Whilst doing some local research on my latest novel, I pulled into the old Durham mining village of Bishop Auckland the other day. There are few clues to its gruesome past, but the house I came to visit was once home to Britain’s first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton. No angel, Mary Ann had supposedly poisoned 21 people before she was finally arrested, incarcerated, and was hanged in Durham Jail, in March 1873. Even today, few people have heard of her. Known as the Black Widow, two decades before the Streets of Whitechapel were terrorised by Jack the Ripper, Mary Ann Cotton had set about her gruesome business with a vengeance. She is thought to have murdered eight of her own children, seven step children, her mother, three husbands, a lover, and an inconvenient friend. And there’s me thinking the Wharf Butcher was vicious!
Calling in at the local pub that day, I soon discovered the chilling nursery rhyme that was often sung by Victorian children in the local school playgrounds. It went:
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string
As the story goes, Mary Ann’s father was killed in early 1842, when she was aged nine, falling down a shaft while repairing a pulley wheel at the Murton Colliery. Instructed to find work and marry, which Mary Ann did on July 18, 1852, becoming the wife of colliery worker William Mowbray. Her motives for murder will always remain a matter of conjecture, but a strong pattern emerged: she would find a man with an income, live with him until it became inconvenient, and then poison him for significant gain whilst collecting the insurance policies after he was dead. How many of her children were dispatched with the same callousness is unknown.
Her choice of poison was arsenic, favoured by many murderers down the centuries as it dissolves in a hot liquid, such as a cup of tea. Her plan worked well, and according to death and burial certificates, all her victims had died of gastric ailments. Prior to her trial, Home Office permission was granted to exhume the bodies of those that had died in West Auckland who were close to Mary Anne. The result – arsenic was found in all bodies that were exhumed. Her trial began on Monday 3 March 1873, and the judge attending was a Mr Justice Archibald. The arguments in her defence were that the wallpaper she had in her house in Front Street contained arsenic, but there had never been a case where it had caused anyone any harm. Other arguments were used, but of course none of this was ever believed. On Friday 7 March 1873 the jury found her guilty of murder on circumstantial evidence, and she was sentenced to death. Well that’s it for now I’m off for a cup of tea in Mary Ann’s old house!
Catch you later, Michael.
For those still interested in the case, you can find out more on You Tube – Mary Ann Cotton serial killer documentary.