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True crime. Casually done.

Mary Ann Cotton: The Horrifying Case of the Victorian Child Killer

Written by Arnaldo Teodorani

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INTRO

“Mary Ann Cotton,

she’s dead and she’s rotten.

Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.

Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.

Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.”

This eerie nursery rhyme evokes the crimes of Mary Ann Cotton, a serial killer active in Victorian times, known as the ‘Dark Angel’ or the ‘Black Widow’.

Her claim to infamy would be obscured by another Victorian murderer, Jack the Ripper.

And yet, her death toll definitely outshines the mysterious murderer of Whitechapel.

In fact, with up to 21 alleged victims, the Dark Angel has been described not only as the first British female serial killer in British history … but also the most prolific British serial killer in general – at least until a certain Dr Harold Shipman started killing his patients.

THE POISONER

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Mary Ann Cotton’s modus operandi was poisoning by arsenic, at the time difficult to detect. Symptoms of poisoning were similar to those of the many lethal infectious diseases of the time, especially those impacting the gastrointestinal system.

What makes Mary Ann’s crimes particularly hateful, however, is that her victims were close to her.

Very, very close.

It is alleged that she poisoned one of her friends, one lover, three husbands, three stepchildren, her mother, and eleven of her own children.

The most widely reported motive was simple, filthy lucre.

The opportunistic Mary Ann would raise life insurance policies on her husbands and children and collect the payments after their demise.

Victorian true crime enthusiast must have chanted a loud ‘huzzah’ when Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to death, in March of 1873.

So, those were the basic facts on a Victorian villain, who would not have been out of place in a ‘Penny Dreadful’. Or in a Charles Dickens novel, conspiring alongside some Uriah Heep to wipe out entire families for profit.

Her legend was kept particularly alive in the North of England, and interest has resurged in 2016, when ITV aired a miniseries based on Mary Ann’s life, the ‘Dark Angel’, starring Joanne Froggatt of Downton Abbey fame.

The internet echo chamber has contributed to fan the flame of her infamy, with web pages and videos listing the crimes of the Victorian Black Widow.

But before we bang our gavel and issue the same guilty sentence, let’s pause for a moment.

Did she really deserve such a despicable fame?

Was she guilty of the crimes ascribed?

And is the legend of the Dark Angel exactly that – just a legend?

Authors such as Ian Smyth Herdman, Martyn Connolly and Wendy Robertson have dedicated years of time and patience to reviewing trial transcripts, medical records and registry entries.

File after file, page after page, a more complex version of the events emerged.

Today we are going to review the key facts about the numerous deaths that seemed to accompany Mary Ann throughout her life.

I will leave it to you, my dear jury of listeners and viewers to decide for yourselves if the alleged poisoner was to be hanged or spared.

FIRST DEATHS IN THE FAMILY

Mary Ann Cotton was born Mary Ann Robson in Low Moorsley, Durham County, Northern England. The year was 1832. The day, according to some records, Halloween.

How very fitting.

Mary Ann’s father, a miner, died in an accident at work when she was just 14. Her mother Margaret soon remarried with one George Stott, with whom Mary Ann did not get along.

After two years, Mary Ann left home to work as a nurse and a dressmaker.

She was by most accounts an independent-minded and strikingly beautiful teenager, who enjoyed the attention of young men, and sought to improve her standing in life.

At the age of 19, Mary Ann returned home, but only briefly. This is when she met the man who would become her first husband, the 26-year-old William Mowbray.

The two married on the 18th of July 1852 and lived near Newcastle, Northern England, before moving to the South, in Cornwall, in 1856.

In between those two dates, something tragic happened to the young Mowbray couple.

According to later newspaper reports, in that period Mary Ann gave birth to four or five children, all of whom died in infancy.

The names and causes of death of these infants have not been recorded.

Did these unfortunate souls succumb to one of the many paediatric diseases, widespread in Victorian times?

Or were they early victims of their poisoner mother?

What are better documented are the events surrounding the Mowbray children who came next.

We know their dates of birth.

And unfortunately, the dates of their death.

Between June 1856 and November 1863, the Mowbrays had four children.

By May 1865, all of them, except a girl called Isabella, were dead.

William Mowbray had also gone.

His death was recorded on the 15th of January 1865. In all cases, family doctors reported symptoms such as vomiting and persistent diarrhoea, and the cause of death was ascribed to ‘gastric fever’ – an old medical term which may refer to a number of gastrointestinal infections.

The most common in the Victorian ear were cholera, typhus and typhoid fever.

Typhus is acquired through the bite of an infected flea or louse.

Typhoid and cholera are passed on through contact with contaminated water and food, or with an infected human.

And all diseases present some symptoms which may be compatible with another cause of death: arsenic poisoning.

At that time, there was no cause for suspicion, however.

So, by the summer of 1865, Mary Ann, widow Mowbray, had buried her husband William and at least eight, if not nine, of her own children.

She and her only surviving child, Isabella, had moved back to County Durham.

Mary Ann had cashed in William’s life insurance, equivalent to about £1,700 in today’s money. But it wasn’t enough to care for Isabella in the long term, and Mary Ann needed to move out again to seek employment. With little other options, she left Isabella in the care of her mother and stepfather and moved to the port city of Sunderland.   

A DOZEN LEECHES

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While there, Mary Ann found employment as a nurse in the Sunderland Infirmary. She attracted the attention of a patient, engine driver George Ward, and the two married in August 1865.

Little is known about this union, safe for three facts:

They did not have children;

They had very little money;

And on the 20th of October 1866 George Ward died.

His health had been deteriorating for months. Ward complained of dizziness, weakness, and nosebleeds. Medical science of the time did not help: the prescribed treatment was the application of twelve leeches (!) which left George Ward even weaker.

The poor guy never recovered. No surprise there!

His death certificate attributed the cause of death to typhoid fever. Once again, we should note that all the ailments experienced by Mr Ward – including dizziness and weakness – could have been compatible with arsenic poisoning.

And as an employee of the Sunderland Infirmary, Mary Ann had access to a full cabinet of medicines, including vials of arsenic.

You may be puzzled as to why a known toxic substance was kept in stock at a hospital.

The fact is that those mad Victorian lads and lassies used arsenic for anything and everything. In very low doses it worked wonders to kill pests such as rats and lice. In even smaller doses it could even be administered as a tonic to recovering patients. And it was a regular additive to cosmetics and wallpaper!

But again, at that time George Ward’s doctor found no evidence of foul play, and Mary Ann was able to collect another insurance pay-out on his late husband’s life.

APRIL IS THE CRUELLEST MONTH

It was time for Mary Ann to move on once again. She quickly found employment as a housekeeper with the Robinson family of Gateshead, just South of Newcastle.

The head of the family was James Robinson, a wealthy ship builder. In November 1866 his wife Hannah had died, leaving him to care for five children.

Mary Ann moved in with the Robinsons on the 20th of December 1866. The day after, the youngest of the Robinson children died, aged only 9 months.

Talk of bad timing.

But medical records prove that the unlucky baby had been severely ill for some time before her arrival.

Despite this tragedy, Mary Ann settled in quite well in her new household, making herself indispensable to both the children and James. So much so, that by March 1867 the two had started a relationship.

They had no time to discuss marriage, as news reached Mary Ann that her mother Margaret was very ill. As a caring daughter, she went to stay with her. But it was all in vain, as Margaret died on the 15th of March.

It appears death followed closely Mary Ann.

But it may have been another case of bad timing, and no evidence was found of poisoning. In fact, Margaret’s records mention hepatitis as the cause of death.

You may remember that Margaret was looking after one of Mary Ann’s children, Isabella.

With her gone, Mary Ann had to take care of the girl and she brought her back at the Robinsons in April.

As a poet once said, ‘April is the cruellest month’ – and the April of 1867 was no different.

Between the 20th and the 25th of April, two of James Robinson’s children died, reportedly foaming at their mouth, and vomiting profusely.

Cause of death: gastric fever.

The following week, also Isabella fell ill with the same symptoms. A local doctor noted how the young girl had

‘retched onto the face of the woman’

The woman being her mother.

Mary Ann in fact was also taken ill but recovered quickly. Isabella was not so lucky and succumbed to gastric fever on the 30th of April.

The doctors in attendance did not suspect poisoning at the time, nor did James Robinson. In fact, he decided to tie the knot with Mary Ann, and the two married on the 11th of August 1867.

On their wedding day, Mary Ann was already five months pregnant. A girl was born on the 11th of February 1868. Seventeen days later she had died of unspecified ‘convulsions’.

In the span of little more than a year one adult, two infants and three children had died in the immediate environment of Mary Ann.

But it seems like back in those days widespread infant mortality was accepted as a fact of life.

The Robinsons bounced back, and on the 18th of June 1868 they welcomed a baby boy, George.

They seemed set for taking a stab at a life without tragedies, but Mary Ann promptly sabotaged it all. In a matter of months, she took control of James’ finances and proceeded to raid his savings accounts. Moreover, she took to pawning off linen and furniture from the house.

It is not clear why she felt the need to rob her husband at this stage. Later reports claim that she had developed a gambling habit, but there is no evidence of that.

When James found out and demanded explanations, Mary Ann simply took off, leaving behind her last surviving son, George.

MEETING MR COTTON

There are conflicting accounts as to Mary Ann’s movements in 1870.

According to one version, in early 1870 a friend of hers, Margaret Cotton, introduced her to his brother Frederick, a grieving widower.

The two started a relationship, and immediately afterwards two of Fred’s children died. His sister Margaret followed suit.

Once more, we are talking about seemingly natural deaths with a retrospective suspicion of poisoning.

According to a more complex, and probably more reliable account, Frederick’s children and sister had already died by February 1870.

Mary Ann and Frederick may have met only in April of 1870.

They immediately started a relationship, and Mary Ann got pregnant.

She then worked as a housekeeper for a Dr Hefferman, before being dismissed in June for stealing household items.

This is when she moved in with Frederick Cotton. The two ‘lived in sin’ for some weeks, before getting married in September.

By the way, Mary Ann had never divorced from her previous husband James Robinson, which made her a bigamist!

She acquired Frederick’s surname nonetheless, and the two welcomed their baby boy Robert in February 1871. Mary Ann also took great care of Fred’s surviving sons from his previous marriage, Frederick Jr and Charles Edward.

The family moved to West Auckland, some 50km south of Newcastle, where Frederick worked in a coal mine. As such, he was widely described as being healthy and strong.

But in September 1871, he suddenly fell ill at work.

By the 20th, he was dead.

Cause of death: typhoid fever.

In March of 1872, it was time for the children in the Cotton household to depart.

On the 10th, it was Fred Jr.

On the 28th, Robert.

Causes of death: gastric fever and convulsions.

In the meanwhile, Mary Ann had taken in a lodger, Joseph Nattrass, to supplement her income. Some time after Frederick’s death, the two started a relationship, although it was rumoured that their liaison went as far back as 1861.

But their affair would not go much further: on the 1st of April, a bout of typhoid fever took him away, too.

Following this last streak of deaths, Mary Ann collected insurance payments and even a small inheritance from Nattrass for a total of £37.

The question may rise again: another family had been devastated in Mary Ann’s presence. Was foul play at work? And if yes, was it justified for the collection of such a small sum?

Whether death followed Mary Ann by chance, or by design, her journey would soon come to an end.

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THE LAST DEATH

Mary Ann was now alone with the last surviving member of her family, 7-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton. She needed employment and was hired as a nurse by a local excise officer, Mr Quick-Manning.

Quick by name and by nature, the tax official swiftly started a liaison with Mary Ann, leaving her immediately pregnant.

He was also very quick to disappear from the scene.

Later reports claimed that he had been poisoned by the scorned Mary Ann, but records prove that he simply refused to marry her and moved to Middlesbrough. 

In the meanwhile, she was looking for a way to, well, get rid of Charles Edward.

She could not look after him properly, so he asked local businessman Thomas Riley if the boy could enter a workhouse under his supervision.

When Riley replied that this was not possible, Mary Ann was quoted as saying

“Perhaps it won’t matter, as I won’t be troubled long.”

A week later, on the 12th of July 1872, Charles died.

In the days leading to his death, he had experienced vomiting, stomach pain and loose bowels.

The family doctors, Kilburn and Chalmers had prescribed a series of drugs which included ammonia, bismuth and morphine. Of the three, only bismuth is still prescribed for gastrointestinal problems.

No surprise, the cure was ineffective, and the boy succumbed to what appeared to be gastric fever.

But Thomas Riley was suspicious: it seemed like this woman was dead set on getting rid of her stepson. And what was the significance of those words?

“I won’t be troubled long” – she had said.

On the 13th of July, Riley voiced his concerns to local police sergeant Hutchinson and to the family doctor, William Kilburn.

Hutchinson ordered an inquest, and asked Kilburn to perform an autopsy on the boy’s body.

Kilburn complied, performing the procedure on a table inside the Cottons’ house (!).

The post-mortem did not reveal any evidence of foul play and the inquest concluded that Charles had died of natural causes.

But Riley was not convinced, and he persistently voiced his suspicious to everybody in town.

Now, Dr Kilburn had preserved some of the contents of Charles’ stomach. At Riley’s insistence, he performed a very specific test to detect presence of arsenic, the ‘Reinsch test’.

On the 17th of July, the doctor noted that the test

“gave indications of the presence of arsenic”.

So: was this proof that Charles had been poisoned by Mary Ann?

Not necessarily so.

The autopsy of the boy was performed in a room lined with green wallpaper. And Victorian green wallpaper was famously doused in arsenic, which could sometimes flake and contaminate people and objects in the room.

Mary Ann was also known to use low-concentration arsenic powder to disinfect bed linen – as did many women at the time.

So, the presence of arsenic could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Charles had been poisoned.

And yet, police superintendent Henderson decided to arrest Mary Ann Cotton for murder on the 18th of July 1872.

THE TRIAL OF MARY ANN COTTON

On the 26th of July, local police and Dr Kilburn exhumed the body of Charles Edward Cotton, dissected it, and sent samples of his organs to Dr Scattergood in Leeds, a recognised expert in poisons.

On the 21st of August, a first hearing on the case was held.

Thomas Riley, Mary Ann’s great accuser, did not disappoint: he quoted her as saying that she intended to marry her latest lover, Quick-Manning, but her stepson was – quote

“in the way, but he will go like the rest”

A neighbour of Mary Ann’s piled on, by claiming that she had bought arsenic powder shortly before the boy’s death. Although, admittedly, it was in small quantities and to get rid of bed bugs.   

The hardest blow came from Dr Scattergood, the toxicologist from Leeds:

“I am of the opinion that death resulted from poisoning by arsenic”

But this conclusion in itself could not convict Mary Ann Cotton.

The prosecution still had to prove that she had deliberately poisoned Charles.

But first, they had to wait for Mary Ann to deliver Quick-Manning’s child. After the baby was born in January, preparations were made for the trial, to be held at the Durham Court of Assizes on the 5th of March of 1873.

The Prosecution Barrister at the trial was Charles Russell, who filed charges against Mary Ann for the murders of

Her stepson, Charles Cotton.

Her husband, Frederick Cotton.

Her son, Robert Cotton.

And her lover, Joseph Nattrass.

Eventually, she was tried only for the murder of little Charles.

Mary Ann declared herself innocent.

Her solicitor Thomas Campbell Foster argued that Charles may have been exposed to wallpaper contaminated with arsenic. Or possibly, that the local chemist had mistaken bismuth powder with arsenic.

The wallpaper defence, especially, made sense.

A much later article from the South London Chronicle, from March 1878, revealed that wallpaper at the time could contain from 15 to 25 grains of arsenic per square foot. Moreover, the substance was used in such a powdery form that

“the mere friction of a coat or dress against the paper is sufficient to bring off quantities of arsenic which can be detected by a fairly delicate chemical test”.

But Prosecutor Charles Russell was dead set on proving that Mary Ann had used arsenic to poison Charles.

He had to admit, however, that the police and toxicology experts had found no traces of the substance on any household implement, which may have been used to administer the poison.

He then tried to demonstrate that Mary Ann had purchased large quantities of arsenic in the past.

They brought as a witness a chemist from Newcastle, who claimed that back in January 1869 a Mary Ann Booth had indeed bought three-penny’s worth of the poison from his shop.

He confirmed to the court that Mrs Booth and Mrs Cotton were the same person.

But his testimony was later contradicted by another witness, present at the purchase. Booth was not Cotton!

Russell went on to claim that Mary Ann Cotton had been abusive towards her stepson, and that she had severely beaten him four days before his death. This fact was supported by eyewitness accounts.

But the autopsy of the child did not report any bruise, mark, or cut. You may remember that the initial post-mortem recorded the death as not suspicious.

The evidence of mistreatment was nonetheless used against Mary Ann.

And this was not the only case of evidence being distorted or overlooked.

Author Ian Smyth Herdman has reviewed the transcripts of the trial and found some statements which – if taken seriously into account – may have pointed to a different explanation as to what caused Charles’ death.

Many of these statements implicate the incompetence of Dr Kilburn and Dr Chalmers, the family doctors.

You may remember that Kilburn had carried out a Reinsch Test to determine the presence of arsenic in the victim’s stomach.

This test involves two stages.

At the end of the first stage, a dull black deposit may appear on a copper wire used in the procedure.

This dull black deposit may indicate the presence of either arsenic, bismuth or antimony.

To rule out the latter two substances, a second stage was required.

By his own admission, Kilburn did not perform the second stage.

And there is more.

Kilburn had reassured the court that the drugs he dispensed were stored in a separate cabinet from arsenic and other poisonous substances – which, as we know, were commonplace in a Victorian pharmacy.

But this statement was later contradicted by Chalmers!

Had there been a mix up in the medicines cabinet, leading to Charles Cotton’s poisoning?

This seems to be corroborated by a statement from police sergeant Hutchinson.

When he visited the Cotton home with Kilburn, he noticed how the doctor had removed all the empty bottles of the medicines he had prescribed. Quote:

“When he conducted the search of Mary Ann Cottons house, Dr Kilburn was present and I think that he took some of the empty medicine bottles away.”

But there is even more!

Let’s give the doctors the benefit of the doubt: there was no mix up in their dispensary. But even so, it emerged that they had been administering drugs in rather dangerous quantities to the child – unbeknownst of each other!

The list includes prussic acid, tartaric acid, effervescence of ammonia, bismuth and morphine.

Kilburn himself admitted that excessive doses of these drugs would cause severe vomiting, diarrhoea and fits.

In other words: these drugs could exacerbate the symptoms of the very illness the doctors were trying to combat! Symptoms which may be confused with those of arsenic poisoning, and which may lead to the death of a young patient.

It appears that these points were not taken seriously during the trial.

Soon, public opinion took an interest in the case of this heartless poisoner of children. Newspapers in Northern England started looking into the events of Mary Ann’s past, digging out a string of deaths which, in their eyes, were highly suspicious, and likely due to poisoning.

The legend of the Dark Angel was being built in those weeks of early 1873.

In the minds of Victorian readers, every death by ‘gastric fever’, every insurance pay-out, clicked into place, painting the picture of a monster who would poison her husbands and offspring out of greed, self-interest or pure villainous madness.

Recent accounts of the case report how authorities exhumed several of her alleged victims, finding traces of arsenic in their bodies.

But I would take this with a pinch of salt: other accounts state instead that authorities could not trace the burial places of Mary Ann’s relatives.

The trial, however, focused only on the alleged murder of Charles Cotton.

And to that respect, the jury had made up their minds. On the 8th of March 1873, Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

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A BUNGLED HANGING

Mary Ann Cotton’s sentence by hanging was carried out on the 24th of March 1873 in Durham prison. The executioners were William Calcraft and his assistant Robert Evans.

This was bad news for her, as Calcraft was known for being a drunken and clumsy hangman, who insisted on using a short rope for the ‘drop’. As a result, the neck of his victims did not snap cleanly. Instead, they were left hanging for minutes, until death occurred by asphyxiation. 

As Mary Ann left her cell for the last time, she looked at her warders and said:

“Heaven is my home”

She then proceeded to the gallows.

A hood was placed on her head, and assistant executioner Evans drew the bolt under her feet.

Mary Ann dropped sharply, only about two foot.

As expected, she did not die immediately.

Her body swung around violently, as her hands desperately tried to break free of the leather restraints.

When Calcraft realised Mary Ann was still alive, he leaned down on her shoulders, applying pressure to speed up her death.

Several members of the press in attendance retched or fainted at the macabre spectacle, especially when signs of splattered blood appeared on Mary Ann’s white hood.

After three minutes, the thrashing and convulsions of the convicted poisoner finally slowed down, until only a faint twitching indicated that her body had once been alive.

The outline of her face could be seen through the damp hood. Strands of raven-black hair gently fluttered in the breeze. 

As prescribed by law, Mary Ann Cotton’s body was left hanging for another hour, like a gently swinging pendulum.

CONCLUSION

As the nursery rhyme goes

“Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.”

Mary Ann’s body swung gently for a single hour.

But for decades, her legend has been metaphorically hanging in the collective memory of the British public, swinging in and out of oblivion.

When her story peers out of the shadows, the narrative is consistent most of the times: a ruthless poisoner who massacred her own children.

Now, I will not disagree to the fact that too many deaths happened in her families, which may have raised suspicion. She did display a tendency to rob and scam her benefactors in two occasions, and she did profit – although not exceedingly so – from the death of her husbands and children.   

But the authors I quoted have a point in stating that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Mary Ann beyond a reasonable doubt. And too many elements in her trial warranted a re-examination of poisoning charges.

Moreover, even if she was guilty of killing Charles Cotton, there is no evidence that she may have done the same with 20 further victims.

The point raised by Smyth and Carroll especially is that typhus, typhoid, cholera, or whatever was described as ‘gastric fever’, were widespread amongst all walks of life.

Therefore, it may have been possible for a single individual to experience so many natural deaths in her immediate surroundings.

This point made me curious and sent me on a literature review through peer-reviewed medical journals, looking for evidence of contemporary outbreaks of gastrointestinal infections.

I found, for example, that Newcastle was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1853.

If you recall, Mary Ann and her first husband William Mowbray spent some time in Newcastle around that period, during which they lost four or five unnamed babies.

They then moved to Cornwall, where they mourned the loss of three further children. And Cornwall was subject to periodic cholera outbreaks in that decade.

Mary Ann was at a centre of another extended death streak from December 1866 to April 1867, which claimed her daughter Isabella and three of the Robinson stepchildren. The dates coincide with yet another cholera outbreak which affected the Newcastle area.

To all these sporadic epidemics, you must add the endemic scourge that was typhoid: brought about by poor sanitation, it claimed some 20,000 lives every year in the mid-to-late 1800s.

And when it comes to typhoid, the word immediately recalls another infamous Mary:

Mary Mallon, known as ‘typhoid Mary’.

In the early 20th Century, this American cook of Irish origin infected 53 people with typhoid fever. Not by design, mind you, but because she was a healthy carrier of the Salmonella Typhi pathogen.

Would it be plausible that Mary Ann cotton, too, was a healthy carrier of Salmonella, involuntarily infecting all those around her? 

This is a personal consideration, mind you, far from being peer-reviewed, but I would be keen to hear your views.

Now, we can theorise as much as we like on the true nature of unfortunate events surrounding today’s protagonist.

All we can do for now is stare at the body of Mary Ann’s legend, still dangling from a short rope.

But I like to think that the pendulum is not swinging between oblivion and infamy.

Rather between guilt and innocence – or at least between guilt and doubt.

I will leave it to you, esteemed members of the Casual Criminalist jury to issue a final verdict.

DISMEMBERED APPENDICES

One.

Charles Dickens had attended several of William Calcraft’s executions. The Victorian author was a vocal opposer of capital punishment, even more so when performed by an incompetent hangman such as Calcraft. He once wrote about the man:

“He should be restrained in his unseemly briskness to dispatch the felons without a bungle, he should also refrain from his briskness of jokes … and of his brandy”.

Two.

I was surprised to find out that one of the authors I quoted, Ian Smyth Herdman, is the cousin of Reg Smythe, the creator of Andy Capp – one of the UK’s funniest and most beloved cartoon strips.

Is this relevant to the case? Not at all. 

But after hours of reading and writing about infant deaths, alleged poisonings, and a gruesome hanging, I hope you can allow me a moment of levity …

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