ALL south Durham was in a state of immense excitement 150 years ago as, after days of swirling rumours, on July 18, 1872, the widow Mary Ann Cotton had been arrested at her home in West Auckland on suspicion of murdering her seven-year-old stepson, Charles Edward Cotton.

He had died on July 12 of a stomach complaint which was initially thought to be natural causes, but on July 17, after the burial, Dr Kilburn had belatedly got round to analysing samples he had taken from the dead boy’s stomach.

In them, he discovered traces of arsenic. He informed Supt Thomas Hutchinson, who arrested Mrs Cotton’s arrest, as we told last week.


The magistrates’ clerk at Bishop Auckland immediately requested permission from the Home Secretary to have Charles’ body exhumed from St Helen Auckland churchyard. This was granted, and the exhumation took place on July 26 – 150 years ago on Wednesday.

Once unearthed, the lad’s body was taken to an empty house beside the churchyard where Dr Kilburn and Dr Chalmers removed samples from his stomach and from his viscera – his main organs. These samples were put into clean bottles, which the doctors corked, sealed and labelled, and handed over to Supt Thomas Hutchinson, of Bishop Auckland police.

Dr Kilburn also handed over samples he had taken in his first post mortem – samples which he had buried in his garden in West Auckland which, in those pre-refrigeration days, kept them cool and fresh – as well as faeces which Charles had passed shortly before his death.

The Northern Echo: An Illustrated Police News drawing of Sgt Thomas Hutchinson, of Bishop Auckland police, who was leading the investigation into the death of Charles Edward Cotton, seven, of Front Street, West Auckland, on July 12, 1872

By train, Sgt Hutchinson, who was later described by the Illustrated Police News as “an intelligent officer…well adapted to fulfil the task assigned to him”, took the samples to Dr Thomas Scattergood, of Leeds School of Medicine, who was the go-to toxicologist in the north of England.

Within days, Dr Scattergood reported back that he had found traces of arsenic in the boy’s stomach, bowels, liver, lung, heart, kidneys and faeces.

The Darlington & Stockton Times reported on July 27, 1872: “The child is reported to have been poisoned with arsenic, a quantity of which was found in her house at West Auckland.”

So a week after her arrest, the medical and circumstantial evidence was mounting against Mary Ann Cotton, whose husband, lover and 14-month-old baby had all died in the previous 10 months as well as Charles.

“The woman is in custody,” said the D&S Times of 150 years ago. She had been transferred from Bishop Auckland police station to Durham gaol, and would never taste freedom again.

The evidence against her would receive its first public airing at a hearing on August 21, 1872, which Memories will report on next month.

The Northern Echo:

In the meantime, gossip circulated in West Auckland and beyond that Mary Ann Cotton had not only murdered the four who had died in the village but perhaps another 15, 16 or 17 who had died in Sunderland…