IN recent years, Dr Harold Shipman was convicted of murdering 15 patients and suspected of killing more than 200 people. The 19th Century had its own serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, who murdered four husbands, a lover, and several children. Former Watford detective PAUL HESLOP investigates.

SHE was small and frail, and wore a black and white shawl over her black dress, a pitiable figure flanked by the two burly policemen escorting her from the courthouse to the railway station.

She was on her way to Durham assizes, charged with murder, an accusation which she denied and, it must be said, was never truly proved.

But that Mary Ann Cotton was a mass-murderer was never in doubt.

She was born Mary Ann Robson in 1832, at Murton, County Durham.

Her father was a pitman, who was killed when Mary was 14.

She remained with her mother only two more years before taking up an apprenticeship as a dressmaker, and later, at St Andrew's Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, she married William Mowbray, a timekeeper whose employment took him to Plymouth and other faraway towns.

Mowbray had four children by a previous marriage, and Mary Ann had four more by him.

By the time they returned to County Durham, five years later, four were dead, and a fifth died soon after.

The family then moved to Sunderland where two more children died, as did William Mowbray himself.

He and all the children were insured with the Prudential, and, as a result, Mary Ann collected the sum of £35.

Nobody, it seems, suspected anything, possibly because many of the deaths occurred in different areas and were not connected.

Again, infant mortality was common in 19th Century England.

The deaths were put down to gastric fever.

Mary Ann then took up employment as a nurse at Sunderland infirmary, where she met and married a patient, George Ward.

Soon after, at 33 years of age, he was dead and Mary Ann pocketed another insurance payout.

She then took up with James Robinson, a shipyard foreman.

Robinson was a widower, and six months later they were married, but not before three of his children had died, as well as Mary Ann's remaining child by her first husband.

Later, after she had two children to James Robinson, one who died within an hour of birth, she enquired of her husband whether it might be a good idea for him to take out life insurance.

She must have been disappointed when he told her he suspected her motives were sinister.

He said he suspected her of poisoning the children and castigated her for running up debts.

So Mary Ann fled, while Robinson, doubtless glad to be rid of her, failed to report his suspicions to the police or anyone else.

She left behind a child, who luckily survived her murderous actions.

She visited her mother, who unexpectedly died soon afterwards, whereupon Mary Ann acquired her furniture.

In 1870 Mary Ann was introduced to Frederick Cotton by his sister, Margaret, an old acquaintance.

Cotton was a coal miner at the Coronation pit, North Walbottle, a small mining village near Newcastle.

He had suffered great tragedy through the death of his wife, Adelaide, of consumption, and one of their four children, of typhus.

A second child of Cotton's, Adelaide Jane, also died of typhus.

None of these deaths was attributable to Mary Ann, but she was on the scene when Margaret died, and may have been responsible.

By now she and Cotton were lovers and by April she was pregnant by him.

On September 17, 1870, she and Cotton were married at St Andrews, Newcastle the same church where she had married her first husband.

But her marriage to Frederick Cotton was a bigamous one, since James Robinson, her third husband, was still alive.

It was when living at North Walbottle suspicion about Mary Ann's poisoning activities came to light, when a number of pigs were found dead in mysterious circumstances.

The deaths of pigs, rather than her immediate human relatives, became a threat to Mary Ann's liberty and life.

It may have been for this reason that the family moved away to West Auckland, in County Durham, where Mr Cotton found work at Tindale Colliery.

Or, just as likely, it was down to one Joseph Nattrass, four years younger than Mary Ann and recently widowed, who lived there and whom she knew.

Whatever, two months later Frederick Cotton, after complaining about feeling ill, was dead.

He was 39.

Cause of death was put down to gastric fever.

Nattrass moved in with Mary Ann three months later.

Unfortunately for him, Mary was asked to take care of a Mr Quick-Manning who had smallpox and who, significantly, lived at Brookfield Cottage, a house much superior to Mary Ann's humble dwelling.

This gentleman was an excise officer, far higher up the social ladder than Mary Ann's husbands or Joseph Nattrass.

They became lovers, and over three weeks Mary Ann got rid of Frederick Cotton's eldest son, aged ten, her own baby, Robert, and, of course, Joseph Nattrass (who had made his will out to her).

Then she fell pregnant to Quick- Manning, at which time she still had with her Frederick Cotton's remaining son, Charles Edward, aged seven.

Quick-Manning may have considered it convenient to share a bed with Mary Ann but he had no desire to share a home.

Mary Ann stayed put, taking in lodgers to help pay the bills.

It wasn't easy, as her income consisted of a pittance of an allowance for Charles Edward, the meagre amount left to her by Nattrass and one of the lodgers left while she, Mary Ann, had an opportunity to work which she could not fulfil thanks to having to look after a boy who was not even hers.

One Saturday the assistant overseer in the village, Thomas Riley, called to see Mary Ann to ask if she could look after another smallpox patient.

She could not, she said, because of having to look after Charles Edward.

What's more, she asked Riley if the boy could be put into the workhouse.

Only if she went too, she was told, which she rejected out of hand as being no place for her to be.

Riley asked if she would be marrying Quick-Manning.

She could not, she said, because of the boy, adding "'t won't matter, I won't be troubled long".

She was right: the following Friday young Charles Edward was dead.

Riley was shocked and suspicious enough to inform Sergeant Tom Hutchinson of Bishop Auckland police.

He also informed Dr Kilburn, who would not issue a death certificate.

But even now it was down to chance that the truth would emerge.

Right on cue, Mary went off to the Pru to claim the insurance money for the death of her stepson, £4 10s.

No death certificate, no money said the insurance company.

The coroner then ordered a post mortem, which was carried out the following day by Dr Kilburn, astonishingly on a table in Mary Ann's house.

The inquest was held the same day in the pub next door, and there being so little time to allow a proper autopsy no cause of death was found and a verdict of natural causes was recorded.

What a relief for Mary Ann.

It was here that chance played its part, for Dr Kilburn, of his own volition, decided to take the stomach and other organs home and he placed them into a closet.

The next day he poured the contents of the stomach into a jar, and buried the organs in his garden.

The following Wednesday, in his own good time, he subjected the stomach contents to Reinsch's test, a method of tracing arsenic.

Kilburn must have been mortified to find the test "positive".

He reported it at once to Supt Henderson at Bishop Auckland police station.

The game was up for Mary Ann.

She was arrested and only then did it come to light that a few weeks before she had sent her stepson to the chemist's to buy arsenic and soft soap.

The chemist would not serve a seven-year-old, so a Mrs Dodds had purchased the items.

This was not unusual, as it was common, it seems, to use arsenic and soap to rub down bedposts to kill or deter bed bugs.

Dr Kilburn did not come out of this at all well.

Burying organs in his garden indeed.

His credibility low, his testimony might have been thrown out but for confirmation of the presence of arsenic by a more eminent source, Dr Scattergood of Leeds.

More than half a grain of arsenic in the stomach caused the death of Charles Edward Cotton.

Mary Ann, when charged with murder, replied, "I am as innocent as the child unborn".

With Mary Ann incarcerated, some not all of her victims were exhumed.

All who were had traces of arsenic in their stomachs.

She was charged with the murder of four persons in all: her stepson, Charles Edward, Joseph Nattrass, Frederick Cotton (whose body they could not find even when its location was pointed out by those present at the funeral) and Robert Robson Cotton.

But she faced trial for only one murder, that of Charles Edward.

That he had been poisoned was not in doubt.

That Mary Ann Cotton was responsible, or even that it was deliberate, was.

She denied the charge, suggesting by some accident arsenic had been swallowed.

It seems likely the weight of the other deaths, though not strictly part of the case, went against her, along with the "opinion" of the Daily News, which reported that "women have a natural turn for poisoning. Usually by arsenic".

Whether Mary Ann had a fair trial is in doubt, and she denied murder to the end.

The jury found otherwise.

"You have been convicted of the murder of your stepson, whom it was your duty to cherish and take care of," said the judge.

She was sentenced to death in a prison where she produced life, with the arrival of her last child, a little girl, Margaret Edith Quick- Manning Cotton.

At 8am on March 24, 1873, Mary Ann Cotton, 41, was taken from her cell and led across the yard at Durham prison, flanked by two women warders to whom she declared "Heaven is my home".

The executioner was William Calcraft.

Mary Ann, it was reported, walked shakily but resolutely, head back and praying.

About 50 persons were present, half of them from the Press, with 200 outside the prison.

Those present saw a frail woman, still in her black dress, dispatched to eternity, and watched as for some minutes her body convulsed and spun around at the end of the rope.

Those outside heard the thud of the trapdoor and watched as the black flag, signalling the execution had taken place, was raised.

Even as Calcraft and his assistant hangman were leaving Durham on a southbound train, a local photographer was selling photographs of Mary Ann, dressed in her shawl.

Whether by then she was "in Heaven", as she predicted, isn't known, but her body they buried within the walls of the prison.