Mary Ann Robson was born on 31 October 1832 at Low Moorsley (now part of Houghton-le-Spring in the City of Sunderland) and baptised at St Mary’s, West Rainton on 11 November. When Mary Ann was eight, her parents moved the family to the County Durham village of Murton, where she went to a new school and found it difficult to make friends. Soon after the move her father fell 150 feet (46 m) to his death down a mine shaft at Murton Colliery. In 1843, Mary Ann’s widowed mother, Margaret (née Lonsdale) married George Stott, with whom Mary Ann did not get along. At the age of 16, she moved out to become a nurse at Edward Potter’s home in the nearby village of South Hetton. After three years there, she returned to her mother’s home and trained as 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. 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.
Soon after Mowbray’s death, Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham, where she struck up a relationship with Joseph Nattrass. He, however, was engaged to another woman and she left Seaham after Nattrass’s wedding. 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 in Monkwearmouth on 28 August 1865. He continued to suffer ill health; he died in 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. One month later, when James’ baby 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 started getting better, 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 bad stomach pains and died; so did another two of Robinson’s children. 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, Mary 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.
Mary Ann was desperate and living on the streets. Then her friend Margaret Cotton 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 bigamously 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 at Kew. 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.
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 delay was caused by a problem in the selection of the public prosecutor. A Mr. Aspinwall was supposed to get the job, but the Attorney General, Sir John Duke Coleridge, chose his friend and protégé Charles Russell. Russell’s appointment over Aspinwall led to a question in the House of Commons. However, it was accepted, and Russell conducted the prosecution. The Cotton case would be the first of several famous poisoning cases he would be involved in during his career, including those of Adelaide Bartlett and Florence Maybrick. 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 jury retired for 90 minutes before finding Mary Ann guilty. 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 cut too short. Of Mary Ann’s thirteen children, only two survived her: Margaret Edith and her son George from her marriage to James Robinson.
- October, 31, 1832
- United Kingdom
- Low Moorsley, County Durham, England
- March, 24, 1873
- United Kingdom
- Durham Gaol, England
Cause of Death
- execution by hanging