In 1873 Mary Ann Cotton is sent to the gallows in Durham Jail. She’s been charged with the murder of a seven-year-old boy, her step son. Nevertheless, the forty-one-year-old nursemaid maintains her innocence until her last breath. Arthur Appleton’s book brings attention about her a century later.
She’s hanged as traces of Arsenic has been found in her victim. What’s more, evidence mounts of her having done the same to at least 15 others. In fact, the number could be 21 in total.
Suddenly West Auckland is shaken by a serial killer in its midst: a seemingly harmless miner’s daughter who allegedly has ended life her four husbands, her lovers, her mother, her step children, and her own ones. Although she’s more murderous than Jack the Ripper, little is known about her outside North East of England.
Fast forward to 19th February 1941. In Tenby Kathleen Skin can see the blazes from Swansea after the bombardments. Over three days the Luftwaffe has dropped 800 explosives and 35,000 incendiaries have fallen on the city bringing about raging fires, destroying its ancient centres, killing and injuring hundreds of people.
Infuriated, she realises her days as a nanny is over. She takes a day off work to undertake health tests in order to join the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS). She passes them, but not until in the very last one she finds out she’s failed due to her weight. A few pounds more are all she needed on the scale to meet the minimum six stones requirement. That day she comes back dejected, preparing food for the baby’s dinner in a sombre mood.
These women, a Britain’s first female serial killer and eventually a ‘Wren’ heroine, live in different periods, but they mirror some female characters in Christie’s books. Did she ever hear about Mary Ann, I wonder? Did she ever meet one in the Women’s Forces, her source of inspiration for Lynn Marchmont (see Notes on Taken by The Flood)?
A women serial killer is highlighted in By The Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), which features the duo Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. A painting Tuppence has inherited from her late aunt Ada then arises Tuppence’s curiosity. For later she notices something amiss on it and so her adventure begins.
Furthermore, the authoress’s fascination about a cold-blooded murderess’s state of mind gives way to the rise of them, notably in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), Peril At End House (1932) and After The Funeral (1953). Although the murderess Tuppence helps unearth doesn’t pay her dues, her crimes ring the same bell as Mary Ann’s.
Skin’s true account of life during the last War is re-told in The Girls Who Went to War. Before she can realise her dream to be a Wren, she has a stint in the Land Army. Unlike Marchmont, Skin isn’t posted abroad. The dream to see the world subsides after the VE Day, as Skin is back to ‘Civvy Street’ and retrains as a teacher. Likewise, Marchmont is demobbed and home in Spring 1946 after two and a half years ago spent overseas.
Mary Ann fits in Christie’s adage ‘anyone can be a murderer.’ Nobody at that time could believe such crimes had been carried out in return of insurance money. Moreover is Mary Ann’s manipulation to men, a trait that would remind avid readers to a famous King’s Counsel Mr. Mayherne being played at in The Witness of Prosecution.
Life after the Service will never be the same for both Skin and Marchmont, albeit there is a delayed wedding to consider. For Marchmont, the untimely death of a super rich uncle Gordon Cloade affect her and her cousin/fiancée Rowley; their being drifted apart as Marchmont is drawn to the attractive David Hunter, with whom she feels the connection while sharing their wartime experiences. As for Skin, the strange behaviour of her fiancée Arnold concerns her a lot.
Arsenic poisoning is not much mentioned in Christie’s books, for she prefers the uses of poisonous plants, such as Foxgloves and Strychnines and drugs, ie. trinitrines, prussic acid and Bromides. Nevertheless, Mary Ann goes Scot free many times with a common method of administering Arsenic in tea. The deaths of those children in her care are referred as ‘gastric fever,’ which bear similar symptoms. A doctor who releases the death certificates to some children is already suspicious and the allegations are proven following the exhumation of the bodies.
Christie captures well Marchmont’s mixed feelings about adjusting to civilian life, but she might be over the top having written in the book: ‘….wonderful to be out of uniform, to be able to get into a tweed skirt and a jumper – even if the moths had been rather too industrious during the war years!’
For the WRNS navy blue uniform is considered at the top of the fashion. Designed by Edward Molyneux, its straight streamlined jacket is envied compared to the belted waists and pleated pockets of the ATS’s and WAAF’s. Not to mention the Wrens are allowed to wear a pair of black stockings, a privilege indeed to show their feminine side. And therefore Marchmont should have been very proud wearing her uniform and the much-admired tricorne hat.
Christie might have heard the WRNS recruitment is the hardest of the three Women’s Forces and regarded as the classiest. Perhaps for those reasons she has chosen Marchmont to be a Wren. Thumbs up to Christie who has brought up the least-mentioned symbol until recent of the Women’s Forces whose contributions to the War effort are significant. In this post-war novel she also reflects about her loss, having received a War Office Telegram for her daughter’s first husband.
Fiction and real life can be inexplicably interwoven, but at the same time they can be very contrasting. Skin might not be as lucky in love as Marchmont, but she sees the world after all by taking a job as a teacher in Malaysia. In the next few decades she lives in Asia and Africa.
Meanwhile, Mary Ann Cotton brings the secrets of the true extent of her crimes into her grave while in Christie’s world Felicie Bault (The Fourth Man, see Notes on The Hound of Death) is the nearest character I can think of. I begin to doubt whether Mrs. Lancaster is as ‘daring’ as Mary Ann nonetheless.
She’s dead and she’s rotten
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open
Sing? Sing? What song should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up in string
Where? Where? She’s up in the air
And now their selling puddings for a penny pair
Readers, would you turn Mary Ann’s life into a novel?
‘The Hand That Smoothed The Pillow’ about the Victorian killer’s life was presented by her descendant Theresa Musgrove. Duncan Barrett (co-author with Nuala Calvi) discussed about their newly-launched book The Girls Who Went to War. The two events were part of Finchley Literary Festival from 20th to 24th May 2015.