Often (erroneously) believed to be the first known female serial killer in Britain, Mary Ann Cotton poisoned up to 21 people. Today, there is a TV series entitled Dark Angel on UK television which depicts the life and crimes of a woman who murdered three of her spouses and up to 11 of her children. Read on to discover how a dressmaker from Durham became one of British history’s most prolific serial killers.
Mary Ann Robson was born on Halloween 1832 in Low Moorsley in County Durham. Death surrounded her from an early age. First, her sister Margaret died in 1834, only a few months after being born. The Robson family moved to the village of Murton in Durham when Mary Ann was eight, but tragedy struck in February 1842. Her father, Michael, fell 150 feet down a mine shaft and died.
What happened next is indicative of the harsh nature of the time. Mary Ann’s mother, Margaret, received her husband’s body in a bag marked: ‘Property of the South Hetton Coal Company.’ Moreover, as the cottage they lived in was tied to the job, it is likely that the family were evicted. Margaret was motivated to act, and in 1843, she married a miner named George Stott as a means of keeping a roof over her family’s heads.
The Spree Begins
Mary Ann left home aged 16 to train as a nurse but returned to her stepfather’s home three years later and started training as a dressmaker. She married her first husband, William Mowbray, in 1852 in the Newcastle upon Tyne registry office. The couple moved to South West England, and it was here when her killing spree began.
While Mary Ann’s first known murder didn’t occur until 1865, there is a strong possibility that she claimed her first victims much earlier. It is difficult to find much evidence relating to Mary Ann, her husband and any children they had together due to a lack of documentation such as birth and death certificates. However, it seems as if she had nine kids and all but three were dead by 1864. One child, Margaret Jane, was born in 1856 and died in 1860 while another, John Robert William, was born in 1863 but died the following year.
The couple frequently moved in the early years of their marriage but settled in Hendon in Durham in 1856. At some point, her husband purchased a life insurance policy covering himself and the couple’s three remaining children as several of their kids had died from ‘gastric fever.’ It was a common ailment but also featured symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning which was Mary Ann’s modus operandi.
It is often assumed that she killed for financial gain only. However, that theory would require closer examination if she murdered some of her children before forcing her first husband to meet his maker in January 1865. He died from an alleged intestinal disorder, and since his life was insured, Mary Ann collected £35, the equivalent of just over £3,000 in today’s money. She collected £2 5s when John Robert William died. This sum of cash would only last her so long, and when it ran out, she killed again and again.