Born on Halloween 1832 to parents Margaret Londsale and Michael Robson, Mary Ann's childhood was surrounded by poverty. Her miner father died when she was only 9 years old and her mother remarried another miner, George Stott soon after. Mary and George had a strained relationship and Mary left home at 16 and, (in hindsight) ironically trained to be a nurse but eventually returned home and retrained as a dressmaker a few years later.
When she was 20 years old Mary married her first husband William Mowbray. They went on to have 4 known children together - Margaret Jane (born 1856-died 1860, aged 3), Isabella (born 1858) and another daughter whom they called Margret Jane after her dead sister (born 1861). They then had a son, John Robert William. (born 1863-died 1864, aged 1) He died from what was believed at the time to be gastric fever. A few months after the death of their son, William Mowbray injured his foot resulting in him having time off work. Aside from his foot injury it is believed William was otherwise healthy yet by January 1865 he had developed an "intestinal disorder" and subsequently died. His death certificate recorded the cause as typhus fever which was common for the time. Fortunately for Mary Ann, a life insurance pay-out meant she collected £35 upon her husbands death and £2 upon her sons death.
With two daughters in tow, Isabella and Margaret Jane, Mary Ann upped sticks and moved to County Durham where she met her lover Joseph Nattrass. Mary Ann fell in love and she wanted him to marry her but he was already married and didn't want to leave his wife. It was during their time in County Durham that Margaret Jane number two died of "Typhus Fever" in April 1865 aged 3.
Mary Ann sent Isabella to live with her mother and moved herself to Sunderland to work in an infirmary. It was whilst working in the infirmary that she met her next husband, a patient named George Ward. The pair married in 1865 but the marriage was short lived (no pun intended) as George died from intestinal problems (among other things) in October 1866. Mary Ann Cotton received a pay-out from his life insurance policy.
A widow once again, Mary Ann went to work for fellow widower James Robinson as his house keeper. Her job role was to take care of the house and the children. Within a month of her being there, James's son John died, (December 1866), aged only 10 months old from "gastric fever". The pair bonded over being widowed and Mary supported James after the death of his baby. He sought comfort from Mary Ann and before long she discovered she was pregnant with his baby. Determined to do the right thing by the mother of his unborn child James asked Mary Ann to marry him and the pair became engaged. In March 1867 - before they were able to marry, Mary Ann received word that her mother had been taken ill with hepatitis and she returned, albeit reluctantly, to County Durham in order to care for her. Upon her return she found her mother to be in considerably better health and recovering well, yet before long she was complaining of severe stomach pains and within 9 days of Mary Ann's arrival, her mother, Margaret Stott, was dead.
After her mother's death Mary Ann took her daughter Isabella and the two of them returned to James Robinson. A month after returning to the Robinson household with her daughter tragedy struck once again, this time James's children - James Robinson Jnr (aged 6) and Elizabeth Robinson (aged 8), along with Mary Ann's daughter Isabella (now aged 9) were all taken ill and died within days of each other in April 1867. Mary Ann received another insurance pay-out to the sum of £5 10s and 6d for the death of Isabella.
A pregnant Mary Ann and James Robinson married in August 1867 and the birth of their daughter (another Margaret) - Margaret Isabella was born in November 1867. Sadly she died at only a few months old (in 1868) after falling ill. It is worth noting here that although she was called Margaret, her recorded name was Mary Isabella. The couple went on to have a second child together, a son named George, born 1869. Mary Ann began to insist that her then husband James took out a life insurance policy, something he refused to do. He eventually became suspicious of her insistence and coupled with his discovery that she had stolen his money and ran up large amounts of debt he threw her out and, luckily for George, he retained custody of their son.
Alone and childless, Mary Ann Cotton found herself in a desperate situation. She turned to her friend Margaret Cotton in Northumberland, who introduced Mary Ann to her recently widowed brother, Frederick Cotton. Frederick and his wife had had four children but two were deceased and his sister Margaret was helping Frederick to raise the surviving two - Frederick Cotton Jnr and Charles Cotton. With what is becoming a recurring theme for those closest to Mary Ann, Margaret soon began experiencing stomach pains and succumbed to her illness, dying in march 1870, the exact cause of death was deemed unknown. Just as James Robinson had done in the past, Frederick Cotton sought comfort in Mary Ann and it wasn't long before she was pregnant with her twelve child. Although Mary Ann was still legally married to James Robinson, she and Frederick Snr married in September 1870 and their son Robert Cotton was born a few months later in 1871. Not long after the birth of their son, Mary Ann discovered that her former Lover, Joseph Nattrass was living in a village in County Durham and was now widowed. They rekindled their romance and she somehow persuaded Frederick Snr to move their family to County Durham so as she could be closer to her lover. ( It's doubtful he knew her true reasons for wanting to move back to county Durham) As per the pattern with Mary Ann, she soon tired of Frederick and had her sights set on being with Joseph. Before long, in December 1871, Mary Ann's fourth husband was struck down by "gastric fever" from which he died. Again, Mary Ann received an insurance pay-out from a joint life insurance policy taken out on Fredrick Snr, Frederick Jnr, Charles and Robert.
With Frederick Snr out the way, Mary Ann moved her lover Joseph Nattrass into her home, telling people that he was simply her lodger, although apparently no one actually believed her. It was around the same time that Mary Ann took up employment as a nursemaid to John Quick Manning who before long became lover number two, resulting in Mary Ann's thirteenth (and last) pregnancy.
In March 1872, Mary Ann's stepson Frederick Cotton JNR and her infant son Robert Cotton, both became ill and died. For some reason, perhaps at the insistance of Mary Ann, Nattrass amended his will to benefit her and within weeks of the boys dying, Natrass was dead too from what was then believed to be typhoid fever.
This just left little Charles Edward Cotton in Mary Ann's care. Wanting to return to nursing, Mary Ann found Charles's exsistence to impede her ableness to accept work. She enquired whether she could place the child into a workhouse but was informed by Parish Official and Assistant Coroner, Thomas Riley, that if Charles was sent to the workhouse then she would be required to go with him. Mary Ann replied that the boy was sickly and would soon go like all the rest of the Cottons had. This comment raised Thomas Riley's suspicions and when Charles (aged 7) died a mere 5 days later in July 1872 he was convinced Mary Ann had murdered the child.
Her behavior following the death didn't help her case as she is reported to have gone straight to the insurers to cash in on Charles's life insurance policy rather than to the Doctors to report the death. However, no money was to paid out until a death certificate was issued. Thomas Riley, convinced of Mary Ann's guilt, pushed for an inquest into the death, which ruled it an natural death. Undeterred, Riley kept pushing for further investigations to be made and eventually the other deaths surrounding Mary Ann's past were discovered prompting further investigations into Charles Cotton's death. Dr William Byers Kilburn reported to police he had found arsenic in Charles's biological samples and a heavily pregnant Mary Ann was arrested. She gave birth to her final child, a daughter, in January 1873 and named her Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton.
During her trial, Mary Ann's defense tried to convince the jury that the arsenic had come from the dye in the wallpaper (as was common in those days) and inhaled by Charles. Ultimately the jury failed to believe her excuses and found her guilty. Mary Ann Cotton, still pleading her innocence until the end, was hung on the 24th March 1973 for the murder of Charles Cotton. However, the hanging was botched resulting in a slower, more painful death from strangulation rather than a broken neck due to the rope being rigged wrongly. Whether the botched hanging was deliberate or not is unknown.
Although she was only convicted of the one murder, it is believed she was responsible for as many as 21 deaths. Mary Ann Cotton had only two surviving children, Margaret Edith Quick-Manning Cotton and George Robinson. Her third husband, James Robinson, was the only husband of Mary Ann's to survive.