Dead and rotten though she may be, Mary Ann Cotton remains a fundamental figure in North East history. I live within the parish where she was christened, used to live in a flat which stood on the site of her former workplace and have had the privilege of entering the archives of Beamish Museum to see what is alleged to be the infamous teapot. Whilst I cannot ever condone poisoning one’s husband(s) and children, or poisoning anyone for that matter, I recently re-watched ‘Dark Angel’ on ITV (an excellent dramatisation and possibly the best true crime series ever created), which does always leave me feeling sorry for her and wondering whether, when all things are considered, she really had much of a choice.
It is apt that I watched this series (for the third time, seriously cannot get enough of it), on the same day where I had had a conversation with a work colleague about how infuriatingly useless men can be, and the frustration she was feeling at her partner failing to understand how difficult it is for her to juggle full time work, childcare, housework, cooking, laundry, paying bills and something of a social life whilst he works away. Of course, this is not the case for everyone – even in the North East which still has clearly marked working men’s clubs in which women are not welcome; contains women such as my mother in law who refer to hoovering as ‘women’s work’ and judge people on how strongly their house smells of Zooflora; I’m sure there are many stay at home dads, single dads and combinations of parents consisting of all genders and sexualities who don’t conform to the North East ‘ideal’ of the male coal miner and his loving wife who has his slippers on the fire and tea on the table every evening. And, I’m sure there are many heterosexual, ‘typical’, nuclear families who have a perfectly even division of household labour, but it did get me thinking about how much things have actually changed for women.
In a news week where a woman finally had her conviction quashed for killing an abusive husband in self defense and police have suggested replacing knives with blunt blades is a viable solution to protect domestic violence victims, taking place well over a hundred years after Mary Ann Cotton’s era, this did heighten my curiosity about the kind of life she lived. No, we aren’t giving birth in coal dust, gathering water from a pump at the end of the street and catching smallpox at regular intervals any more, but the majority of women I know who are in long term, heterosexual relationships spend a lot of time feeling bloody stressed out, especially when children are thrown into the mix. And this is in a time of free healthcare, accessible contraception, maternity leave and child benefit – so living a life of being perpetually pregnant, existing in absolute poverty, having no understanding of mental health issues and living in a time where domestic violence and rape perpetrated by your husband was perfectly legal, must have been absolutely horrendous.
Again, I feel a need to disclaim that serial murder is never justifiable, but it is my personal belief that people are a product of their surroundings, and nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to understanding people; this is a woman whose own father’s dead body was brought to her house in a bag marked ‘property of Hetton colliery’ when she was barely out if nappies, it was bloody tough going in the 1800’s! I have seen in my academic and professional background that you can never really know how someone will react to being pushed to their absolute limits of survival until they are tested and what pure desperation can do to even the most level-headed of people. I do think Mary Ann’s story is a testament to just how extreme the situation was for working class women at the time, and although it’s generally accepted by Criminologists and Historians that she became motivated by pure greed and lust by the end of her criminal career, when you consider the perfect storm of depression, constant bereavement, living in squalor, not knowing where your or your children’s next meals are coming from, being unable to afford basic healthcare and being totally dependent on a husband to pay to have your basic needs met, although not excusable, it isn’t surprising to see how quickly things escalated. Wanting love and stability is probably a fundamental desire for the majority of people, especially women, and when faced with such limited options, specifically, the possibility of going to the workhouse or dying of starvation in a filthy alleyway because your husband is unable to work, I can see what she was trying to achieve, despite disagreeing with her choice of method on every level.
“I wanted more. More than coal dust, childbirth and men who think saying ‘I love you’ is enough”
Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton, ‘Dark Angel’ (ITV, 2016)
It is worth noting at this point that despite Mary Ann Cotton being widely accepted as the UK’s first serial killer, and the first serious female offender, she was actually only ever convicted of one murder, which she steadfastly denied into the grave. I love a grizzly true crime story and a local history legend – I’ve had the ‘privilege’ of seeing up close what was Durham Gaol inside the prison and can confirm it is every bit as haunting and creepy as it probably was for Mary Ann Cotton when she walked her final steps to face the noose, so it’s no surprise really that I find her story fascinating. However, if you’re not familiar with it I strongly recommend watching ‘Dark Angel’ or reading the book by Professor David Wilson on which it is based, and inevitably forming your own theory – was she a desperate pauper doing what she could to survive, or the greedy black widow the nursery rhyme portrays?