Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part One

One by One

Seven year-old Charlie Cotton had died after a troublesome gastrointestinal illness. As the autopsy progressed, the doctor noticed signs of malnutrition. Yet they were looking for symptoms of poisoning and within the designated inquest time frame, they could offer no definite opinion.

It was 1872, after all, in a poor area of West Auckland, Britain, where children often died from poor health. Even so, Charlie's stepmother, who'd given birth to many children in four marriages, had lost most of them to the very same thing. In fact, she'd lost her husbands that way, too.

Mary Ann Cotton as a young woman
Mary Ann Cotton as a
young woman

According to Terry Manners in Deadlier Than the Male, even if the surgeons found no proof, the people in the village had their own ideas. Mary Ann Cotton was a killer, a poisoner. She'd once poisoned her neighbor's pigs. Yet without a verdict of suspicious death, no one could stop her from collecting insurance money on the boy. Being rid of him, and with his own father dead, left her free to marry her village lover. Fortunately for him, she didn't get that far.

The village surgeon still had his doubts, so he retested the contents of Charlie's stomach. Evidence of arsenic was clear and he went straight to the police. Mary Ann Cotton was arrested before she made it to the altar a fifth time.

She'd grown up a miner's daughter, says Bernard O'Donnell in The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill, and her father died before she was 15. She'd devoted herself to the church and had started a school, but by age 19, she was married to William Mowbray and pregnant. They had five children, one daughter and four sons. The boys all died of "gastric fever." Then she had two more daughters, but both soon died. Another daughter and a son came along, and the son was dead before he reached his first birthday. Then Mary Ann's first husband died of a violent bout of gastric fever, and Manners says that she was seen dancing before her mirror in a new dress.

Soon another child died and she had only one left out of eight born to her. Mary Ann became a nurse and married one of the patients, George Ward. However, he failed to regain his strength and proved to be a disappointing husband, so he was dispatched like her first mate. Mary Ann was 33 and had already killed 10 people.

Then she took a position as a housekeeper for a widower named James Robinson, who had five children. He'd just lost his wife and soon his children were dying, starting with his infant son. She comforted him in his loss and became pregnant. This looked like a way to start a better life until her mother fell ill and needed her to return and look after her one remaining daughter. Instead of helping, Mary Ann bought arsenic and killed her mother. She took her nine-year-old daughter with her, but the child was now doomed as well. She died, along with two more of Robinson's children. They all appeared to have contracted the same painful, writhing condition. Once again, the diagnosis was gastric fever.

Mary Ann had a baby with Robinson, and inside of two weeks, the infant was dead. When Mary Ann nagged her husband to get himself insured, he started to have some suspicions about this woman. Then he found out that she had attempted to insure his life on her own. When he realized she'd bled his accounts and left him in debt, he kicked her out, and inexplicably, she took his youngest daughter with her. She later abandoned the child.

From there Mary Ann led a life of prostitution until she met Frederick Cotton, whose wife had recently died, as had two children, and he was left to care for two young boys. Mary Ann seduced and then got rid of his sister, who had introduced them and who lived in Frederick's house. Then she got pregnant, but rather than marry Frederick, she went to work for Dr. Heffernan. After he caught her trying to poison him, she left, taking some valuables with her.

Returning to Cotton, and quite pregnant with his child, she married him, although she had never divorced Robinson. In short order, she insured the lives of Cotton's children, and when another man caught her eye, her husband mysteriously diedcause: gastric fever.

Over the course of 20 years, Mary Ann had managed to kill without accountability and despite the suspicions of her fellow villagers. Doctors didn't pay much attention to the poor, so it was an easy matter to dispense with those who were in one's way. Her lover moved in and took over as head of the family, but then Mary Ann spotted another man with greater social standing. Excise officer John Quick-Manning became her lover, which meant her current "burdens" had to go. Cotton's oldest son and her own baby with Cotton died within a few weeks, as did her live-in loverall of them from terrible convulsions. Now she only had little Charlie leftand an unborn child sired by Quick-Manning.

Because Mary had a special sexual allure, the men who were attracted to her never suspected what she was doing. All they could think about was taking her to bed and claiming her as their own. That was her greatest advantagethat, and her inability to care about anyone but herself. Her last murder was little Charlie, and finally a doctor became sufficiently suspicious to perform a test for the presence of arsenic, and found it.

Orders were drawn up for exhuming the bodies of her three previous victims, and arsenic was found in all of them. Then a background check linked her to the other deaths, all attributed to the same cause.

While people searched for motives, there was nothing common to all the victims, except that they had become obstacles in her way. In those days, not much was known about psychopaths, particularly female ones. No one understood how psychopaths get bored and tend to move on, regardless of the cost to others. What mattered was their own pleasure and stimulation.

Woodcut of Mary Ann Cotton
Woodcut of Mary Ann

While under arrest, Mary Ann gave birth to a girl. Then she went to court, where she refused to answer questions. Although she was only tried on the death of Charlie, the other arsenic poisonings were introduced as evidence and there appeared to be no defense. The twelve men of the jury found her guilty of murder. She proclaimed her innocence and then collapsed.

It's a common saying that hanging is too good for someone who had murdered others in a torturous manner, but in this case, Mary Ann got as good as she gave. The executioner was a careless man, and sometimes had to add some extra attention to finish a job he'd bungled. Terry Manners points out that he might even have had to grab the legs of hanging victim to add extra weight.

On March 24, 1873, it was Mary Ann Cotton's turn to face him. He placed a hood over her head, added the noose, and then opened the trap door. But her neck did not snap and she struggled and choked for over three full minutes before she finally went still. When her corpse was cut down, her hair was shorn so phrenologists could take a cast of her skull for further study. Her killing career, spanning 20 years, had finally come to an end.

In The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Brian Lane and Wilfred Gregg provide a rhyme that immortalized her:

Mary Ann Cotton
She's dead and she's rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.

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