Despite being a gender neutral mode of killing, poison plays a unique role as an easily accessible and pragmatic weapon in the lives of murderous women throughout history. In this weekly series, I’ll provide you with an overview of all things poison (including how poisons have been cultivated and utilized through the ages) and introduce you to some of the most infamous women poisoners in history. The best part? All of this research was done with the help of my grandmother, a huge history buff and total true-crime fanatic.
Poison Profile #2: “Gastric Fever” and Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton was a well-mannered British nurse and housekeeper who was destined to be a widower— in fact, Mary Ann had such poor luck in love that three of her four husbands (and several of her children and step-children) died shortly after she had settled down with them. Although Mary Ann flew under the proverbial radar for decades as a devoted wife, mother and caregiver, the string of deaths by “gastric fever” that routinely followed in her wake eventually garnered her the title of Britain’s most prolific female serial killer. How many deaths were attributed to her name, you may ask? Just around 21— three husbands and numerous children over the course of two decades.
Mary Ann grew up in a mining town in northeastern England. According to David Wilson, a professor of criminology at Birmingham University, Mary Ann’s father died in 1842 after plummeting down a mineshaft while repairing a pulley wheel at the Murton Coillery in Durham County. When she was 16 years old, Mary Ann embarked on her own and sought out work as a nurse and then as a dressmaker. In 1852, Mary Ann married a coillery worker named William Mowbray and settled down in Hendon in 1856. Mary Ann and William had eight or nine children together, but many died young from gastric fever. At some point in their marriage, Mary Ann also took out a life insurance policy on William and three of their surviving children. Soon after, William succumbed to gastric fever in 1864 and then the two of their children followed. Without skipping a beat, Mary Ann collected her insurance money, put her remaining daughter in the care of her mother, and moved to Sunderland.
While working as a nurse in a local hospital, Mary Ann married a patient named George Ward in 1865. George died a year later and Mary Ann collected money from an insurance policy once again. In 1866, Mary Ann went to work as a housekeeper for a widower named James Robinson. Per David Wilson’s research, one of James’ five children died from gastric fever shortly after Mary Ann’s arrival but no one suspected any foul play. Then in April 1867, after visiting her ailing mother and retrieving her daughter, two more of James’ children died as well as Mary Ann’s own child. Despite their misfortunes, James and Mary Ann married in August and had two children (though only one survived).
Finally, after Mary Ann’s behavior grew increasingly suspicious, James began to suspect that his new wife had ill intent behind her desire to take out a life insurance policy on him. James kicked Mary Ann out in 1869 and she became homeless for a brief amount of time. That is, until she met another widower named Frederick Cotton in 1870 and assumed the role of caretaker just long enough for his sister and youngest child to die. Mary Ann married him within the year and the two had a son together. Then, because Mary Ann’s life was nothing short of consistent, Frederick and two more of his children died. Mary Ann collected her insurance payout and moved on to her next victim— a former lover named Joseph Nattrass. Are we sensing a pattern yet?
In the time that she was seeing Joseph, Mary Ann became pregnant by a man named John Quick-Manning. In 1872, Joseph died but Mary Ann didn’t marry John. Instead, she told a local official that her seven-year-old stepson, Charles Edward Cotton, was driving a wedge in her nuptial plans. However, after Mary Ann hinted to the official that she wouldn’t be troubled long, the boy died of gastric fever.
This time around, suspicions surrounding the myriad gastric-centered deaths that plagued Mary Ann’s life began to arise. The official that Mary Ann spoke to tipped off the police that something might be awry and an autopsy (of sorts) revealed that the child had arsenic in his stomach. Authorities then exhumed the bodies of Joseph and two other Cotton children and discovered that all of them had been poisoned with arsenic.
Finally caught, Mary Ann was charged with the murder of her stepson and held in the Durham County jail. In January 1873, she gave birth to her thirteenth child— the second of only two children that outlived Mary Ann. During her trial, Mary Ann claimed that her stepson had inhaled arsenic dust from wallpaper dye. While this argument was viable based on the popular use of arsenic in household products, the prosecution presented the numerous arsenic-related deaths that seemed to follow Mary Ann wherever she went and ultimately won the case.
On March 24, 1873, Mary Ann was killed in a botched hanging that was performed by a “notoriously clumsy hangman.” Instead of an instant death, the executioner was forced to press down on her shoulders for three minutes until she finally suffocated— a seemingly fitting fight to the end for an equally notorious serial killer.