Dark Angel: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer

Deborah Gilbert | May 16, 2017

Dark Angel on MASTERPIECE comes to PBS this Sunday night at 9pm, and be forewarned; this is not the kind of angel who gets their wings every time a bell rings. (Sorry Clarence!)

If Looks Could Kill: Joanne Froggatt returns in Dark Angel


Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton


Mary Ann Cotton

Our own Anna Bates (AKA actress Joanne Froggatt) is back on our telly screens in Dark Angel, premiering this Sunday night, May 21 at 9pm on THIRTEEN. She is playing against type in the true story of Mary Ann Cotton, a notorious Victorian-era serial killer. Considered to be the UK’s first female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton was born in 1832, just before Victoria came to the throne (though she seems to have had more in common with Uncle Cumberland than the young Queen). And while fellow Victorian Jack the Ripper gets all the press, the less well-known Mary Ann Cotton actually racked up more victims all by casually slipping arsenic in their tea. (Historians believe her tally may have been as high as 21 people, including eleven of her own children.) In the Victorian era, when forensics was still in its infancy, this crime was frighteningly easy to get away with because arsenic poisoning mimicked two of the most common diseases of the day: typhoid fever and cholera. Firsthand accounts from the time described Mary Ann Cotton as strikingly beautiful, but to me, in this photo she looks a bit like Paulie Walnuts, amiright?

Arsenic and Young Lace: The (conflicting) stories behind Dark Angel

What we don’t get to see in Dark Angel is the way the media sensationalized the story of Mary Ann Cotton and her crimes. In the mid-nineteenth century there was, in fact, a mild media-induced public panic over the prospects of an epidemic of poisoning, caused mostly by sensationalized stories of other female murderers, who all employed poison as their weapon of choice. Of them, Mary Ann Cotton was the most prolific by far. But it should be noted that there are some who disagree with the premise that Mary Ann Cotton was actually guilty at all. Ian Smyth Herdman spent thirty years investigating the crimes and insists the police at the time did shoddy work and used hearsay evidence to gain a conviction.

However, David Wilson, the professor of criminology who wrote Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer on which this movie is based, is convinced of her guilt. And what might have motivated Mary Ann? What we see of her life is the same kind of abject poverty that we see in Victorian Slum House. Mary Ann benefited from life insurance policies on some of her victims, a life insurance payout of £35 (that’s £4095 or $5286 in 2017 money.) And she likely got away with it for so long because her twenty-year killing spree took place during a slice of time right after life insurance became available but before forensic science truly developed.

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Type Righter: Joanna Froggatt definitely plays against type in Dark Angel

This is a great role for Joanne. If she wanted to make sure she wasn’t type-cast forever as Downton Abbey‘s sweet-as-pie Anna, this role certainly accomplishes that goal. In Dark Angel, she’s gone from Pollyanna Bates to Hannibal Lecter. In my Downton Abbey recaps I joked a few times that Anna Bates might really being a serial killer; one time Joanne even retweeted a recap that mentioned my tongue-in-cheek theory. Looking back, she was probably in pre-production (or at least in talks) for this role when she did it! Who knew? See what Joanne Froggatt had to say about Dark Angel on Britain’s This Morning program:

Getting the band back together: Familiar faces from Downton appear in Dark Angel

Dark Angel is also a Downton Abbey reunion of sorts. There is a part played by Thomas Howes (Downton Abbey’s William Mason), and it is directed by Emmy-winning director of Downton Abbey, Brian Percival. As for knowing in advance that Mary Ann is a murderer, it doesn’t matter that, in the opening scenes, they give away how her story ended. It is riveting to watch her journey into darkness. I say, lock your doors and get out the popcorn. (I’m guessing you won’t want any tea to wash it down after this!)

News You Can Use: Downton Abbey to Hit the Silver Screen

And speaking of Downton Abbey reunions, the long-rumored Downton Abbey movie looks like it is actually going to happen. The actors must get tired of being asked about it in every single interview they do, but last week one of them cracked under questioning: In a TV interview, Jim Carter (AKA Mr. Carson) said that principals have been asked to keep their diaries open in September for filming. It’s happening, Downtonians!

I’ll be back soon with a preview of the new season of The Great British Baking Show. What British import are you most looking forward to seeing this spring and summer? Join the conversation below…

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