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Short Story About Mary Ann Cotton and the Short Drop Hanging by William Calcraft

Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships

William Calcraft - 11 October 1800 - 13 December 1879

William Calcraft - 11 October 1800 - 13 December 1879


While murderers of both genders have been well-documented, the names of executioners rarely appear in historical records. This absence may be due to their being salaried tools of the state, their names being irrelevant.

Additionally, the person about to be killed by the weapon in the executioner’s hand was expected to voice forgiveness, acknowledging the sad, degrading roles forced upon both executioner and victim, while wished for by neither. Ideally, this forgiveness would blot out, on some celestial level, both the deed and the name of the executioner.

What Made William Calcraft a Celebrity in This Death-Dealing?

In this short story of under 900 words titled “The Short Drop Hanging“, Calcraft recounts his having elongated the process of strangulation of those being hanged, and the public joy in watching the slow but inexorable cutting off of oxygen from one already doomed. Whatever the ghoulish pleasure evoked, it could be concealed beneath a guise of a wish to protect both themselves, and the public at large, from similar villains.


Short Story: The Short Drop Hanging

We were a lot alike, she and I. Had we met in a way less macabre, we two might have been matey. She began as a dressmaker, I as a cobbler. Both of us bought our freedom from poverty by murdering others. Our difference lay in the law. My killings were endorsed by the Crown; she was hanged for her homicides.

Also, I did away with strangers, whilst she killed those one might have thought she held nearest her heart, husband's, mother, children. Her weapon was poison, mine the rope. Thus, on a morning in 1873, she and I stood, a short distance apart, at Durham Jail, me with noose at the ready, she with neck bared

Her name was Mary Ann Cotton, although, at times, she answered to any number of surnames. Bigamy seems to have caused no misgivings. Indeed, measured against her primary crimes, it was of little significance.

I am William Calcraft; friends call me Will. I started work with my dad, a cobbler. After he died, I took over his shop. For some years, I had been his apprentice, so I had learned a good deal about shoe-making. Our shop had never earned much. After a time, machines began to bleed our trade, as they did so many others. In a way, I felt glad. I detested the drudgery.

As my number of idle hours increased, I began to sell meat pies. The income was only some few pence a week. Still, I liked chatting with customers. My favourite of these was John Foxton. Soon enough, he and I became friends.

He told me he was chief hangman at Newgate Prison. I asked if he knew of a job for me there. John said if I was in earnest, there was one, flogging juveniles. The vacancy had stood empty some while. Such whipping was not to the taste of most; I undertook it with relish.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann Cotton, having moved about a bit, found her way to West Auckland, County Durham where she stayed, more-or-less for the rest of her days. It was there, in that village, she did a good deal of her killing.

By age forty, when she was sentenced, she had been convicted, or suspected, of having dispatched some twenty-one victims, each of whom seemed to have died of some form of gastric fever.

Mary Ann Cotton (Robson) 31 Oct 1832 - 24 March 1873 also known as the Black Widow

Mary Ann Cotton (Robson) 31 Oct 1832 - 24 March 1873 also known as the Black Widow

She admitted to nothing. Instead she blamed a compound used in laundering bed-linen The court laughed at such a lie, asking why, Mary Ann, who slept each night on those same sheets, never felt the hint of a symptom.

At Newgate, after Jack Foxton died, I took over as hangman. In time, I discovered the longer the convict swung, his neck within my rope, the more those watching enjoyed, salivated.

I decided, since that was the case, why not make each hanging a fun-fair? The gallows method, then in use, allowed the condemned to die within two to three minutes. By re-introducing the “short drop”, I kept the criminal alive from ten to twenty minutes until he was strangled.

Those same folk who may have gasped at the thought, revelled in its reality. If this were not so, why would I have become the hangman in utmost demand throughout all of England?

This then was how I came to stand just beyond the gateway of Durham Jail on that day, to hang Mary Ann Cotton. Earlier, having paid her gaoler to let me spy from a cell above hers I watched her walk up and down, over and over

At times, she stopped to study a prayer book she held in her hand. She was said to have taught Sunday school as a girl-she might have had some faith yet remaining.

On the morning of her hanging, that law, passed a few years before, banning public executions was of little use. No law could block viewers from hastening from their homes. They congregated, inching themselves as near as they dared.

So, there you have it; I hanged her.

I have sometimes wondered, did I see, in her, myself as through a carnival’s looking-glass?

Now, I am an old bloke, withered and ailing. Thinking back, I know I brought pain to those about to die. Yet, was I truly a bad lot? How can I answer? To throngs with little joy and few pleasures, I gave verve, entertainment. In short, for some few decades, I was England’s chief hangman.


The Hardest of deaths to a mortal is the death he sees ahead

— Bacchylides

Synopsis of The Mary Ann Cotton History

Mary was born 1832 in a pit village called Wesleyan Faith in County Durham. She met Frederick Cotton in about 1868 and bigamously married him in September 1870. They moved to 20 Johnson Terrace (now Darlington Road) in West Auckland, County Durham in the summer of 1871. It was here that she murdered Frederick Cotton and her eldest stepson and then her own baby of 14 months followed by would-be husband Joseph Nattrass.

She then moved to a larger three story house at 13 Front Street West Auckland. The house is now a listed building and has been renumbered 14 Front Street, but this does not hide the fact that here she murdered her younger stepson. To this day villagers avoid walking past the house claiming ghostly sightings of children wailing and writhing at the top floor window.

Arsenic was used extensively in wall-paper and paints of the day and when dampened on the walls of old cold houses released highly toxic arsine gas. Napoleon Bonaparte's death 1821 is claimed to have been caused by wallpaper impregnated with arsenic

Arsenic was used extensively in wall-paper and paints of the day and when dampened on the walls of old cold houses released highly toxic arsine gas. Napoleon Bonaparte's death 1821 is claimed to have been caused by wallpaper impregnated with arsenic

Was Mary Ann Cotton Guilty of Murder?

At trial, defending Mary Ann Cotton, Mr Thomas Campbell Foster put to the jury that her stepson Charles died from inhaling arsenic gas produced from the dye in the green wallpaper of the Cotton home. This contention was rejected by the jury. Still, re-evaluating that evidence by today’s standards there could be reason to support an acquittal.

© 2017 Colleen Swan

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