Path of Destruction: The Inside Story of Britain’s First Serial Killer

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Marriage is killer. People moan about their spouse all the time. It’s a pastime for married couples. However, maybe they should read about Mary Ann Cotton. That may inspire them to be thankful for their loud or smart-alecky loved one.

Mary Ann Cotton is considered Britain’s first serial killer. In her wake were AT LEAST 21 people killed. There could be more but records were spotty in Cotton’s time and there could have been more, many more people she may have murdered. Not knowing the body count, what’s that like?

Terror For Two

Mary Ann Cotton was born in 1832 to hardworking parents. Her father fell to his death at some point in her childhood, records don’t indicate when. By 1843, Cotton’s mother remarried. To say Cotton and her stepfather didn’t get along would be like saying Mitch McConnell and AOC have a simple misunderstanding. They hated one another.

Soon Cotton was seeking a husband to get away from her mother’s new husband. And she found one while working as a nurse. William Mowbry was a laborer and wanted to give his bride the best life he could.

She wanted to end his life. Guess which one succeeded.

And So It Begins

Mowbry would give Cotton her first victims: Their children. In total, Mowby and Cotton are said to have had five kids together. At least four of those children died, all of an intestinal infection. Somehow this was not suspicious to anyone. At all.

The couple would move and have three more kids. Who would all end up dead of the same infection? No one questioned it. No one asked what was going on. Shakespeare should have created Forensic Files for this town.

Mowby had thus far survived his wife’s lethal game. That was about to change. He became ill with the same intestinal infection that felled his children and died in 1865.

Body count: 8

And The Killings Kept Coming

Within months of Mowby’s death, Cotton remarried. This time she married George Ward. And just over a year after they married, those pesky intestinal issues reared their ugly heads and killed Ward. Who could have seen that coming?

In both cases of her husbands dying, Cotton collected life insurance money from them. Nothing suspicious there. Not at all.

James Robinson was having a tough 1866. His wife passed away and left him to raise an infant on his own. He hired Cotton to be the housekeeper. The infant died shortly after Cotton’s hire but still, no one put two and two together. Right after that, Cotton and Robinson became a couple. Things were going well.

Until Cotton’s mother fell ill. Luckily, she was on the mend. Until she wasn’t. Cotton went to take care of her mother and those intestinal problems came back. Her mother died 9 days after Cotton came to take care of her. No one batted an eye or asked a question about it.

The secret daughter of Cotton’s that had lived with her mother was brought back to meet Robinson. She, along with two stepsiblings would die within months. That family had the worst luck ever.

Body Count:14

Death Be A Cotton Child

Despite all of the evidence staring him in the face that Cotton was not a woman to be trusted, Robinson married her. Not only did he marry her but he knocked her up….twice. A daughter and a son were born to the happy couple.

Intestinal disagreements killed their daughter.

Finally, Robinson was sick of his wife and moved to get a divorce. Cotton moved to try for another life insurance policy. He and his son got away from her alive. Just barely.

Body Count: 15

Cotton Out

After the divorce, Cotton was looking for another man’s kids to kill. She probably dressed it up pretty and probably told him she wanted love. Frederick Cotton took her at her word but seemed distant. Seething that Robinson saved himself and their son, Cotton vowed another one would not get away. Not alive.

In a short amount of time; Frederick, his sister, and Frederick and Cotton’s son, Charles, all died with intestinal disorders. As did one of her lovers. Apparently, murder does not take a holiday. Cotton wanted to make sure she killed as many people as possible.

Body Count 19 (It was later revealed at least two more children were killed by Cotton.)

Suspicion and Trial

One has to ask how she was able to carry on her murderous tirade for so long. Some experts point to the high infant mortality rates, bad nutritional options for the poor, and poor record keeping helped keep suspicion off of Cotton. Killing her son was just a step too far though. Well, killing the newest addition to her family.

In 1873, Cotton was put on trial for the murder of Charles Edward Cotton. She was sentenced to death by hanging.

Spectacle of Death

As with Albert Hicks, the pirate serial killer in the United States, the execution became a spectacle to behold.

The trap below her did not open, so instead of a fast death, she dangled there as the rope eventually choked the life out of her.

It was a missed opportunity to not have her die by an intestinal disorder.