Mary Ann Robson was born in the colliery village of Low Moorsley in the County of Durham, (Now part of Houghton-le-Spring), on the 31st October 1832.
The daughter of a miner, her family moved to Murton when she was eight so her father could take up a job working at Murton Colliery. It was a move that was to bring tragedy shortly afterwards when her father feel 150ft down the pit shaft, leaving her mother widowed and the family in poverty.
Life was tough in the mining communities, even tougher for a widowed woman with children. Marriage was common-place at the time and it wasn’t unusual for women to re-marry quickly when widowed.
Sometimes this happened for love, often it was a matter of financial survival. By today’s standards, Mary married young at the age of twenty. She had caught the eye of a colliery labourer, William Mowbray and shortly after they married, the couple moved to Plymouth where William had found work. The couple returned to the North East of England, when William managed to secure the role of Foreman, at the colliery in South Hetton. During their marriage, Mary gave birth to eight children, seven of whom died. Whilst this must have had an effect on Mary, such a death rate was not that uncommon in the appalling conditions of the day. After thirteen years of marriage, William Mowbray died in January 1865 of an “intestinal disorder”. Was this Mary’s first murder? She certainly benefited from it with an insurance policy paying £35, equivalent to approximately six month’s wages for a labourer at the time.
Mary met her second husband, George Ward, whilst working the Sunderland Infirmary. George, an engineer, never fully recovered from his time in the Infirmary continuing to be afflicted by intestinal problems with bouts of paralysis. To the surprise of his doctor, George died suddenly in October 1866, just fourteen months after marrying Mary in Monkwearmouth. Once again Mary benefited by collecting money from an insurance policy.
In 1866 Mary went to Pallion in Sunderland to take up the position of housekeeper to a shipwright, James Robinson. He was recently widowed and needed someone to look after his children. Around a month after Mary arrived, James’ baby died of Typhoid and his is grief, he ended up relying more upon Mary. Isabella, Mary’s daughter from her first marriage had been living with her grandmother whilst Mary worked to support herself was finally reunited with her mother, moving in with Mary and James Robinson. She helped with the work around the house and looking after the Robinson children, but soon began to develop the intestinal symptoms that had become common around Mary. Isabella died in April 1867, as did two of the Robinson children. All under very similar circumstances. Mary then aroused suspicions in James by nagging him into insuring his own life. James caught Mary bullying his children into pawning household items behind his back and eventually he discovered that not only had she run up debts of £60, but she had also stolen £50 of his money that he had asked her to bank. A raging row ensued which ended up in James throwing Mary out on to the street.
Life was hard enough when you had somewhere to live, but life on the street was only about one thing, survival. Whilst living hand to mouth each day, Mary became friends with Margaret Cotton. Margaret introduced Mary to her brother Frederick Cotton who lived in Walbottle in Northumberland. Like James, he was recently widowed and with his long shifts down the mine, Margaret had been acting as the mother to his two children. In March 1870 Margaret died of an undefined stomach complaint, leaving the way clear for Mary to get ever closer to Frederick. Before long she was pregnant by him. They were married in September 1870 at the church of St Andrews in Newcastle, however there was a problem. Mary was still married to James Robinson at the time, hence adding bigamy to her list of crimes. It was only a few weeks later that Mary discovered that a former lover, who spurned her for another when she lived at Seaham, was now living in West Auckland in southern County Durham and was no longer married. With unfinished business between her and Joseph Nattrass, Mary became unsettled in her bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton and started to look for a way out. The flame of love between Mary and Joseph was ignited once more and Mary persuaded Frederick to move the family nearer to her lover. Right on cue, Frederick started to develop gastric problems and was dead within the month. The insurance policy she had carefully ensured was in place paid out, once again, she profited from the death of a husband.
Joseph Nattrass moved in with Mary, becoming her lodger shortly after Frederick’s death. As far as the public are concerned, she was just another widow-woman, trying to make ends meet. Joseph made the mistake of letting his heart rule his head, changing his will in favour of Mary. No sooner than the ink was dry, he too developed gastric problems and died.
A leading member of the local parrish, Thomas Riley heard of Mary’s prior work at the Sunderland Infirmary and asked her to help nurse a local woman, who was ill with smallpox. In return for doing this, Mary asked if Frederick Cotton’s sole surviving child Charles could be committed to the local Workhouse as he was in her way. Riley who served as a local coroner told Mary she too would have to enter the workhouse in order for the child to be admitted. It was then that Mary may the comment that would lead to her eventual downfall, “I’ll not be troubled long. He go the way of all the other Cottons”. Five days later the boy was dead. Riely remembered what Mary had said and on being told of the child’s death, he went to the village Constable.
Mary did herself no favours when she went to the Insurance Office before the doctor on the death of Charles Cotton. News of this spread, fuelling rumours and when the doctor finally attended, he took tissue samples from the boy’s corpse. Samples that later tested positive for the presence of Arsenic.
Mary was arrested and standing trial in Durham. The defence tried to claim the arsenic present in Charles’ body was as a result of inhaling the dye of the wallpaper hanging in the Cotton’s home, however it took the jury little more than an hour to find her guilty of murder. Mary Ann Cotton was hanged within the precincts of Durham Gaol on 20th March 1873.