“Mary Ann Cotton, gone but not forgotten
She’s lying in her coffin with her eyes wide open”
ITV’s latest miniseries “Dark Angel” has thrown the spotlight on one of the most infamous murderers of the 19th Century, Mary Ann Cotton. Cotton’s story is less well known outside of the North East of England where the above rhyme was familiar in the playgrounds of my childhood, but the case has a Lawnswood connection in the form of Thomas Scattergood, one of the most important figures in the development of forensic science in 19th Century England.
Scattergood’s grave can be found in the Victorian section at Lawnswood. During his career he was a surgeon, lecturer, toxicologist and an expert in obstetric medicine. He was also the first Dean of Medicine at the Yorkshire College, now known as Leeds University. Born in Huddersfield in 1826, the son of a vicar, at the age of 20 he joined the Leeds General Infirmary as an assistant apothecary. After five years in the service of the hospital he qualified as a surgeon and started lecturing at the Leeds School of Medicine.
His national fame came from his expertise in toxicology – a fledgling science but one which became very important in a number of high profile murder trials. He kept a notebook of medico-legal cases for 50 years which is still kept at the University of Leeds. The notebook was one of the first exhibits in the recent opening of the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery and is a fascinating read. Scattergood obviously liked a bit of publicity and kept newspaper cuttings from cases in which he was involved.
Scattergood was recognised as an expert in poisonings and people sent him samples from all over the North of England. His notebook details poisonings by opium, strychnine, arsenic, potassium and any number of dubious 19th century “preparations” with fantastic names like Dr Coffin’s Composition, Battle’s Vermin Powder etc. Poisons were incredibly easy to obtain in the 19th century and were also used in everyday household items like wallpaper, clothing, and paint as their dangers were little understood at the time.
Mary Ann Cotton was a woman with an unfortunate history of losing family members. Between 1865 and 1872, 21 people related to her died in suspicious circumstances. Her first husband died in 1865 and she was paid £35 by his insurance company, then a significant sum of money. A number of the couple’s children had already perished, but Mary Ann still had two daughters, until one died and she sent the other to live with her mother.
Securing a job at Sunderland Hospital, she married a patient who died the following year from a mystery illness. Moving onwards and upwards, Mary Ann took a job as a housekeeper with the Robinsons - a middle class family consisting of a widower with five children. In fairly short order, three out of the five children died. Pregnant with Mr Robinson’s child, Mary Ann married him. Another child was born who died very quickly and Mary Ann eventually left, taking her surviving son with her.
She moved to Northumberland and bigamously married a miner called Frederick Cotton, by whose surname she is remembered. Mary Ann met him because she was friendly with his sister, who died a short time into the relationship. The unsuspecting Mr Cotton had two sons and the couple then had a boy of their own. The family moved to West Auckland in County Durham where in just over a year Mary Ann allegedly killed another five people – Frederick, the three sons and a lover called Joseph Nattrass.
Her murderous career was brought to a halt in 1872 when a Poor Law official found her description of her stepson Charles Cotton to be a bit worrying. Though the boy seemed perfectly healthy, Mary Ann referred to the seven year old as “sickly” and when he died six days later, the official raised the alarm. The insurance company this time refused to pay out and an inquest was held. As there was no evidence of wrongdoing the jury returned a verdict of death by natural causes. Four days after the inquest, the doctor tested the remains of Charles Cotton and to his horror found traces of arsenic.
Four of the five bodies from West Auckland were exhumed and parts sent to Thomas Scattergood. He examined remains belonging to Charles Cotton, Joseph Nattrass (whose remains arrived in a hamper!), and the other two Cotton boys, finding arsenic in them all. He counted 17 grains of arsenic in Joseph Nattrass – an astonishing amount which either suggests he had superhuman strength, or that he was taking arsenic voluntarily, as it was sometimes used as an aphrodisiac by Victorian men.
In 1873, Mary Ann stood trial for the murder of Charles Cotton. The Judge decided that one murder was enough, as if convicted of that one she could only be hung once! Her defence was that the arsenic could have been accidentally ingested by young Charles from the wallpaper rather than by direct poisoning. Thomas Scattergood disagreed, saying that this would not have explained the grains of arsenic in the boy’s stomach. With no defence toxicologist to contradict him, Mary Ann Cotton was convicted of murder and was hung at Durham Gaol, the first woman to face this fate there in 75 years.
Mary Ann Cotton’s motives appear to have been financial. Most of her victims had life insurance of which she was the beneficiary. The unusual frequency with which she was paid wasn’t detected due to the different surnames she used and the various locations in which she lived. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning were remarkably similar to those of cholera, of which there were a number of outbreaks during the 19th century. All manner of other fatal diseases abounded, especially in children. Deaths were often attributed to “typhoid fever” or “gastric fever” with doctors rarely seeing the victims until they were already dead.
The Mary Ann Cotton case keeps its notoriety because she was long believed to be Britain’s most prolific serial killer, though she has now been surpassed by a number of others, most notably Harold Shipman. However, Mary Ann was significant for another reason, as her case prompted the tightening up of the rules relating to the registration of births and deaths. In 1874 registration was made compulsory and deaths had to be registered within five days, accompanied by a doctor’s certificate.
Strangely, Thomas Scattergood did not keep any newspaper cuttings about his most famous case in his notebook. Despite the fact that the trial took place in County Durham, it was of national significance and papers across the country carried detailed accounts, so he would not have been short of sources. He did, however, write an article for the British Medical Journal on the appearance of the remains of two of the alleged victims.
Scattergood died in 1900 at his home in Park Square following a bout of influenza. None of his obituaries recalled his involvement in the Mary Ann Cotton case. Unfortunately he did not make an appearance in ITV’s version of the story.