Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Mortiferous Machinations of the Maleficent Murderess

                 Some contemporary critics of Joanna Southcott sought to damn her by association when one of her Passports to Paradise was found in the possession of the notorious murderess Mary Bateman, known as The Yorkshire Witch. Regardless of what we may think about Southcott and her shenanigans, this is a cheap shot and a low blow, as she had absolutely no control over who subsequently gained possession of the things. Mary Bateman, nee Harker, was born at Aisenby, near Thirsk in North Yorkshire, in 1768, to respectable farming stock, and at about twelve years of age she entered domestic service in Thirsk. She was a poor servant, and was dismissed from several households for petty pilfering, and in 1788 she moved to Leeds, where she worked as a silk dressmaker and began to exploit a growing reputation as a witch. 

Mary Bateman - The Yorkshire Witch

In 1792, she met John Bateman, a wheelwright, and within three weeks they were married, an act that poor John had cause to repent at his leisure. One day he received a letter from Thirsk, saying his father was gravely ill and like to die. He immediately left Leeds for home, where he met his father, hale and well, walking in the street. When asked about his health, the father replied he was well, and had been for a long time. Perplexed, John returned to Leeds, where he found Mary had stripped the house and sold everything! 

Leeds in Bygone Days

She repeatedly stole from their lodgers, and following a factory fire, she approached various people for bedsheets with which to make shrouds for dead children, which were freely given, only to turn up later in local pawnshops. John attempted to be free of her by joining the militia, but she simply followed him, so in 1799, they returned to Marsh Lane, Leeds, where Mary began again to practice her magic, providing love potions and reading fortunes. One of her more imaginative ruses at this time was to inscribe eggs with such messages as ‘Crist [sic] is coming’, re-introduce them into hens and then wait for them to be re-laid, for which she charged observers a penny a time to witness the miracle. 

Bateman with one of her miraculous eggs

She ingratiated herself into the household of two Quaker sisters, the Misses Kitchin, who kept a small linen draper’s shop in St Peter’s Square, Leeds, and presented herself frequently with promises to read their fortunes, and even ended up working in the shop. In September 1803, one of these young ladies became ill, and Mary took the task of nursing her upon herself. Mrs Kitchin senior, hearing of the illness, arrived from Wakefield but she, together with her other daughter, also became ill. Within ten days, all three were dead and Mary put out word that plague was to blame, thereby ensuring there were no unwanted inquirers. When the house was eventually opened, it ws found that all its contents, the stock and the books from the shop, were all missing. But no suspicion fell on the good friend Mary, who continued to read the fortunes of mainly young serving girls, many of whom she terrified into parting with their little savings. She employed a pair of fictitious confederates, a Miss Blythe and a Mrs Moore, whose sagacious ‘good advice’ she passed on to her dupes, wringing even more pennies from them. 

Joanna Southcott

Mary next devised a plan to visit York, where she announced herself to be a follower of Joanna Southcott and enquired where she might find others who were ‘Sealed’ in that City (knowing, full well, that these credulous folk would be the easiest to swindle). She took lodgings, for free, at the house of a widow Southcottian, where she lived for a while, allowing herself to be well fed and made comfortable. When she eventually left, the widow discovered that several guineas and the contents of her wardrobe had departed with her former ‘guest’. 

The Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman - 1811

In the early spring of 1806, a servant girl from Leeds, Sarah Stead, spent her Whitsuntide holiday with her aunt and uncle in the nearby village of Bramley and was concerned to find her aunt Rebecca had a ‘flacking’ or fluttering in her chest. A local ‘hedge’ doctor had been consulted, who declared she had an ‘evil wish’ had been laid upon her but a cure was beyond his powers. Luckily, Sarah knew a woman who knew a woman, and Mary Bateman’s assistance was sought. She did, she affirmed, know a Miss Blythe in Scarborough who could help. All she needed was a flannel nightdress or some other item worn by the lady next to her skin, which would be sent off, in order for Miss Blythe to ascertain the true nature of the curse. 

Mr Perigo brought the nightdress and was told to return in a week’s time, which he did. A reply had come from Scarborough, which told them to take the four guinea notes that were supplied, sew them into silk bags and place them at the corners of Mrs Perigo’s bed, where they were to remain for eighteen months. Four guineas were to be given in return to Mrs Bateman, who would send them back to Scarborough. All this was done, and two weeks later another letter arrived, instructing them to nail up two horseshoes on their door, using not a hammer but the back of a pair of pliers, which were then to be sent to Scarborough. For months, letters arrived instructing them to send all manner of odd things back to Scarborough, including cheeses, silver spoons, a goose pie, worsted stockings, china tea sets and a tea-caddy. Sums of money also arrived, to be sewn into the Perigo’s bed, and replacement amounts were to be returned, via Mrs Bateman, to Scarborough. 

Notes and Queries - 1873

In May 1807, another letter came, instructing them to take the seven packets of powder enclosed, give one to Mrs Bateman who was to mix it in half a pound of honey, and the other six to be held by the Perigos, awaiting instruction. This soon arrived; the powder was to be mixed each day with a pudding, which William and Rebecca Perigo were to eat on consecutive days, eating the whole pudding themselves, and not allowing anyone to see them during the time. If they were ill, they need not consult a doctor, but continue with the powder and pudding regime until complete and to also take a spoonful of the honey, otherwise it would not work. For five days, all went well, but on the sixth day they both became violently ill, vomiting and nauseous, and on May 24th Rebecca Perigo died. 

A Doctor Chorley was called, who opined that she had died from poison, a fact he proved by giving some of the remaining pudding to a cat, which promptly also died. But, incredibly, nothing else was done. Miss Blythe wrote again, expressing her sorrow at Rebecca’s death but pointing out that it was her own fault, as she had not followed her instructions to the letter, which also put the lives of herself and Mrs Bateman at risk! For two more years, William Perigo continued to send goods to Miss Blythe via Mrs Bateman, until it dawned on him that the eighteen month period initially mentioned by Miss Blythe was long passed. He went and rooted out the various silk bags placed in the bed, opened them and discovered they contained bad farthings and cabbage leaves! He contacted Bateman on the pretence of wanting to buy some medicine, and when she arrived, he had her apprehended by the law. In her pocket was a bottle of fluid, containing oatmeal and arsenic. 


She was brought to trial in York, before Sir Simon Le Blanc (honestly!) on Friday March 17th 1809, where Doctor Chorley confirmed he had tested the pudding and the honey, both of which contained the poison sublimate of mercury. The Judge commented with marvellous British understatement that, 
It is impossible not to be struck with wonder at the extraordinary credulity of Wm. Perigo, which neither the loss of his property, the death of his wife nor his own severe sufferings, could dispel.” 
The jury found Bateman guilty of the death of Rebecca Perigo by poisoning, the attempted murder of William Perigo and the intent to also murder him with the arsenic and oatmeal mix, and defrauding the couple out of at least seventy pounds. Judge Le Blanc sentenced Mary Bateman to death by hanging, whereupon she announced that the sentence could not be carried out as she was twenty-two weeks pregnant. Le Blanc then empanelled twelve married women in the courtroom to examine Bateman; this dozen matrons baulked at the prospect and bolted for the doors but the Judge was already one step ahead and had the exits blocked. Bateman and the good wives of York retired to a side room and the examination took place; they re-emerged and informed the Judge that the prisoner was not with child as she had claimed. You have to admit it, Mary Bateman had more front than Blackpool. 

She was sent to the condemned cells, where a fellow prisoner told her that her last wish was to see her beloved. Mary told her that if she would give a certain number of coins, she would fashion a charm from them, which she would then sew into the stays of the girl’s corset and which would guarantee to bring the young man running. The coins were found and Mary set about her magic-making but soon after the girl had second thoughts and unpicked the stays only to find them empty. Even when she was waiting to be hanged, Mary had conned an innocent and pocketed the money! That really is front. 

On the morning of Monday March 20th 1809, Mary Bateman went to the gallows at the New Drop near to York Castle, declaring her innocence to the last. When the sentence had been carried out, her body was taken down and transferred to Leeds General Infirmary, where it was dissected before an audience who paid thrupence each to watch, raising £30 for the Infirmary. 

The Mortal Remains of Mary Bateman

Her skin was taken off, tanned, and strips of the resulting leather were sold as lucky charms. Her skeleton (or what is left of it) and her death mask are still on display at the Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds.

Notes and Queries Jan 1873

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