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PBS’ ‘Dark Angel’ Reveals the Dark Deeds of Serial Killer Mary Ann Cotton

Premiering on May 21st on PBS, ‘Dark Angel’ explores the life of British serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, who was responsible for the deaths of up to 20 people.

Taking a complete detour from her Downton Abbey character as sweet housemaid Anna Bates, actress Joanne Frogratt stars in Dark Angel as Mary Ann Cotton, a 19th century female British serial killer who was connected to more deaths than Jack the Ripper.

Born fittingly on Halloween in 1832, Mary Ann Cotton grew up in northeast England in an impoverished coal mining village. Her ambition to escape her hard life was aided by her good looks and sexual charisma, and capitalizing on them, she made the twisted decision that murdering by poison was her best option to move up in the world.

Unlike many serial killers whose crimes are attributed to psychological disorders, Cotton appears to have murdered simply to fill her pocket. Her weapon of choice was arsenic, a hard-to-detect poison during the Victorian era, most often misdiagnosed as gastric illness in its victims.

Cotton married four times — three of her husbands meeting sudden death — and gave birth to 13 children, only two of which managed to survive. Many of these deaths had insurance policies attached to them, and Cotton was, of course, the benefactor. Outside of her marriages and own children, Cotton was also believed to have murdered her mother, some of her stepchildren, a lover and a friend.

But in May 1872 Cotton was finally caught, thanks to a parish official who was suspicious of her comments about her seven-year-old stepson, Charles Edward. Cotton had just started a relationship with a man named John Quick-Manning and was considering marrying him. However, she admitted that Charles Edward was inconveniencing her potential new life, telling the parish official: “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cottons.”

And so he did. Five days later, Charles Edward suddenly died, and an autopsy report showed the culprit was arsenic. (After this discovery, authorities recovered the endless trail of deaths that surrounded Cotton.) She was put on trial and sentenced to death for Charles Edward’s murder, but because she was pregnant with Quick-Manning’s child, her execution was postponed until after she gave birth.

Cotton’s 20-year career of poisoning came to an end in 1873 by a hangman’s rope. When the trapdoor opened, her fall didn’t break her neck, causing the executioner to push down on her shoulders to expedite her demise. Mary Ann Cotton did not die quickly, though.