Mary Ann Cotton’s Arsenic Killings In The Victorian Era

Jovana Blagovcanin
Jovana Blagovcanin

Twice widowed and with over twenty loved ones dead, it was clear that death followed her closely. It was not until her seemingly well stepson died suddenly that Mary Ann Cotton’s misfortune was coming to be understood as her own doing. After a closer examination, it was clear that there was foul play involved in her stepson, Frederick Cotton’s untimely death. Arsenic was deemed to be the poison that killed the young boy, and Mary Ann Cotton was accused of murder.

Poison was nothing new to the Victorian era; it was quite the opposite. Not only was poison present in any imaginable household item, but also the nineteenth-century had seen a peak of poisoning cases that had sparked a moral panic in Victorian society. Mary Ann Cotton’s supposed list of victims was one of the largest to be known, yet her case was not as highly publicised in comparison to some more sensational poisoning cases with much fewer victims like with the case of Madeline Smith, a socialite and one-time poisoner. Mary Ann Cotton’s case does, however, give insight into Victorian morals and fears, and also perceptions of class and gender. By examining the moral panic that came out of this “poison mania” of the nineteenth-century, a more explicit insight is gained of why Mary Ann Cotton’s case did and did not matter to the Victorian society. Mary Ann Cotton’s extensive list of victims only reaffirmed the underlying anxieties that Victorian society felt about societal change. The image of a poisoning murderess threatened the ideals that women were to follow, and with a spike in these female poison cases, these ideals were deteriorating. Mary Ann Cotton’s unpopularity in not only the media coverage but also in common opinion will also be examined to prove that class was one of the most pivotal factors in determining one’s character, and consequently their innocence or guilt.

Mary Ann Cotton grew up in a working-class family with her father being a miner. She worked for three years as a nursemaid for her colliery manager and then became a dressmaker. She met a labourer named William Mowbray and married him in 1852. They had several children together, who died at a young age leaving Mary Ann Cotton with one live child. William Mowbray died in 1865, and Mary Ann Cotton received his life insurance payment of thirty pounds. The death of her mother soon followed. George Ward was Mary Ann Cotton’s next husband, whom she met while she was nursing in the Sutherland Infirmary until his health improved and they married in 1865. The following year George Ward fell ill and died, leaving Mary Ann Cotton widowed once again. The following year she remarried to a shipwright named James Robinson. His suspicions arose when he found out that Mary Ann Cotton was mismanaging his finances and thus he kicked her out. Other reports state that neighbours were getting suspicious of her past, and thus she disappeared with her daughter. By 1870, she married another miner named Frederick Cotton. It is important to note that she was still married to James Robinson at this time, as this inevitably impacted public opinion of her character. Frederick Cotton died the following year. In the next two years, Mary Ann Cotton’s lodger, Joseph Nattrass who has been rumoured to have been her lover, and two children died at the hands of what was deemed “gastric fever.” Mary Ann Cotton complained openly about her surviving stepson, Charles Edward Cotton, as financially hindering her. Witnesses quoted her saying, “he will go like the rest of the Cottons” a few days before his death, which sparked an inquest that led to the finding of arsenic in the boy’s body. Mary Ann Cotton was arrested, put on trial and hung in 1873 for the death of Charles Edward Cotton.

Although it was not proven, it is widely believed that Mary Ann Cotton was the cause of many of the deaths that she witnessed in her life. Specifically, she was held responsible for the deaths of all of her husbands and lovers, her mother and if not all, then most of her children. This was only assumed in a revelation of her last kill, in which she was convicted for. In hindsight, Victorians believed her victim count was anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one lives. However, at the time of the deaths, nothing seemed too peculiar. Infant mortality rates were still quite high in the nineteenth-century due to lack of advanced medicine, poor sanitation, and high levels of poverty. This would explain why maybe people were not questioning the deaths of Mary Ann Cotton’s youngest children. Furthermore, due to the poor systems of birth or death registration in the mid nineteenth-century, it cannot be proven that Mary Ann Cotton ever had her first four children that she had claimed had died during her first marriage. This also works in her favour, as there was no evidence of the deaths of this children if she did not make it known to those we do not know her past. Since her husband and children were out of the picture, there would be nobody to alarm new people in her life of her past.

In the cases of the Cotton’s family and loved ones, they were thought to have all died with symptoms of gastric fever. This was not an unusual diagnosis as Victorians were common with stomach ailments. This can be attributed to the lack of regulation of adulteration in foods and the lack of understanding of how that adulteration would affect the human body. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimicked the symptoms of gastric poisoning very closely. Victims would show symptoms of stomach aches, fever, diarrhoea, and vomiting all parallel to regular gastric fevers, and thus misdiagnoses were common. Not to mention that inquest cost money as do the coroners and physicians who need to be paid for providing their services, and since Mary Ann Cotton was part of the working class, there would be no interest in funding an inquest when deaths could merely be attributed to natural causes. These similar symptoms would also explain the draw to poison as a murder weapon.

Mary Ann Cotton was hung within the Durham prison walls with only a few spectators allowed to watch as public hangings were outlawed by 1868. There are reports of crowds waiting outside of the prison during her execution, waiting to hear that the execution has taken place. The interest in this working-class case can be attributed to two things. One reason being the sole fact that after investigation, it was speculated that Mary Ann Cotton had caused many deaths through poisoning and thus Britain had a presumed serial killer at their hands. The other reason was the rising societal panic regarding poisoning. There was a media frenzy that claimed there was a poisoning epidemic that only symbolised the deterioration of society. The constant media coverage of poisoning trials only acted as a how-to guide on poisoning and inadvertently how to avoid being caught. Explicit details of how the accused were killing their victims were highlighted in newspapers which included the amount of poison needed, the best methods to hide the bitter taste, and what detrimental mistake the accused made that led to their arrest. Ironically, the media feared of a secret ring of prisoners who were spreading their secrets and corrupting other women to lash out against their husbands, all while they insentiently helped spread this supposed secret poisoning cult.

Mary Ann Cotton symbolised what Whorton labels a “new race of poisoner.” She was first off a woman, and second, she was also a working woman on the edge of poverty. The poor could now afford arsenic, as it was sold at a penny’s worth. Victorians could ask their local pharmacist for a “penn’orth of poison” which was the smallest amount of arsenic that would be sold, but would be more than enough to kill any infestation of rats that the buyer could be claiming to need the poison for. Arsenic was used as a cheaper substitute for other materials in order for the working class to be able to afford their products. One example is “composition candles” which were later nicknamed “corpse candles” due to the deaths that were at the hands white arsenic emitting from the wax as when the candle burned. The poor were also suspected to be using burial clubs, which were set up by the government to aid the poor in their loved one’s funeral, as motivation to commit murder.

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