iiiiiiiii~Mary Ann Cotton~
Men, Money, Mass Murderer

Biographical Profile

Family and Influences
Mary Ann Cotton

Born in October 1832, she grew up in Sunderland until she was eight years old. At the age of eight her family moved to Murton in Durham County. Cotton found it difficult to make friends at her new school causing her to feel lonely and left out. Soon after moving her father fell 46 metres down a mine shaft, killing him.
When Mary Ann Cotton was 14 her mother remarried. She didn't get along with her new step father, but enjoyed the wealth that new marriage brought. At the age of 16 Cotton moved out and started working in a middle-class family as a servant. During this period she looked after 12 children, cooking and cleaning for them. Cotton got a taste for the middle class life whilst working for this family. These two factors could contribute to the influences that drove Mary Ann Cotton to kill for insurance money. By looking after 12 children she became resentful towards children. Due to this, it would not have been difficult to kill her own children and step children.

Career and Major Achievements
Mary Ann Cotton met her first husband, William Mowbry, at the age of twenty and moved to Cornwall with him. Together they had five children, four of which died within a short time of being born of gastric fever. On June 22nd 1860 the last child, Margaret Jane died. In 1861 Cotton and Mowbry had another daughter and in 1863 a son was born. During this time they found it hard to survive with little money for food and clothes. One year later their son died of gastric fever. Mary Ann Cotton encouraged Mowbry to get insurance in case of a sudden death. Not long after the insurance was taken out, William Mowbry died of an intestinal disorder.

Mary Ann Cotton and her daughter Isabella moved to Seaham Harbour. Cotton moved her daughter to live with her mother not long after moving. She also meets Joseph Nattrass, although he was engaged and when he got married she moved away from him. In 1865 Cotton becomes a fever nurse where she meets George Ward, a patient. She soon married Ward, but only 1 year and 2 months later he died of gastric fever. George Ward had been sick for a long time, but doctors were surprised that he died so suddenly. Cotton once again was given insurance money after the death.

Mary Ann Cotton moved to Sunderland and applied as a housekeeper. She was found by James Robinson, whose wife had recently died and needed someone to look after his children. Within a couple of weeks Robinson baby died of a fever. When his baby died Robinson turned to Cotton for support and she fell pregnant. Cotton visited her mother in Seaham Harbour when she was notified that her mother was ill. Nine days after arriving her mother died on the 9th of June 1866. she took her daughter Isabella back to live with herself and James Robinson's family. In 1867 Isabella and two of Robinsons children died of gastric fever. In late 1867 Cotton gives birth to another daughter, who dies three months later. In 1868 James Robinson and Mary Ann Cotton got married. In 1868 she gives birth to another son. Not long after giving birth, Robinson discovers that she is stealing money from him and kicks her out.

In 1870 Cotton and her son moves in with Margaret Cotton, Margaret's brother Fredrick Cotton and Fredrick's children. 3 weeks after moving in with them Margaret Cotton dies of Gastric fever and her insurance is given to Fredrick Cotton. While Mary Ann Cotton was with Fredrick Cotton she also met up with Joseph Nattrass once again. Mary Ann Cotton became pregnant and told Fredrick that it was his child. They married soon after. The baby was born early 1871. One year later Fredrick died.

Mary Ann Cotton then moves in with Joseph Nattrass after the death of Fredrick Cotton with his two children. In 1872 both Fredrick Cotton's son Fredrick Cotton Jr and Mary Ann Cotton’s son Robert Robinson die. Joseph Nattrass dies not long after and Cotton is left with his insurance money. Cotton tries to offer Fredrick’s last son Charles to a work house, but is refused. Cotton mentions that Charles will die within a week to the owner of the work house. And within the week Charles Cotton dies of Gastric fever.

After the death of Charles Cotton it raised some suspicion, mostly because Cotton predicted that a healthy boy would die within a week. A post mortem was conducted; some of the contents in the stomach was taken out for testing and checked for anything out of the ordinary. It was then confirmed that Charles Cotton died of Arsenic poisoning. Mary Ann Cotton was convicted of murdering Charles Cotton. She was also convicted of murdering 17 other people who died of gastric fever. Mary Ann Cotton’s trial was on the 5th of March 1873 where she pleaded guilty despite strong evidence showing otherwise. She was sentenced to death and hanged on the 24th of March 1873 by William Calcraft at Durham Jail. While being hanged she was not killed by a broken neck, it took her around 3 minutes to choke to death.


Mary Ann Cotton and her importance to the civil death registration system
Most of us have ancestors whose deaths cannot be found in the GRO indexes. We have Mary Ann Cotton to thank for the system changing in 1874. Civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was introduced in England and Wales on July 1, 1837. It was meant to be compulsory, but a small fee was charged for each registration and the law specified no penalty for failure to register. There was no way round paying for a marriage licence if a union was to have any legal validity, but many people, particularly the poor who lived some distance from the registrar's office, did not bother to register births and deaths. Why bother making a long journey to purchase a piece of paper which told you what you already knew? It was not necessary to obtain a death certificate before a corpse was disposed of - in fact the only reason to bother with a death certificate at all was if the deceased was insured and the insurance company demanded to see a death certificate before paying out. For the first few decades of the registration system, many births and deaths, possibly running into the millions, missed the official net. Then, in the autumn of 1872, Mary Ann Cotton was uncovered almost by accident at West Auckland in County Durham, which obliged the authorities to have a rethink. The ease with which Mary Ann Cotton ignored the existing registration and insurance systems by constantly remarrying and changing her name and murdering with apparent 'immunity' rightly disturbed the authorities such that nine months after her execution at Durham in March 1873, the fee for the registration of births and deaths was abolished and a substantial fine or imprisonment was introduced for failure to record a birth. The new penalty for not reporting a death was prison. From January 1, 1874 it also became necessary to obtain a death certificate, signed by a medic, before a funeral could proceed. Before Mary Ann, many births and deaths went unrecorded. After Mary Ann, very few were.

Her Impact/ why she made history

Mary Ann Cotton made history as she is regarded as being Britain's greatest female mass murderer with her tally of killings remaining unequalled by either sex until the 1980's. She got away with several murders for almost 20 years without suspicion, going to great extents and killing several blood relatives and children. Cotton was a thrice married 40-year-old former nurse who made it to the history books through a life consisting of trails of deaths. She is strongly suspected of 14 or 15 murders, mainly by arsenic poisoning, although 21 people who were close to her died over a 20 year period. Her killings comprised of 10 children, three husbands, five stepchildren, her mother, a sister in law Margaret, and one lover.Her motive was either to gain insurance money or to pave way for a new marriage. Mary Ann Cotton also made history as she was one of the very few women to have ever been executed compared to the amount of men; she was hung at Durham Jail for the murder of her young stepson, Edward James Cotton.

Mary Ann Cotton made history as she was the first ever woman serial killer, because of this she shed a whole new light on the everyday ‘kind and gentle’ perception of women during this time. Mary Ann Cotton’s Impact on history was quite a significant one as she was of great importance to the civil death registration system. Because of Mary Ann Cotton, the law was changed so that the fee for the registration of births and deaths was abolished and a fine or imprisonment was introduced for failure to record a birth. The new penalty for not reporting a death was prison. The impact Mary Ann Cotton had on the existing legal system has impacted history severely as she is the reason most deaths were accounted for and the reason why many people today are able to track their family tree back to the 1800’s today.


Mary Ann Cotton was born
Step father came into her life
William Mowbray died January
Charles Edward died July 12th
Married George Ward before he died in October 1866
June 9th mother died of stomach pains after being well
Daughter and 2 of James's children died in April
James married her in August
Daughter was born in November and died in March
Margaret cotton died late March
Married in September
Frederick died in December
Frederick Jr. (Mary Ann cottons step child) died March
Trial on March 5th
Hanged on the 24th of March at Durham Jail.

Map of Her Life


The blue circle which shows Sunderland and the red circle which shows Durham are the places where Mary Ann Cotton travelled mostly throughout her life. She was born in Sunderland (shown by the blue circle) and died in Durham jail, in Durham (shown by the red circle). Throughout her life she lived in smaller towns within Durham and Sunderland which are not shown in this map due to the size. She lived in other places such as Cornwall and Seaham Harbour which cannot be seen above.

Primary Sources- Examination



What:Death Sentence for Mary Ann Cotton

When: 7th March 1873.

Where: Assizes (County Court) Holden in Durham
What this source can reveal:This source reveals several things of the life of Mary Ann Cotton. For one, it is clear to see that she was a cold blooded murderer who killed an innocent boy, and most probrably many others of whom she was not accounted for. This cements the fact that Mary Ann was the reason behind Edward Cotton’s death as after going through trial and prosecution, it is clear in this source that she was eventually convicted of this crime. The details of Mary Ann Cottons forthecomming execution and death is revealed in this source as it displays the Time and place of this event. It is said that she will be executed by being hung, and that it will be done at 8 am on Monday the 24th.We are also able to concur that she is being held at durham jail, which is also where she would be executed. This detail gives historians a greater insight as to what happened in the life of Mary Ann Cotton, and what went on the day of her death. Through this source, historians can justify that Mary Ann was brought to justice although she was not convicted for all the murders she committed.
The different perspectives of this person based on the sources:Several views of Mary Ann Cotton is portrayed through this source, it shows us that she was infact a woman who would stop at nothing to achieve what she wanted. It is clear that she was senseless to think that she could kill so many without getting caught. The fact that she really believed she could get away with murders that just 'happened' to occur where ever she moved, brings up perspectives that she was also psychologically effected and unable to think clearly through what she was doing. She is also perceived through this source as a guilty and viscious person as she killed an innocent boy and several for the sake of insurance money. She is also perceived to be a savage person as it is clearly shown in this source that she is guilty of wilful murder. She would also be perceived as desperate and in complete need of the ‘good life’. She clearly wanted the best for herself and is portrayed as a very superficial person as her whole life was aimed at being rich at any expense.

Thomas Detchon I am an assistant chemist to Mr. William Owen of Newcastle-on-Tyne.

"I remember a woman 4 years ago coming to my masters’ shop between 2.pm-3pm on January 21st of 1869 and asking for three-penny’s worth of soft-soap and arsenic. She gave her name as Mary Ann Booth, and that is the person who I see in the prisoners dock."
Detchon further said that the woman who bought the soft-soap and arsenic wanted it to kill bugs on beds and linen.
“I told her that I could not sell her the mixture because she needed a witness, but I could sell her an alternative mixture called “bug specific” which we make without needing a witness. She said that she would rather have the other and again I said not without a witness”.

What: A witness’ evidential statement (Thomas Detchon, an assistant chemist)

When: 19th of July 1872

Where: Newcastle-on-Tyne, England

What this source can reveal:
This source cements the fact that Mary Ann Cotton did indeed use Arsenic on her victims. It also presents hard evidence to her guilt as it shows that Mary Ann was seen first handed to actually go and attempt to purchase the arsenic. It reveals details as to where she got the arsenic from and at what time she went. It also confirms that arsenic is what caused all the deaths and diseases which brings up the thought that Mary Ann Cotton was infact the reason behind all the other sudden deaths as they all suffered very similar symptoms. This source can also reveal to historians what was behind the deaths and the method in which Mary Ann Cotton killed her victims so sublty and without suspicion for years. It is clear that her life revolved heavily around pursuiting these deaths in order for money.

The different perspectives of this person based on the sources:This source shows a perspective that Mary Ann cotton was a very peristent person as she continued to ask the assistant for the arsenic although she was not allowed it without a witness. She seemed very determined to get what she wanted and although it was out of reach she persisted. It is somewhat also possible that the murders became some sort of a game for her, it is said that "this objection to allow her the Arsenic may have been in her eyes, an obstacle in her way to winning another life", This shows that she was a stubborn person and that she would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. This source also shows that she was desperate for money and was senseless enough to plan to get arsenic and concoct a way to kill her family. This would have taken great thought and It seems that she was psychologically affected from childhood to have brought herself to think of this and set out to buy the poison. Detchon further said that she wanted it to kill bugs on beds and linen. This shows a perspective that she was a deceiving person and that she was capable of much more than her family would have thought.



What: The Medical Certificate in respect of Frederick Cotton showing him to have died of 'Typhoid Hepatitis'.

When: 26th September 1971

Where: Walbottle, Northumberland

What this source can reveal:This source can reveal a lot to us about Mary Ann Cotton and her final and most ‘famous husband’ whose surname she took. It reveals several details of Frederick Cotton’s death, such as the date which can reveal around what time Mary Ann married him. This source also shows that his cause of death was Typhoid Hepatitis, this reveals to historians what the symptoms of the arsenic were and what sort of diseases it lead to. 'Gastric Fever' in some medical dictionaries in the 19th Century, was a catch-all term for severe stomach pains accompanied by fever, etc., which frequently ended in death. It was also a term used for some types of Typhoid Fever. The Duration of his death is also revealed, this shows details of the effect of Arsenic poisoning as they are able to tell how long it would take persons to die after consumption. The term 'Typhoid Hepatitis' must imply 'Liver Inflammation & Failure', which would seem to be consistent with a death by arsenical poisoning. Most of all we are able to see that after looking at the source of his death, that Mary Ann Cotton was most likely the reason he died. When comparing his death to that of the murders she was convicted for, we are able to see that she most likely murdered this man although it was not official and legislated in court, she was only convicted of one murder.
The different perspectives of this person based on the sources:This source provides a view of Mary Ann Cotton that she has no limit to the extent she will go to for money. It shows us that she is willing to kill anyone in her way of the ‘good life’ and will go to any length and measure to do achieve it. This also shows a perspective that she does not care who she marries or where she must live as long their life is insured. She is willing to use anyone and do as much as marry them to get what she wants. Most of all we are able to see that after looking at the source of his death, that Mary Ann Cotton was most likely the reason he died. When comparing his death to that of the murders she was convicted for, we are able to see that she most likely murdered this man as well, although it was not official and legislated in court as she was only convicted of one murder. The perspective shown is that her conscience is nonexistent and she was a very obstinate woman who would commit unforgiveable crimes for a superficial reason such as money. This also shows that murdering may have become a frenzy for her and the money she recieved became a bonus to the lives she obtained. It is clear that her childhood and less than average life affected her severely for her to have resulted to such measures.

Picture Gallery
Mary Ann Cotton's Execution and Death Certificate By Durham Prison Surgeon

Front Street West Auckland, Where Mary Ann Cotton was Arrested From
Modern Interpretatio of the young Mary Ann Cotton
Durham Gaol, where Mary Ann Cotton was held and E
Bottle of Arsenic from the 1800's
William Calcraft, Mary Ann Cotton's Executioner
Death Certificate of Mary Ann Cottons Stepson, Charles Edward Cotton


1~ EMPATHY TASK: After reading the biography write one-two paragraphs as a day in the life of Mary Ann Cotton

lkbca diwow


4~ QUIZ:

1. What did Mary Ann Cotton use to kill her family members?
a. arsenic
b. strychnine
c. cyanide
d. chloroform

2. With how many murders was Mary Ann charged?
a. 4
b. 1
c. 2
d. 3

3. Why was Mary Ann Cotton caught?

4. Mary Ann never admitted her guilt.
True OR False

5.What eventually became of Mary Ann
a. she died of illnesses in prisonb. she was hangedc. she was eventually parolledd. she committed suicide

6. What was the name of Mary Ann Cotton's first husband?
a. George
b. William
c. James
d. Frederick

7. What impact did Mary Ann Cotton have on the law?

8. What was Mary Ann Cotton's first job?
a. Nurse
b. Cook
c. Housekeeper
d. Dressmaker

9. Mary Ann Cotton was only convicted of one murder. Whose?
a. her daughter's
b. her stepson's
c. her husband's
d. her mother's

10. Where was Mary Ann Cotton hanged?
a. Sunderlandb. Durhamc. Aucklandd. Newcastle


Recommended Reading List

Wikipedia: Mary Ann Cotton
This website has quite a lot of information about Mary Ann Cotton. It is easy to read and sorted out in an organised manner so finding information is simple. The way it is written out is clear. It would be a good base to start finding out information as it tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Although because Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, only use it as a starting point and always check up on the information you find. Wikipedia also has foot notes, which can help to show you some more good sites.

Marina Cole's Lady Killers
This is a TV show that was played on the ABC. You can only find it in 4 parts on YouTube, but it is one of the best sources to use. It has different historians and people talking about Mary Ann Cotton. It's an interesting show and because most of the sources about Mary Ann Cotton are websites it's good to have a break and watch a video. The person who created the show is a crime writer and thoroughly researched Cotton before airing the show. It also has clear and precise dates for when people were born and died.

The northern echo
Mary Ann Cotton Still Rotten, Friday 22nd March 2002
This is a news article written in 2002 about Mary Ann Cotton. It is quite helpful as it tells you most of the facts that you need to know. It is written clearly by someone who has researched Mary Ann




UNJUMBLE: arsenic, black widow, daughter, march, wealth, Durham, hanged, Isabella, intestinal,murdererQUIZ: Arsenic, 1, she said her healthy stepson would die within the week and he did, True, She was Hanged, William, It is now compulsory to have death/ birth certificates, Housekeeper, Her Stepson's, Durham Gaol.