Mary Ann Cotton – Dark Angel

As we reach All Hallows Eve, it has become a tradition that I write a post related to Halloween or at least, things that go bump in the night.  Last year I wrote about the apparently true events portrayed in  The Enfield Poltergeist so I thought that today I would also write about true events, that of Mary Ann Cotton, the Victorian serial killer who is about to once again hit all the headlines with the 2 part drama Dark Angel which commences tonight at 9[m on ITV in the UK.


Whilst it would be hard to find anyone more notorious that Jack The Ripper, and as horrific and gruesome as they remain today, in some respects he was quite an amateur compared to Mary Ann Cotton who committed her crimes 20 years earlier and not in London but 300 miles north, in County Durham.

Mary Ann Robson was born on 31st October  1832 and it is interesting to think that 184 years ago, two hopeful parents were welcoming a young baby to the world that would go on to have killed up to 21 people.

At the age of 8, Mary’s family moved the short distance from Low Moorsley to the village of Murton.  Life was tough for young Mary, she wasn’t the sort that found making friends easy and the poverty in their family was heightened by a family tragedy when her father fell 150 feet down the coal mine at Murton Colliery.

Mary’s mother remarried and the relationship between Mary and her stepfather was such that she left home at the age of 16 to become a nurse in a care home before returning to her mother a few years later when she became a dressmaker.

In 1852, at the age of 20, Mary Ann married colliery labourer William Mowbray in Newcastle Upon Tyne register office; they soon moved to Plymouth, Devon which is right at the other end of the country and a long journey today, let alone then. The couple had five children, four of whom died from gastric fever.William and Mary Ann moved back to North East England where they had, and lost, three more children. William became a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and then a fireman aboard a steam vessel. He died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865. William’s life was insured by the British and Prudential Insurance office and Mary Ann collected a payout of £35 on his death, equivalent to about half a year’s wages for a manual labourer at the time.


Likely victims of Mary Ann Cotton – graphic from Daily Mail newspaper

Soon after the death of her husband William Mowbray, Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham, where she struck up a relationship with Joseph Nattrass. During this time, her 3½-year-old daughter died, leaving her with one child out of the nine she had borne. She returned to Sunderland and took up employment at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. She sent her remaining child, Isabella, to live with her mother.

One of her patients at the infirmary was an engineer, George Ward. They married at St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth on 28 August 1865. He continued to suffer ill health and died on 20 October 1866 after a long illness characterised by paralysis and intestinal problems. The attending doctor later gave evidence that Ward had been very ill, yet he had been surprised that the man’s death was so sudden. Once again, Mary Ann collected insurance money from her husband’s death.

James Robinson was a shipwright at Pallion, Sunderland, whose wife, Hannah, had recently died. He hired Mary Ann as a housekeeper in November 1866. A month later, when James’ baby, John, died of gastric fever, he turned to his housekeeper for comfort and she became pregnant. Then Mary Ann’s mother, living in Seaham Harbour, County Durham, became ill so she immediately went to her. Although her mother began to recover, she also began to complain of stomach pains. She died at age 54 in the spring of 1867, nine days after Mary Ann’s arrival.

Mary Ann’s daughter Isabella, from the marriage to William Mowbray, was brought back to the Robinson household and soon developed severe stomach pains and died, as did Robinson’s two other children, Elizabeth and James. All three children were buried in the last two weeks of April 1867.

Robinson married Mary Ann at St Michael’s, Bishopwearmouth on 11 August 1867. Their first child, Margaret Isabella, was born that November, but she became ill and died in March 1868. Their second child George was born on 18 June 1869.

Robinson, meanwhile, had become suspicious of his wife’s insistence that he insure his life; he discovered that she had run up debts of £60 behind his back and had stolen more than £50 that she was supposed to have put in the bank. The last straw was when he found she had been forcing his older children to pawn household valuables for her. He threw Mary Ann out, retaining custody of their son George.

Desperate and living on the streets, Mary Ann was saved by her friend Margaret Cotton who introduced her to her brother, Frederick, a pitman and recent widower living in Walbottle, Northumberland, who had lost two of his four children. Margaret had acted as substitute mother for the remaining children, Frederick Jr. and Charles. But in late March 1870 Margaret died from an undetermined stomach ailment, leaving Mary Ann to console the grieving Frederick Sr. Soon her eleventh pregnancy was underway.

Frederick and Mary Ann were married on 17 September 1870 at St Andrew’s, Newcastle Upon Tyne and their son Robert was born early in 1871. Soon after, Mary Ann learnt that her former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was living 30 miles away in the County Durham village of West Auckland, and no longer married. She rekindled the romance and persuaded her new family to move near him. Frederick followed his predecessors to the grave in December of that year, from “gastric fever.” Insurance had been taken out on his life and the lives of his sons.


After Frederick’s death, Nattrass soon became Mary Ann’s lodger. She gained employment as nurse to an excise officer recovering from smallpox, John Quick-Manning. Soon she became pregnant by him with her twelfth child. It may well be that the name of the excise man was in fact Richard Quick Mann. There appears to be no trace of John Quick-Manning in the records of the West Auckland Brewery or the National Archives. The census records, birth, death and marriage records also show no trace of him. Richard Quick Mann was a custom and excise man specialising in breweries and has been found in the records and this may indeed be the real name of Mary Ann Cotton’s alleged lover.

Frederick Jr. died in March 1872 and the infant Robert soon after. Then Nattrass became ill with gastric fever, and died – just after revising his will in Mary Ann’s favour.

The insurance policy Mary Ann had taken out on Charles’ life still awaited collection.

Mary Ann’s downfall came when she was asked by a parish official, Thomas Riley, to help nurse a woman who was ill with smallpox. She complained that the last surviving Cotton boy, Charles Edward, was in the way and asked Riley if he could be committed to the workhouse. Riley, who also served as West Auckland’s assistant coroner, said she would have to accompany him. She told Riley that the boy was sickly and added: “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”


Five days later, Mary Ann told Riley that the boy had died. Riley went to the village police and convinced the doctor to delay writing a death certificate until the circumstances could be investigated.

Mary Ann’s first port of call after Charles’ death was not the doctor’s but the insurance office. There, she discovered that no money would be paid out until a death certificate was issued. An inquest was held and the jury returned a verdict of natural causes. Mary Ann claimed to have used arrowroot to relieve his illness and said Riley had made accusations against her because she had rejected his advances.

Then the local newspapers latched on to the story and discovered Mary Ann had moved around northern England and lost three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, and a dozen children, all of whom had died of stomach fevers.

The home of Mary Ann Cotton

The home of Mary Ann Cotton

Rumour turned to suspicion and forensic inquiry. The doctor who attended Charles had kept samples, and they tested positive for arsenic. He went to the police, who arrested Mary Ann and ordered the exhumation of Charles’ body. She was charged with his murder, although the trial was delayed until after the delivery of her thirteenth and final child in Durham Gaol on 10 January 1873, whom she named Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.

Mary Ann Cotton’s trial began on 5 March 1873. The defence in the case was handled by Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster, who argued during the trial that Charles had died from inhaling arsenic used as a dye in the green wallpaper of the Cotton home. The doctor testified that, in the chemist’s shop, there was no other powder, only liquid, on the same shelf as the arsenic; the chemist himself, however, claimed that there were other powders. Campbell Foster argued that it was possible that the chemist had mistaken the arsenic powder for bismuth powder (used to treat diarrhoea), when preparing a bottle for Cotton, because he had been distracted by talking to other people. The jury retired for 90 minutes before returning a guilty verdict.

The Times correspondent reported on 20 March: “After conviction the wretched woman exhibited strong emotion but this gave place in a few hours to her habitual cold, reserved demeanour and while she harbours a strong conviction that the royal clemency will be extended towards her, she staunchly asserts her innocence of the crime that she has been convicted of.” Several petitions were presented to the Home Secretary, but to no avail. Mary Ann Cotton was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March 1873 by William Calcraft; she ultimately died, not from her neck breaking, but by strangulation caused by the rope being rigged too short, possibly deliberately.  In fact, the hangman had to pull his weight on Mary to ensure her death and by all accounts it was an horrendous event.

Of Mary Ann’s thirteen children, only two survived her: Margaret Edith (1873–1954) and her son George from her marriage to James Robinson.

Mary Ann Cotton reached such notoriety that local children in the North East would sing a nursery rhyme all about her execution.


Death Certificate of Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.
Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string

Despite such seemingly overwhelming evidence for Mary Ann being the one of the female serial killers in history, some do believe that her death was a miscarriage of justice.  It should be remembered that life expectancy in Victorian England for most people was dreadful and as in the poorest countries today, poor families tended to have large numbers of children as so many of them died at a very young age.  Depending on your opinion, this was either what happened to Mary Ann or it is how Mary Ann hid her notorious crimes.

Without doubt though, almost everyone who came into private contact with Mary Ann died terribly painful stomach illnesses though often unexpectedly quick deaths.   Mary Ann however, protested her innocence to the very end and even wrote letters to the newspapers to raise public sympathy.


Joanne Froggatt who stars as Mary Ann Cotton in the ITV drama, Dark Angel

The forgotten story of Mary Ann Cotton will feature tonight on ITV in the first of a two-part drama.  Mary Ann will be played by the wonderful Joanne Froggatt who many of us remember and still miss from her portrayal of Anna in Downton Abbey.

For those who want a bit more Halloween themed reading then why not check out some of my posts from years gone by.

How about some frightful scary reading?  Inspired by the Horrible Histories TV show, my 101 Most Horrible Tortures misses out all the boring stuff and gets straight to the very sharp point, the weird, bizarre and even a bit of the gore! Often when learning history at school we’d all squirm in our chairs at hearing about the odd bit of torture or terrible execution but on the inside a bit of us loved it.

This book covers some of the craziest tortures that humans have inflicted on each other over the last 6,000 years from every corner of the world. Whether you like your tortures boiling hot; if medieval dungeons are your thing or you think Mongolian tortures are the coolest procedures until the CIA Cold Cell Air-Con torture.

101 Most Horrible Tortures in History

101 Most Horrible Tortures In History takes a wry look at history, torture and bizarre punishments of times past and just a bit of the present so that we can thank our lucky stars that none of this is ever likely happen to us.   History doesn’t have to be torture!

101 Most Horrible Tortures is available from the UK in Kindle format from Amazon here and paperback format here.      American Amazon readers can squirm their way through the book in Kindle format here and in paperback format here.   As well as being available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Nook, you can also get in on the action on your favourite Apple product but purchasing the book on iBooks by clicking below!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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11 Responses to Mary Ann Cotton – Dark Angel

  1. Mel & Suan says:

    What a serial killer!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Malla Duncan says:

    Great story! Well researched and presented as usual. Thanks, Stephen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders | Stephen Liddell

  4. Pingback: A grisly end for a brave Liddell at St. Botolph’s… Aldgate (Whitechapel). | Stephen Liddell

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