As a new TV drama of NorthEast ‘serial killer’ Mary Ann Cotton is made, Bishop Auckland writer Wendy Robertson makes a case for the defence

SERIAL killers have something of a hold on people’s imaginations in these insecure modern times. I also note that an ITV costume drama, Dark Angel, based on the story of Mary Ann Cotton and starring Downton Abbey favourite Joanne Froggatt, is in production. I hope they don’t roll out the usual stereotyped macabre melodrama which would confirm the fact that we’ve made no progress at all in our understanding of this woman and the times in which she lived.

In my novel, A Woman Scorned: Serial Killer of Scandal Victim?, I put the case for the defence of Mary Ann Cotton, who lived a mile from my Bishop Auckland house. She was alleged to have killed at least three and at most 18 people in the mid-19th Century. Hanged for her ‘crime’ in Durham Goal, she has become a dark legend in the North-East: our very own serial killer. There’s even a nursery rhyme which begins "Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten".

My story is told through the eyes of Victoria Kilburn, niece of Doctor Kilburn, the doctor central to the story. She is visiting her uncle from London and is delighted and eventually horrified at what she witnesses in this small Durham village. Like Mary Ann, Victoria is an outsider and it is she who witnesses the runaway injustice visited on this unusual and charismatic woman.

Part of the delight in writing historical fiction is delving into the research. Every one of my novels has required me to get not just the facts right, but also the feeling. The facts are often easy – laid out there in histories and argued about in learned articles. Of course contemporaneous press reports, court data, images, diaries and letters are great for that specific 'feeling' research. This art of gathering materials to illuminate feelings and world-views of a particular time plays an important role in creating fiction around a real event.

To my mind, the charismatic itinerant nurse Mary Ann Cotton is as worthy of this process as the Henries and the Cromwells. A Woman Scorned is a work of fiction, but inspired and informed by a detailed study of the papers the records and the real people and events surrounding the trial and execution of Mary Ann Cotton in 1873.

I actually started to research and write this novel assuming the basic rightness of the myth, feeling that the Mary Ann Cotton case would make a good novel. The newspapers then were as strident as they are now. This trial became a national sensation reported in lurid terms, assuming Mary Ann’s guilt well before the actual trial.

Looking for some balance, I was pleased at the extent of the detail available. Newspapers, like the court and the police reports, which I also read, involved verbatim accounts. It’s possible, reading these to hear not just what people say but just how they say it. Interestingly, Charles Dickens was a trained court shorthand writer, which must have honed his ear for intricacies of accent, semantics and idiosyncrasies of speech.

But my perspective on her case changed as I read of the judgemental public pre-trial outcry and noted the idle carelessness of Mary Ann’s first solicitors, who gave her very bad advice, obviously having assumed her guilt. They neglected her proper defence and even robbed her of money.

I concluded that modern rules on forensic medicine would have blown out the forensic evidence presented at the trial as ‘proof’ of her guilt. At one point, to enable a re-examination, the viscera of one ‘victim’ were dug up out of the bare earth where they had been buried in the doctor’s garden. Unreliable evidence indeed.

Then there was this very big gun imported into the case, barrister Sir Charles Russell, who made the long journey north to mount the prosecution of this bold, pretty woman, this outsider in a very tight old-fashioned village where deaths were common from the diseases of poverty, including the scourge of typhoid.

So it dawned on me that, by modern standards of justice, this case was at least unproven. A Woman Scorned makes the case that Mary Ann was probably not guilty but rather was the victim of rising hysteria in the region and in the country, creating a powerful and enduring myth which put on a false cloak of hard truth.

Response from my readers that the novel has changed a few other minds too. Perhaps you might like to see what you think? And in my heart, I hope the film makers incorporate a fresh perspective on the fascinating case of Mary Ann Cotton.

A Woman Scorned is available on Kindle and in paperback on Read Wendy's blog at