Britain’s First Serial Killer: Who Was Mary Ann Cotton? | History Hit

Britain’s First Serial Killer: Who Was Mary Ann Cotton?

Harry Sherrin

16 Feb 2022
One of the only known surviving photographs of Mary Ann Cotton. c. 1870.
Image Credit: The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Mary Ann Cotton, also known by the surnames Mowbray, Robinson and Ward, was a nurse and housekeeper suspected of poisoning as many as 21 people in 19th-century Britain.

Mary was only ever convicted of one murder, the poisoning with arsenic of her 7-year-old stepson, Charles Edward Cotton. But more than a dozen close friends and relatives of Mary’s died suddenly throughout her life, including her mother, three of her husbands, several of her own children and a number of stepchildren. Many of these deaths had been chalked up to ‘gastric fever’, a common ailment at the time with symptoms similar to those of arsenic poisoning.

Cotton was executed in 1873, leaving behind a chilling legacy of death, mystery and crime. She later acquired the nickname ‘Britain’s first serial killer’, but there were undoubtedly others who came before her.

Here’s the unsettling story of Mary Ann Cotton.

Mary’s first two marriages

Mary was born in 1832 in County Durham, England. It’s thought she may have worked as a nurse and a dressmaker as a teenager and young adult.

She married for the first of four times in 1852 to William Mowbray. The records are unclear, but the pair are thought to have had atleast 4, but possibly 8 or 9, children together. Several of the children died young, leaving just 3 survivors. Their deaths were, unsuspiciously for the time, credited to gastric fever.

Diagram of a man suffering from typhoid fever. ‘Gastric fever’ was a name given to certain forms of typhoid fever. Baumgartner, 1929.

Image Credit: Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

In response to these deaths, William signed for a life insurance policy to cover himself and his surviving offspring. When William died in 1864 – again, of suspected gastric fever – Mary cashed in the policy. Two more of Mary’s children died shortly after William’s death, leaving just one surviving daughter, Isabella Jane, who ended up living with Mary’s mother, Margaret.

Mary’s second husband was George Ward, who was a patient under her care while she was working as a nurse. They married in 1865. Before long, possibly less than a year after, George died. It’s thought that Mary, once again, collected a life insurance policy after he passed.

The husband who survived

Mary met the widower James Robinson in 1865 or 1866 when she took up work as a housekeeper for him. Records suggest that shortly after Mary arrived at the residence, one of Robinson’s children from his prior marriage died. The cause of death was, once again, credited to gastric fever.

In the ensuing years, more deaths followed. Mary visited her mother, only for her to die a week later. Mary’s daughter, Isabella Jane (the only survivor of Mary’s children with first husband William) died in Mary’s care in 1867. Then two more of Robinson’s children died.

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Mary and Robinson married in August 1867 and had two children together. One of them died in infancy, of “convulsions”. The marriage didn’t last long: a couple of years later, Robinson and Mary broke up. It’s thought the split was caused by Mary encouraging Robinson to take out a life insurance policy, and him growing suspicious of her motives.

At this point in her life, Mary had married three times and had between 7 and 11 children. In her care, her mother, possibly 6 or 10 of her own children and 3 of Robinson’s children had died. Just one husband and one child had survived.

Frederick Cotton and Joseph Nattrass

In 1870, Mary married Frederick Cotton, though she was still technically married to Robinson at that point. The year of Mary and Frederick’s marriage, his sister and one of his children died.

By the turn of 1872, Frederick was dead, as were two more children. As had happened with husbands William and George, Mary cashed in on Frederick’s life insurance policy.

Soon after, Mary began a relationship with a man called Joseph Nattrass. He died soon after, in 1872. Mary was pregnant by another man at this point, John Quick-Manning, and caring for her stepson, Frederick’s 7-year-old boy, Charles Edward Cotton.

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The truth unravels

The story goes that Mary wanted to make Quick-Manning her fifth husband, but for whatever reason couldn’t because she was still caring for young Charles. Accounts differ, but it’s thought she quipped to Thomas Riley, a local community manager responsible for poor relief, that she “wouldn’t be troubled [by Charles] long” or that he’d “go like all the rest of the Cotton family”.

Shortly after this alleged statement, in July 1872, Charles died. His autopsy described the cause of death as gastroenteritis, the story goes, but Riley grew suspicious and alerted the police. Charles’ stomach was reassessed by the coroner, who discovered evidence of arsenic poisoning.

Death and legacy

Mary was arrested for Charles’ murder, leading the police to suspect her involvement in the deaths of some of her other children and husbands.

She gave birth in jail in 1873. That child was one of just two children – of as many as 13 – who survived Mary’s many alleged murders.

Mary claimed in court that Charles had died from inhaling arsenic naturally. In the Victorian era, arsenic was widely used as a dye in various items, including wallpaper, so this wasn’t inconceivable. But Mary was found guilty of Charles’ death – no others – and sentenced to death.

A diagram demonstrating accidents caused by green arsenic dyes. Lithograph attributed to P. Lackerbauer.

Image Credit: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Mary Ann Cotton was hanged on 24 March 1873 in what was, apparently, a “clumsy” execution. The trap door was set low, so the ‘short drop’ didn’t kill Mary: the executioner was forced to suffocate her by pressing down on her shoulders.

After her death, Mary became known as ‘Britain’s first serial killer’. But others before her had been convicted of multiple murders, so the statement is something of an oversimplification.

Harry Sherrin