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Black Widow: Mary Ann Cotton

Updated on March 8, 2012

Mary Ann Cotton was an English woman who came to be regarded as Britain’s most prolific serial killer. She was born in Low Moorsley, Sunderland, England, in October of 1832. The number of deaths attributed to her was at least 20, mostly her children and three husbands.

On July 18, 1852 Mary Ann married laborer William Mowbray, the first in a string of men who would die from arsenic poisoning at the hands of the black widow. The marriage produced five children, four of which suddenly died from what was thought to be gastric fever. The family moved to Murton in 1856 with their remaining daughter who died four years later from the same symptoms her siblings had.

However, Mary Ann’s baby making days were far from over as she and William had four more children. After moving to Herndon William became a fireman on a steamship and another child died in 1864 from “gastric fever.” This time the child had been insured, perhaps at the urging of William whose list of dead offspring was becoming quite long.

Not long afterwards William was laid off due to an injury sustained on the job. He died in January 1865 from a mysterious intestinal ailment. His life had been insured and Mary Ann was quick to collect it. Another child died from “gastric fever” shortly after William’s passing.

Without a breadwinner to support the family Mary Ann found work at a hospital and sent her remaining child to her mother’s. While there she met engineer George Ward who was a patient. The two quickly married. Unfortunately for George, he lost his job, probably the only reason she married him in the first place. George rapidly succumbed to intestinal complications in October of 1866. He was also insured.

The next month she took a housekeeping job with widower James Robinson, who had five children. One of his children died suddenly from “gastric fever.” Mary Ann became his comforter and shortly thereafter became intimately involved. Like clockwork Mary Ann was soon pregnant.

Mary Ann's mother fell ill in March of 1867 and she was forced to go and care for her. Initially, she had shown signs of recovery, but soon began complaining of stomach pains. The stay was short as she died about a week later. Mary Ann returned home with her one remaining child. This child, along with two more of Robinson's children also died suddenly.

One would think by now, James would have sensed something was amiss, but apparently he didn’t as he married Mary Ann the next month. A baby girl was born to them and by March of 1868, she too was dead. In autumn of 1869 James tossed Mary Ann out of the house. Not only because he suspected her of being a murderess, but because he had caught her stealing.

Mary Ann, unencumbered with children to care for, moved to Walbottle, Northumberland and was introduced to miner Frederick Cotton by his sister Margaret, one of her friends. Frederick was a widower with two children. Margret died shortly thereafter from stomach complications. They married in September of 1870, regardless of the fact she was still married to James. Six months later they had a son. Mary Ann made certain he and his sons were insured.

About this time Mary Ann discovered Joseph Nattrass a man she once carried a torch for, was living nearby and had recently lost his wife. Frederick Cotton’s fate was sealed. He died in September of 1871 of gastric fever. After collecting on Cotton’s life insurance policy, Joseph Nattrass moved in with her and the three remaining children.

By this time the cold hearted woman had learned insurance fraud was comparatively easy. Nattrass died from “gastric fever” shortly after revising his will to include her. His body had barely assumed room temperature before she had set her eyes on another mark, John Quick-Manning, an excise officer. Mary Ann had been hired as a nurse to care for him since he was recovering from small-pox. She soon found herself pregnant again with her 12th child.

However, Frederick Cotton's name came back to haunt her in March of 1872 when one of his sons he had with her died.
But there was still her stepson Charles Edward Cotton to contend with as far as an insurance claim was concerned

She tried to unload him on one of his uncle's who refused the responsibility. Next she tried having him committed to a workhouse. However, that arrangement would require her to accompany him. As she left the office she nonchalantly remarked to parish official, and West Auckland's assistant coroner, Thomas Riley, the boy was ill and would most likely be dead soon. Prophetically, he was by July 12, 1872.

When Riley learned of Charles’ death he suspected foul play and promptly informed the authorities. In the meantime, Mary Ann had hurried to claim his life insurance. She didn’t get it since a hold had been placed on it until the autopsy results were in and death certificate was signed. An inquest was held and the jury returned a verdict of death by natural causes. Mary Ann claimed Riley had made accusations against her because she had rejected his advances.

But when news reporters began investigating they uncovered the alarming facts. Mary Ann had lost three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother and a dozen children, all of whom had died of “gastric fever.” An autopsy was performed and it was discovered little Charles’ body contained high levels of arsenic.

Mary Ann Cotton was charged with his murder July 18, 1872 but she would not stand trial until after the birth of her final child in January of 1873. She named her daughter Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.

On March 24, 1873 Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty and hanged in Durham County.


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    • Daffy Duck profile image

      Daffy Duck 6 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon


    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, I dumped my wife about 15 years back. Works for me...:-)

    • Daffy Duck profile image

      Daffy Duck 6 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon

      Are you trying to encourage people to stay single?

      It's working! LOL!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, they were men...

    • Esmeowl12 profile image

      Cindy A. Johnson 6 years ago from Sevierville, TN

      Wow. It's hard to believe that people didn't suspect anything for so long. Great story.