Published by: Pen & Sword History
Published: 1st August 2016
Price: £10.39 (from publisher)
Usual disclaimer: book provided in return for an honest review.
Published to coincide with upcoming ITV drama ‘Dark Angel’ which is due to air in early autumn, this title is certain to receive plenty of media attention in the run up to publication.
A female thief, with four husbands, a lover and, reportedly, over twelve children, is arrested and tried for the murder of her step-son in 1872, turning the small village of West Auckland in County Durham upside down. Other bodies are exhumed and when they are found to contain arsenic, she is suspected of their murder as well. The perpetrator, Mary Ann Cotton, was tried and found guilty and later hanged on 24 March 1873 in Durham Goal. It is claimed she murdered over twenty people and was the first female serial killer in England.
With location photographs and a blow by blow account of the trial, this book challenges the claim that Mary Ann Cotton was the ‘The West Auckland Borgia’, a title given to her at the time. It sets out her life, trial, death and the aftermath and also questions the legal system used to convict her by looking at contemporary evidence from the time and offering another explanation for the deaths. The book also covers the lives of those left behind, including the daughter born to Mary Ann Cotton in Durham Goal.
Thoroughly researched, this book explores the life and times of Mary Ann Cotton, thief, bigamist and possibly a murderer. The evidence is explored and a different explanation, based on the evidence given at her trial, is put forward; that her victim, her seven year old step-son, was in fact the victim of green wallpaper and bug-killing soap used to wash the bed and walls. Both contained arsenic and both can release arsenic in to the atmosphere. The ‘experts’ at her trial denied it was possible, despite articles in The Lancet in the previous decades confirming deaths caused by arsenic-containing green wallpaper in a room heated by a fireplace. The initial Reinsch test on her step-son was carried out by someone inexperienced in the process, who didn’t eliminate the other possible heavy metals that can be indicated by a positive response to the test, and the remains were not carefully stored. It’s a plausible hypothesis.
The book suggested another hypothesis to me as I read the evidence presented. One Mr Riley, local butcher, shopkeeper, and minor landowner, was responsible for providing Mary Ann with the arrowroot she used to try to treat her step-son; he was also the man who pushed for her arrest, although his name was kept out of the trial. Was he trying to hide adulterated products by suggesting deliberate poisoning? It wasn’t uncommon for shop keepers to extend their stock by adulterating it with other stuff, chalk in the flour for example. Only an hypothesis of course.
The exploration of the newspapers, and their influence on the outcome of the trial, and the formation of public opinion by sensational reporting was fascinating. Nothing changes. I enjoyed the social and judicial context provided in the narrative; understanding more of conditions in mining villages and the prejudices of small Victorian communities gives a better understanding of Mary Ann’s behaviour.
This is very much a ‘local history’ book, written by someone living near to the last residence of Mary Ann Cotton. It doesn’t have the gloss of a professional historian’s work but it reads well, has adequate endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography.
4/5 If you’re interested in true crime or Victorian villains this might be for you.