Mary Ann Cotton: wife, lover, mother, deranged killer. Although implicated in as many as 21 murders, including the deaths of 11 of her own children, Cotton was officially found guilty of only one. MASTERPIECE is telling her story with Dark Angel, a new special coming May 21, and it stars Joanne Froggatt (best known as Anna from Downton Abbey) in a very different role!
But Mary Ann Cotton wasn’t the only killer in town. Life in 1800s England was no walk in the park and almost anything could be the cause of one’s demise. Here are a few ways everyday life in the Victorian era could kill you.
Fashion – particularly women’s fashion – was not designed for comfort or practicality. Corsets would literally squeeze a woman’s organs, rendering them dysfunctional. Massive flowing skirts proved to be hazardous as they were extremely flammable and managed to catch in dangerous places. Many fabrics used for both men and women’s clothing were plagued by infectious parasites, breaking down their host’s immune system. Men regularly sported high and tight collars, fashionable during special occasions and get-togethers, only to be strangled by them in a drunken stupor. You could say Victorian fashionistas were “dressed to kill.”
Scheele’s Green was a particularly sought-after yellowish-green that was used in lavish housing, including some rooms of Buckingham Palace. The shade was not only popular in wallpaper but also as food coloring, dye for children’s toys, candles, and more. But it was also laced with Cotton’s favorite poison: Arsenic. People would breathe in flakes of wallpaper, and warm temperatures would release arsenic from the walls.
Commercially-produced bread posed a fatal threat to small children. Alum powder was used to make bread appear whiter and fresher, but its toxic qualities caused children to suffer extreme malnutrition and bowel issues, often leading to death. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875 banned its use.
In Victorian England nearly all streetlamps were gas-lit and many homes soon acquired indoor gas lighting fixtures. Gas explosions were a constant threat, and gas leaks could silently suffocate people who had no significant ventilation outlets.
Food poisoning today isn’t fun, but it’s hardly fatal. In the 1800s a small case of food poisoning could cost one their life. Strychnine, sulphates, and lead diluted foods triggering a breakdown of the central nervous system and ultimately leading to death by asphyxia.
Victorian homes were tall but cramped, and staircases were dangerously steep and narrow. With heavy skirts, stiff pants, heeled shoes, and polished floors that fashion dictated, disaster was bound to strike. If one were to take an unfortunate spill, they’d likely tumble a long distance, causing severe trauma to their head and limbs and internal bleeding. Servants who weren’t careful could easily trip while carrying heavy objects.
Exploding toilets were relatively common during the era. A buildup of toxic gasses like methane and hydrogen sulphide from human waste could make its way into the home and be ignited by any open flame – particularly dangerous in an era of candles and gas lamps. Impact from the explosion or flying shards of material could be one’s unlikely killer.
Mary Ann Cotton potentially got away with more than we know, but she wasn’t the only threat to someone’s life in those days. Meet the Victorian “black widow” on May 21 at 9PM on KVIE with the all-new dramatic retelling of her story with Dark Angel on MASTERPIECE. You can learn more about the perils of Victorian life from the BBC and Mental Floss.