LETTERS written by the North-East’s most notorious mass murderer in her prison cell are to be auctioned next week.
The fascinating series shows Mary Ann Cotton’s desperation for help and money in the months and weeks leading up to her trial.
The eight letters also chart her mental disintegration as the enormity of her impending execution sinks in.
Cotton, of West Auckland, County Durham, was hanged on March 24, 1873, at Durham Gaol for the murder of her seven-year-old stepson, Charles.
Three other murder charges and an accusation of bigamy were left on file, and she is generally regarded to have murdered up to 22 of her children, husbands and lovers and even, possibly, her own mother.
Mass poisoner’s letters as she awaited execution to go under hammer Until Harold Shipman, she was Britain’s most prolific mass murderer.
The collection of letters from Mary Ann Cotton from her prison cell to William Lowrey
“It is very unusual to get letters like this, and they show she has no control over events unfolding outside her cell,” said Paul Hughes, of Tennants auctioneers, in Leyburn, North Yorkshire.
“When the letters start in July 1872, she was quite literate and her handwriting is quite strong, but as she becomes more and more desperate, her grammar, spelling and handwriting all start to go, and by February 1873, she was really struggling.”
The letters are on paper stamped “County Gaol, Durham”, and were sent to William Lowrey, in West Auckland. Mr Lowrey, a pitman, was a stranger who lodged with Mrs Cotton in Front Street for a week before she was arrested on July 18, 1872.
His descendants are selling the letters.
Although their acquaintance was brief, Mrs Cotton relied on Mr Lowrey to conduct her affairs while she was incarcerated. In one of her most desperate scribbles, she laments that “Ie have kn no frends of my one” – this may be because no one wanted to be associated with a woman accused of such heinous crimes, or it may be because she had murdered everyone who was close to her.
The eight letters begin with confident, fluent handwriting as she instructs Mr Lowrey to employ a solicitor and to round up named witnesses who “will be able to say how I treated the child”.
By October 1872, things are going wrong. George Smith, her solicitor of Bishop Auckland, has sold her “bed, carpets, knives (and) forks box and some little thing” for £13 to pay her legal costs, but when it becomes clear that she is to be charged with mass murder, he finds himself out of his depth.
Top right, ‘no frends of my one’; below left, an envelope containing one of her letters to Mr Lowrey; and below right, the inscription showing where the bible came from
The trial of Mrs Cotton, who was married four times and had numerous other lovers, was delayed so she could give birth to her 12th child – a daughter, whose descendants still live in County Durham.
On February 11, 1873 – a month after the birth – Mrs Cotton writes to Mr Lowrey for money.
“I want sum to get the child sum close as she has knon,” she scrawls in desperation. Six weeks later, she was executed.
Also in the lot, which will be auctioned on Wednesday and which has an estimate of between £300 and £500, is a bible.
“I see these basic bibles on a regular basis and they’re almost worthless, yet in the front of this one is written ‘Bought of Mrs Cotton, William Lowrey’,” said Mr Hughes.
It appears to have belonged to Mrs Cotton’s fourth husband, Frederick Cotton, whom she married bigamously in Newcastle in September 1870 and who died – of gastric complications, like so many of Mrs Cotton’s victims – in December 1871.
In the bible, Mr Cotton, who moved around the country, has written a morbid verse:
Frederick Cotton is my name England is my nation Wisbeach is my dwelling place and Christ is my salvation. When I am dead and in the grave And all my bones are rotten Take this bible and keep it clean Until I (am) quite forgotten.
A letter written by Mary Ann Cotton whilst awaiting her execution