By DAVID WILSON, PROFESSOR OF CRIMINOLOGY AT BIRMINGHAM UNIVERSITY
I pull up outside a house in the Durham mining village of West Auckland to find an anonymous-looking place: a slim, three-storey family home distinguished from its neighbours only by its pretty, blue-grey paint.
There are no clues as to its gruesome past. Even its original house number has been changed, perhaps from fear that the evil that was perpetrated here could pass down through successive generations of residents.
This is the home in which Britain’s first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, claimed her final victim. It is the house in which she was arrested and then taken away to be incarcerated, before eventually being executed at Durham Jail in March 1873.
Britain's first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton
Few have heard of the so-called ‘Black Widow’ killer who posed as a wife, widow, mother, friend and nurse to murder perhaps as many as 21 victims, living off her husbands before eventually claiming their estates. Two decades before Jack the Ripper would terrorise the streets of Whitechapel in London, Mary Ann Cotton had already become a killing machine, perhaps murdering as many as eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend.
The property, centre left, where Mary Ann cotton was living when she was arrested in 1873
Even crime aficionados, those familiar with such names as Shipman, Nilsen, Sutcliffe and West, know little or nothing of her. She has been largely erased from history and remains today only a half-remembered local curiosity even in her native North East.
There is certainly no walking tour retracing her murderous progress through County Durham, nor sad monuments erected to honour the memories of her victims. A woman who should have been a criminal icon has been reduced to little more than a chilling bedtime story and a Northern nursery rhyme: ‘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.’
The property as it is today, painted blue, has changed very little from what it looked like in 1873
A single book marked the centenary of her execution. As one of Britain’s leading criminologists and a former prison governor, I would like to know why. I have worked on police investigations and with many serial killers. Yet even to me, the life and terrible work of Mary Ann Cotton were largely a mystery.
And so throughout the spring and summer last year, I spent time in the North East researching a new book on this woman who travelled from one pit village to another leaving only gravestones behind her and who, in doing so, gained real, if loathsome, historical importance.
Top criminologist Professor David Wilson
Here is not just the first British serial killer – someone who has killed more than three people in a period greater than 30 days – but the first to exploit and abuse the anonymity of a new industrial age.
My search began in the Home Office archives at Kew, South-West London, in the autumn of 2010. I found the usual records that measure the criminal careers of Victorian prisoners: her age, an occasional glimpse of what life had been like before prison, details of Mary Ann’s court appearances, and some letters from the governor of Durham Jail before her execution.
Mary Ann Cotton was hanged in 1873 at Durham Jail after she was accused of killing 21 people
Mary Ann’s father was killed in early 1842, when she was aged nine, apparently plummeting down a shaft while repairing a pulley wheel at the Murton Colliery. Mary Ann would have been instructed to find work and marry, which she did on July 18, 1852, becoming the wife of colliery worker William Mowbray.
First seeking their fortunes in Cornwall – another region where miners could find work – the Mowbrays returned to the North East in 1860, and this, so far as we know, is where the killing began. Her motives will always remain a matter of conjecture, but a strong pattern emerged: Mary Ann would find a man with an income, live with him until it became inconvenient, and then murder him. Numerous children – no one knows how many – were dispatched with the same callousness.
William Calcraft who had to ensure Cotton was dead after the execution was horribly botched
Her choice of poison was arsenic, favoured by murderers down the centuries for largely pragmatic reasons. First, it dissolves in a hot liquid, a cup of tea, for example, so is easy to administer. Second, it was readily available. Although by this stage, the authorities had started regulating the sale of arsenic, a high concentration could still be obtained in a substance known as ‘soft soap’, a household disinfectant.
There was a third reason, too: as Mary Ann well knew, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. A busy and unsuspecting doctor was always more likely to diagnose this cluster of symptoms as gastroenteritis – especially in patients who were poor and undernourished – than to suspect murder.
According to death and burial certificates, all her victims had died of gastric ailments.
I’ve pieced together the trail of deaths associated with Mary Ann, and it starts with her first family. She bore William Mowbray, her first husband, at least four children, three of whom died young.
William died in January 1865, leaving Mary Ann to enjoy the £35 payout from British and Prudential Insurance, equivalent then to six months’ salary.
The total of murdered Mowbray children might have been greater still as, according to Mary Ann’s own testimony, she had earlier given birth to four children while the family was in the West Country. She used the insurance payout to move to Seaham Harbour, a port village in County Durham, so that she could be close to a lover called Joseph Nattrass.
A newspaper cutting on Victorian poisoner Mary Ann Cotton
A prison officer told me that no one ever escapes from Durham Prison.
Not even Mary Ann, who remains – despite the odd bit of local lore in the villages of County Durham – long dead and buried in the prison’s grounds.
Murder Grew With Her: On The Trail Of Mary Ann Cotton, Britain’s First Serial Killer, by Professor David Wilson, will be published later this year.