Mary Ann Cotton has gone into the history books as ‘Britain’s first serial killer’ – something reiterated by a line on this new book‘s front cover. However, as the author, Martin Connolly, sets out to explore, there is doubt as to how many murders she committed – and the author in fact is not sure that she committed any, which makes the unequivocal cover a bit of an odd decision.
The first part of this book, looking at Mary Ann Cotton’s life prior to her trial in 1873, is a bit confusing. Connolly, who lives in the area Cotton was from, assumes that the reader has a knowledge of her life and crimes and therefore fails to explain events properly from the beginning, so the feeling is that the reader is being thrown into situations they are assumed to already know about.
There is also a bit of a confusing chronology and use of sources, and I had to refer back a few times to work out what was happening, and who was who. In this sense, and in the way the author is confused as to how to refer to poor relief (and his argument that Mary Ann couldn’t have been a prostitute because she had always earned a living – despite prostitution being, by its nature, paid work in itself), the book could have done with more stringent editing by Pen & Sword.
However, once Connolly starts to explore the trial itself, the book becomes far more satisfactory. He relates the trial using archival sources and statements, and so here, we read a straightforward account of what people said, and the suspicions of the neighbourhood relating to Mary Ann. The fundamental unfairness of a trial in which the defendant had little defence or ability to understand what was going on and how to respond to it is made clear, and Connolly explores how such a trial, if held today, would be unlikely to result in a guilty verdict.
This is not to say that 40-year-old Mary Ann was innocent; although Connolly makes a good argument as to doubts in her case, my feeling remains that she was guilty of multiple murders. However, the key issue is the lack of defence, and the relegation of Mary Ann almost to a bit-player in her town trial, and this the author explores well.
I also liked the fact that Connolly had researched what had happened to others involved in Mary Ann’s life and trial, particularly her surviving children, which gave a sense of closure to the book, and the inclusion of Mary Ann’s prison letters, in her own spelling and language, which gave a real impression of the woman and how she communicated.
So for an interesting account of how the legal system operated in late 19th century England, and how it was stacked against poorer defendants, Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel is recommended.
Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel, by Martin Connolly, is published by Pen & Sword books, and can be bought here.Tweet