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Mrs. Cotton

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, March 24, 1873) pp. 2-3

Strangled! Yes. It might have been worse. She might have been boiled alive! In the weird old Border Ballad of Lord Soulis we read of the terrible vengeance that befell the grim old laird, whose cruelty was the bye-word of the Border. Preserved by enchantment against any weapon, he met his dreadful doom on Nine Stane Rig, which still frowns high o'er Haunted Hermitage. His enemies, baffled by his invulnerability, set up a brazen cauldron, heated it red and fiery hot, and then, says tradition—

"They rolled him up in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him into the cauldron red,
And melted him body, and bones, and all."

Such a fiery doom seems so horrible that the incident is looked upon as mythical. Those who think so forget that one of King Henry's Parliaments placed on the Statute Book of England a decree that "from henceforth every wilful murder of any person or persons hereafter to be committed by poisoning, shall be deemed in law to be high treason; and that all persons condemned of such a crime shall, without benefit of clergy, be, immediately after condemnation, committed to execution of death by boiling for the same." This law was not only passed, but executed. Poisoners in those stern times were boiled to death, to indicate, says Mr. Froude, the detestation with which "this secret and Italian crime" was held by our forefathers. We have become accustomed to poisonings. We only hang our poisoners—nor do we even hang all we catch. It is, no doubt, awful to imagine the outstretched arm of the gallows and the well-oiled rope, with the running noose which will have choked the life out of Mrs. Cotton before many of our readers read this paper; but hanging is a luxury to what it might have been. When we are writing this, Mrs. Cotton is alive and well. Before many of our readers have opened this journal, she will be hanging by the neck, all that is left of her that is — a corpse to be cut down and flung into a dishonoured grave, within the precincts of the gaol. It is horrible. But what would it have been if Calcraft , instead of pulling a bolt, and flinging apart the gates of eternity in a few seconds of time, had seized the trembling, shrieking convict and hurled her, pinioned and helpless into a huge cauldron, beneath which roared a furnace, and in which the water was boiling and seething with the intense heat! Ugh! We have advanced somewhat since then.

We have all seen a kitten drowned. Who that has ever watched its despairing struggle to keep its head above the cold, cruel water in which it was doomed to sink and die: that has seen it grow weaker and weaker in its unavailing attempts while the tiny paws strike the water faintly and faintly; and that has heard the last piteous mew, but has had impressed upon his memory a painful, an unutterably painful, sight which ever and anon returns with haunting persistency, making him miserable by the spectacle of an utterly hopeless struggle against death? What all have witnessed in the case of kittens, we have lately been called upon to see in the case of a fellow-creature, and that fellow-creature a woman and a mother. We do not envy the heart of him who has read unmoved the letters which we have published from the condemned cell. Letters more touching, more horribly pathetic, we have seldom or never seen. The rude, inarticulate manner in which they are expressed, their earnest, their terribly earnest pleading for life, and the desperate, reckless manner in which they attack every one and grasp at anything, render them more painful than almost anything we have seen for years. Every successive sun that gleamed with enlivening rays into her prison cell, with pitiless exactness told her that she was so much nearer the gallows than she had been when it set. Rapidly the minutes pass away: the minutes run to hours, the hours to days, and the days, with relentless speed hasten to the grave! In vain she struggles against fast ebbing time. Even when she struggles its efflux carries her nearer her doom. For some time she refuses to believe that she was really to be executed. Hoping against hope, she battles against the dread reality, the grim-visaged spectre with outstretched arm and pendent rope, which looms in the immediate future. With desperate energy she writes letter after letter, in the wild hope of life. Those who have seen the difficulty with which half educated persons write may be able to form some idea of the manner in which Mrs. Cotton covered the sheets with ill-spelled and badly written wailings for life. Imagine hope deferred from day to day until it dwindled to nothingness, and the dread, gaunt gallows looms with terrible reality over her head. Life! life! only liberty to live! is the burden of all her writings; the refrain which occurs again and again, with dreary, dreadful monotony, in all her appeals. Who can view a fellow mortal struggling in such abject from the doom which steadily, remorselessly, ceaselessly, draws near. Nor is this dread of death the only thing. Remember why she is there. Shakespeare portrays with terrible fidelity the agony of remorse when he summons round the bed of the guilty monarch the phantom forms of those whom in life he had slain, until maddened and distraught, he started from his dream in the frenzy of despair, to find death awaiting him on Bosworth-field. Mary Ann Cotton is not a monarch, although she has exercised a monarch's ancient privilege of murder. In that cell in which she has lain, and from which she issues this morning to return no more for ever, what ghastly visions has she not beheld; what horrid array of vengeful phantoms, all bidding her "Despair and die!" In her troubled dreams, or in her waking moments, does she not see gleaming from all corners of the room the faces of the murdered? Does she not hear in the sighing of the wind the hissing of her victims as they come to gloat over her misery? And these long series of cruel deaths, the convulsive fits, the foaming and moaning, the agonised entreaties — have not all these been visible, or audible by day and by night to the guilty poisoner? "I cannot draw my mind on the past, for it is more than nature can hear," is the confession of one who has struggled and struggled in vain to lay the haunting demons that throng around the convict in the cell of the doomed.

But these letters show more than the terror of death, and the remorse of mind — they show how instinctively she recurs to the happy days of her girlhood's home, when honoured, trusted and loved, she enjoyed her youth in the midst of her friends and relatives. She was a Sabbath scholar once, was the poisoner of West Auckland — nay, if report can be trusted, a teacher in the Sabbath-school. She herself bears witness to her state then. What can be more painfully pathetic than these words:-"So farewell. I must say there will not be any more Sunday-school teaching for me now, but I try to put my trust in God, as you know I once did, and there was none on earth happier than I." What a reminiscence from a convicts cell; what a contrast between now and then! Did the well-known old melodies of that happy time float through her mind, as she lay there waiting the hour of execution. "There was none on earth happier than I?" And now—

And now Society, outraged past all endurance, approaches her with a gallows rope. For years on years she has lived among men, slaying all, as it were, on whom she cast her eye; and for years she has married but to murder, and lived but to slay. The Psalmist says, "Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is his reward." To her was given an abundant heritage and an exceedingly great reward. While many of her sisters lament a cheerless home and silent hearth, she brought forth her children but to kill them; and by means of arsenic converted her "heritage" into insurance money. She became a wife but to poison, a mistress but to poison, and a mother but to poison. She had lost all idea, all understanding of the sanctity of life. Like a pestilence she walked in and out in the midst of us, poisoning her husbands and her children without remorse and without pity, until, having filled up and heaped high the measure of her iniquities, the reckoning day has come at last. Society metes out in one dread moment punishment for the accumulated crimes of a lifetime. To her frenzied pleadings for mercy, to her piteous despairing struggles for existence, to the wail of the woman brought face to face with death, Society can have but one answer. Before another tribunal she may find mercy. In this world her repentance has been delayed too long. And now — IT IS TOO LATE!

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