Actress Joanne Froggatt Goes to the Dark Side as Murderess Mary Ann Cotton in Dark Angel on Masterpiece Classic PBS

After reading the advance press on Dark Angel – the new period drama starring Joanne Froggatt as Victorian-era serial killer Mary Ann Cotton – I was seriously considering skipping my weekly MASTERPIECE appointment with my television. Multiple murders by a woman who successively kills her husbands and children by poison for their life insurance sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me – something way beyond my comfort zone. The fact that it featured Froggatt, an awarding winning actress who I adored as Anna Bates in Downton Abbey, Emmy award winning director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) softened the blow a bit, but I was still not convinced.

My tipping point was my love of English history and my curiosity. Life in lower-class Victorian England was harsh and bleak, however, many wives and mothers did not become serial killers. What was Mary Ann Cotton’s story? What pushed her beyond despair and made her a mass murderer?

“Why don’t you let me make you a nice cup of tea?” – Mary Ann Cotton

Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes had an extraordinary true-life story to draw from. It is estimated that Cotton poisoned with arsenic up to 21 people including: three of her four husbands, fifteen children, a lover, a friend, and her mother – collecting life insurance for many of them.

Joseph Nattrass (Jonas Armstrong) flirts with Mary Ann (Joanne Froggatt)

Born on Halloween day in 1832 in Low Moorsley, a small village just outside Sunderland in north east England, Mary Ann was the daughter of Michael Robson a colliery sinker (coal mine shaft construction and maintenance worker) who died in 1842 in a mine accident in Murton, Co Durham, when she was ten. This appears to be the beginning of a long list of family deaths for Mary Ann. At age 20 she married William Mowbray in 1852. He died in 1865. Husband number two was George Ward. He died in 1866. Employed in Sunderland as housekeeper by a recent widower, James Robinson, she snagged him too and they wed in 1867. Robinson resisted her pitch to insure his life and later threw her out over stolen money and debt, but not before 4 of his children and her only living daughter died under her care. Next, she became a bigamist and married Frederick Cotton, the brother of a young friend who died of stomach ailments shortly before the nuptials. Soon after their marriage she convinces her husband to move to West Auckland where a former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was now residing.

A brief aside. Nattrass is a unique last name originating in north east England. It happens to be my surname, but my line springs from Allendale, Northumberland, and Joseph’s is from Co Durham. It was a relief to know that I have no familiar connections to Mary Ann Cotton, whatsoever!

While married to Frederick Cotton, Mary Ann bears her twelfth child, Robert Cotton, in 1871. Up until now I have not mentioned all the children. All you really need to know is that up until this point they are all dead along with 4 of her step-children. (The one exception is her son George Robinson whom she left in the care of his father.) Husband number four Frederick Cotton dies in 1871, followed by their son Robert in 1872. The only child remaining is her 7-year-old step-son, Charles Edward Cotton, who she is now saddled with after the death of her husband. Free of all declared husbands, Mary Ann hooks up again with former lover Joseph Nattrass who becomes her lodger until he changes his will in her favor and dies in 1872, followed by her step son Charles Edward. This is where the madness ends for Mary Ann. You’ll have to watch Dark Angel to find out how her house of lies, deceit and death comes crumbling down.

Inspired by the book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer by noted criminologist David Wilson, screenwriter Gywneth Hughes has crafted an engrossing tale revealing the inner-motives of a ruthless killer. Over the course of twenty years, we see Mary Ann as a young mother eager to rise above the poverty, filth and disease of her life. We cringe at her dire circumstances and feel her pain. Froggatt excels as downtrodden as we experienced with her Anna Bates in Downton Abbey. It is great to see her acting chops in full action when her darker side appears as she morphs into the black widow – using her sexual allurements to entrap her next husband – and then her detached cunning in dispatching her victims; be it man, woman or child. The body count is staggering. It is no wonder that in real-life Mary Ann’s arrest, trial and execution were sensationally publicized in Victorian newspapers becoming a national obsession.

Was Mary Ann Cotton driven by nature or nurture? Her mother, step-father, husbands and friends all seem as helpful and supportive as they could be under their own limited means. It is amazing to think that no one in her inner circle noticed the pattern of death around her. Even the insurance company does not put two and two together and continued to pay her as each family member died. I have my own theories, but honestly being a pioneer of anything gives you great advantage as a criminal. Who could possibly suspect a woman of such deeds?

Mary Ann Cotton was charged and convicted of willful murder of her step son Charles Edward Cotton by poisoning and has executed by hanging on March 23, 1873 at Durham County Goal. She declared her innocence until the very end.

Of Mary Ann’s 13 known children, only two survived her: Margaret Edith (1873–1954) who was born while she was in prison and was adopted by friends and her son George Robinson whom she left with her third husband James. They survived because they were in the care of others.

Now, when anyone offers me a cup of tea, I will be hard pressed NOT to think of Mary Ann Cotton!

Watch an interview of Joann Froggatt on her role as Mary Ann Cotton.

View Dark Angel online at PBS Video through June 3, 2017.

Images Courtesy of Justin Slee/World Productions and MASTERPIECE © 2016