Mary Ann Cotton: The Baby Killer

7 min read
Mary Ann Cotton: The Baby Killer

Mary Ann Cotton,

she’s dead and she’s rotten,

lying in bed with her eyes wide open

Sing, sing.

What song should I sing?

Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string

Where? Where?

She’s up in the air,

and they’re selling puddings for a penny pair

 A cheerful soul was not to be found in Mary Ann Cotton. Born in 1832 she was baptised, educated and raised by her parents in some of the toughest parts of England.

It seems that it was best not to get on the wrong side of Mary Ann, or in fact to get close to her at all. Over her 40 year life she managed to kill at least 21 people. It didn’t matter if you were a husband or three, in her case, who she led to the grave or her own mother, a dear friend, twelve of her thirteen children and five step children.

Mary Ann was born into a working class family, and her first marriage was to a mining labourer. She bore five children and lost four of them to a mysterious “gastric fever”. The family moved often so no long-term friends kept track of the family and Mary Ann had another three children in rapid succession. At just 25 Mary Ann was widowed and had buried another two children all in one year. Her first husband, whose life was, unusually for the times, insured for half a year’s wages, died of “gastric fever”. Soon after his death, another of the Mowbray children passed away this time a 3½ year old girl.

In the days before antibiotics, Medicare, sanitary water supply and municipal sewerage, these deaths would not have been counted and wouldn’t have been considered unusual though it would have been considered a curse on the family.

She sent her remaining child to live with her mother, and apparently free and childless, she started anew with a position as a nurse. She struck up a relationship with an inpatient George Ward. Things were rosy for Mary Ann, and she and George married. Sadly George was to succumb to paralysis and intestinal complaints by the end of 1866, leaving Mary Ann twice-widowed. Again, her husband’s life had been insured and a tidy sum was paid out. Shortly after burying her second husband, Mary Ann became housekeeper to the Robinson family. Mary Ann’s arrival was eclipsed by the death of the Robinson’s baby of gastric fever. Mary Ann offered support to her employer, James Robinson, that went above and beyond the call of housekeeping, and in fact became pregnant to him shortly after.

In early 1867 Mary Ann’s mother became ill. Mary Ann went to her side immediately and her mother began to improve. Sadly she took a turn for the worse, complaining of stomach pains, and she died instead of recovering, less than 10 days after Mary Ann arrived. After burying her mother, Mary Ann gathered her remaining surviving child, Isabella and returned to the Robinson home.

Before May 1867 however, Isabella had developed the now-familiar stomach pains and intestinal upsets and had died, along with two other Robinson children. James Robinson married Mary Ann, heavily pregnant with his child, in August of the same year, and she bore him a daughter “Mary Isabella” in the November. At less than 4 months of age, the baby had sickened with stomach pains, and died. Another child was conceived and born in that year and that son was one of two children from Mary Ann to survive her.

James Robinson had at his wife’s insistence, arranged for life insurance. However when he discovered her running up debts and stealing from the family bank account, and then forcing his children to pawn household items and giving the money to her, Mary Ann was turned out of the house with her baby son. At some point in the next year, she asked a friend to hold to baby while she posted a letter and never returned, leaving the friend literally “holding the baby”.

With nowhere to go and no family to offer her comfort, she turned to a friend Margaret who introduced her to her recently-widowed brother Frederick Cotton. Frederick had recently buried his wife and two of his children, and Mary Ann moved in to become a stand-in wife and mother to the family. Frederick’s sister and Mary Ann’s friend Margaret took ill shortly afterwards however with stomach complaints, and in spring of 1870 she died. Frederick was understandably distraught and Mary Ann again consoled the grieving man, and in the process conceived another child.

Despite still being married to James Robinson, Mary Ann married Frederick in the autumn of 1870 and bore him a son in the winter of 1871. The family moved 30 miles away a long distance in those days and Mary Ann reconnected with an old lover, Joseph Nattrass. Perhaps coincidentally, her husband Frederick took ill with “gastric fever” in 1871 and died in December of that year. It was lucky that Frederick had arranged a healthy life insurance before becoming ill and dying. The two remaining Cotton sons remained with Mary Ann.

Nattrass lodged with the family and Mary gained employment with a convalescing government official. She again took her client as her lover and in fact conceived another child, named Robert. Frederick Cotton Junior, the son of her recently deceased husband of the same name, died in 1872 and the baby Robert as well, then Nattrass became ill with (are you surprised?) gastric fever and died, conveniently leaving his substantial estate to Mary Ann. She continued mothering the remaining Cotton son, a boy named Charles, while pregnant with the child of the convalescing government official.

Mary Ann was then asked to nurse a local woman recovering from smallpox. On complaining to the town official organising this care, Thomas Riley, of the need for her to care for Charles Cotton, she asked if he could be committed to the workhouse. When told she would have to go with him, she suggested that as the boy was sickly, she wouldn’t be troubled long and he’d “go the way of the rest of the Cottons”.

Less than a week later, Mary Ann told Riley also the village’s assistant coroner that Charles had died. She had called first to the insurance office as her late husband had arranged insurance for himself and his children before his passing, but without a death certificate she couldn’t claim on Charles’ death. Riley insisted that an inquiry be held; Mary Ann claimed she had used arrowroot for Charles’ illness and accused Riley of being vindictive after she rejected his advances.

A verdict of “natural causes” was found but on reporting in the paper, someone totalled up Mary Ann’s moves around the north of England and revealed the death toll. Mary Ann, pregnant again, was arrested and charged with Charles Cotton’s death. The inquiry into Charles Cotton’s death showed that Mary Ann’s weapon of choice was arsenic. Other bodies were exhumed and tested and found to be laced with arsenic. Arsenic was easily accessed in Victorian England for poisoning bed bugs and other household pests, but it was also known that you easily extract the tastless, colourless and odourless arsenic from the “soft soap” and add it to hot food or drink to poison people.

She bore her last child in jail in January 1873, was tried in March and hanged shortly afterwards. Her surviving child was fostered out and Mary Ann Cotton, who was perhaps one of the most prolific serial killers of the Victorian era, passed into obscurity.

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About Author

Saskia Brown

Saskia is mama wearing lots of different hats while parenting two small girls. She is a midwife, is married to a scientist and lives in the Adelaide H...Read Moreills in South Australia. When she's not juggling parenting and working, she likes to do a lot of walking, photography and crafting. She enjoys yoga when the childerbeasts are asleep, writing when the mood strikes, reading a good organisational blog or dreaming of far off places. Read Less

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