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Dark Angel

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Dark Angel is PBS’s chilling adaptation of David Wilson’s book, Mary Ann Cotton: Britain's First Female Serial Killer, a twisted, Gothic dramatization of manipulation and murder set in Victorian England. Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt celebrated for her portrayal of the angelic Anna Bates does a 360 turn in her chilling portrayal of Cotton, a woman whose name and identity constantly changed throughout her forty years. Cotton was a grifter who traveled from town to town and left death in her wake.

The dramatization presents Cotton as a complicated sociopath, a woman hemmed in by poverty, societal roles, and class repression. Cotton emerged from a number of personal tragedies as a manipulative monster without conscience or mercy. The Victorian period forced poor women into subservience and dependence on the largess of males and Cotton used her sexuality as a lure for unwitting men. She had no compunction of ridding herself of anyone who became an inconvenience including her mother and her own children. Her method of choice was arsenic served to her victims in tea after she had taken out insurance policies on their lives. Cotton knew that the common health issues of the period, cholera, and typhoid, matched the symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

Cotton managed to create havoc wherever she went, but greed was her comeuppance when she took out a policy on her eight-year-old stepson, Charlie Cotton and murdered the boy. A suspicious apothecary reported her to the police and a post-mortem proved her guilt. Cotton went to the gallows protesting her innocence, but everyone knew the truth. The estimates of the number of her victims range from thirteen to twenty-one, but she took the truth to the grave.

Her viciousness of the murders may have caused her execution to be a more gruesome than it needed to be. Cotton became a victim of hangman William Calcraft’s short-drop hanging method, a particularly sadistic manner of death. Cotton died, not from her neck breaking, but from strangulation caused from the ropes’ short rigging.

Froggatt leads an amazing supporting cast of veteran British actors and manages to be frightening in her murderous zeal, yet at times vulnerable and sensitive. It’s a bravura performance and definitely one worthy of notice during award season.

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