NANNIE DOSS: LONELY HEARTS LADY LOVED HER MAN TO DEATH
Young Charles Cotton was dead. The doctor couldn't deny that. His stepmother, Mary Ann Cotton, claimed the seven-year-old boy had died from gastric fever, but the neighbors had noticed that a few too many in the Cotton household had died by similar stomach ailments in recent months, and gossip and suspicion ran rampant through the West Auckland neighborhood in County Durham, England. Slowly, investigators and gossips began looking into the background of 40-year-old Mary Ann.
The deeper they dug, the more Mary Ann's life looked like something out of a gothic horror novel: a childhood of near-abuse and near-poverty, an early marriage to flee an unkind stepfather, and a long string of family members who had succumbed to the mysterious gastric fever or other curious circumstances while Mary Ann was ominously close by.
In his book Mary Ann Cotton: Her Story and Trial, researcher Arthur Appleton notes that Mary Ann Robson, born in the small English village of Low Moorsley in October of 1832, did not have a happy childhood but neither did most children born in lower-class England in the early 19th century.
Mary Ann's father was ardently religious, a fierce disciplinarian of Mary Ann and her younger brother Robert, and active in the local Methodist churchs choir and activities. No doubt his daughter feared him and his punishments. When Mary Ann was eight, her parents moved the family to the town of Murton, and her father continued working in the mines until one day about a year after their move when he fell down a mine shaft to an early death.
As Dickens would chronicle repeatedly in his classic writings, life for a lower-class family (especially one headed by a newly widowed woman) was extremely harsh in 19th century England. The specter of being sent to a workhouse, or being separated from her mother and brother, cast dark shadows over Mary Anns girlhood and was the cause of many nightmares.
Mary Ann never went into the workhouse, however, because her mother remarried. Her new stepfather did not like Mary Ann, and the feeling was mutual. Mary Ann began looking for an escape from her childhood home, although she owed one thing to her stepfather: his salary had kept her and her family from becoming homeless and destitute. Mary Ann learned at an early age that to avoid the miserable fate of her nightmares, she had to keep a steady flow of money coming her way no matter what the method.