Lady Killers

Sometimes the planets align to drag you down a rabbit hole.

I’ve recently been researching the ancestry of my niece’s husband in County Durham.

I’ve also been reading the book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. It includes a brief reference to murder by arsenic in the UK.

In fact, handled with skill by a calculating murderer, the poison seemed to engender a homicidal overconfidence. in 1872, one notorious British murderer, Mary Ann Cotton, killed 15 people (according to some sources it could be as many as 21) , including all the children of her five husbands, and several neighbours who irritated her, before she was caught in 1872, tried and hung.

They came in conjunction when I found the scene of Cotton’s crimes was County Durham. 

There’s a fascinating past episode on Cotton in the BBC Radio Four series Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley available on BBC Sounds. More episodes are coming.

I’ve not been able to link any of Cotton’s victims, all but six male, to the family I’m researching, except by geography. Maybe if I dig further I’ll be able to add the story to his family history.


4 Replies to “Lady Killers”

  1. I don’t see why you should restrain yourself, John. Only you are likely to know.
    It would add a soupçon of scandal to the story, which adds a note of veracity to a family line.
    And, if found out, making a genealogical error is not a capital offense!

  2. I’m hoping that BBC will make Lucy Worsley’s Radio talk into a telly-worthy show as will watch anything this historian works on, or writes. Her books are all informative reads, and delightfully written.

  3. My paternal grandmother nee Palmer claimed to be related to the infamous Palmer the Poisoner, although the link, if it existed, must have been quite remote. Like all of her stories, this one too seems improbable. Too bad. My wife rather enjoyed telling her friends that her husband was descended from Britain’s most celebrated wife-killer. We owe several important legal precedents to Palmer, including the right to a change of venue to get a fair trial. Interestingly in Palmer’s case though, it was the prosecution that wanted to move the trial from the West Midlands, where, it was felt, no jury would vote to convict the hugely popular Palmer.

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