The soundtrack to this week has been Attrition’s “All Mine Enemies Whispers” (2007), an incredibly atmospheric album that is based on the story of Mary Ann Cotton. It first came to my notice through Emilie Autumn’s involvement; she plays and sings the hymn Rock of Ages on the track “At the Gates of Eternity”. Following claims that she hadn’t authorised its release, and at the time of the recording she wasn’t aware of the use to which her section would be put, the original version was removed from sale and a new version has recently been put out with a new singer and violinist taking EA’s part.

The opening track “What Shall I Sing” is one of the creepiest pieces of music I know – try listening, sitting in a darkened room. The children’s voices singing the old nursery rhyme

Mary Ann Cotton,
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair.

seem to be everywhere, as do the eerie creaks, footsteps and groans within the electronic music.

Mary Ann Cotton was famed as one of Britain’s most prolific mass murderesses, having been accused of poisoning four husbands and twice as many children, with arsenic.

She was 20 when she married William Mowbray, a miner, and they had four children. William went to sea as a stoker and died suddenly while at home, as did the four children.

Mary, then a grieving widow, got a job as a nurse in Sunderland Infirmary where she met George Wood. He married her but did not live long. Mary collected the insurance money and met James Robinson, a man with four children. They were married in 1867 and all of his four children died, as well as the new baby that Mary had. Once more Mary collected the insurance and married Frank Cotton. He had two children by his first wife and a new baby by Mary. Frederick died suddenly as did all his children. Mary now had a new lover, a man called Natrass, but he died too of Gastric Fever, according to Mary.

The local doctor, Dr. Kilburn, became suspicious and in 1873 Mary was brought to Durham Assizes. She was found guilty and hanged at Durham Gaol..

This link goes to an account of her execution, based on contemporary reports– it really is a most hideous horrific read, and haunts my thoughts too as I listen to the music. It’s a long piece, but read through to the end. I have heard it suggested now that there may be some doubt over Mary’s guilt, certainly the evidence presented at the time wouldn’t have stood up in a court today. Although that isn’t to say better evidence would have been collected today to prove her guilt.


I watched Vic Reeves on television last night, presenting a documentary on the Jack the Ripper murders. Actually I didn’t think it was particularly well done, but it did stress the extent to which real life murder stories were popular in mid Victorian Britain. Cheap newspapers printed all the gory details and illustrations, and these were lapped up by the population. Murder cases like that of Madeleine Smith in 1857 was a nationally running serial, followed daily by rich and poor alike. It had the elements to enable it to rise above squalid crime and become a crime of passion that all could enjoy.

The creation of the first detective forces, and scientific advances created the scope to investigate murders at a greater scientific level than ever before. Kate Summerscale has documented an early such case in her recent book The Suspicion of Mr. Whicher, and it is contended that Whicher was a model for a number of fictional detectives that rose to prominence in the 1860s, not least Wilkie Collins’ detective in the Moonstone.

It was against this background that the sensational literature fashion emerged, so clearly the story Lydia Gwilt would cover popular familiar themes, and appeal to an audience highly knowledgeable on murder and its detection. It is the whole fascination with crime and the nascent scientific study of crime that brought Lydia to us. Although Mary Ann Cotton was brought to trial six years after the publication of Armadale, similar events would be upmost in people’s minds.

It’s interesting that there were a number of celebrated female murder trials throughtout the period, Madeline Smith wasn’t found guilty – the case against her unproven – in the main though, of the guily ones very few actually met their death by hanging, commitment to an asylum or imprisonment was more common. Is it possible to feel sympathy with Mary when you read about her gruesome death, even after reading the extent of her crimes I think it is.