VEILED WOMEN SERIES: A Pretty Little Poison – Mary Ann Cotton

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A Pretty Little Poison: Mary Ann Cotton – Veiled Women Series


Mary Ann Cotton – She’s dead and she’s rotten!

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

Selling black puddings a penny a pair.


The rope creaked. Mary paused as she looked upon it, her dirty, bare foot poised with only her toes resting against the ground. So this was to be her end at last, in the courtyard of Durham jail surrounded by sheriffs, warders and criminals? If she was lucky it would be swift, a quick twist and sharp snap of the bones in her neck and she would be done for. If she were unlucky? Then her feet would twitch and spasm of their own accord, getting twisted in her dress as the rope throttled her slowly, her face blooming to the purple of a twilight and darkening to the hue of the dusk of a black, moonless night beneath her hood. Hung like a despised and worthless dog. Dear God, please be merciful! May passing be swift and easy. The rope spoke to her as she moved closer. Its voice was harsh and sibilant. It mocked her. It sang. Its voice was rude and uncivil. But it drowned out all else. She was deaf to the braying of the crowd that huddled out beyond the high prison wall and she was blind to the grimace of morbid curiosity worn upon the weathered faces of the prison staff and pressmen close to the gateway. For the short rope that gently swung in the soft breezes was all there was in the world now.


Hands that gripped her shoulders now shoved her forward and she stumbled, the soft, fleshy pad of her foot sinking into the stinging tooth of a stone. Her dark, limp hair fell into her red-rimmed eyes, obscuring her view of her tormentor. The rope was a snake that hung down from the gallows just as the serpent of Eden coiled down from the tree and she was Adam’s Wife. “Come!” it hissed, “Come to me and I shall embrace you!”


As she approached, flanked by the warders Appleton and Dodds, the rope sang to her the name of her first husband. “William Mowbray…” it goaded “You remember him?”


Oh, she remembered him! A colliery labourer, she’d wed him in the year of 1852, when she was all but a lass of twenty and a dressmaker. But money had been scarce enough to feed them both and she had been as fertile as young rabbit. Babies kept coming in their pink and writhing droves. If she wasn’t with child, she was nursing one. William would come home drunk, his lips whisky soaked and hot. Searching. His body heavy as it pinned her down upon the bed. The babies screamed and cried; their round mouths great maws, opened wide and pink. Their lips quivering. They never stopped screaming, night and day! But he had no care, not when he had been kissed by the oblivion of intoxication. He did not care if he squirted another babe into her belly! And so it was, night after night. He would come home and make use of his conjugal rights. All day the babies would scream at her like squalling, quarrelling cats – until she could take no more of it. And at night he would pant; he would grunt at her like an animal as he finished his business, his face contorted and his breath sour. And then he would roll over and snore, stealing the sleep from her wearied mind.


Day and night. Night and day. Her belly would grow heavy with the weight of yet another child, she would push yet another round and screaming mouth from herself in a storm of blood and water and it would all begin again.


Yes, she remembered William Mowbray and their babes. She remembered them all. Three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, eleven children and step-children. Dead. All but two of the little ones taken to their Lord and Maker by gastric flu. Life was so fragile, and Mary was not entirely sorry, for now there was no screaming. No grunting and snoring. No doctors fees. The Lord had been merciful and her world had become as quiet and as peaceful as a summer’s lake upon a windless day. If there was a heaven, surely it was made up of such a tranquil silence? She could think again and she could breathe once more.


As for those gaping, slack mouths always demanding food and attention from her? Well, they no longer needed feeding, they no longer needed the doctors who took their large slice from the financial pie. They were all in a better place. One of manna and nectar, milk and honey. As for the insurance money? It was simply a bonus, wasn’t it! It was not an insurance payout but a compensation – or so she had always considered it. Something she deserved for the bellyful of children and the growling grunts of her satisfied husbands. But the serpentine rope that swung from the dark gallows would not allow her tranquility. It chanted their names. One after the other. And her heart beat to the same drum, so with each thrum of her heart the rope named another. And another. All eleven of those opened-lipped babies. And upon the rope’s tongue was a question.


“Gastric Fever.” it rasped “Are you sure?”


“Arsenic…” it whispered into her ears. “Arsenic, arsenic!”


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Mary’s head was still bowed, her eyes steady upon the march of her own feet. Feet that betrayed her as they carried her forth toward the dark gallows and the trap door. She was at the head of the procession, like a pitiful queen. Perhaps the French Queen had felt this way? Marie Antoinette. But it was no serpent that had wrapped around the French Queen’s neck, for her end had come in a bite of cold-steel. Quick and cold.


Mary shuddered. Strange how the closeness of death brought things into sharp focus! She had shapely feet and she noticed the high arch and well turned ankle but her toe-nails were torn; picked almost clean away. Her face may have been beautiful, yet she had been proud of her youthful ankles. She had been complimented upon them by more than one man. If she could just concentrate upon her ankles, perhaps all else would go away? The snarling crowd of prisoners and prison staff that walked behind her, the swaying rope and the scent of death that clung upon the platform. Sweet, it was. Sweet and caustic like rotting fruit that lay beneath the orchard trees in the late Autumn. But the rope spoke louder, it hissed at her and a hand yanked at her hair, pulling her face upward to look upon it. She knew she could not keep her eyes away from it, that serpent of death and destruction.


“George Ward…” it sang “Frederick Cotton… Joseph Nattrass.” It named her dead husbands and lover one-by-one with each shuffled step she took and her body responded in a tumult of tremors.


Mary planted both feet firmly on the floor as if to resist. Squaring her shoulders, she looked directly at the noose that swung back and forth before her, turning her eyes heavenward. No doubt it meant to hypnotise her but she would not let it! She would not succumb. Her eyes narrowed and her cracked lips moved, her voice no louder than the breeze.


“Her nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone. Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.” she whispered words that came to her. Biblical words. But none could hear her.  She would not submit to the serpent’s embrace. Not yet.


“Heaven is my home, Lord have mercy on me… Heaven is my home, Lord have mercy on me!” she cried out, daring to hear the sound of her own voice. She would not submit to the serpent’s embrace. Not yet! Had she not done all she could? She had been a nurse, a healer that had cared for others. She had tended to those in pain, those who were dying. She had been an angel of mercy to others. Was that not enough for the Lord to show her mercy?


Hands shoved her forward again and she thought that she may fall upon her knees, but no! No, she would do no such thing for the serpent would not see her in supplication. Mary gave a shake of her head, looking at the two wardens that flanked her. She did not need them to pull her, she would walk to her own demise stoic, with her head held high! For now the beckoning serpent did not speak of her husbands and lovers but upon its forked tongue was the name of her mother, her children and step-children. All those she had buried in the hard ground, named one by one.


“Margaret Robson…” it wheezed “Margaret Jane… Isabella… John Robert William… John… Elizabeth… James… Margaret Isabella… Frederick Junior… Robert… Charles Edward …”


And it did not believe her, any more than the judge and jury had, that it was her modern taste in decor that had been the culprit. Arsenic dust from bright wallpaper; wallpaper that was as green as a freshly picked apple. As green as a snake in the grass. Nor did it believe her that their deaths had not been for money. And what would a serpent know of money? It has no use for such worldly things as it slithers on its belly and hides within cracks and caves. It lives off the land. How could it understand what poverty was? Dirt and muck. Sickness and hunger. Lice and bugs that could not be purged, even when scrubbing with soft-soap. How could it ever comprehend the raw fear found in scarcity when there was always mouths to feed ? Yet the serpent did not care and it continued to hiss and spit out its chant as her feet carried her forward.


“Arsenic…” it screeched “Arsenic, arsenic!”


As Mary climbed the gallows her limbs jittered uncontrollably. Her teeth clattered and clacked. She had been so sure that royal clemency would be extended towards her! She had staunchly asserted her own innocence over and over again. Perhaps the chemist had mistaken the arsenic powder for bismuth powder? Perhaps it had been the dye or the soft soap? She may be nothing but a poor woman but she was no monster! How could a mother that had nursed her sickly young be a monster? How could a devoted wife who cared for sick husbands be so? So she had always stated her innocence, with an unwavering belief that this truth would set her free. It was only now that she fully understood that no clemency would be granted. The serpent would have her! It would coil about her neck and squeeze until the life breath was stolen from her lips. A hood was slipped over her raven hair. A shroud. A death mask, its scent musty. Stale. She lifted her eyes to the serpent as it fell over her face, the tightly coiled noose the very last thing she would see.


“Lord have mercy on my soul!”   Mary cried out as a hood was slipped over her raven hair. A shroud. A death mask, its scent musty. Stale. She lifted her eyes to the serpent as it fell over her face, the tightly coiled noose the very last thing she would see.


“Lord take my soul!” Mary wailed blindly, as the snake slithered close. She felt its weight upon her shoulder as it was dropped over her head. She felt its kiss upon her throat. Its grip tightened. Suddenly the floor fell from beneath her and now came the battle. Serpent and Woman. Breath and Strangulation. Life and Death. Her execution neither swift nor merciful. And as she grappled to hold onto life, as her limbs twitched, as her throat gurgled and as her feet kicked, the serpent taunted her writhing body. As the bloom in her cheek faded to black and blood from her gasping lips spattered upon the cloth of the hood like the juice of a plump berry, the serpent jeered.


“Arsenic…” it laughed “Arsenic, arsenic!”


Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton


Mary Ann Cotton (born Mary Ann Robson in October 1832 in Low Moorsley, County Durham – died 24 March 1873) was an English woman convicted of murdering her step-child and is believed to have murdered up to 21 people, including her mother, three husbands, a lover, a friend, step-children and children – mainly by arsenic poisoning.Mary Ann Cotton was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March, 1873 by William Calcraft.