I've just been reading with interest an article on Mary Ann Cotton in the Daily Mail. Mary Ann Cotton was a serial killer. She killed 21 people altogether. My reading of women's history, I confess, tends to be the people on the right side of the law, so this article caught my eye.
A man called David Wilson has just written a book on her (due to be published later in the year) and the article claims she is the first serial killer but no one has heard of her. Putting aside the fact that I am sure the Victorians were not the first to have serial killers (I suspect they just didn't get caught as often, with death rates and medical knowledge?), it did make me think about fame, how we remember some criminals and not others.
In the article, I got the impression that it is partly because she is female that she has been forgotten in history whilst Jack the Ripper gripped a nation. We find it uncomfortable that some one who is a wife, mother and even a nurse for a time should have an evil streak. A woman that brings life, should also take life would not sit well with the Victorians or with ourselves today. We find it easier I suspect to think of men as murderers.
However I don't think her sex is the main reason for her not to be remembered in the same light as serial murderers like Jack the Ripper. The media of the day followed each new murder for Jack the Ripper, building a hype around the story that has lasted through time. If you think about cases from history you remember, there was something about them, something the media was able to use to sell the story (a difficult thought given the topic). The eyes in the picture they always use of Myra Hindley always stay with you. It is an image that haunts you. The media always use that picture, even though there are others where she does not look evil incarnate.
Interestingly for her, compared to Mary Ann Cotton it was her sex and that picture that makes her so easy to recognise in the history books. Her partner Ian Brady is often left in her shadow. As a woman, it is considered that she should have been more protective of children, she stands out because she is seen as the devil incarnate. Mary Ann Cotton didn't have THAT picture, THAT look that condemned her in the public eye. She was around forty when she was executed, having recently given birth to a child that was taken away from her.