The UK has always had a dark history of serial killers, from Jack the Ripper to Harold Shipman, but few can claim to be as brutal as Mary Anne Cotton.
Cotton, although largely unremembered by the great British public, was a notorious Victorian serial killer who was convicted and hanged for killing three of her four husbands, who she murdered in order to collect on their insurance policies.
It’s believed that Cotton – who killed using deadly arsenic – may have murdered as many as 21 victims, eleven of which were her own children, The Mirror reports.
ITV are now developing a TV series about her bone chilling crimes starring Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) and Alun Armstrong. The two-part series will examine her relationship with her family and what led her to a life of crime.
Cotton is believed to have been born in Low Moorsley but her family soon moved to the County Durham village of Murton where she struggled to make friends.
Her father soon died when he fell down a mine-shaft, leaving her alone with her mum and new stepfather who she apparently argued with frequently.
At age 20, she left home to marry labourer William Mowbray, with whom she had eight children – and that’s when the deaths begin. Seven of the kids died of ‘gastric problems’ and they were soon followed by William himself who again died of ‘stomach problems’.
She received a healthy payout from William’s life insurance, and from there, Mary Anne went on to marry three more men, all the time followed by mysterious deaths from ‘gastric problems’ – although her third husband kicked her out after the death of their child.
The monstrous woman was finally caught after the death of her son, Charles Edward Cotton, whose body was exhumed and traces of arsenic were found.
The effects of arsenic poisoning – vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain – were similar to dysentery which was a common cause of death at the time. This coupled with poor record keeping made it easy for Cotton to escape justice for years.
The murderess was arrested and put on trial at Durham crown court where she was executed by William Calcraft at Durham Jail on March 24, 1873, in front of a crowd of 50.
Local papers at the time described her as ‘a monster in human shape’ – but her story doesn’t end there.
In the 1990s, Durham Jail was being modernised and Mary Ann Cotton’s grave was disturbed. Her skeleton was discovered, then later cremated.