Mary Ann Cotton, suspected of killing at least 16 of her family members and possibly 21, is regarded as Great Britain’s most notorious mass murderer. Cotton is believed to have killed her mother, three of her four husbands, various lovers and all but two of her children and step-children over a period of 20 years.
In 1871, she with her then husband Frederick Cotton, whom she married while still married to James Robinson the only husband to survive her, moved to Durham County with Cotton’s two stepsons and her six-month old baby. Two months later Frederick died at age 39 of a gastric illness, as had a previous husband and several of her children.
Mary Ann quickly took in a lodger, Joseph Natrass, who was really her lover. But he was not the only one. She soon discovered that she was pregnant by a local excise officer, and because the officer was well-to-do, Joseph had to go. Within 24 days in the spring of 1872, Joseph, Mary Ann’s baby and the oldest of Frederick’s stepsons all died of gastric disturbances. In July, the other stepson also died. Because death was so common at this time, it was only after the fourth death that neighbors went to the police.
Mary Ann was charged with the last death. Her trial was delayed due to her pregnancy, but shortly after the delivery, she stood trial. The jury deliberated only an hour before finding her guilty. She was hanged in Durham jail on March 24, 1873.
Mary Ann was well-known across Britain for her deeds, parents often threatening their children with stories that she would “get them” if they misbehaved. Ditties, such as this, sprang up about her, and are still recited at the mention of her name:
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/Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair.