As many of you may already know, I’m quite interested in true crime. I’m always very aware that if I were to accidentally pull my headphones out at work or on the bus, everyone around me would be regaled by tales of ghastly dismemberment or horrific slaying. I don’t know why I’m so interested, I’ve actually never really thought too much about it. But interested I most certainly am. One of the many podcasts I listened to, My Favorite Murder, has a segment during their shorter episodes called ‘Hometown Murders’, in which listeners write in with their own gruesome or just plain bizarre tales from the area they grew up… and that got me thinking. I wonder what mine would be?
It didn’t take a lot of digging to find that the North East of England has got some pretty incredible murders… so I’m going to write a series of posts about some of the best (or possibly worst, depending on how you look a it). So this is the first in the series, about Mary Ann Cotton.
Now, if you’ve grown up in the area, there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll have heard this name. She’s a sort of revered figure – there’s even a nursery rhyme about her (see the second picture). I did a little bit of reading around her to put meat on the bones of what I already knew, but honestly she seems to be quite a stereotypical black widow. A black widow is a specific type of serial killer, easily recognised as a woman who kills one or more of her partners (whether they’re married or not). Mary Ann is thought to have killed upwards of 20 people, including 3 of her 4 husbands and 11 of her 13 children, seemingly for the purpose of collecting on their insurance. Now, obviously I don’t agree with anybody poisoning 20 people. But this kind of killing seems to be done out of necessity (or perceived necessity), and, according to the few sources I read, she had a pretty horrible life.
Mary Ann Robson was born on the 31st of October (Halloween) 1832, in Low Moorsley (now part of Hetton-le-Hole, which is part of Houghton-le-Spring, which is part of the greater City of Sunderland). She later moved with her family to Murton, where shortly afterwards her father Michael fell 46m (150 ft) down a mine shaft to his death. According to Wikipedia, ‘Her father’s body was delivered to her mother in a sack bearing the stamp ‘Property of the South Hetton Coal Company’.’ Now, just let how absolutely and horribly grim that is sink in for a second. And you thought we were living in a capitalist hellscape nowadays!
The rest of the story is long and complicated. She moves around the country, marrying four men: William Mowbray (which coincidentally is the name of my great grandfather), George Ward, James Robinson and Frederick Cotton. Of these, only James Robinson survived, after throwing Mary Ann onto the streets after discovering that she had been stealing from him and had amassed debts of up to £60 (just under £6500 today) behind his back. Her weapon of choice was arsenic, which led to gastric problems and a rapid decline in health of her victims. Her downfall seems to have been greed. She was asked by a parish official in her capacity as a nurse to look after a woman who was ill with smallpox. She complained that her last surviving son (Charles Edward) was an obstacle, asking if she could have him committed to a workhouse. The official told her that she would have to go with him, to which she (understandably) objected. She later said that he was sickly, and added: “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.” She was right, and after the death of Charles Edward, her first port of call was the insurance broker; she only visited the doctor after being told that she could not be paid without a death certificate. So… you know. Just a lovely person all-round, it seems.
Mary Ann Cotton was tried and convicted, sentenced to death by hanging at Durham Gaol on the 24th of March, 1873. She was 40 years old at the time of her death. You may have noticed that I’ve sort of skimmed over the murders of the children… well, frankly, there are so many of them that it would rapidly become depressing. So instead I’ll tell you about her two surviving children: George (from her marriage to James Robinson), who stayed with his father when Mary Ann was kicked out of the house, and Margaret Edith, who was born while Cotton was awaiting her execution at Durham Gaol, and lived all the way up until 1954. So that’s… something? I know it’s a horrible story, but it’s been fascinating being able to read up about her after hearing her name for so long and knowing next to nothing of her life and… work. Now let’s all have a nice cup of tea and forget all about this grisly business. Thanks for reading – and for all you Murderinos out there: stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.