“THE court, which was densely crammed in all parts, listened with breathless attention to the sentence of the learned judge,” reported The Northern Echo 150 years ago this week from the crown court at Durham. “When he pronounced the last words a profound and chill murmur arose from the awestruck crowd. It was a long drawn, shivering sigh, which told more faithfully than words how intense was the strain, how deep the emotion, of those who heard the sentence of doom.”

The Northern Echo: Judge Sir Thomas Archibald who sentenced Mary Ann Cotton to death

On Friday, March 8, 1873, Justice Sir Thomas Archibald (above) pronounced the sentence of death on Mary Ann Cotton, 40, of Front Street, West Auckland, who may to this day be Britain’s most prolific female mass murderer.

“She was observed to tremble violently when the judge was speaking,” said the Echo. “When the last dread words fell from his lips, she turned deadly pale, reeled, and would have fallen to the floor had she not been caught by the deputy governor and another official who, supporting her on either side, led her from the dock.”

The Northern Echo:

Mary Ann Cotton (above) had been found guilty of poisoning her seven-year-old stepson, Charles Edward Cotton, with arsenic. He had died on July 12, 1872, after several days of “vomiting and purgings”, and the judge had allowed the prosecution to disclose to the jury details of three very similar and excruciating deaths – of her 14-month-old baby, of her 10-year-old stepson, and of her 36-year-old lodger/lover – which had occurred in her house in the course of three grim weeks in March 1872.

But the gossip in the district was that from the east at Sunderland to the south at Plymouth to the terraces of West Auckland, there were many more who had been close to Mrs Cotton and who had died of similarly painful stomach complaints.

Two days after the trial, the Echo casually remarked: “It is alleged that Mary Ann Cotton struck down by poison some 20 persons.”

If that were the true death count – some sources put it higher at 22 – only Dr Harold Shipman, the former Aycliffe GP, would have killed more as in 2000, he was convicted of murdering 15 people although most inquiries say his total was 250 going on 450.

The Northern Echo: Durham Crown Court

Mary Ann Cotton was tried at Durham Crown Court. Picture courtesy of Michael Richardson and the Gilesgate Archive

Surrounded by immense public interest, particularly from the “fair sex”, Mrs Cotton’s trial had begun on Wednesday, March 6, 1873. Her face had “a careworn and jaded look which became still more haggard as the trial proceeded”, said the Darlington & Stockton Times, as the hotshot prosecutor, Charles Russell, who had been brought up from London to secure conviction, outlined the devastating facts.

He showed how six weeks before Charles died, Mary Ann had purchased from Jonathan Townsend’s chemist in West Auckland a pennyworth of arsenic and a pennyworth of soft soap, with which she and a neighbour liberally cleaned Charles’s mattress and bedstead to kill the bedbugs. This compound was estimated to contain 240 to 360 grains of arsenic; three grains was enough to kill an adult.

Mrs Cotton, who was born in 1832 at Low Moorsley, near Hetton-le-Hole, would have known all this, said the prosecutor, as she had worked for 11 months as a fever nurse at Sunderland Infirmary and supplemented her income by working as a carer in West Auckland.

Mr Russell showed how Mrs Cotton, four times married with at least 13 children of her own, felt terribly tied by having responsibility for the boy who was not her own. He stood in the way of her plans to marry an excise officer called Mr Mann, a wealthy but enigmatic figure who disappeared as soon as the scandal broke. She had tried to palm the boy off on an uncle in Ipswich; she had tried to get him placed in the workhouse, and matters came to a head as she was about to lose the 1s 6d per week “parish relief” – or “benefit” – she received for him.

And her late husband (another of her putative victims) had insured the boy’s life at the Prudential in Old Shildon for £4 10s, so poor Charles was lucrative to her dead.

The Northern Echo: Mary Ann Cotton.

Mary Ann Cotton's last victim died in the thin three-storey house on the green in West Auckland. The house still stands

Mr Russell showed how Mrs Cotton was cruel towards the boy – pitman William Davison said “she beat him a canny bit…with a canny bit strap…them Durham lads want it sometimes” – and how on July 6, with the lad playing healthily at her feet, she had prophesised he “would go like all the Cottons…he would not get up” (ie: reach adulthood).

On July 12, despite the efforts of local doctors, Charles died of “gastric fever” in the Front Street house which still stands.

Through the evidence of the eminent toxicologist Dr Thomas Scattergood, of Leeds, Mr Russell showed how Charles had had 2.6 grains of arsenic in his stomach, and how the remains of her other victims, whose bodies had been exhumed from St Helen Auckland churchyard for testing, had even greater concentrations – the stomach of her lover, Joseph Nattrass, contained 17.5 grains.

Crimes such as these, Mr Russell concluded, “made one’s flesh creep and blood curdle”. Charles’s “young life was snapped as the blasted and withered blossom on the trees might be”, he said.

In the dock, Mary Ann was feeling the pressure. “The frequent spasmodic twitchings of the muscles of the face demonstrated that the spirit within was terribly disquieted,” said the D&S Times.

Two days before the trial started, Mrs Cotton had had no one to fight her corner but Leeds barrister Thomas Campbell Foster was rustled up to speak for her. He hurriedly compiled what the D&S called “a wonderfully telling and ingenious defence”.

Mr Campbell Foster said Mr Russell had not proved Mrs Cotton had administered the poison.

He alleged that the arsenic could have inadvertently come from Dr William Kilburn, who had given bismuth – “an irritant poison” – mixed with hydrocyanic acid – “a formidable poison” – to treat Charles’s stomach pains, and who had arsenic in his surgery.

Or, he said that Charles’s bedroom in Front Street was decorated with wallpaper which had green flowers on, the green colouring coming from a copper and arsenic compound. Dr Scattergood even estimated that there were two to three grains of arsenic in each 12ft wall, and there were four walls in the room.

Plus, said Mr Campbell Foster, there was all the arsenic in the mattress and on the bedstead from the anti-bedbug regime. It all dried out and broke down into dust, and Charles played marbles or perhaps dropped his bread and butter butterside down (there was laughter in court at the barrister’s suggestion that bread always falls butterside down) and so had accidentally breathed in or consumed the poison.

And then, said Mr Campbell Foster, the boy might even have drunk from the jug in which the anti-bedbug solution was mixed and which was kept on a shelf just one-and-a-half feet above the floor.

With Mrs Cotton weeping bitterly, he urged the jury to consider all of these doubts, possibilities and potentially innocent explanations.

It took the jury only 55 minutes. They returned, and before the hushed, awe-struck court, chairman Thomas Greener, of Darlington, delivered the guilty verdict.

The Northern Echo: Court 1 at Durham Crown Court where Mary Ann Cotton was sentenced to death. She would have been in the dock directly beneath the photographer looking past the jury on the left to the judge at the far end

Court 1 at Durham Crown Court where Mary Ann Cotton was sentenced to death. She would have been in the dock directly beneath the photographer looking past the jury on the left to the judge at the far end

The Echo said: “The judge, who assumed the black cap, said: “Mary Ann Cotton, you have been convicted after a patient and careful trial, of the awful crime of murder…

“You have been found guilty of murdering, by means of poison, your stepson whom you ought to have cherished and taken care of…

“Whilst death by poisoning is the most detestable of all crimes, and one at which human nature shudders, it is one which, in the order of God's Providence, leaves behind it most clear traces of guilt. The poison, as it were in the very act of crime, writes an indelible record of guilt. These warnings however come too late for you, but I feel bound to utter them so that others who feel tempted to follow your wicked example may be warned by your miserable fate and punishment.

“For yourself, in these last words which I shall address to you, I would earnestly urge you to seek for your soul the only refuge which is left for it, in the mercy of God through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

“It only remains for me to pass upon you the awful sentence of the law, which is that you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came and from thence to the place of execution and that you'll be there hanged by the neck until you shall be dead, and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been last confined after your conviction. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

The Northern Echo: Mary Ann Cotton, sentenced to death from the Darlington & Stockton Times of March 8, 1873

Mary Ann Cotton, sentenced to death from the Darlington & Stockton Times of March 8, 1873

Reeling, Mrs Cotton was led down the tight wooden steps from Court 1 into a narrow, musty tunnel which took her beneath the tiered wooden benches. She would have heard over her head the shoes of the barristers, solicitors, spectators, pressmen and court officials as they pushed excitedly to the exits, eager to discuss the awful but dramatic events they had just witnessed unfold in the courtroom.

Mrs Cotton, though, was led along a stone corridor to the condemned cell where she was reunited with her baby, Margaret, her 13th child, who she had given birth to just two months earlier in the jail.

Mary Ann had just over a fortnight left to live…








And more next week as we follow the events of 150 years ago