Arsenic and the first known British serial killer

wp6c190ac5_05_06The rhyme goes:

“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
Selling black puddings a penny a pair.”

Not the best way to be remembered!

Mary Ann Cotton was born in 1832 was probably the first known British serial killer she used poison and is suspected of murdering up to twenty-one people.

She married in 1852, aged 20, and had five children, four of whom died in infancy, a high rate of infant mortality even in the Victorian era. Mary frequently argued with her husband, who died suddenly in January 1865. A few months later she was married again this husband died in October 1865 from an unexplained illness.

Then a few months later in 1866, Mary’s mother died. She married again and became a mother to her current husband four children. Two suddenly died soon after he met Mary. This husband became suspicious of Mary who was now pestering him to take out life insurance, like her other husbands. He wouldn’t and she left.

In 1870 Mary had married yet again. One Frederick Cotton even though she had yet to divorce her last husband. She had a son but strangely Frederick’s sister, two sons from his previous marriage and a number of friends died after sudden illnesses that appeared to follow Mary around. Then Frederick died in December 1871 as did Fredericks son. However Mary remarried yet again and yes her new husband quickly died after a short illness.

Then In the spring of 1872, one of Mary Cotton’s few surviving stepchildren, Charles Cotton died suddenly, this was bizarre and word got out about people dropping like flies.

Thomas Riley, a minor government official found this to be very suspicious and Mary had tried to collect on the life insurance she had taken out on Charles Cotton’s life, but the insurance company refused to pay until the body of the deceased had been investigated more thoroughly.

article-2096423-11963BE0000005DC-719_634x455Charles Cotton’s remains were exhumed and a significant trace of arsenic was found in the deceased’s stomach. Mary Cotton was eventually tried for the murder of Charles Cotton, her final victim. She was convicted and sentenced to death.

On March 24, 1873, Mary Cotton was hanged. The execution was botched with Mary failing to die from the initial drop after the gallow’s trapdoor opened. Instead, she slowly choked to death as she dangled on the end of the noose.


The death penalty

Capital Punishment, the death penalty… surprisingly the last executions in the United Kingdom by the noose took place in 1964.

You be executed for all sorts 200 years ago such as ‘being in the company for one month’, vagrancy for soldiers and sailors, shoplifting goods worth 5 shillings or less, returning from transportation, letter-stealing and sacrilege..seems a bit hard to me and I guess Samuel Romilly introduced reforms in 1808 to abolish the death penalty for some of the 200-plus capital offences.

The ‘Bloody code’ as it was called saw reforms between 1832- 1834 where the death penalty was abolished for all of the above.

Another reform saw the end of gibbeting, this was the practice of hanging a body in a cage…this was supposed to be a warning to those who had criminal tendancies.

J.Ewing Ritchie describes a public hanging from the 1850’s

I am not about to give an opinion as to the propriety or impropriety of capital punishments.  On this point good men have differed, and will differ, I dare say, for some time to come.  What I wish to impress upon the philanthropic or Christian reader is the horrible nature and atrocious effect of a public execution.

A few Sunday evenings since I was passing by Newgate, along the outside of which a considerable crowd had been collected.  Respectable mechanics, with their wives and children, were staring at its dreary stone walls.  Ragged boys and girls were romping and laughing in the streets.  All the neighbouring public-houses were filled with a tipsy crowd.  Here and there a few barriers had been erected, and workmen were engaged in putting up more.  Why were these preparations made?  For what purpose had this crowd collected?  A man was to be hung, was the reply.  I resolved for once to see the tragedy performed.  To me or the living mass around, that man was an utter stranger.  I had never seen him or heard the sound of his voice; all I knew was that he had led an outlaw’s life, and was to die as outlaws ofttimes do.  How strange the mysterious interest with which death clothes everything it touches!  Is it that looking at a man so soon to have done with life we fancy we can better pry into the great secret?  Do we deem that seeing him struggle we shall die more manfully ourselves, or is it merely the vague interest with which we regard any one about to travel into distant regions, all unknown to him or us, and the secrets of which he can never return to tell?  Be this as it may, I went back at twelve.  The public-houses had been closed, decent people had gone home to bed; but already the crowd had become denser, already had the thief and the bully from all the slums and stews of the metropolis been collected together.  You can easily recognise the criminal population of our capital.  The policeman knows them instinctively, as with their small wiry figures, restless eyes, and pale faces, they pass him by.  One can tell them as easily as one knows the child of Norman origin by his noble bearing, or the Anglo-Saxon by his blue eyes and rosy cheeks.  There is generally something fine, and genial, and hearty about an English mob.  On the night of the peace-rejoicing you might have taken a lady from one end of London to the other, and she would not have heard an objectionable word, or been inconvenienced in the least; but the mob of which I now write seemed utterly repulsive and reprobate; all its sympathies seemed perverted.  It is a hard world this, I know, and it has but little mercy for the erring and the unfortunate; but that they should regard it with such evil eyes, that they should be so completely estranged from all its recognised modes of thought and action, that it should seem to them such a complete curse, was what I was not prepared to expect.  It really made one’s blood run cold to hear the mob around me talk.  The man to be hung had rushed Continue reading