“Everything was as clean as a new pin. The first thing I saw was Mrs Cotton sitting on stool close by a good fire, giving the breast to her infant. She was dressed in a skirt, a loose jacket, but no shoes on, and nothing on her head. Looking around the cell, I saw three chairs, one table, a bed, and some good books. The walls had pretty paper on. There was one window on the south side and the sun was shining on it.
“In fact, she seems to have every comfort that this earth can afford. God forbid, Mr Editor, that I should ever see such a sight again.
“Just imagine a little child on his mother’s knee, looking up in its mother’s face and laughing, and her on the brink of another world, and her heart as hard as stone.”
Mary Ann Cotton, photographed during her trial 150 years ago. The black and white shawl was very fashionable at the time, and it could have been the one she tore in two in her cell to give one half to her baby as it was taken away. The fashion for such items ended with Mrs Cotton’s execution
Mary Ann Cotton had been sentenced to death at the Durham Spring Assizes on March 7, 1873, for poisoning her stepson, seven-year-old Charles Edward Cotton, on July 12, 1872. The court had also been told of three similar deaths – another stepson, a son and a lodger/lover – that had occurred in Mrs Cotton’s house in West Auckland a few months earlier, and there was speculation across the county that she had murdered at least 22, including her mother.
The law allowed three Sundays between sentence and execution, which gave Mary Ann just over two weeks to arrange the adoption of the baby, Margaret, whom she had given birth to in the jail just two months earlier.
“The keenest interest has been excited by the child, gaol-born of a murderess, who, before two days are past, will be orphaned by the hangman,” said The Northern Echo.
There had been a “brisk competition as to who should be allowed to adopt the child” which had been won by Sarah and William Edwards who had known Mrs Cotton when she had moved into West in 1871 with her fourth, bigamous, husband, Frederick. They were neighbours in Johnson Terrace, now demolished, and had consoled her as bad luck struck and four of her family, starting with her husband, died stomach-related deaths.
“Mrs Edwards is a kind hearted woman, of about 30 to 35 years of age,” said the Echo. “She has been married for some time but no merry prattlers are be seen around her fireside. Hers was a childless house. Her woman’s heart yearned for a little one to rear and tend with the mother’s care but hitherto her longing was not gratified.”
The Edwardses were assisted in winning the competition by pitman Lowrey, who had been lodging with Mrs Cotton for a week in her new house in Front Street when tragedy struck her there, too, and the seven-yar-old had succumbed.
Mr Lowrey had gone to Durham jail with the Edwardses on March 19, 1873, to collect the baby. They found Mrs Cotton in the cell “nursing her child before the fire, sitting on a stool, sometimes giving it the breast, and sometimes laying it on her lap, where it smiled and crowed in the cheerful firelight”, said the Echo.
“Never again would the smiles of the little stranger enliven the gloom of the condemned cell. The mother was parting with her babe forever! It was a solemn moment. Murderess though she was, she wept even when she was killing her children in the past, and the mother’s feelings welled high in her breast as she took the last long lingering look at the unconscious little one for whom no greater blessing can be craved than that it may never know its mothers name nor learn its mother’s doom.
“One last service of love was to be a rendered to the little darling she was to see no more forever. The day it was damp and cold. In the room, there was black and white chequered shawl. She cut it into two halves and, reserving one half for herself, tenderly wrapped the baby in the other, and handed it to his foster mother.
“The last moment had now fully come. Mrs Cotton, with her deep dark eyes gleaming through the rising tears, and with difficulty repressing a choking, bursting sob, clung to Mrs Edwards…
“Let’s just leave her there. The idea of the lonely widow in the solitary cell, from which the sole remaining joy had been borne away, is too sad to be dwelt upon.”
At West, Mrs Edwards “was nearly mobbed by the throng of gazers eager to catch a glimpse of the child of the notorious poisoner”.
When the Echo’s reporter called on the Edwardses in Johnson Terrace, he found “a neat, clean and tidy” house. He said: “It was the ordinary better class pit house of two storeys with a small strip of garden in front whose railings were slightly out of repair.”
There was much speculation locally over the identity of Margaret’s father. Her dark complexion reminded some of Mary Ann’s lodger/lover, Joseph Nattrass, who now lay in St Helen Auckland churchyard; others thought her to be the child of the mysterious Mr Mann, the wealthy excise officer who Mary Ann had wished to marry but who had disappeared as soon as the scandal broke; even more, said the Echo, talked of other local men who had been “over kind” to Mary Ann.
Durham court and jail, where Mary Ann Cotton was being held 150 years ago
In her cell, when not sobbing, the condemned prisoner wrote scores of letters to anyone she could think of, pleading with them to come to her aid.
A collection of letters sent from Mary Ann Cotton from her prison cell to William Lowrey which was auctioned at Tennants of Leyburn 10 years ago
“We have seldom seen letters more touching, more horribly pathetic,” said the Echo, which published many of them unedited.
She always protested her innocence of everything except bigamy, and said it was a dodgy consignment of arrowroot she had bought from Thomas Riley’s grocery in the village that had poisoned the boy.
In Sunderland, Quakers opposed to the death penalty got up petitions on her behalf. They were led by Edward Backhouse, of the Darlington family of bankers, who had briefly employed Mary Ann in his mansion of Ashburne – now part of Sunderland university – and in his home for “fallen women”. He even sent a telegram to the Home Secretary on her last weekend pointing out the flaws in the circumstantial evidence against her.
Quakers in Darlington and Bishop Auckland joined his campaign, while Darlington solicitor John T Nixon got 130 of his acquaintances in the town and Barnard Castle to call for clemency.
Home Secretary Henry Bruce (above) wrote “nil” on all the correspondence he received and confirmed that Mrs Cotton would hang on Monday, March 24, 1873, in Durham jail.
“As day succeeds day, the slight hopes which were entertained by a few sanguine individuals concerning the possibility of a commutation of the sentence of death dwindle away,” said The Northern Echo on Saturday, March 22. “Now they are at the vanishing point. On Monday morning they will have vanished altogether, for hope and fear alike will have been superseded by the sad certainty of death.”
That Saturday, the last visitor Mary Ann received in her cell was her stepfather, George Stott, from Seaham Harbour, who reprimanded her for her bad grammar in her letters and urged her to confess her guilt – he stoked the rumour that in 1867 his wife, Margaret, who was Mary Ann’s mother, had been one of her victims.
A letter Mary Ann Cotton sent from Durham jail to William Lowrey in Johnson Terrace, West Auckland
The last letter she received in her cell was from Mr Lowrey, who told the editor of the Echo that he was “a constant reader of your valuable paper”. While believing in her guilt, Mr Lowrey had remained loyal to Mary Ann when practically everyone else, including her own legal team, had faded away. He finished his last letter: “May the lord have Mercy on your Soul, goodby on this Earth for ever – Lowrey.”
And the last letter that she sent that Saturday was to the Edwardses which she finished: “Ie feale unable to Write more hoping We Will All Meeat in heaven at gods Write hand Where ther Will be no more pain.”
Then she added a PS that is heart-rending even for a mass murderess: “Kiss my Babe for me.”
We’ll finish her story next week
THE FULL MARY ANN COTTON STORY AS IT UNFOLDED 150 YEARS AGO:
Pt 1: SENSATION AS MOTHER IS ARRESTED FOR MURDER
Pt 2: SHOCK AS STEPSON’S BODY IS EXHUMED
Pt 3: AMAZING DETAILS AS MARY ANN COTTON APPEARS IN COURT
Pt 4: EXHUMATIONS IN CHURCHYARD OF MRS COTTON’S VICTIMS
Pt 5: MARY ANN COTTON GIVES BIRTH IN DURHAM JAIL
Pt 6: MARY ANN COTTON PREPARES FOR HER TRIAL
Pt 7: MARY ANN COTTON FACES THE SENTENCE OF DOOM