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 Castlelife.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

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

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This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

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7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

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9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

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This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

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Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.