Ann was the only person who attended to each of the deceased persons.

On the second day of trial the Dundee Courier reported:

“As on the previous day, the interest displayed in the proceedings was remarkably keen … The jury appeared none the worse for their enforced seclusion, but they were not deprived of the privilege of learning the intelligence of the day, many of them having procured copies of the morning newspapers, which they perused in the box until the re-opening of business. The prisoner again paid close attention to the evidence, and was noticed on more than one occasion to smile at some passing allusion to her supposed intention of marrying the lodger Nattrass, or the chance of becoming the wife of Mann, the exciseman. On the whole, however, her demeanour was most becoming and consistent with a real appreciation of the fearful position which she occupies; and throughout the day her whole mind seemed to be directed to the matter which is invested with such a painful interest, not only as regards herself, but even to the general public.”[6]

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton. Author’s collection.

The trial lasted three days before the jury went out to deliberate. It took them an hour to return and pronounce Mary Ann Cotton guilty. She took the news stoically. However, when the judge sentenced her to death, she was “quite overcome.”

After Mary Ann Cotton was convicted, many people were upset that she was able to freely murder people and claim insurance money. That resulted in various discussions about ways to stop such abuses. One suggestion stated:

“The proper method to stop this secret system of murder would be by placing severe legal restrictions on the sale or assignment of policies, and by preventing the purchase of them by strangers, who can only have an interest in the death of the insured at the earliest possible period. Further, no person insuring the life another should be permitted to claim after death a larger sum than would represent his lawful recoverable interest in the life of the insured. … The trial and conviction of [Mary Ann Cotton] … brought to light another fact, namely, the great insecurity of life in this country owing to the perfunctory manner in which some medical men discharge an important duty in filling up certificates of the causes of death. With fully-marked symptoms of arsenical poisoning, these sudden and violent deaths were registered, one after the other, as gastric fever! … The success of this criminal depended, first, on the facilities for insuring the lives of other … and secondly, on the carelessness with which causes of death are certified.”[7]

The execution of Mary Ann Cotton at Durham Gaol was well publicized. The night before her death she reportedly “slept well.” She rose at twelve minutes after six the morning of 24 March 1873 and shortly thereafter a reverend confronted her having noticed some discrepancies in her statement. He urged her to give a true confession, but she maintained a “sullen reserve” and stated that although she had administered the poison, she had not done so intentionally.

The procession to the scaffold started from the pinioning room at three minutes to eight. It was reported Mary Ann was “ghastly pale” as she walked. However, she proceeded with a firm step and with her hands clasp together. She prayed aloud all the way to the drop where the executioner, William Calcraft, received her.

He put a white cap over her head. As prearranged his assistant adjusted the rope and then a few moments later he pulled the bolt causing Mary Ann Cotton to drop and “after a few convulsions the body was motionless.”[8] Simultaneously the under-sheriff, Mr. R. Bowser, reacted because he “fainted … and had to be supported by two warders.”[9] In addition, to indicate the execution had taken a place, a black flag was then hoisted above the prison.

Mary Ann Cotton was dead, and it did not take long for Madame Tussaud to determine that she was evil enough to be placed in the Chamber of Horrors where the wax figures of other murderers were on display. Mary Ann’s wax figure soon sat alongside such murderers as François Benjamin Courvoisier (who murdered Lord William Russell), Charlotte Winsor (better known as the “Baby Farmer” because of her murder of a servant girl’s infant) and the two infamous Edinburgh Murderers, William Burke and William Hare (who committed a series of murders to sell bodies for dissection). Moreover, Madame Tussaud’s 1880 exhibition catalog stated of Mary Ann:

“The series of cold-blooded murders for which this wretch was hanged on the morning of Monday, March 24, 1873, are crimes against which no punishment in history can atone for. The child she rocked on her knee to-day was poisoned to-morrow. Most of her murders were committed for petty gains; and she killed husbands and children with the unconcern of a farm-girl killing poultry. The story of her crimes is still fresh in the public mind.”[10]

Madame Tussaud at age 42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

*Part of the reason the children’s births were not registered is because the law was not enforced until 1874.
**His name may have been Richard Quick Mann.


  • [1] The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, “A Celebrated Poisoning Case,” August 22, 1889, p. 4.
  • [2] The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, “The West Auckland Poisonings,” March 18, 1873, p. 2.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Dundee Courier, “The Wholesale Poisoning,” March 8, 1873, p. 3.
  • [7] A. S. Taylor, The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence: By Alfred Swaine Taylor, The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1873), p. 645.
  • [8] Western Times, “Execution of Mrs. Cotton the Great Poisoner,” March 28, 1873, p. 2.
  • [9] Chelmsford Chronicle, “Execution of Mrs. Cotton,” March 28, 1873, p. 7.
  • [10] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Exhibition Catalogue: Containing Biographical & Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose Their Exhibition and Historical Gallery (London: B. George, 1880), p. 41.

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