Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Long before Lizzie Borden’s parents were hacked to death, prior to Nannie Doss’ spree of family murders, there was another woman, cloaked in a black veil and black dress. She dominated the newspapers in North London for a brief period during the Victorian era. This woman, parent of fifteen children, stepmother of two, received no sympathy from an outraged and flabbergasted jury. Not only had this woman murdered fourteen of her children, but she also killed three husbands, her mother, two stepchildren, and a lover with arsenic poisoning. For decades, children were taught and sang the sadistic and evil words that immortalized the death of Mary Ann Cotton, also known as the “Monster in Human Shape.”
Homely and plain looking in baggy dresses and an ill-fitting bonnet, Mary Ann Cotton did not rely on her forgettable appearance to ensnare men, rather used wit and the magic of simple grace to appeal to her many lovers. Mary Ann was certainly the one woman in Northern England who emitted some sort of great attractiveness without fancy jewelry, makeup, or beautifully tailored dresses. Nobody knows how Mary Ann was able to operate so easily with men, but it is clear that men fell deeply, madly, and wildly in love with her. So passionate were these men, three proposed to her and she accepted, baring her hand for the wedding ring she desired.
Mary Ann’s first marriage was to William Mowbray in 1852 in Plymouth, Devon. At the age of twenty, Mary Ann began her quest of motherhood, giving birth to eight children. She had a wonderful fondness for her children, becoming the center of the world for each child. Her husband worked hard as a fireman, the wages not quite as competitive as he had hoped, but he nevertheless provided for his large and happy family. Although the timeline is unclear, Mary Ann suffered some kind of fit or psychotic episode during her marriage to William. She purchased arsenic at a local shop and sprinkled it on seven of her children’s dinners, saving one daughter, Isabella. She also poisoned her husband’s dinner, and in the morning, everyone was dead except for Mary Ann and Isabella. Before leaving Plymouth, Mary Ann collected William’s life insurance policy.
Moving to Sunderland, Mary Ann began work as a nurse at a neighboring hospital. Caring for the ill and recovering patients, Mary Ann brought great joy to the sick and debilitated. Using her talents of cheerfulness and quiet elegance to raise her patient’s spirits, she was well liked by all the men she helped convalesce. One man in particular was smitten by Mary Ann, an engineer named George Ward. He had many health problems, but the affection and attention Mary Ann gave him literally had him on his knees proposing marriage. While Isabella was living with her grandmother, Mary Ann decided to agree to the marriage, as long as she was the beneficiary on his life insurance policy.
The blissful matrimony only lasted thirteen months, for George’s failing health had finally come to a head, and he passed away, leaving Mary Ann the recipient of his life insurance money. Doctors had been caring for George for years, and it was quickly assumed that he had died of his former ailments, intestinal problems and partial paralysis. It did dumbfound some of the doctors, who had seen George feeling well despite his sicknesses. His sudden death brought up a few questions, but his wife was certainly not a suspect. She was a grieving widow, after all, and her short lived marriage ended so quickly. Her normally jolly character seemed to crumble genuinely.
Mary Ann, moving on from her second marriage in an incredibly hasty manner, sought work as a housekeeper at a Mr. James Robinson’s home. He, too, was a recent widower and was terribly distraught over the death of his wife. He found comfort and love in his new housekeeper, finding her not only understanding about the death of a life partner, but glamorously generous with her thoughtful deeds and reassurance that he would love again. He did find love again, falling for Mary Ann swiftly and easily. Before he could propose marriage to her, Mary Ann received news that her mother was deathly ill. Mary Ann left the Robinson home to take care of her mother in Seaham Harbour, Durham.
The death of Mary Ann’s mother occurred just nine days after Mary Ann arrived. Gastric fever was the cause of death, Mary Ann’s mother suffering from fantastically horrific stomach pains the night before she passed. When Mary Ann returned to the Robinson home with her daughter Isabella, James immediately proposed, believing that he could help with her mourning by giving her good news. Mary Ann and James were married and decided to begin having children together. Shortly thereafter, five children were born. James rejoiced the birth of each child, playing the doting father while Mary Ann enjoyed domestic household pleasures. This did not last long, for Mary Ann’s small children one by one, including Isabella, all died without reason in a very short span of time. The cause of death again, was gastric fever. James became suspicious of the deaths and took his one surviving child away, moving to a place Mary Ann could never find them.
Without James, Mary Ann was destitute and living on the streets. She met Frederick Cotton through an acquaintance, and the two found that they had much in common. Frederick was also a new widower and had lost two children. He found that life alone was depressing and meant nothing without a bride he could shower with love and respect. The woman he chose to marry was Mary Ann, attracted by her warmth and endearing nature. Though Mary Ann was legally still married to James Robinson, she secretly kept that detail to herself and wed Frederick Cotton. After several months, she became pregnant with her fourteenth child and gave birth 9 months later to a boy, named Robert. Taking care of Frederick’s two children, Frederick Jr. and Charlie, it seemed Mary Ann would finally settle down with a real family.
One afternoon, Mary Ann ran into an old lover, Joseph Nattress. This man had consumed Mary Ann completely in her earlier years. The love she felt for Joseph didn’t compare to any other man she had known and the two quickly rekindled a long dormant romance. Finding her arrangement with Frederick Cotton unfitting now that she was with Joseph, Mary Ann sprinkled a bit of arsenic into Frederick’s dinner one night. His death the next morning was found by doctors as a severe case of gastric fever. Her last gift from Frederick was a substantial amount of life insurance money.
When Mary Ann met a wealthy custom’s officer simply called Mr. Quick-Manning, the dreams and aspirations she once had of Joseph Nattress evaporated. Mary Ann was no longer fixed on continuing their affair, and decided to clear her slate, as it were. Poisoning Joseph, her stepson Frederick Jr., and her infant son Robert, she set her sights on Mr. Quick-Manning as her next husband. Before she could attain his affections, she had one last element to take care of; her seven-year-old stepson Charlie Cotton. Telling her neighbors that Charlie was too difficult to take care of because he was “not her own”, Mary Ann waited a respectable amount of time before ending Charlie’s life. Mary Ann, cruel to her very soul, actually sent her own stepson out to the store to buy the arsenic that she would later use to kill him.
A doctor, who had seen Charlie the day before he died, was apprehensive about Charlie’s sudden bout of gastric fever. He had been fine the day before, a skipping and smiling seven-year-old boy with no cares or problems in the world. The doctor ordered an autopsy, at first finding nothing out of the ordinary. Mary Ann quickly cashed the small insurance policy on Charlie, and was ready to begin a new romance with Mr. Quick-Manning. But Charlie’s doctor was unsatisfied with his findings, sending some of Charlie’s stomach contents to a laboratory. After a thorough chemical analysis, it was discovered that Charlie had indeed traces of arsenic in his stomach. The doctor informed police of the poisoning and Mary Ann Cotton was arrested, while police began exhuming the bodies of those who had died from “gastric fever.”
Taking place at Durham Assizes, Mary Ann Cotton’s trial was one of the largest and most famous cases in Victorian history. Mary Ann was taken to the court for the murder of Charlie Edward Cotton. This was a tremendously legendary case, and rightfully so, mainly because it involved a woman who had been accused of killing so many. Doubly worse was that she had possibly murdered almost her entire family including her children.
When rumors spread about the terrible woman who had murdered her family, people were anticipating some kind of evil-looking witch with boils and frazzled hair. They waited for a wild creature with jagged nails and sharp teeth. They imagined a nightmare of a woman, a monster really, in human form. Dressed nearly all in black, people were undoubtedly surprised that this hardly striking woman had found four husbands and was searching for more. Drab and uninteresting, Mary Ann was not at all what people were expecting when she entered the courtroom. Slouching and head bowed, Mary Ann was nothing more than a forty-year-old woman with no distinction about her.
The trial began on Wednesday, March 5, 1873. Thomas Foster was appointed as Mary Ann’s lawyer only two days before, Mary Ann unable to raise funds for a private attorney. The defense argued that Charlie Cotton had been killed from arsenic in the coloring of some of the green wallpaper in his bedroom. The prosecution doubted this strange information, believing that the only way Charlie Cotton could have died so suddenly would be if Charlie was inhaling enormous amounts of the poison daily. He also would have been licking the walls to ingest such a large quantity. Furthermore, the prosecution found that Mary Ann must have had two motives for killing Charlie. She needed him out of the picture so she could marry the man she really wanted, Mr. Quick-Manning. She also benefited by inheriting eight pounds from Charlie’s life insurance policy.
Mary Ann’s story had been extraordinarily documented in the newspapers. Reading only that she had murdered her entire family, people neglected the fact that Mary Ann was only on trial for the murder of Charlie Cotton. Foster, his case rapidly collapsing, demanded to the Judge Sir Thomas Archibald that the other murders in the family be stricken from the record, for Mary Ann was only being charged for the death of her stepson. The judge overruled the plea, and the jury had full knowledge of every murder that occurred.
Three days after the trial began, the jury had enough evidence to come to a decision about Mary Ann Cotton. After deliberating for one hour, they found Mary Ann guilty of murder. In the amazing and unforgettable speech given by the judge, he said in part, “Poisoning, in the very act of crime, writes an indelible record of guilt. In these last words I shall address to you, I would earnestly urge you to seek for your soul that only refuge which is left for you- in the mercy of God through the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. It only remains for me to pass upon you the sentence of the law…”
After hearing the judge’s announcement, Mary Ann fell faint in the court and had to be carried out by guards. She appealed her sentence, and soon found out she was pregnant with the child of her latest lover, Mr. Quick-Manning. Apparently, the two had a hot and brief encounter sometime during her marriage to Frederick Cotton. This was Mary Ann’s fifteenth pregnancy, and the judge, jury, and public were determined that this one would absolutely survive. She was allowed to pick the adoptive parents, but five days before her execution, she clung fast to the infant, refusing to let it go. The baby had to be forcibly removed.
On March 24, 1873, Mary Ann Cotton went to the gallows at Durham Prison. It has been reported that her body convulsed for three full minutes after the trapdoor swung open.
A little song was written to leave an everlasting imprint on Mary Ann Cotton’s life. Whether composed by wary and agitated adults attempting to warn their offspring, or just a bit of rhyme put together by local rope-skipping children, it is unknown:
“Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where? Where? Up in the air
Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair…”