The Black Widow of Murton (Sunderland)
Mary Ann Cotton became known to the press and public at her trial as “The Black Widow”, but such a grim nickname was the furthest thing from anybody’s mind when she was born in Rainton in 1832. Soon afterwards the family moved to Murton when Mary’s father, Michael Robson, got a job in what was then the new mine. In 1852 Mary Ann married a local railwayman with a secure job and good income. The marriage was, at first, a happy one. The young couple moved to Cornwall and produced five children. But in 1860 a strange illness which puzzled the local doctors struck, causing the deaths of four of the infants over a few months. In 1865, Mowbray himself died of the mystery sickness and Mary Ann moved back to Murton with his life insurance money in her pocket. There was just one child still alive, a daughter named Isabella.
When the money ran out, Mary Ann took a job in Seaham as a nursing assistant at the Sunderland Infirmary. Young Isabella was left with Mary Ann’s mother, now a widow, in Murton. At the Infirmary, Mary Ann took a shine to one of the patients, a skilled workman named George Ward. Ward returned her romantic interest and the pair married in 1865, shortly after his discharge from the hospital. George Ward soon fell ill again, this time with unusual symptoms the doctors could not not pin down. He died 15 months after his marriage. Again Mary Ann took the life insurance money and returned to her mother in Murton.
Mary Ann’s next employer was a wealthy and recently widowed merchant named John Robinson from Bishopwearmouth who employed her as one of his domestic servants. Her activitites soon went beyond those duties normally expected of a servant and within a year she was pregnant with Robinson’s child. The couple were soon married and Mary Ann took over as stepmother to Robinson’s five children and brought her own daughter, Isabella, to live in her new home. The youngsters did not thrive, and three died within a few months, including Isabella.
Hearing her mother was sick, Mary Ann abandoned Robinson and the surviving children and returned to Murton once more. She did, however, take a large amount of Robinson’s cash with her. By the time Mary Ann reached Murton, her mother was improving rapidly. The good health did not last long. She fell sick again the same day that Mary Ann arrived and died just one week later. The body was buried in Murton churchyard. Neighbours attended the funeral and expected to see Mary Ann, whom they knew from her childhood and frequent visits, to be distressed. She was not. She seemed strangely untouched by her mother’s sudden death and obviously could not wait to leave Murton. Tongues began to wag.
In 1870 Mary Ann met Frederick Cotton, a recently widowed Newcastle businessman. Before long Mary Ann was comforting Frederick to the extent that she was pregnant by him. They married. Soon after this Cotton’s sister died, followed by his elder son, Mr Cotton himself, the newly born infant and finally another son, Charles, followed them to the grave. Mary Ann took in a lodger to help pay the bills. This was Joseph Nattrass who quickly became Mary Ann’s lover, and almost as promptly died. When his relatives came to visit after the funeral, they found that his belongings had gone missing.
Some of the gossip from Murton had followed Mary Ann to Newcastle and this fresh bout of sudden deaths raised the suspicions of the Cotton’s family doctor. He carried out tests on the body of young Charles and, now more suspicious, sent some body tissue samples off for analysis by some new-fangled chemical tests just becoming available. Dr. Thomas Scattergood, medical professor at Leeds University declared that the results showed that Charles had eaten a fatal cocktail of drugs, including arsenic. The other Cotton bodies were exhumed, and all showed a similarly fatal concentration of drugs.
Mary Ann was by now about to wed yet another wealthy widower, John Quick-Manning. She must have been nothing if not charming. Quick-Manning was amazed when his new love was arrested, but when shown the evidence abandoned her to her fate. Mary Ann Cotton was tried in Durham in 1873 and hanged on March 24. Exactly how many people she murdered was never firmly established, after all infant mortality rates were high in those days and some of the deaths may have been natural. However, at least 15 deaths can be put down to her and another eight are probable. She was Britain’s most prolific serial killer until the 1990s but remains unique for the numbers of her own children and relatives that she killed.
from "Haunted Sunderland" by Rupert Matthews