Mary Ann Cotton, formerly known as Mary Ann Robson is recognized as one of Britain’s first female serial killers. She is believed to have murdered upwards of twenty-one people. These victims include her multiple husbands and children and the murder patterns that emerged are eerily similar. She would often marry men that had substantial insurance policies, live with them for a period of time and then viciously murder them. Her murder tool was arsenic poison. The reason for this may have been due to the easy accessibility. It was also easy to dilute into tea which would make it an exceptional murder weapon on an unsuspecting target. Another benefit of arsenic poisoning was the symptoms which included diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. These symptoms generally led doctors to deduce that the causes of death were a result of gastric fever as opposed to murder.
Mary Ann is believed to have murdered three out of her four husbands and a majority of her children and step children. Throughout her marriages, Mary Ann also had a lover named Joseph Nattrass whom she eventually murdered in 1872. Joseph Nattrass had become a lodger at Mary Ann’s house after the death of her fourth husband, Frederick Cotton. However, during this time Mary Ann fell in love with a wealthy man named Quick- Manning and quickly became pregnant. As a result, she decided to fatally poison her Nattrass. As Nattrass laid dying in Mary Ann’s house, the doctor told him that there might be a chance that he would get better. However, Nattrass replied that ‘It is no fever that I have’ (Wilson, Yardley, 7). It is evident that he was aware that he was being poisoned by Mary Ann. One of the Mary Ann’s neighbours, Jane Hedley, also stated that she observed Mary Ann providing Nattrass with multiple drinks while throughout the course of her visit. She also witnessed her holding him down to prevent him from moving. Jane also testified that the day before Nattrass died, Mary Ann approached her and claimed that she wanted some of his possessions since she was his ‘best friend’ (Wilson, Yardley, 7). Lastly, she noted that one time Mary Ann asked her to fetch arsenic and soap from the top shelf of the pantry in her house. These details were eventually shared in court to help convict Mary Ann. However, after the murder of Nattrass, she was still left with her stepson Charles Edward Cotton. She immediately decided to poison him, a decision that would finally lead to her arrest.
She was arrested in 1873 for the murder of Charles Edward Cotton and she was eventually sentenced to execution. Upon evaluation, it was determined that all of her husbands died from arsenic poison, leading to the eventual conclusion that they were all murdered. She vehemently protested her innocence from prison, and even wrote a letter to the press that was published in the London Times. In the letter she repeatedly asked for her life to be spared and pleaded with the public to ignore the ‘lyies that has been told about me’ (The Times, 7). While she did garner a little bit of public sympathy as the role of a grieving mother, she was eventually hanged on March 24, 1873.