Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873) was a female British serial killer based in County Durham, in the North East of England, who is known as the first known serial killer in British history.
Through the use of arsenic poisoning, Cotton murdered an estimated 14 victims, which consisted solely of her own children and husbands. As foresnic and medical analysis was less advanced at the time, many of these deaths were wrote off as a “stomach fever”.
It is believed her crimes were financially motivated by insurance fraud, having cashed out multiple times following the deaths of her husbands. However, an obvious pattern eventually emerged, and having been caught and convicted in the murder of her last husband, Cotton was tried, convicted and executed by hanging in the city of Durham.
Her execution was not a pleasant one, as the hanging did not go according to plan as the rope was too short. This led to it failing to break her neck, and instead condemned her to die by slow strangulation. She was buried in unconsecrated grounds in Durham prison, as was customary of all executions up until the abolition of the practice in the 1960s.
It is said that Mary’s ghost, as well as those of her child victims, may haunt a venue in Sunderland built over a basement and secret tunnels she may have used. This venue, known as the Ship ISIS, is an old pub which was built in the late 19th century.
The cultural legacy of Mary Ann Cotton in the North East of England is significant, leading to a popular nursery rhyme being sung about her which is often shared by children. It is sometimes rumoured that use of this rhyme is capable of summoning her spirit, or imposing mysterious scratches on the singer.
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.
Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.