Updated: Mar 10
What causes someone to become a killer? A bad upbringing? A horrible traumatic life event? Years of abuse and neglect? What would you think would be the proper ingredients to make a murderer? I’m betting no one would describe the life Mary Ann had lived as one that would lead her to become a murderer.
Mary was born Mary Ann Robson to a coal miner named Michael Robson and his wife Margaret on October 31, 1832 in Low Moorsley (now part of Hetton-Le-Hole in Houghton-le-Spring which is a part of the city of Sunderland)in Britain. Her parents were wonderful, GOD fearing people who were a delight to their community. They regularly attended church with Mary and her brother, Robert who was born in 1835. A sister named Margaret was born in 1834, but died a few short months later. It is unclear how she died. Her parents were the kind of people that helped out where help were needed. They made sure Robert and Mary Ann was baptized at St Mary’s in West Rainton. Mary was baptized November 11, 1832. They were poor, however, she was well attended and had the best of everything they could give. She was well dressed and well educated by her parents. She was loved, and doted upon. Her father was strict and stern but loved his children very much. She seemed to have the perfect life. Maybe, their flaw was that they may have doted upon them too much. But who can blame them for loving their children?
In order to give Mary and Robert a better life, her parents decided to move to County Durham village of Murton so that her father could work as a collier sinker (also a part of the coal mining industry, possibly a promotional title). However, in 1842, tragedy struck the family yet again, when Mary’s dad was killed in a mining accident falling down a mining shaft over 150 feet. Mary was just 9 and a half when her father was killed. Did this tragedy forever twist the young child’s mind? Her mother was forced to move out of their home after the tragedy because the home was a condition of Michael’s job. Within a year, her mother married a man name George Stott. It was thought that Mary resented her step dad at this tender age, though nothing indicated that George was a bad man.
At age 16, Mary leaves home to pursue training as a nurse in a nearby village called South Hetton, where she lived with a man named Edward Potter and his family. She moved back in with her step dad and mother in 1851 after her job with Mr. Potter was completed. There she was persuaded with a job as a dressmaker. By age 20, Mary met and married her first husband William Mowbray.
It wasn’t long before Mary’s killing spree began. What caused a young mother, with a seemingly perfect life to decide to murder her own children? What caused Little Mary Ann to become the first recorded serial killer in all of Britain? Was the first kill an accident or a result of what we now call postmortem depression or something far more twisted and evil? Between the years 1852 and 1856, it is believed Mary had 4 children and one by one killed them all. These four children were only heard of when Mary confessed that she killed them; there is no record of them.
The first registered birth was of Margaret Jane born in 1856, murdered by poison in 1860. At that time, unregistered births were very common in Dunham where she lived with her coal miner husband. It was an optional service in the town to record births and cost the family money so many births and deaths were not recorded. They would have had to travel to another town and pay a fee to register their baby. So why was this baby registered and not the first four? Did William insist on the registry? Maybe, he had his suspicions and wanted some documentation?
It wasn’t until around 1858 that Mary and William moved to North East England where recording the birth was provided in this town for a price. William got a job as a fireman on board the Sunderland steam vessel called “Newburu”, leaving Mary home alone with her young children and her current pregnancy.
Mary Ann had a habit of naming her children after children she already murdered so it is highly possible that the first 4 children she murdered shared the same name as the next 4. Isabella Jane Mowbray was born in 1858, murdered in 1867. The second recorded Margaret Jane was born in 1861, murdered in 1865. John Robert William Mowbray born in 1863, died in 1864. He was the first insurance pay out of £25.
Mary, then killed her first husband September, 1864, collecting the insurance money £35 (equivalent to £3,018 in 2015, which was about half a year’s wages at the time) . The lives of William and of their children were insured by the British and Prudential Insurance office founded in 1848, yet wasn’t available for working class citizens until 1854. It was presented by a door to door salesman, starting in Hatten Garden, London. It is unclear how early this new insurance was available. Where Mary lived, she was able to purchase the plan for a penny per plan. This was a new founded progression for the area, one which Mary immediately found a way to exploit for her own selfish interest. She was the first recorded exploiter of this new system.
She would take out life insurance policies on all her children from this point on, and then kill them to keep the good life. Her evil and selfishness had no bounds.
Mary soon moved to Seaham Harbour, where she met Joseph Nattrass and fell in love. It wasn’t long in the relationship before she found out Joseph was engaged to be married to another. He refused to break it off and as soon as it was time for his wedding, he left her. Mary was heartbroken and took off back to Sunderland, soon after Margaret Jane died. She allowed her daughter Isabella to live with her mother and she went to work at Sunderland Infirmary where she met George Ward. George Ward was an easy target because of his pre-existing condition. As Mary took care of him, she kept him just slightly ill until they were married and he had taken out his insurance policy. They married August 28, 1865. He was dead just 14 months later on October 20, 1866. Having lived the entire marriage continually being sick. Still the doctors were shocked when he end up dead.
Not long after, she met James Robinson. He was a widower in mourning when he met Mary. His wife had died leaving him to raise his 5 young children alone. The youngest being just an infant. He hired her on to be his housekeeper and to tend to his children. A week after retaining Mary’s services, John Robinson died at just 10 months old December 23, 1866. James was devastated and drew comfort in the arms of Mary and she became pregnant. During her pregnancy, Mary’s mother became ill and sent for her. She went there and within 9 days, her mother died in March 1867, though she was showing signs of recovery before Mary arrived. Mary received clothing and bed linens from her mother’s death. Mary, also, brought her daughter Isabella back with her. April, 1867 was a busy time for Mary. She killed 6 yr old James Robinson Jr on April 21st; 8 yr old Elizabeth Robinson on April 26, and her own daughter Isabella Mowbray who survived until May 2, 1867. After this, James’ sister became suspicious but Mary put on such a convincing act that she was distraught over these deaths that it caused any suspicion to be put farthest from James’ mind. August 11, 1867, he went ahead and married her. Without an autopsy these deaths along with all the others was misdiagnosed as gastric fever. Mary Isabella was born November, 1867 and died March, 1868. George Robinson was born June 18, 1869.
James began suspecting Mary when she started insisting he get life insurance, had run up debts of £60 and stolen more than £50 that she was supposed to have put in the bank. She was also forcing James remaining children to pawn there stuff for money. When James found out about his children, William Greenwell Robinson (born 1857) and Mary Jane Robinson (born 1864) being forced to pawn things for Mary, he was done with her and threw her out. James got full custody of their son, George.
Now homeless, Mary’s friend Margaret took pity on her and introduced Mary to her brother Fredrick Cotton. Margaret took care of her brother and acted as a substitute mother for his children. But Mary needed Fredrick to need her as he needed his sister, so in order to get that from him she had to do away with Margaret. Margaret Cotton died in March of 1870, with yet another stomach disorder. Now Fredrick was saddened by his sisters passing and again Mary lend her shoulder and her bed to cry on. She told him that she would take care of his home and his children and be there for him in his hour of need. He fell for it, as all the others before him and within months, she was pregnant. Fredrick married Mary September 11, 1870, though Mary was still married to James. Robert Cotton was born January 18, 1871.
It wasn’t long before Mary found out that her former lover, Joseph Nattrass had divorced and lived only 30 miles away in County Durham village of West Auckland. Immediately, Mary moved her family closer to where he was to pursue her love. Fredrick Sr died of gastric fevers in September 19, 1871. Joseph moved in with Mary just a few months later.
While Joseph lived with Mary, Mary took a job as a nurse to an excise officer named Richard (John) Quick- Mann(ing) who had small pox. Not long after her employment did she find herself pregnant with Richard’s child. For reasons that are unclear, Mary knew that the baby she carried was not Joseph’s. She had to resolve the relationship quickly in order to gain from him what she needed. Their was no time for marriage so she manipulated Joseph to leave her everything in his will. Fredrick jr was killed in March, 1872, Robert Robson Cotton died a few weeks later. She played the grieving mother well and Joseph out of love for her and out of concern for her well being, made out his will to leave everything to her. Very shortly afterward, Nattrass was dead. Mary tried to get Richard to marry her, but he was not interested. Around this time, Mary took an insurance policy out on Charles Cotton, the last remaining child.
Scrambling to find work and getting more and more desperate, she came upon a man named Thomas Riley. Thomas offered to hire her to nurse a woman with small pox but she had a 7 yr old without anyone to watch him. She begged Thomas to take the boy to a workhouse because he was in the way of her ability to work. When Thomas told Mary she would have to go with him to the workhouse because he was not old enough to go himself, she forgot herself and stated coldly “I won’t be troubled long. He will go like the rest of the Cottons.” and sure enough, Charles Cotton died one week later.
Thomas Riley asked the police to look into it. The doctor again, tried to just say the death was natural causes. Again, tried to say gastric fever. But Mr. Riley insisted and wouldn’t give up until the police asked for an autopsy. The results was arsenic poisoning. The police authorized the exhuming of Fredrick Sr and Jr and Robert , all was poisoned. Though Mary stated it was the arrowroot that killed him, she did not know it was mixed with arsenic. Mary stated that Thomas’ lied because she turned away his sexual advances. Mary was arrested by Sergeant Samuel (Tom) McCutcheon after the newpaper
started looking into her life and realizing the tragedy that surrounded her. She was charged with the murders of the Cotton family, though only convicted of Charles Edward Cotton.
Trial was postponed until the birth of her daughter Margaret Edith Quick- Manning Cotton born in Durham Gaol on January 10, 1873. She kept her baby in jail with her, nursing her until the trial and exhausted all appeals. For two additional months the trial was postponed as they had a hard time finding a prosecuting attorney. Finally they settled on Charles Russell, whom later became famous for prosecuting poison cases. Mary’s defense attorney was Thomas Campbell Foster, whom was the best defense attorney for that time and area. He argued that it was possible that Charles died from inhaling the dye in the wallpaper that had arsenic in it. Though, Charles had a witness that came on stand to say that Mary asked him for arsenic to kill bugs in her home. He had advised her that he could not sell her this kind of arsenic without her having a witness with her and offered her soaps that was used to kill bugs that was not lethal to humans.
But Mary, became upset and insisted on the arsenic stating the soaps didn’t work as well. On March 5, 1873 the trial finally began. All evidence for and against Mary was presented in 3 days and the jury came back with a guilty verdict after only 90 minutes of deliberation.
While in prison waiting her execution, she was visited by her step father, whom she hugged and cried as he held her in his arms. She claimed her innocence to him. Though George loved his step daughter he did not believe her. He asked her, why, if she was innocent and could prove her innocence, did she not do so while in court. Mary exclaimed through her tears, that she was advised by her lawyer to remain quiet. George kissed his step daughter on her temple and left with tears in his eyes. That was the last time George saw his daughter alive.
On the day of her execution, Mary asked to speak to a minister, and as an attempt to get right with the Lord, she confessed her crimes to him, though she still could not bring herself to admit to purposefully murdering anyone. The most that she would say was that it was accidental. All of the poisonings was a result of trying to save them with arrowroot that must have had arsenic mixed with it. In this confession, she spoke of her first 4 unregistered children and their deaths, as well as the long list of victims that she was not tried for.
On March 24th, 1873 a crowd gathered to watch as Mary Ann Cotton was hung. They watched with satisfaction, and happy cheers as she walked with the patrol men. Terror and tears filled her eyes, a tremble in her shoulders; gone was the cold calculated look that she normally portrayed.
Do you think it might be possible that James was in the crowd? Watching as Mary was escorted to her death. Possibly cheering as the rope is tightened around her throat? After all, at this point can we assume he has put it together that she was the reason all of his children, except one were dead? That she would have killed him too. What was possibly going through his mind the day of Mary’s execution? Did he want to see for himself that she would die? or did he stay far away and tried not to think about it at all? Who would blame him if he was in the crowd that day?
The executioner, William Calcraft,
whom was hired right before Mary’s execution had a reputation for cruel and slow deaths. (It was thought that he was hired specifically for Mary Ann Cotton because of his reputation). He took pleasure in his job and loved to watch the charged suffer as they died. He was known for purposely making the hangman’s noose too short so that the neck didn’t snap but instead the criminal would slowly strangle to death gasping and choking on their last breaths. They would twitch and jerk as they slowly suffocated to death. Mary was no different, though as she was swinging and choking out her last breath, people heard her gasping out a final prayer to the Lord. “Oh Lord”, she gasped ” receive my spirit. Oh Lord, have mercy upon me.” Then a few agonizing minutes later, she died. A black flag was raised to signify to the city that her sentence was carried out. She was buried with her rope.
It was thought that there really was not enough evidence to give Mary a guilty verdict. That if tried today, she would have gone free from the lack of evidence. Everything they had against her, would now be considered circumstantial evidence, and even the poison found could be considered circumstantial, since the cleaning agents they used at that time all had traces of arsenic in it. What do you think? Was this an innocent woman that accidentally poisoned her family while just trying to care for them? Or a cold hearted murderer?
Mary Ann Cotton was significant to the advancement of the civilization in that as a result of Mary’s confession of the 4 unregistered children, the policy was changed. Before Mary, only some towns registered births and deaths as an optional service they provided to families for a fee. As a result, many people went unregistered with no records of their births or their deaths. After learning of the unregistered children she killed, the officials was so upset by the ease in which Mary was able to kill and the long career she had with killing that they blamed partly on the many times she moved and had different surnames, and partly because registering a death was optional. This sickened the officials who spent the next nine months coming up with a better plan. After much debate and changing of policies, they finally agreed that every birth and death needed to be registered and it became mandatory. They, also, decided that they would not charge people to register, so that the very poor can also be registered. They came up with a plan to administer a penalty if a birth or death was not reported. It was concluded that unregistered births was punishable by a high fine, and unregistered deaths was punishable by prison time.
Children told stories for many decades of Mary Ann Cotton to scare each other and a nursery rhyme that is still known today:
“Mary Ann Cotton, she is dead and she is rotton, she lies in her bed, with eyes wide open, sing, sing, oh what can I sing, Mary Ann Cotton all tied up with string sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair, Mary Ann Cotton, she is dead and forgotten, she lies in a grave, her bones all rotten, sing, sing, oh what can I sing Mary Ann Cotton all tied up with string”
Trivial: It is said that the picture the newspaper used of Mary Ann Cotton was an early version of photoshopped so that she would look worse than she really did because she was very beautiful and her beauty would have caused sympathizers.
Margaret Ethel lived until 1954, having married twice and was a loving mother to her 4 healthy children that all grew and had happy lives. Mary Ann Cotton’s only other surviving blood child George Robinson also grew and had a wife and children and lived a long normal life with no crime.
Legend has been told that that if you sing the children’s nursery rhyme by Mary’s grave site on her birthday, that you will hear the cries of children. It is, also, said that the house she lived in at the time of her arrest, is haunted with young Charles Cotton and his father. The house still stands today.
Sergeant Samuel (Tom) McClutcheon’s daughter Louisa worked for Mary Ann as a
seamstress and when Mary got arrested, she was unable to pay
Louisa. Mary Ann resolved the issue by giving her a sewing box as payment. The sewing box is still in the family today, Martin Bowes from Attrition is Louisa’s great great great nephew.
~ Victoria, G.E.E.K.S Paranormal Historian