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
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