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On the trail of a serial killer from the Victorian age
TO some she is but a notorious serial killer from an age of poisoning and hanging for villains.
But to one Oxford woman, the Victorian-era story of Mary Ann Cotton is key to understanding British social history.
Now Jericho’s Victoria House, 39, has launched an online campaign to buy eight of her letters penned from her cell for the nation.
The caretaker hopes to raise £4,000 so the North East poisoner’s letters can go on display in Durham County Record Office.
Mary Ann Cotton, pictured above, is thought to be Britain’s first known female mass murderer, killing about 21, including her mother, husbands and children.
She was hanged in 1873, aged 40, after a short stint at Durham Gaol, where she penned eight letters.
It is thought she got away with murder over two decades because of poor record keeping.
She married multiple husbands and there were no clear records of her children.
The outcry after her crimes were revealed led to compulsory registration of births, marriages and deaths.
A register was introduced in 1837 but there was a fee, deterring the poor, but costs were scrapped and registration made mandatory in 1874, with fines for breaches.
Miss House grew intrigued when she heard of possible connections between her partner David Reed’s genealogical roots and Mary Ann Cotton.
She then saw the letters for sale by a private seller in Yorkshire on Ebay.
Miss House, originally from Hartlepool, said: “To murder husbands, boy-friends, your mother, a friend and several children – yes, you have to be interesting.
“She was basically taking out insurance policies on their lives, killing and getting money that way. That is why these letters are important – to show what kind of woman she was.
“For North East history, it is very interesting and important. But she was also very important for national history too.
“She changed British law as a result of her trial.
“Without that change in law we would still be missing so many details of who people were, so whatever else she did she is hugely important for that too.”
The campaign has raised about £140 and can be supported at gofundme.com/76trpc
She poisoned ABOUT 21 victims
There are many myths and unproven truths about Mary Ann Cotton.
She is thought to have poisoned about 21 victims, including eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover, and a friend.
One of Mary Ann Cotton's letters
The County Durham nurse is thought to be Britain’s first female serial killer and perhaps the most prolific.
She is thought to have used arsenic poured from a teapot and killed to collect their life insurance payouts.
She was hanged aged 40 at Durham County Gaol after a short trial.
Her death was delayed until her last – and only surviving – child was born.
It took the jury about 90 minutes to find her guilty.
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