March 24, 1873
Durham, England
Mary Ann Cotton (34, pictured) is executed for the murder of her stepson

Cotton, who eventually was given the nickname “The Dark Angel,” had a streak of suspicious deaths following her, including three husbands, her mother, a lodger, and twelve children (either her own or her stepchildren).

The deaths in themselves were not suspicious, particularly due to the poor nutrition the working class at the time was subjected to. Due to malnutrition, gastroenteritis and dysentery were not uncommon, and the effects of arsenic poisoning — vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain — mirrored the symptoms of intestinal disorders. The suspicion instead rested on Cotton due to the large volume of those close to her who suddenly died.

The first known death was a 4-year-old daughter Cotton had with her first husband, William Mowbray, who died on June 24, 1860. The next was John William Mowbray, 5, on September 22, 1864, followed by William Mowbray on January 18, 1865 and Mary Jane Mowbray, 4, on May 2, 1865. The deaths of each were listed as “gastric fever,” and Cotton claimed £35 in life insurance from her husband, worth roughly £4,500 today. At the beginning of the following year, on January 9, Cotton’s mother also died.

Cotton soon remarried, though her second husband, George Ward, died in October 1866 and she collected an insurance payout from his life, as well. She again remarried, this time to James Robinson, and six more children died over the span of a year:

  • John Robinson, 10 months old, on January 4, 1867;
  • James Robinson, 6, on April 7;
  • Elizabeth Robinson, 8, on April 13;
  • Isabella and Edward Mowbray, both 9, on May 2;
  • and Margaret Robinson, 3, in December 1867.

During this time, Cotton repeatedly asked her husband to take out an insurance policy on his own life, though he steadfastly refused. Soon, Cotton was asked to leave the Robinson home, though not due to the deaths of the children but rather because Robinson had discovered his wife had involved him in £60 of debt without his knowledge.

Cotton married her fourth and final husband, Frederick Cotton, in September 1870 despite not being legally divorced from Robinson. Again, death swept the family. Frederick Cotton died on September 19, 1871, his 10-year-old son, also named Frederick Cotton, died on March 8, 1872, and 14-month-old Robert Robson (or Robin) Cotton died on March 29. Four days after Robert’s death, a lodger named Joseph Nattrass (sometimes cited as Cotton’s lover) also died. Finally, Charles Edward Cotton, 7, died on July 12, 1872. Charles’ death would be the final to be attributed to Cotton.

The Cotton family doctor became suspicious of the sudden deaths of so many within the family and examined Charles’ body, concluding the boy had died of arsenic poisoning. Cotton was charged with the murders of both Fredericks as well as Robert and Charles, though she was ultimately only convicted of Charles’.

Cotton was executed af Durham Gaol, maintaining her innocence to the end. She later inspired a nursery rhyme recited by schoolchildren: “Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing? Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string. Where, where? Up in the air, sellin’ black puddings a penny a pair.”

Waddington, Sarah. “Plymouth’s forgotten serial killer Mary Ann Cotton who murdered her own children.” Plymouth Live. December 8, 2019. Accessed: March 24, 2020.
Morton, David. “Who was Mary Ann Cotton? The North East serial killer’s life and execution in 17 facts.” Chronicle Live. October 20, 2019. Accessed: March 25, 2020.
Storey, Neil R. The Little Book of Murder. The History Press, 2013
“Execution of Mary Ann Cotton.” The Leeds Mercury. March 25, 1873
“The Alleged Wholesale Poisoning Cases.” Supplement to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent. October 26, 1872
“The Auckland Murders.” The Morning Post [London, England]. October 3, 1872

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