The Original Black Widow Serial Killer Haunted 19th Century Britain

The Original Black Widow Serial Killer Haunted 19th Century Britain

Patrick Lynch - October 23, 2017

Often (erroneously) believed to be the first known female serial killer in Britain, Mary Ann Cotton poisoned up to 21 people. Today, there is a TV series entitled Dark Angel on UK television which depicts the life and crimes of a woman who murdered three of her spouses and up to 11 of her children. Read on to discover how a dressmaker from Durham became one of British history’s most prolific serial killers.

Early Life

Mary Ann Robson was born on Halloween 1832 in Low Moorsley in County Durham. Death surrounded her from an early age. First, her sister Margaret died in 1834, only a few months after being born. The Robson family moved to the village of Murton in Durham when Mary Ann was eight, but tragedy struck in February 1842. Her father, Michael, fell 150 feet down a mine shaft and died.

What happened next is indicative of the harsh nature of the time. Mary Ann’s mother, Margaret, received her husband’s body in a bag marked: ‘Property of the South Hetton Coal Company.’ Moreover, as the cottage they lived in was tied to the job, it is likely that the family was evicted. Margaret was motivated to act, and in 1843, she married a miner named George Stott as a means of keeping a roof over her family’s heads.

The Original Black Widow Serial Killer Haunted 19th Century Britain
The Lineup

The Spree Begins

Mary Ann left home at aged 16 to train as a nurse but returned to her stepfather’s home three years later and started training as a dressmaker. She married her first husband, William Mowbray, in 1852 in the Newcastle upon Tyne registry office. The couple moved to South West England, and it was here when her killing spree began.

While Mary Ann’s first known murder didn’t occur until 1865, there is a strong possibility that she claimed her first victims much earlier. It is difficult to find much evidence relating to Mary Ann, her husband and any children they had together due to a lack of documentation such as birth and death certificates. However, it seems as if she had nine kids and all but three were dead by 1864. One child, Margaret Jane, was born in 1856 and died in 1860 while another, John Robert William, was born in 1863 but died the following year.

The couple frequently moved in the early years of their marriage but settled in Hendon in Durham in 1856. At some point, her husband purchased a life insurance policy covering himself and the couple’s three remaining children as several of their kids had died from ‘gastric fever.’ It was a common ailment but also featured symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning which was Mary Ann’s modus operandi.

It is often assumed that she killed for financial gain only. However, that theory would require closer examination if she murdered some of her children before forcing her first husband to meet his maker in January 1865. He died from an alleged intestinal disorder, and since his life was insured, Mary Ann collected £35, the equivalent of just over £3,000 in today’s money. She collected £2 5s when John Robert William died. This sum of cash would only last her so long, and when it ran out, she killed again and again.

The Original Black Widow Serial Killer Haunted 19th Century Britain
Depiction of Mary Ann Cotton. Daily Mirror

Another Dead Husband

After the death of Mowbray, Mary Ann moved once again. However, she stayed in Durham and lived in a place called Seaham Harbour. Although she began a relationship with a man named Joseph Nattrass, she moved once again, this time to Sunderland, after another one of her children died from gastric fever. At that stage, only one of the nine kids she had with Mowbray was alive.

Mary Ann found employment as a nurse, and it was here that she met her next husband, George Ward. They were married in August 1865, but the marriage didn’t last long. Ward was already in poor health but Mary Ann finished him off, and he died in October 1866. Although his doctor acknowledged Ward’s poor health, he was surprised that the man died so suddenly. Nonetheless, Mary Ann evaded suspicion (even though she collected more insurance money) and moved on to her next target, the recently widowed James Robinson.

A Close Shave for Husband #3

The couple met when Robinson hired Mary Ann as his housekeeper in November 1866. By the time they got married in August 1867, three of Robinson’s children and his mother had died. Mary Ann’s last remaining daughter, Isabella, also succumbed to gastric fever and Mary Ann received £5 10s 6d in insurance money.

She had two children with Robinson but the first one, Margaret Isabella, died within a few months of her birth. Perhaps Robinson didn’t link Mary Ann with the numerous deaths in the family, but he certainly became suspicious when she became overly insistent that he insure his life. Soon, he found out that she owed £60 and had also stolen £50 she was supposed to put in the bank. Moreover, she was also forcing her stepchildren to pawn household items. He decided to throw her out of their home and retained custody of their surviving child, George. However, the couple did not divorce.


Mary Ann was destitute and barely surviving on the streets, but she was bailed out by her friend, Margaret, who introduced the black widow to her brother, Frederick Cotton. He was also a widower who had lost two of his four children and lived in Northumberland. In March 1870, Margaret died from a mysterious stomach problem which allowed Mary Ann to dig her claws into the Cotton family.

The couple was married in September 1870, but since Mary Ann had not divorced Robinson, it was a bigamous marriage. They had a son named Robert in early 1871, but Mary Ann discovered that her former lover, Nattrass, lived just 30 miles away in the village of West Auckland and was no longer married. She persuaded him to move his family closer, and in December 1871, Cotton died of gastric fever. Once again, she profited from the insurance policy, but her spree was about to come to an end.

The Original Black Widow Serial Killer Haunted 19th Century Britain
Newspaper report of Cotton’s arrest. YouTube

Loose Lips Sink Ships & Serial Killers

The relationship of Mary Ann and Nattrass didn’t last very long. He died in 1872 from gastric fever soon after amending his will in Mary Ann’s favor. By now, she had become pregnant with a child by an excise officer named Richard Quick Mann. Originally, it was believed she had become impregnated by a John Quick-Manning, but there are no records to suggest such a person even existed.

By the time Nattrass was dead, Mary Ann had poisoned Robert, her infant son with Cotton, and Frederick Jr., her stepson. Despite all the deaths, there was still no evidence against Mary Ann, and she was completely free from suspicion. That is until she grew overconfident and made a remarkable blunder. As Nattrass had very few possessions, she was once again in financial difficulty. She apparently complained to a parish official named Thomas Riley that her stepson, Charles Edward Cotton, was preventing her from marrying Quick Mann. She asked Riley if he could commit Cotton to a workhouse and when that suggestion was rebuffed, she said this to Riley: “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”

Within a few days, Charles Edward had died, and when Riley found out, he urged the doctor to avoid writing the death certificate until the cause of death was fully investigated. An examination of the body revealed arsenic in his stomach, and further exhumations on the bodies of two other Cotton children and Nattrass found traces of the poison. Mary Ann Cotton had finally been caught.

Trial & Execution

She was charged with the murder of Charles Edward Cotton, and her trial began in March 1873. Her attorney tried to argue that the boy’s death came as a result of accidental inhalation of arsenic from the wallpaper. However, the judge allowed the prosecutor to use evidence from the deaths of Nattrass and two of the Cotton children and ultimately, the overwhelming evidence sealed Mary Ann’s fate. She was found guilty and sentenced to die.

She was hanged at Durham County Gaol on March 24, 1873, but it was a bungled execution. The trap door wasn’t placed high enough to break her neck. She only fell two feet, so the executioner had to push down on her shoulders. After three minutes, she died of strangulation.

Mary Ann Cotton did not confess to a single murder, and while the number of victims is unknown, most sources believed she killed up to 21 people. She got away with it so long because arsenic was extremely hard to detect as symptoms were often confused with those associated with gastric ailments. She probably would have got away with it for longer had she not been so keen to murder Charles Edward or at least not been so open about her desire to see him die.

Although she is often said to be Britain’s first female serial killer, this is a false claim. Betty Eccles was suspected of multiple murders and was hanged in 1843. Sarah Chesham killed four people and was executed in 1851; both used arsenic. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there was almost an epidemic of poisoning so who knows how many murders were committed?