Special Sub-Topic: Fatal Females: Mary Ann Cotton
|Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873) was one of Britain's most famous poisoners. What poison did she use on all of her victims?|
arsenic. Mary Ann Robson was born in October 1832, at Murton, County Durham in England. Her parents were plain, working-class people; her father, a miner, was killed on the job when Mary was 14. The young Mary was warm, helpful, and caring, helping her mother to teach at a village school. Later on she would receive training as a dressmaker and a nurse.
|Mary Ann Cotton married four times. How many of her husbands died of poisoning?|
3. The saying "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" could certainly never apply to Mary Ann Cotton; she was legally married a total of four times, not including lovers on the side. Her first marriage, at the age of 20, was to miner William Mowbray, by whom she had become pregnant. The couple had five children, four of whom died; however, given the high infant mortality rates of the day, this was not necessarily cause for suspicion. After four years of a less-than-happy marriage, William died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865. Now a widow, Mary Ann was quick to cash in on the insurance money -- in fact, a friend reported seeing her "dancing about the room" in a new dress that had been purchased with the payment. Her next husband was George Ward, who was a patient in the Sunderland Infirmary, where she was employed as a nurse. George continued to suffer from health problems throughout their marriage, so it was not a surprise when he died in October 1866, after a long illness characterized by paralysis and intestinal problems. Husband number three was one James Robinson, a widowed shipwright who 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 you can probably imagine what followed. Mary Ann was impregnated by James, and they were married the following year. After the deaths of three of his children, James wised up and ordered his wife to hit the road, thereby saving his life. Undeterred, Mary Ann found her fourth and final husband in Frederick Cotton, whom she married in September 1870; she was now officially a bigamist, as she had never been divorced from James. Frederick followed his predecessors to the grave in December 1871, when he died of "gastric fever".
|Mary Ann Cotton was only convicted of one murder. Whose? |
her stepson's. Although she is suspected of killing anywhere from 15 to 21 people, Mary Ann was only tried and convicted of one murder -- that of poor little Charles Cotton, the eight-year-old son of her fourth husband, Frederick. In a horrible irony, in 1872, Mary Ann sent her stepson Charles to the local pharmacy to purchase some arsenic, likely using the excuse that she needed it to clean with. When the pharmacist refused to sell the poison to a minor, Mary Ann would not be deterred -- she simply asked an obliging neighbor to do it. Not surprisingly, the little boy died of "gastric fever" that July. This, however, appeared to be the straw that broke the camel's back; neighbors began talking, and one named Thomas Riley went to the authorities with his suspicions. After arsenic was found in Charles' stomach, Mary Ann was charged with his murder.
|No one ever suspected Mary Ann Cotton of murder before her arrest.|
f. It was inevitable that at some point someone would wonder why so many of Mary Ann's relatives succumbed to "gastric fever". James Robinson, her third husband and the only one to survive, voiced his suspicions when Mary Ann suggested that he purchase life insurance on their children, one of whom died within an hour of birth. Mary Ann left Robinson, whose suspicions had likely been heightened enough to make him a poor candidate for her next victim. Unfortunatelty, he didn't report his suspicions to the police or anyone else.
|What other creatures did Mary Ann poison besides humans?|
pigs. Mary Ann did not limit her homicidal activities to homo sapiens. At one point in time, neighbors became annoyed and suspicious when a number of their pigs suffered mysterious deaths. Whatever the motive could be for poisoning the poor oinkers is anyone's guess, but talk and rumor was such that Mary Ann decided she had better pack up and move someplace else before she started poisoning more humans. (She was, perhaps, lucky not be charged with witchcraft - which at that time was still a crime in England).
|With how many murders was Mary Ann charged?|
4. While she was tried and convicted only of Charles' murder, Mary Ann was legally charged with four: those of Charles, her lover Joseph Nattrass, her fourth husband Frederick, and Robert, her own son. At least one of the corpses, that of Joseph Nattrass, was exhumed and found to contain lethal amounts of arsenic.
|Which of these "titles" has Mary Ann Cotton held at various times?|
all of these (Britain's first female serial killer, Britain's most prolific serial killer, world's most prolific serial poisoner). Harold Shipman has overtaken her as Britain's more prolific serial killer, having murdered at least 215 people in the late 20th century. However, Mary Ann Cotton has had the distinction of holding all of these records at various times, although she is not as popular or well-known as criminals like Jack the Ripper, who killed far fewer people. How did she literally get away with murder for so long? There were several factors involved. Given the high infant mortality rate of her time, the fact that many of her children died did not arouse undue suspicion. Mary Ann was crafty enough to stay on the move, packing up and moving on whenever people began to get suspicious. Her undoing proved to be a false sense of security, as she had gotten away with murder so many times that she had little worries about being discovered.
|Mary Ann never admitted her guilt. |
t. Mary Ann Cotton literally went to the gallows proclaiming her innocence. While in prison, she wrote numerous letters to her friends and supporters, including her only surviving husband, James Robinson. As with so many psychopaths, she blamed others for her actions, as evidenced in this letter to him: "if you have one spark of kindness in you - get my life spared...you know yourself there has been...most dreadful lies told about me. I must tell you: you are the cause of all my trouble..." (from crimelibrary.com)
|Mary Ann's defense attorney presented a rather ridiculous idea to explain how the body of her victim was found riddled with arsenic. What was it?|
he had inhaled the arsenic from the dye in the wallpaper. In a vain attempt to explain the presence of a lethal amount of arsenic in the little boy's body, Mary Ann's defense attorney put forth the ridiculous idea that Charles had inhaled the arsenic from the green dye in the wallpaper of his house. While arsenic, a naturally occurring elemet, may have been found in very weak concentrations in many household items, it would not be of sufficient quality to cause death.
|What eventually became of Mary Ann?|
she was hanged. After only 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Mary Ann Cotton guilty of murdering her stepson and she was sentenced to death. Her appointment with the hangman was scheduled for March 24, 1873 at 8:00 AM. As it turned out, death came neither quickly nor easily for the 41-year-old convicted killer; due to a miscalculation by the hangman, the drop mechanism under the gallows malfunctioned, causing her to swing from the noose for some minutes before succumbing. No doubt many found this appropriate, as her victims had all died agonizing deaths.
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