Sunday, February 05, 2012

Why has no-one heard of Britain's first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton?

Story here

"Two decades before Jack the Ripper would terrorise the streets of Whitechapel in London, Mary Ann Cotton had already become a killing machine, perhaps murdering as many as eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend.

Even crime aficionados, those familiar with such names as Shipman, Nilsen, Sutcliffe and West, know little or nothing of her. She has been largely erased from history and remains today only a half-remembered local curiosity even in her native North East.

Her choice of poison was arsenic, favoured by murderers down the centuries for largely pragmatic reasons. First, it dissolves in a hot liquid, a cup of tea, for example, so is easy to administer. Second, it was readily available. Although by this stage, the authorities had started regulating the sale of arsenic, a high concentration could still be obtained in a substance known as ‘soft soap’, a household disinfectant.

There was a third reason, too: as Mary Ann well knew, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. A busy and unsuspecting doctor was always more likely to diagnose this cluster of symptoms as gastroenteritis – especially in patients who were poor and undernourished – than to suspect murder.
According to death and burial certificates, all her victims had died of gastric ailments.

It seems she also played the role of the grieving wife and mother to perfection, making it all the more difficult to be precise about the number of people she may have killed.

It is hard not to believe that there was some element of enjoyment at the control she exercised – that she was, in other words, a psychopath. I believe she would have enjoyed holding down Nattrass as he died writhing in agony.

There is no doubt, too, that greed was a powerful motive as, husband by husband, she climbed the social ladder of a newly mobile society (in which, for the first time, ordinary people had life insurance).

Her desperate self-promotion and the terrible manner of her execution ensured a strangely sympathetic hearing in her final months and the immediate aftermath, and this has helped confuse our understanding of a woman who by any standards was a quite relentless killer. Had she not been arrested, I am confident there would have been many more victims.

What little historical analysis she has received has often been quite naive, citing her as an example of the hardships endured by women, or even suggesting that she had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice."


It seems that a woman is always and only a victim, even when she is that thing which society often fears the most - a relentless and prolific serial killer.

2 comments:

BrusselsLout said...

Good to see you back Heretic. Thanks for the posts.

Heretic said...

Good to see you back too, BL