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Origins: Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton,
Dead and forgotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open.

Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton is certainly dead, but she isn’t forgotten; in fact she’s thought by some to be Britain’s most prolific serial killer. This rhyme, often used to accompany skipping games, is more popular in the North East of England than elsewhere and commemorates the woman who was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March, 1873 after being convicted of the murder of her stepson Charles Edward.

There was a time when arsenic was available over the counter in chemist’s shops. It was used as a cosmetic, as a medicine, in green coloured wall-papers and even as a treatment for erectile dysfunction as well as its more reasonable function as a poison for domestic rats.

In order to buy it, a purchaser was made to sign the ‘poison book’ kept by the pharmacist, but in an age of low literacy levels and no central records being kept the poison book was a fairly useless tool in deterring or fighting misuse of the substance. It is perhaps this that led Mary Ann Cotton to remain undetected in her murderous spree for so long.

Mary Ann Cotton married her first husband, William Mowbray in 1852; with him she bore nine children.

By 1865, her husband and eight of her children had died of a mysterious stomach complaint. Cotton collected £35 insurance and sent her remaining child, Isabella to live with her mother. The same year, Cotton married her second husband, George Ward. He died, following a stomach illness, before another year had passed. Once again Cotton collected an insurance payout.

After the death of her second husband, Cotton took a job working as housekeeper to James Robinson, whose infant daughter soon took ill and died. Robinson sought comfort in Cotton, and before long she fell pregnant again. In early 1867, Cotton was called to her ailing mother’s bedside. After a period of remission, Cotton’s mother started experiencing stomach pains and died shortly after. Cotton had no choice but to return home with her daughter Isabella. By April, Isabella was dead and so were Robinson’s two remaining children from his previous marriage.

In August Cotton married her employer. Their daughter was born in November and died the following March.

After the discovery that his wife had stolen £50 and had debts of £60 more, Robinson became suspicious of Cotton’s repeated insistence that her husband take out a life insurance policy. He threw her out of their home and the murderess began sleeping rough.

While living on the street Mary Ann met a widower named Frederick Cotton and his sister Margaret. Frederick had two children, whom Margaret cared for. It wasn’t long before, in March 1870, Margaret began complaining of stomach pains. She died shortly after. Once again, Cotton offered comfort to the bereaved man, and by September Mary Ann was pregnant and (bigamously) married again. Insurance policies were quickly taken out on the lives of Cotton’s new husband and his sons.

In 1871, Cotton rekindled a romance with Joseph Nattrass, a man whom she had had a brief relationship shortly after the death of her first husband. Nattrass had been married when he and Cotton first met, but now the marriage was over. In December 1871, Frederick Cotton died following a mysterious complaint of the stomach.

Short of money, Mary Ann moved Nattrass in as a lodger and she quickly became pregnant again. The upstanding Nattrass revised his will to make Cotton the beneficiary. Within six months both Nattrass and Frederick Cotton’s two orphaned children died.

Husbandless once again, Cotton was approached by a parish official and asked to help care for a neighbour with smallpox. Cotton complained that she’ couldn’t do so with her only remaining child, Charles Edward, hanging around and asked that he be committed to the workhouse. The official agreed, but only if Cotton went too. Never mind, said Cotton, her son was sickly and probably wouldn’t live long.

Charles Edward died less than a week later.

The parish official was made suspicious by this sudden death and asked the doctor to delay releasing the boy’s death certificate. An inquest was held, with a verdict of death by natural causes was returned but the doctor was not convinced. The police became involved.

Tests on Charles Edward’s body showed the presence of arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton’s luck had run out.

Most of the deaths linked to Cotton were recorded as gastric fever; with forensic science in its infancy, arsenic poisoning was difficult to detect and symptoms could easily be misconstrued. Although most of Cotton’s victims were not tested for arsenic poisoning, the evidence strongly suggests that she was responsible for the deaths of up to 21 people.

The nursery rhyme commemorating Cotton, with its allusion to her execution (tied up with string), may suggest that she is innocent of the crimes of which she is accused; she is ‘up in the air’, in heaven rather than hell. This suggests to me the rhyme was formulated by children rather than formally composed by an adult but this is conjecture. Why the woman has taken to selling black pudding in the afterlife remains a mystery.

For a fuller account of Mary Ann Cotton’s fascinating story, see


3 responses »

  1. The version I knew as a child was a little more macabre:

    “Mary Ann Cotton
    is dead and forgotten
    she lies in the ground
    with her bones all rotten”

    I still can’t explain the black puddings bit though.

  2. Those elusive black puddings!

  3. nathaniel mathews

    Another fascinating bit of cultural archaeology. Have tweeted this


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