Between 1857 and 1872, it’s believed that Mary Ann Cotton murdered three of her four husbands, eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, two lovers, and at least one confidante who knew too much. Shockingly, that’s a low estimate.
After enduring a miserable upbringing in Victorian England, Cotton killed most often via arsenic poisoning. Her victims died horribly, typically from what appeared to be sudden (and painful) gastric illness.
After being arrested for poisoning her son in 1872, a three-day trial ended with 40-year-old Cotton being sentenced to die to by hanging. After her demise, she became known as “Britain’s first serial killer” (although hardly the last).
Here now are five dark facts about the ruthless “black widow”–style slayer who has also come to be called the “Dark Angel.”1. MARY ANN COTTON KILLED INITIALLY — AND OFTEN — FOR INSURANCE MONEY
Cotton’s official victim number one was William Mowbray. He was also husband number one.
Nineteen-year-old Cotton married the destitute laborer and the couple moved often. “Four or five” of their babies died shortly after birth, without ever having been reported. Two daughters and one son are on record as having died while they were toddlers.
Upon the occasion of Mowbray’s passing in January 1865, Cotton collected insurance for his death, as well as that of the three children.
Next, Cotton married and poisoned engineer George Ward. His doctor expressed alarm at how quickly a simple illness took out the previously healthy man. Again, an insurance company paid out.
From there, Cotton moved on to shipbuilder James Robinson, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. After Robinson’s baby died, the two embarked on a romance. Robinson married Cotton, but smelled something onerous when she kept insisting he buy a sizable insurance policy. He discovered she was robbing him and tossed her out.
In the course of that relationship, Cotton visited her mother, who was battling hepatitis. Mom didn’t last long after that.
Widower Frederick Cotton became the fourth man to wed Mary Ann. One problem arose in that Mary Ann was legally still married to James Robinson. A larger problem arose (or, depending on your point of view, got taken care of) after Frederick Cotton complained of stomach pains, then dropped dead. So, too, did his three children. Once again, Mary Ann cashed a fat insurance check.
2. THE COTTON KISS OF DEATH
Aside from all those husbands and children, Mary Ann Cotton also knocked off at least two men with whom she’d had affairs. Both before and during her marriage to Frederick Cotton, Mary Ann was involved with Joseph Nattrass. Once Frederick went, Nattrass didn’t last much longer.
Mary Ann’s 13th and final (known) child resulted from her involvement with a man who employed her as a nurse. He was named either John Quick-Manning or Richard Quick Mann. Either way, both he and that infant son died from stomach ailments shortly after the boy’s birth.
3. MARY ANN’S GREED ENDED UP POISONING HER
The pile of lifeless bodies surrounding the travels of Mary Ann Cotton did not go unnoticed. Rumors cropped up, and at least one authority figure took careful note of the situation — albeit a bit too late for one final victim.
Mary Ann tipped her own hand after asking Thomas Riley, a local politician, if she could ship off Charles Edward Cotton to a workhouse. Charles was the last surviving child of her dead husband Frederick and, as such, a potential insurance payout Mary Ann wanted to cash.
After Riley said he’d only send the boy off if his stepmother accompanied him, Mary Ann said, “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”
Five days later, Mary Ann told Riley that Charles died. The district official asked for a special medical exam, which delayed Mary Ann’s insurance money. Charles’s body was exhumed and tested positive for arsenic. And that was that.
4. COTTON’S EXECUTION DID NOT GO DOWN EASILY
Mary Ann Cotton’s trial lasted just three days. Despite her mass slaughter, the court sentenced her to die only for the cold-blooded killing of her stepson, Charles Edward Cotton. On March 24, 1873, a hangman pulled the lever that opened the trap door through which Mary Ann Cotton fell. However, the distance she tumbled — a mere two feet — proved insufficient to break her neck.
To hasten Cotton’s demise, then, the executioner pushed down on the condemned woman’s shoulders, tightening the rope around her windpipe. Several horrible minutes passed before she finally expired.
Still, despite so grotesque an exit, few wept for the passing of Mary Ann Cotton.
5. MARY ANN COTTON HAS BECOME PART OF BRITISH FOLKLORE — THAT KIDS LOVE TO SING ABOUT!
As with “Ring-Around-the-Rosie,” which children sang while dancing in circles about corpses during Europe’s plague decimation, the unnerving legend of Mary Ann Cotton lives on in a sing-song kiddie rhyme.
Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and rotten
She lies in her bed with her eyes wide open
Oh, what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with a string
She’s up in the air
They’re selling black puddings a penny a pair
“Black pudddings,” it should be noted, is a reference to sausage made from pig’s blood.
Main photo: Mary Ann Cotton [WikiMedia Commons]