The Terrible Crimes and False Wonders of Mary Bateman, the Witch of Yorkshire

Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," with her prophetic egg
Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," with her prophetic egg
Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch, Google Books // Public Domain

Tales of witchcraft and persecution are woven throughout the darkest history of Great Britain. Over hundreds of years, thousands of women were accused of sorcery, consorting with the devil, shape-shifting, causing illness, and worse. Some of the accused were innocent of the crimes attributed to them, yet others, of course, were not. One not-so-blameless woman was Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch, whose career of murder and fraud was finished at the end of a rope.

A Young Witch

Mary Harker was born to a North Yorkshire farmer and his wife around 1768. Though her childhood was comfortable, she developed a love of stealing, and by the time she entered domestic service around the age of 12 she was an experienced thief. As one 1811 account of her life put it, she was of a "knavish and vicious disposition"—and soon people were onto her schemes. Mary's thievery cost her job after job, and eventually her reputation for dishonesty made it impossible for her to find employment at all.

With her local options severely limited, Mary moved to the metropolis of Leeds in the late 1780s. There, she managed to find work as a seamstress through a friend of her mother's. As a couple of other Yorkshire women were doing at that time, she also established a sideline as a witch. Mary told fortunes, brewed love potions, and removed "evil wishes" for the local servant girls and sometimes their employers. In 1792, she married a wheelwright, John Bateman; he either didn't know about, or didn't mind, Mary's darker predilections.

John Bateman was an honest man, but Mary couldn't stop stealing. The couple was forced to move constantly to escape the threat of discovery and punishment. None of that mattered to Mary, however, not even after she and John had children. Soon, she added a new type of fraud to her repertoire.

Around the time the 19th century dawned, Mary began claiming to be the agent for an entirely fictitious "Mrs. Moore." According to Mary, as the seventh child of a seventh child, Moore was capable of "screwing down" (supernaturally binding) those who would cause her clients harm, whether that person was a philandering husband or a determined creditor. Eventually, Mary also began pretending to be the go-between for a Miss Blythe, a more garden-variety psychic who could "read the stars." Blythe, too, was a product of Mary's imagination.

Before long, clients were flocking to Mary's home, hoping to hear what their futures might hold. Mary took their names—and, of course, a payment—and supposedly delivered it to Miss Blythe. She then passed on her predictions to the clients, along with any charms that the fictional psychic thought might aid them. Mary became an effective shopfront for the imaginary soothsayer, selling a variety of magic potions and charms that she claimed could ward off evil, repel curses, and even cure illness. She also served as a part-time abortionist.

All together, it was a lucrative business, but it seems that even that wasn't enough for the ambitious Mary Bateman. Soon, she turned to murder.

A Caring Nurse

The first people to die by Mary's hand, in 1803, were three women from a family named Kitchin. Mary started by befriending them, and sometimes helping out in their drapery shop in Leeds. She also told them their fortunes, passed along (for a fee) from Miss Blythe. But when one women fell ill of an unknown cause, Mary "nursed" her with special powders she prepared.

Soon, all three women were dead. Mary blamed the deaths on the plague, and, fearful of infection (and possibly Mary's wrath as well), locals decided to say nothing. When creditors looked into the Kitchin estate, they discovered that the drapery shop, and house, had been stripped bare—and the account books were missing. But no one thought to blame Mary.

Mary deployed her deceptions with skill: As soon as she sensed her luster was fading she moved on, charming a new batch of clients who had never heard of the name Mary Bateman. She sought out the ill and anxious and promised to offer the magical answer to their problems. Seemingly kind and supposedly well-connected, Mary was rarely without customers.

Around 1806, Mary also turned her hand to apocalyptic prophecy. She began spreading the story of "the Prophet Hen of Leeds," claiming that a chicken she owned was laying eggs inscribed with the words "Crist [sic] is coming." People flocked to Mary for magical protection and for the price of a penny, she promised that they would be spared from the forthcoming end times.

The truth was rather more banal. Mary had inscribed words on the eggs using vinegar (which etched the shells) before deftly popping them back into the hen's oviduct, where they would be "freshly" laid. A local doctor who spied on her discovered the deception, but Mary apparently wasn't punished. All in all, her fraudulent farm animal act would be the least of her crimes.

Mary Bateman's Last Deception

In the spring of 1806, news of the apparently kindly and talented Mary reached a couple in Bramley named William and Rebecca Perigo. Rebecca suffered from a nervous disorder, and complained of a fluttering in her side that she had been told was the result of an "evil wish." Rebecca turned to Mary Bateman for help—and Mary graciously agreed to refer the case to Miss Blythe.

Mary claimed that Miss Blythe had told her to sew silk bags containing guinea notes, donated by the Perigos, into the corners of Rebecca's bed, where they should remain undisturbed for 18 months. As "Miss Blythe" continued to work on Rebecca's case, she demanded money for magical supplies as well as china, silver, and eventually even a new bed for herself; she claimed she needed all of the items for supernatural reasons. With each demand, the couple handed over the cash, then burned the letter at "Miss Blythe's" instruction, so evil spirits couldn't read its contents.

The Perigos had given Miss Blythe a small fortune when they received a chilling note from the psychic that warned of a forthcoming mysterious sickness: "My Dear Friends—I am sorry to tell you, you will take an illness in the month of May next, either t'one or both, but I think both, but the works of God must have its course."

Thankfully, Miss Blythe said she could help. Mary supplied them with special powders from Blythe that were to be sprinkled into puddings, which the couple should eat alongside a special pot of honey. The instructions they received with the powders stated that on no account must anyone other than the Perigos partake of the magical food, nor must they summon a doctor, as this would only serve to make the supernatural illness even worse.

The obedient Perigos were lambs to the slaughter—Mary had laced the food with poison, and the couple fell ill almost immediately. William later recalled that "a violent heat came out of his mouth, which was very sore, that his lips were black, and that he had a most violent pain in his head twenty times worse than a common head-ache, [and that] everything appeared green to him." He also suffered from a "violent complaint in his bowels."

On May 24, 1807, Rebecca Perigo died, but William did not. He was left bereft, and for two desperate years continued to rely on the potions provided by Miss Blythe, even as she asked for more money and his wife's clothes.

As the years passed, William's faith began to waver. He wondered why his constant payments and gifts to Miss Blythe didn't seem to have done much good. Finally, he unpicked the stitches on the silk purses that Mary had sewn into Rebecca's bed. Inside, he found only found wastepaper, metal, and small change, not the money he had given to Miss Blythe. William realized he had been duped.

He confronted Mary about what he'd discovered. She replied that he must have opened the bags too soon. William retorted, "I think it is too late," and promised to come back the next morning to settle things. When he returned, he brought a Constable Driffield, who hid nearby. Mary tried to turn the tables and claim Perigo was the poisoner, declaring that "that bottle which you gave me yesterday night has almost poisoned me and my husband, who is ill in bed in consequence of taking it."

For once, William—and the constable—were one step ahead of her. At that ridiculous line about the bottle, Driffield appeared and arrested her. A search of Mary's house uncovered items Miss Blythe had supposedly demanded of the Perigos. Even Mary's gift of gab wouldn't save her this time.

A "Sedate and Respectable" Witch

The keep at York Castle
The keep at York Castle
life.inphotos, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

As the Hull Packet newspaper put it in late 1808, after Mary had been arrested, the ruse targeting the Perigos was "almost without precedent, for gross villainy on the part of the deceiver, and blind credulity on the part of the deceived."

When Mary's trial for the murder of Rebecca Perigo opened at York Castle on March 17, 1809, she stuck to one defense: deny everything. In a written statement, she claimed "it is utterly false that [I] ever did send for any poison by any person," and spoke in court only to deny the charges. The Hull Packet reported that Mary looked "very plausible"—not like someone hiding poison in her potions. She was said to have seemed "sedate and respectable," despite having "a tongue in her head that would weedle the devil."

As witnesses came forward from across Leeds to tell of extortion at the hands of Mary Bateman, it soon became apparent that the scope of her crimes was far broader than initially suspected. For many, the unexpected deaths of the Kitchins six years earlier now took on a more sinister cast. Something else became clear, too: There was no Miss Blythe nor any Mrs. Moore. In fact, Mary's handwriting matched that of Miss Blythe perfectly, but she made no attempt to explain the similarity.

A doctor who analyzed the remains of the Perigos' honey found corrosive sublimate of mercury. Tests on a bottle in Mary's possession also found that it contained a mixture of rum, oatmeal, and arsenic. The jury swiftly returned a verdict: guilty. There was, the judge said, not "a particle of doubt" on the matter, and he declared to Mary, "For crimes like yours, in this world, the gates of mercy are closed." A death sentence seemed imminent.

Mary, once so stoic, tearfully declared that she was pregnant. If true, a death sentence would be postponed, if not set aside altogether. But the court-ordered medical examination found no evidence of a pregnancy, and Mary was sentenced to death. She continued to protest her innocence even as she kept up her business from the condemned cell, making magical charms for fellow female inmates.

On March 20, 1809, Mary went before hangman William "Mutton" Curry. As she mounted the New Drop gallows, thousands of people turned out to watch the last moments of the Yorkshire Witch, as she would soon become known. To her final breath, she denied the murder charges against her. Though some said she died "with a lie on her lips," others still believed in what the Lancaster Gazetter called "the pretended Sorceress," and hoped that she would be saved by a miracle.

Of course, no miracle came.

Mary's body was brought to the Leeds Infirmary, where the public paid three pence to view her remains. Thousands attended her dissection, and afterwards, those who wished could purchase a dried and preserved patch of skin as a souvenir. Her skin was even used to bind several books, at least one of which was allegedly owned by the future George IV. Though now in storage at Leeds University, her skeleton was on display for over two centuries, first at the Leeds Medical School, and later at the Thackray Medical Museum—where it served as a reminder of one of the most cunning murderers the area has ever known.

Additional Sources: The Romance of Crime; Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events, Vol II.; Celebrated Trials, and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence; Women and the Gallows; Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity; Queens of Crime; Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum; Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; York Castle in the Nineteenth Century; Lives of Twelve Bad Women; Yorkshire's Murderous Women; "Chronological Sketch of the Most Remarkable Event of the Year 1809," Lancaster Gazetter; "More Witchcraft," Leeds Mercury; "Witchcraft, Murder, and Credulity," Lancaster Gazetter; "Yorkshire Lent Assizes, 1809," Hull Packet

14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic

National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Over a century ago, a deadly flu pandemic swept across the globe. The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu—named because that’s where early news reports of the disease originated, though research has put its actual origin anywhere from China to Kansas to France—are traditionally dated to Kansas in March 1918. The disease ultimately infected some 500 million people, and estimates put the death toll anywhere from 20 to 50 million. The people on this list contracted the deadly flu and lived to tell the tale.

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney sitting in a chair.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

If Walt Disney hadn’t contracted the flu, we might never have had Mickey Mouse. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Disney lied about his birth year to sign up for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps at the tail end of WWI. Then he got sick. By the time he was ready to ship out, the war was over.

2. Mary Pickford

A close-up photo of silent film star Mary Pickford smiling.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill; thankfully, Pickford’s bout with the flu was uneventful, but as the disease spread, many movie theaters were forced to close. Irritated theater owners in Los Angeles, claiming they had been singled out, petitioned for all other places that people gathered together (except for grocery stores, meat markets, and drug stores) to be forced to close as well. While stores were not forced to close, schools were and public gatherings were banned.

3. David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George sitting outside with his dog and reading a newspaper.
Ernest H. Mills // Getty Images

Weeks before the end of World War I, Lloyd, Prime Minister of the UK at the time, came very close to dying of the flu. He was confined to his bed for nine days, had to wear a respirator, and was accompanied by a doctor for over a month. Because it was thought that news of the Prime Minister’s illness would hurt the morale of the British people and “encourage the enemy,” his condition was kept mostly hidden from the press.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. The New York Times described his illness as “a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza.” Roosevelt convalesced at his mother’s New York City home until he was well enough to head back to Washington, D.C.

5. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson circa 1912.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Considering Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, early 1919 was a seriously inconvenient time to get sick. Not only did he get the flu, but he fell ill so violently and so quickly that his doctors were sure he had been poisoned. When Wilson was well enough to rejoin the “Big Three” negotiations a few days later, people commented on how weak and out of it he seemed.

6. Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II in his uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the German Kaiser was undoubtedly upset to get sick himself, he had reason to be happy about the flu epidemic, or so he thought. One of his military generals insisted—despite the fact that the surgeon general disagreed—that the illness would decimate the French troops, while leaving the Germans mostly unharmed. Since Germany needed a miracle to win the war, the flu must have seemed like a godsend. In the end, it ravaged all armies pretty much equally, and Germany surrendered.

7. John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing in uniform sitting on a horse.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the great American general got sick himself, the flu gave him a much larger problem. His troops were dying at a faster rate from illness than from bullets. Soon there were more than 16,000 cases among U.S. troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in just over a week.

8. Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie sitting in a chair drinking tea.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The future emperor of Ethiopia was one of the first Ethiopians to contract the disease. His country was woefully unprepared for the epidemic: There were only four doctors in the capital available to treat patients. Selassie survived, but it's unknown how many people the flu killed in Ethiopia; it killed 7 percent of the population of neighboring British Somaliland.

9. Leo Szilard

A black and white photo of Leo Szilard in a suit and tie.
Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You may not have heard of him, but the atomic scientist Leo Szilard might have saved the world. While he survived the flu during WWI (he was supposedly cured by spending time in a humid room, the standard treatment for respiratory illness at the time), what he should be remembered for is his foresight before WWII. When he and other physicists were discovering different aspects of nuclear fission, he persuaded his colleagues to keep quiet about it, so that the Nazis wouldn’t get any closer to making an atomic bomb.

10. Katherine Anne Porter

Author Katherine Anne Porter sitting in a chair wearing a hat with a bow on it.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The author turned her experience with sickness in 1918 into a short novel called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The story is told by a woman with the flu who is tended to by a young soldier. While she recovers, he contracts the disease and dies.

11. Alfonso XIII

The King of Spain working at his desk.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. The flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else, but unlike most journalists in other countries—who were under wartime censorship—the Spanish media actually covered the pandemic, leading to an unfair association that persists to this day.

12. Edvard Munch

A portrait of Edvard Munch standing in the snow.
Nasjonalbiblioteket, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Munch, the artist behind The Scream, had an apparent obsession with sickness and death long before he came down with the flu—he painted many works on the subject. But the flu obviously affected him especially: He painted a few self-portraits of both his illness and shortly after his recovery.

13. Lillian Gish

A portrait of Lillian Gish.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star started feeling sick during a costume fitting and collapsed with a 104-degree fever when she got home. Fortunately, she could afford a doctor and two nurses to attend to her around the clock. While she recovered, it wasn’t all good news. Gish complained later, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns—have to wear them all winter—horrible things.”

14. Clementine Churchill

Clementine Churchill speaks at a microphone.
Arthur Tanner/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

While Winston was in France in 1919, the Churchill household—including his wife Clementine and their nanny Isabelle, who was looking after their young daughter Marigold—contracted the flu. According to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames, Isabelle grew delirious and took Marigold from her cot despite being sick herself. Clementine grabbed the child and was anxious for days about Marigold’s condition. Isabelle died of the flu, but Clementine and Marigold survived. (Sadly, Marigold would die from a bacterial infection that developed into sepsis in 1921.)

During World War II, Clementine served as a close adviser to Winston. She was also the “Chairman” of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, which raised 8 million pounds during WWII and resulted in her being awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor, being made a Dame, and being given a 19th century glass fruit bowl from Stalin. Churchill’s Chief Staff Officer, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, would later comment that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”

In the 1800s, Drinking Too Much Tea Could Get a Woman Sent to an Insane Asylum

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

If you were a woman in the 19th century, virtually anything could get you committed to an insane asylum—including drinking too much tea.

NHS Grampian Archives, which covers the region around Scotland’s Grampian mountains, dug up an admissions record from the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum while looking into the institution’s annual reports from the 1840s. The table contains data on causes of admissions categorized by sex. In addition to those admitted to the asylum for “prolonged nursing,” “poverty,” or “disappointment in love” (one man and one woman admitted for that one!), one woman arrived at the asylum only to have her issues blamed on “sedentary life—abuse of tea.”

Intrigued by the diagnosis, someone at the archives tracked down more details on the patient and posted the case notes on Facebook. Naturally, her condition involved more than just a little too much Earl Grey. Elizabeth Collie, a 34-year-old factory worker, was admitted in November 1848 after suffering from delusions, specifically delusions about machines.

Her files state that “she imagines that some species of machinery has been employed by her neighbors in the house she has been living in, which had the effect of causing pain and disorder in her head, bowels, and other parts of the body.”

Asylum employees noted that ”no cause [for her condition] can be assigned, except perhaps the excessive use of tea, to which she has always been much addicted.” She was released in June 1849.

A letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal in 1886 suggests that the suspicion of women’s tea-drinking habits was not unique to Aberdeen mental health institutions. One doctor, J. Muir Howie—who once served as a regional president for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, so we can assume he was relatively respectable—wrote to the publication:

Would you kindly allow me to draw attention to the fact that, among women at least, the abuse of tea frequently leads to the abuse of alcohol! My experience in connection with a home for inebriate women has led me to this conclusion. Many of the inmates, indeed, almost all of them, were enormous tea-drinkers before they became victims to alcoholic dipsomania. During their indulgence in alcohol, they rarely drink much tea; but, as soon as the former cut off, they return to the latter. In many instances, alcohol was first used to relieve the nervous symptoms produced by excessive tea drinking.

Ah, women. So susceptible to mania and vice. It's a miracle any of us stay out of the madhouse.

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