TV Tonight: UK’s WORST Serial Killer

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This topic contains 2 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Redwald 11 months ago.

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  • #44795


    PBS stations all over the U.S. are tonight (Sunday 25 March 2018) broadcasting a program about the UK’s WORST serial killer in terms of body count. Up until the time of the infamous Dr. Harold Shipman, that is. Shipman, needless to say, was an exceptional case, and is thought to have killed as many as 250 people. His record would take some beating! But aside from Shipman, who was this murderous miscreant who took more British lives than any other such multiple murderer in modern times–or even relatively modern times?

    Was it that most notorious serial killer of all time, whose name is recognized the world over: the unknown “Jack the Ripper” who stalked the streets of London’s East End in 1888?

    No, it wasn’t. The Ripper was famous for a number of reasons, but a high body count wasn’t one of them. In the end he only killed five (or in my opinion probably six) prostitutes before vanishing into obscurity for unknown reasons.

    How about his latter-day namesake Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the “Yorkshire Ripper,” who caused such mayhem and panic in the 1970s? Sutcliffe outdid the original Ripper, to be sure, and had a far longer run of luck. At a press conference while police were still hunting for him, a senior Yorkshire police officer was asked whether they planned to call in Scotland Yard to help them catch this new Ripper. He retorted “Why should we? They haven’t caught theirs yet!” In fact they could have done a better job, and Sutcliffe killed thirteen women before he was caught. But the record doesn’t belong to him either.

    What about Dennis Nilsen, the homosexual killer who was Britain’s answer to Jeffrey Dahmer? No, he only killed a dozen or so. Fred and Rosemary West, that horrifyingly perverted husband-and-wife team of brutal sadists? No, their score was about the same.

    Hint: the answer lies much longer ago than any of these! Aha, then how about Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, the sinister pair who snuffed their victims out to sell their bodies to surgeons for anatomy practice? That was back in the dark days of 1828, and they killed sixteen victims before they were caught. Getting closer; but those two don’t hold the record either. Nor did Dr. William Palmer, the villainous serial poisoner of the 1840s and 1850s.

    In fact the record belongs to a woman, and unlike those others, not many people have heard of her. Mary Ann Cotton killed as many as twenty-one victims by poisoning them with arsenic over a two-decade period between the 1850s and 1872 when she was caught.

    She was unlucky in the end. Had she remained undetected just two years longer, she would have had Marwood for her executioner, who perfected the “long drop.” As it was, she had old Calcraft, who’d been hangman for 45 years and still allowed his condemned criminals to strangle to death in the old-fashioned way. Bad luck, Mary Ann! Those were crueler days.

    Her victims included no fewer than three husbands (one of whom she’d married bigamously), at least eleven children–children of her own as well as stepchildren–along with a lover, and her very own mother.

    Her motives were largely financial, since she was able to collect life insurance payouts on many of her victims, including the children. But this was not always the case, and what I find striking about Mrs. Cotton’s murders is that some of them appeared to be perpetrated in the most casual fashion for the most trivial motives, occasionally (it seemed) because she just got tired of having the victim around–including children. This is the mark of a genuine psychopath to whom the lives of other humans were utterly inconsequential unless they were “useful” to her in some way.

    How did she get away with it for so long? Times were different in those days. There were forensic tests for arsenic, but they weren’t used too often. Besides, premature death was far commoner in the mid-19th century than it is today, including (sad as it is) the deaths of children. Arsenic poisoning could easily be passed off as “gastritis” or some other ailment, and often aroused no suspicion. Besides, Mary Ann moved around a lot, and didn’t stay in one place long enough to get herself a reputation for being “unlucky” that so many members of her family failed to survive.

    However, I have no doubt that major contributions to this awesome lack of suspicion were people’s naive assumptions and prejudices! Mary Ann killed members of her own family–husbands, children, her mother–victims she was not only able to poison because she prepared their food, but victims she was assumed to be “loving” and “caring for,” not putting arsenic in their soup! Not that alone, but also the fact that she was a woman. Too many people take it for granted that women are supposed to be “nurturing,” when some of them are anything but!

    Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the reason Mary Ann Cotton had almost been forgotten in the annals of British crime–compared with many other infamous names, that’s to say–is that some people are too disturbed by being forced to acknowledge the reality that women can be evil. It goes against some people’s prejudices, and may even frighten them. I wonder if this realization made some people so uncomfortable, especially with the rigid attitudes toward gender in Victorian times, that they preferred to forget women like Mary Ann.

    Of course, it isn’t all about “gender.” I can’t resist pointing out the obvious: that the worst British serial killer of all, Harold Shipman, got away with his crimes because he was a doctor and also assumed to be “caring for” people, not sending them into the Great Unknown with lethal doses of morphine. Palmer was a doctor too, though most of those he poisoned were not his patients. However, students of British crime do harbor serious suspicions about Dr. Bodkin Adams back in the 1950s: a possible precursor of Shipman, though never on such an ambitious scale!

    Still, when these two factors of femaleness and the assumption of a “caring” role occur together, it’s been possible for women to get away unsuspected with some horrifying strings of murders, more so when the insidious weapon of poison is used. Here in the U.S., Genene Jones used her position as hospital nurse to murder up to sixty babies and children, a horrifying total. Beverly Allitt in the UK did the same, though she was only convicted of four murders. Before toxicology tests became more routine and sophisticated, the 19th century saw more than one female serial killer who used her position as a domestic servant to poison the family whose food she prepared, like Anna Maria Zwanziger in Bavaria and Hélène Jégado in France, who was thought to have killed as many as 36 people. And those are the ones who got caught! In a different vein, in a later time and place, Dorothea Puente ran a boarding house in Sacramento in the 1980s for elderly and mentally disabled tenants: another kind of “caretaking” role. She murdered several of them and buried them on the property so that she could continue collecting their Social Security checks. She was seen locally as a popular “do-gooder”–until they discovered what she was really up to.

    I suppose the moral of these stories is that it’s dangerous to ASSUME things about people based on superficial appearances. As the saying goes (appropriately popularized in a well-known movie about a serial killer): “When we ASSUME, we make an ASS out of U and ME!”

  • #44805

    Donna Andersen

    Wow Redwald – fascinating. As you predicted, I had never heard of Mary Ann Cotton. Yes – totally evil!

    Thanks for the history lesson.

  • #44815


    You’re welcome, Donna! 🙂

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