Mary Ann Cotton Serial Killer

Here we take a look back at the life and times of the serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton. Indeed, she may have been responsible for the murder of 21 people, including 11 of her 13 children. This obviously makes her the most prolific female serial killer in the UK.

She mostly used arsenic as a means of poisoning her victims. This was to cause gastric pain, and of course, a rapid decline of health to the unsuspecting. All this happened so that she could claim insurance money!

Mary Ann Cotton - Britain's first and worst female serial killer

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton was born on 31st of October 1832 in Low Moorsely (now City of Sunderland), County Durham, UK. She married 4 times and her husbands were; William Mowbray, George Ward, James Robinson and Frederick Cotton. Therefore, her other names were, Mary Ann Robson (birth name), Mary Ann Mowbray, Mary Ann Ward, and Mary Ann Robinson.

At her trial,  Mary Ann’s childhood Wesleyan Sunday school superintendent at Murton gave a description or her as follows; “a most exemplary and regular attender”, “a girl of innocent disposition and average intelligence” and “distinguished for her particularly clean and tidy appearance.”

Married Life

Since registration of births was not compulsory until 1874, it is hard to say how many children she had with each partner. However, we do know about some details of the deaths and there is a little information about her partners.

When Mary Ann was 20 years old in 1852, William Mowbray became husband number one. They spent a little time in Plymouth but later returned back to Wearside. William died of an intestinal disorder in January 1865.

Around 7 months after William’s death, she married George Ward in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. Indeed, in this time, she moved to Seaham Harbour and had a brief relationship with a Joseph Nattrass. Then she moved to Sunderland to work in an infirmary. George was an engineer and Mary Ann met him while he was a patient. However, within 14 months, George died from a long-term illness of paralysis and intestinal problems.

In 1866, a few weeks after George’s death, she began working as a housekeeper for James Robinson. James was a shipwright in the Pallion yards, Sunderland. When his young son died, James sought comfort with Cotton who then got pregnant. However, Mary Ann moved back to Seaham when her mother became ill. Her mother soon began to complain of stomach pains and died 9 days after Mary Ann’s arrival.

Mary Ann soon moved back into James Robinson’s home and they married in August 1867, at St Michael’s, Bishopwearmouth. Mary Ann’s insistence that James should take out life insurance gave him grounds for suspicion. He also discovered that she had £60 debt and that she had stolen £50. With this in mind, he soon threw her out of the home. Indeed, James was very lucky to survive!

Living Rough

Mary Ann Cotton Serial Killer portrait image

With nowhere to go, Mary Ann began to live rough on the streets. However, her friend, Margaret Cotton, introduced her to her brother, Frederick who lived in Northumberland. In March 1870, Margaret died from a stomach ailment of some sort and again, was to give comfort to a grieving man. The result was that Mary Ann and Frederick married in September 1870 at Newcastle. However, this was bigamy as she did not have a divorce from James Robinson at the time.

Soon after the marriage, Mary Ann realised that former lover, Joseph Nattrass lived close by and was now single. She persuaded her new family to move closer to Nattrass which they did and an affair soon followed. Frederick Cotton died of gastric fever in December in the same year they moved. Then Nattrass moved into the home shortly after Frederick’s death.

Mary Ann Cotton soon became a nurse to John Quick-Manning who was recovering from smallpox. She got pregnant to John and this was to be her last child, number 13. Of course, by now she had two lovers. Very soon though, Nattress died of gastric fever, but not before his will changed to favour Mary Ann.

Children’s Deaths

It is clear to see that the deaths of the men were suspicious, to say the least. Especially since the recurring gastric disorders are prevalent and insurance also seems to be a determining factor. However, her own children’s deaths were also suspicious too.

The only birth recorded by Mary Ann Cotton was of Margaret Jane in 1856. However, Margaret died in 1860. Isabella was born in 1858 and another girl was born in 1861, also called Margaret Jane. John Robert William was born in 1863, but he died of a gastric illness in 1864. William Mowbray was the father of these children and Mary Ann received a tidy insurance payout for most of these deaths.

The second Margaret Jane died of typhus fever at the age of 3 years and 6 months. While Mary Anne was with James Robinson, her daughter Isabella died with severe stomach pains, so did 2 of Robinson’s children. Mary Ann received £5 10s 6d as an insurance payout for Isabella. Indeed, she had a daughter with Robinson in November 1967 called, Margaret Isabella. But Margaret Isabella was to die a few months later in February 1868.


Mary Ann Cotton became under suspicion when she was asked by Thomas Riley, a local parish official, to take on the job of a nurse to a smallpox victim. Her reply was that she could not do the job as her son, Charles Edward, prevented her from working. She then made a request that her son should go to the workhouse. But she was upset when she realised that she would have to go with him. Her reply was, “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”

Indeed, 5 days later Mary Ann Cotton told Riley that her son had died. Thomas Riley then informed the police. But he also ensured that the doctor didn’t write a death certificate until there was an investigation. However, an inquest returned a verdict of natural causes. But, by now, the local newspaper took over the investigations when they discovered this.

What they discovered was that she lost three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, and eleven children, all of whom had died of stomach illnesses.


Tests revealed arsenic was present in the samples that were kept from Charles and police arrested Mary Ann Cotton. However, the trial didn’t take place until after delivery of her 13th child. Indeed, she was remanded in Durham Jail and her baby was born on the 10th of January, 1873. She named the child, Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.

There was a further delay until her trial on the 5th March, 1873 when the jury returned a guilty verdict for the murder of Charles.

Mary Ann Cotton - newspaper article reporting her death by hanging
After a plea for clemency failed, she was hanged in Durham Prison on the 24th of March, 1873, aged 40. Mary Ann Cotton didn’t die of a broken neck because the rope was too short, possibly a deliberate act. However, she eventually died of strangulation and her body still lies in the grounds of Durham Prison.

Her daughter, Margaret Edith went on to live until 1954. Her son George, from her marriage to James Robinson, also survived the evil woman.

Possible and Probable Victims

Mary Ann Cotton was only guilty of murdering Charles, of course. But evidence suggests she was guilty of a lot more:

  • Between 1852 and 1856 Mary Ann claims she had 4 children while living in the south west of England. But, with the lack of records, we only have her word for it as there is nothing recorded whatsoever. These children just disappeared without trace.
  • Daughter, Margaret Jane Mowbray died in 1860, age 3.
  • Son, John Robert William Mowbray died in 1864, age 1.
  • Husband, William Mowbray died in 1965, age 39.
  • Daughter, Margaret Jane Mowbray #2 died in 1965, age 3.
  • Husband, George Ward died in 1866, age 33.
  • John Robinson, son of husband number three died in 1866, age 10 months.
  • Her mother, Margaret Stott died in 1867, age 54.
  • Stepson, James Robinson died in 1867, age 6.
  • Stepdaughter, Elizabeth Robinson died in 1867, age 8.
  • Daughter, Isabella Jane Mowbray died in 1867, age 9.
  • Daughter, Mary Isabella Robinson died in 1868, age 3.
  • Friend, Margaret Cotton died in 1870, age 38.
  • Husband, Frederick Cotton died in 1871, age 42.
  • Stepson, Frederick Cotton died in 1872, age 10.
  • Son, Robert Robson Cotton died in 1872, age 14 months.
  • Lover, Joseph Nattrass died in 1872, age 35.
  • Stepson, Charles Edward Cotton died in 1872, age 7.

Mary Ann Cotton Serial Killer

It appears that anyone who got in Mary Ann’s way would suffer a slow an painful death. Indeed, those she supposed to care for and who cared for her, meant nothing to her, how could they? Furthermore, although her conviction was for the death of one child, the circumstances surrounding the other deaths are very suspicious. Indeed, they all appear to be poisoning, with arsenic being the chosen weapon.

Mary Ann Cotton is indeed, the first and worst female serial killer ever seen in the UK, if not the world. Her origins, of course, are on Wearside in the days when life was hard. However, that is no excuse for her evil crimes. Whether she done all this for insurance money or not is her own little secret that lies with her.

Although Mary Ann Cotton never did confess to any of the above deaths including Charles, we will never know the truth. But, without doubt, according to anyone willing to weigh up the evidence, this woman would appear to be a murderer, and totally ruthless in her actions.

Mary Ann Cotton Song

Such was her notoriety, a children’s nursery rhyme came about that children would skip along to.

Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten!
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open.

Sing, sing!
“Oh, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string.”

Where, where?
“Up in the air – selling black puddings a penny a pair.”

TV Drama

There are many books and poems about Cotton of course. However, in 2016, a two part miniseries about the serial killer came to the television screens in the UK. The drama is called ‘Dark Angel’ and is based on a novel by David Wilson called, ‘Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer.’


It would be very difficult to summarise on Mary Ann Cotton, such was the complexities and intricacies of her crimes. However, you could describe her as a Black Widow after killing for personal gain. This was part of her insurance scams.

She was not unattractive and it was easy for her to find a partner. However, once her partner could not support her needs, she would move on to the next man. All the while she was plotting to kill her ex-partner on each occasion!

Indeed, she was even a cold-hearted child killer, not a child carer. So, after reading all the above information, we leave the rest up to your imagination. You can of course make a comment below or in the Sunderland Forum which is a community forum for all areas around Wearside.

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