The Wicked Women of History

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Evil, or at the very least villainy, has never been confined to one gender.

There's a reason why fairy-tales so often centre around a wicked witch or a sorceress: the juxtaposition between beauty and wickedness is certainly compelling, and if you add a dash of great power they are frightening indeed.
Like it or lump it, women  have often been associated with the roles of caregivers and as holding sensitivity to the point of subservience as mothers and wives. As 'the fairer sex' they were seen as physically and emotionally weaker. While they may be affected by 'hysteria' at times and become unpredictable, on the whole one knew what to expect from them. Women that went against these predictable roles were therefore alarming, and these infamous women's memories live on because of this.

Below is a collection of some of the wicked women of history. Some of these are straight-up evil through violence, and some were seduced by the Machiavellian tactics of politics as surely as Lady Macbeth herself.

Mary Ann Cotton - The Victorian Serial Killer

Sometimes a serial killer is caught by being altogether too enthusiastic and repetitive.

Picture from the Watford Observer
Born in 1832 in County Durham, Mary Ann Cotton (née Robson)  is throughout to be Britain's first convicted serial killer on record. She was described as 'small and frail' and worked as a dressmaker and was charged for the murder of four people (including children) and convicted of one: the murder of her stepson. However, it was thought that she killed many more members of her own family.

Her job and marriages caused her to travel across the country which, it is thought, is part of the reason for her not being discovered for so long.

Her first marriage was to William Mowbry who brought four children from a previous marriage and Mary Ann produced four more. They lived in Plymouth but five years later, when they returned to County Durham, five children were dead from 'gastric fever and stomach pains'. When they moved to Sunderland two more children died, and William Mowbry was also struck down in 1865. Because he and all the family were insured with Prudential, Mary was able to collect the sum of £35 . 
While currency conversions are always difficult, this would be about £21,000 in today's money. Alternatively, a skilled seamstress employed in 'the best class of work' could hope to earn 22-26shillings -£1 - per week in 1897, which would mean that this was worth at least 35 week's work. (To compare, modern minumum wage at £6.31 an hour for 40 hours a week would be £252.40. So 35 week's work could come to £8,834. But, of course, the price of living was quite different in Victorian Britain.) Needless to say, it was no small sum, but was it large enough to murder a whole family for?

Mary's second marriage came after she took up work as a nurse in Sunderland infirmary, where she met George Ward. It wasn't long before 'gastric fever' struck him down too.

Next, she moved on to the shipyard foreman James Robinson and married him within six months, getting rid of his own three children of a previous marriage as well as one of her own remaining offspring. The couple remained together and Mary gave birth to two ore children, one who died within the hour of perhaps natural complications. When she finally broached the subject of Robinson taking out life insurance, her husband grew suspicious. Mary, it seems, had run up large debts and he confronted her about her possibly sinister motives. Mary fled, leaving her surviving child behind. Robinson, it seems, let things slide rather than inform the police.

Estranged from her husband, she returned to her mother who - unsurprisingly at this point - died and left an inheritance of her furniture.

Picture from

In 1870 she met the widower Frederick Cotton and they entered into a bigamous marriage, living in North Wallbottle. Mary Ann's poisoning began to come to light when a number of pigs were found dead in mysterious circumstances. While the circumstances of this remaining unclear, Mary and the family were soon on the move again to West Aukland. Two month later her husband was dead again of 'gastric fever'.

She moved in with Joseph Nastrass, who had lived with the couple for a while, but soon she was asked to care for a higher-class man named Quick-Manning who was suffering from smallpox. Mary and Quick-Manning quickly became lovers and, with alarming speed, within three weeks more members of Mary Ann's family were stricken with gastric fever: Cotton's 10 year old son, her own baby Robert and her former lover Joseph Nastrass who had made out his will to her. Mary at this time became pregnant to Quick-Manning, who had no interest in marrying her, and raised Cotton's sole remaining son, the 7 year old Charles Edward.

Due to Quick-Manning's disinterest, Mary Ann had to get by on a pittance of allowance as income. It was reported that when the assistant overseer of the village -Thomas Riley- came to see her about asking her to care for another smallpox patient, she refused due to having to take care of Charles Edward. She refused to go into the work house and Riley wouldn't accept the child there without her. She said that she would not be able to marry Quick-Manning because of the 7 year old, but added  "'t won't matter, I won't be troubled long". The following Friday the boy was dead and Riley was understandably suspicious.

Riley went to inform the police and Dr.Kilburn who in turn refused to issue a death certificate for the boy. This meant that there was no payout when Mary went to collect the £4 10s in insurance money. While a post mortem was carried out nothing was found, but Dr Kilburn decided to secrety take the boy's organs to his own house for closer study. Here, to his alarm, he found that the boy had been poisoned with arsenic.This was soon matched to witness statement saying that Mary had sent her stepson to buy arsenic and soap for the common practice of rubbing down the bedposts to kill bedbugs. When Dr Scattergood of Leeds also confirmed the arsenic poisoning (without the dodgy practice of stealing organs that had so harmed Kilburn's credibility) Mary was arrested. Several bodies were exhumed and more arsenic poisoning was found.

Mary Ann was hanged at age 41 in County Durham on March 24th 1873. Deliberately or not, she died slowly due to the hangman not issuing a long enough drop-rope.

Isabella the 'She Wolf' - Wife to Edward II and Invader of England

Picture from HistoricalHoney
In 1308, and at 12 years old, Isabella of France arrived in Boulogne for her wedding to Edward II of England - a tactical move set in motion to end England's War with France over the territory of Gascony. Isabella and Edward were a neat match on paper - both were handsome people from great families and Isabella knew well her rights - but there was already trouble at hand. 

When Piers Gaveston entered the royal household the king was instantly enamoured with him, and the king's favourite was promptly married to a niece to make him a member of the royal family. Gaveston became, in many ways, a guest of honour at the coronation of the royal couple: tapestries bore only the coat of arms of the king and Gaveston at great insult to Isabella's family, Gaveston had been given the honour of carrying the coronation crown and, to make things worse, Gaveston had been put in charge of the coronation planning and the organisation of the festivities turned into a shambles. Wedding gifts and lands that were intended for the new queen were instead given to Gaveston and her financial allowances were overlooked. It is rather unsurprising that rumors circulated that Gaveston was Edward II's lover.

Isabella put up with the relationship for another four years, which won her much popularity, but soon the barons decided that they had had enough of the king's head being so easily swayed. They exiled Gaveston but, when the king brought him back, they soon conspired to execute Gaveston instead. After his death the royal couple reunited, bore children, and Edward II allowed Isabella into his court and to attend council meetings. However trouble was soon on the horizon again as the susceptible king was soon wooed by another charismatic man: Hugh Despenser. Despenser was ambitious, ruthless and cunning, using the king to climb politically. Jealous of Isabella's influence, Despenser convinced the king to limit her powers and voice and, it is rumoured, sexually threatened the queen. Isabella finally managed to get Despenser banished, but he was recalled again the next year by the king.

In 1325 Isabella's brother Charles IV of France seized the England's territory in France and so she had the opportunity to get some distance by going with her son to negotiate a peace treaty. There she met an old acquaintance - Roger de Mortimor, Baron Wigmore - and soon the two became lovers. The two began to make plans to invade England themselves and put her son on the throne instead of Edward II. Sick of her husband's disrespect, Isabella was ready to take action. While Edward soon heard of the affair and demanded that his son be returned, she refused to concede until Despenser, and his family's influence, was removed.

Edward II
Isabella and her supporters soon invaded England and Edward II and the Despenser family fled only to be captured. She had Despenser hung drawn and quartered after a quick trial and her son was crowned Edward III with herself and Mortimer named as regents. The deposed king became an increasing threat as public option started to return to him now that the Despenser family had been eradicated, and multiple escape attempts were carried out.

This was a problem that needed solving. In September 1327 Edward II died in a famously horrific manner: supposedly by a red hot poker thrust rectally into him, which would leave little to no marks on the body. It is widely believed that it was Isabella herself who arranged this murder.

Of course, all things come full circle. When Edward III came of age he was aware that Mortimer had grown more poisonous and promptly had him executed, though Isabella intervened so that he would not suffer a traitor's death. Isabella was spared and welcomed back into court. While she reacted to often humiliating circumstances out of her control, the history books are loath to forgive her for permitting regicide.

Iise Koch  'The Witch/Bitch of Buchenwald'

By far the most difficult aspect of the Third Reich and the Concentration Camps that followed is that such evil could be enacted by so many normal and, we assume, formerly balanced people. Not every Nazi was a cackling Indiana Jones villain, so what was it that made people, including women, want to be the guards of the anguished and toxic concentration camps?
Sarah Helm studied this phenomenon and found that naturally not all women are the same. Many were 'pathetic creatures' who fell into guard duty almost absent-mindedly. For them, compared to jobs such as munitions work, there was better pay, more comfortable conditions, travel, a new well kept home and new people to court. In Ravensbruck, for example, there were on site hairdressers and boating trips on a lovely lake.Sometimes they were housed in pretty villas with beautiful views. All they had to do was turn their heads a certain way or draw the curtains, and the ashes of the crematoriums might as well be a dream.When it came to the job, it was a necessary duty that had to be done and the Nazis had enough words and brainwashing ideology to make viewing the inmates as subhuman chillingly easy. All it takes are a few steps over a line that should never be crossed and, in the end, it is impossible to go back.

While these crimes will always be unforgivable, we can at least make an effort to understand how the majority of guards in the camps did what they did. But for some, they took the monstrosity to the next level, and one of these was Iise Koch.

Koch was a secretary and joined the Nazi party in 1932. In 1936 she married the head of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp -Karl Otto Koch - who was assigned to build a new camp in Buchenwald in 1937. She joined him and became the 'queen bee' as the overseer of the camp. She soon gained her nickname as the 'bitch of Buchenwald' for her viscous sadism. It was said that she rode her horse around, whipping and beating whichever prisoners took her interest. She was said to have an affinity with poetry, but her taste in 'art' had a vile nature. Koch was reported to have also been on the look out for prisoners with interestingly tattooed skin. When she found them, she would have them murdered and their skin preserved, tanned and stored for later use to be fashioned into lampshades and 'other ornamental household articles'. Sickeningly, this was not altogether an isolated incident and similar 'souvenirs' was found as being owned by other SS officers. The cruel indignity she inflicted on her victims carried on even after death.

At the end of the war Koch was arrested for war crimes due to the atrocities at Buchenwald and in 1947 and American Military tribunal sentenced her to life imprisonment. After serving only two years the military governor of the American zone in Germany - General Lucius D Clay - pardoned her. Though, unsurprisngly, there was a huge public backlash at this decision. In 1949 Koch was re-arrested and put on trial for 135 cases of murder. in 1951 she was sentenced to life imprisonment, and in 1967 she committed suicide while incarcerated.

Victoria Dryer the Baby Farmer
Picture from

She told her own daughter, when the young girl enquired as to why babies would enter the house and then soon disappear, that she was an 'angel-maker'. She was sending the children to Jesus, she said, who wanted them far more than their mothers did.
This, of course, was not true. In Victorian England many women gave birth to illegitimate children or had far more children than they had the resources to feed. (The wealthy Charles Dickens, for example, had 10 children and felt the stress of the burden keenly. Many people were in a similar situation without his advantages.) While some women were glad to advertise and pass on their children, others were weeping, reluctant and aimed to see them again. One such woman was the 25 year old Evelina Marmon: a farmer's daughter who has gone to work as a barmaid in the city and had the misfortune to fall pregnant. After giving birth, she put an advertisement in the paper asking for someone to care for her new daughter Dolly. To her surprise and joy there was also an ad in the paper from a couple who were looking to adopt a child for the fee of £10. When she went to meet 'Mrs Harding' she was surprised by her age, but the woman seemed to want to care for the child and would allow Evelina contact. She passed over her baby girl and 'Mrs Harding' rode away in the train. Afterwards Evelina wrote letters, but they were never replied to.

'Mrs Harding' had been the pseudonym of Victoria Dryer, who was part of the wicked occupation known as baby farming. All too common in a period of time where no reliable contraception mixed with a double standard of sexism that led to pregnant unmarried women being shunned and fired from their jobs, it was common for people to try to make a living from taking in babies. A high class woman might pay as much as £80 for the privilege or a working class girl perhaps £5. Some would pay in weekly instalments and some would pay all at once. Many babies would often be hoarded by these opportunists and stuffed into drawers and cots in groups and drugged to stop them from crying. Often the money would begin to dry up after a period and, when this happened, the babies who were unfortunate enough to have no income were slowly starved, their 'owners' waiting for them to die. As a former midwife Victoria Dryer was well aware of the trade and over her time in this profession either a warped compassion or simple greed and impatience caused her to take to killing the babies more directly. Soon, after a close call with a suspicious doctor, she didn't even bother attaining death certificates and would dispose of the bodies in secret. Dolly, Evelina's daughter, was dispatched as were the other children, with a cord of tape to strangle her.

Dryer was finally found out thanks to a bargeman's keen eye when he saw a brown paper parcel lying in shallow water near the bank. Inside contained the body of a baby girl aged six to twelve months with white tape knotted around her neck. One piece of brown paper had a railway label on it from Temple Meads Station, Bristol and the faint outline of the name 'Mrs Thomas' and an address in Reading. Police soon raided that address and while the stench of human decomposition hit them, no body could be found. Nevertheless they matched the murder weapon to white tape in a sewing box, and in the cupboards were bundles of telegrams arranging adoptions, pawn tickets for children's clothing, receipts for adverts and letters from the mothers who had given up their children. In a few months alone, 20 children had been placed in 'Mrs Thomas', Amelia Dryer's, care. The body found had turned out to be Helena Fry, the illegitimate daughter of Mary Fry, a servant girl from Bristol.

The river was dredged and five murdered babies were discovered. Dolly was inside a carpet bag with Harry, her last victims. Evelina was called in to identify the body of her daughter and the evidence against Dryer was assured. The jury only took four and a half minutes to reach their conclusion and Dryer was sentenced to hang.


Historical Honey
Watford Observer: Mary Ann Cotton
Historical Money calculator
Victorian London - Wages
National minimum wage
Scandalous Women - Isabella of France
Daily Mail: 'Bitches of Buchenwald: Which death camp guard is the evil inspiration behind Kate Winslet's role in The Reader?'
Clay souls and glass hearts:Ilse Koch
Daily Mail: The Baby Butcher
Executed Today -1896
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