Mary Bateman "The Yorkshire Witch".


It might seem incredible to us today that a relatively uneducated woman who was a career criminal could successfully convince a large number of people that she possessed supernatural powers and healing abilities but Mary Bateman succeeded in doing so in Leeds in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Mary was born Mary Harker around 1768 to a farmer at Asenby, some four miles south of Thirsk in North Yorkshire and even as a child exhibited criminal tendencies.  Like many girls of her era she went into domestic service as a teenager, initially working for a family in Thirsk, but was soon sacked for stealing from them.  She continued her criminal career with a series of minor thefts and scams and by 1778 had moved to Leeds as she had become too well known locally. 

In 1782, after knowing him for just three weeks, she married John Bateman who was a wheelwright but marriage did not curtail her activities and the couple had to move regularly to avoid arrest.  They had four children, including a son also christened John.  By 1799 Mary was living in Marsh Lane, Leeds. She started dressmaking and also took to telling fortunes, claiming to have supernatural powers which she used to great effect.  She made and sold potions that were supposed to cure various ailments and ward off evil spirits.  There was still a popular belief in the power of witchcraft at this time and Mary found she could cash in on it.  It was probably far more profitable and certainly less risky that stealing, a crime for which she could easily be hanged. 


It is generally thought that Mary poisoned three people in 1803 although she was never tried for or convicted of these murders. The victims were two Quaker sisters who lived above their draper's shop with their mother in St Peter's Square in Quarry Hill, Leeds.  Mary sold them medicines which were in fact poison mixtures and having killed them she robbed the house and shop.  When the neighbours asked why the three women had died she told them that they had caught bubonic plague.  Amazingly there was little suspicion as to the cause of death and no inquest into them.  So Mary just walked away from the crime with her booty.


Mary frequently used a “Mrs. Moore” to help her in her scams.  This non existent lady was the initial fount of all Mary’s “wisdom” and was always consulted on behalf of Mary’s clients.  They were told that money she took from them was of course to go to Mrs. Moore.


In 1806 Mary invented a new alter ego called “Mrs. Blythe” to help her in her plans.

Living in the Bramley area of Leeds at this time were a comfortably off, but childless middle aged couple, William and Rebecca Perigo.  Rebecca was suffering from a fluttering in the breast whenever she laid down and was also having psychological problems, claiming to be haunted by a black dog and other spirits. She was told by her doctor, one Dr. Curzley, that she was under some sort of spell and that he was unable to help her.  At Whitsun 1806 the Perigo’s were visited by their niece who suggested obtaining help from Mary Bateman who she said would be able to rid her aunt of the spirits that were possessing her.  As a result a meeting was arranged between the Perigo’s and Mary outside the Black Dog pub.  Mary asked for an item of underclothing which she would send to Mrs. Blythe in Scarborough who would be able to help.  William Perigo took a flannel petticoat to Mary who promised to send it to Mrs. Blythe and told William to come and see her the following week.  This he did and Mary showed him the letter from Mrs. Blythe.  The imaginary Mrs. Blythe directed that Mary should go to the Perigo’s house and sew four guinea notes (£1.10) and some gold coins which she had sent, one into each corner of Rebecca’s bed, where they were to be left for eighteen months.  William was to give Mary four guinea notes in exchange to return to Mrs. Blythe.  The notes were duly sewn into the bed and William was instructed to visit Mary regularly to receive further instructions from Mrs. Blythe.  The next instruction was that William should nail two horse shoes to the door.  William was soon to receive a letter from Mrs. Blythe instructing him to take Mary a further two guinea notes and to purchase a cheese to be sent to her by Mary.  The letter was to be burnt after it had been read.  The next letter requested a small quantity of china and silverware be sent to her, together with some tea and sugar.  Again the letter was to be burnt.  A further request was for a bed and bed clothes as Mrs. Blythe was unable to sleep in her own bed due to the battle she was having with the spirits that had taken over Rebecca.  Again the letter was to be immediately burnt after it had been actioned.


The next letter predicted an illness in the Perigo house affecting one or both of them.  It instructed Rebecca to take half a pound of honey to Mary who would mix into some special medicine that Mrs. Blythe had made.  Also the Perigo’s were to eat puddings for six days into each of which they were to mix a daily marked packet of powder that Mary would give them.  Rebecca went to see Mary who did as the letter instructed and she left with the honey and the packets of powder.


On the 5th of May, another letter arrived instructing the Perigo’s to begin eating the puddings on the 11th of May.  Interestingly it said that only sufficient pudding was to be made for each day, nobody else was to be allowed to eat any of it and that if there was any left over it must be immediately destroyed.  It also said that should William or Rebecca become ill they were not to get the doctor because he would be unable to help.  Unsurprisingly this letter, like its predecessors was to be burnt. 

So the scene for the final act was now set.  The Perigo’s would poison themselves and kindly destroy all the evidence of Mary’s involvement.

To begin with eating the puddings produced no ill effects but on the sixth day they tasted different and caused William and Rebecca to have severe stomach cramps and vomiting.  As directed a doctor was not consulted and Rebecca who continued to eat the honey, died on the 24th of May 1807.  William did consult a doctor who suspected that Rebecca could have been poisoned but no post mortem was carried out.  William began to slowly recover somewhat as he was no longer eating the puddings.  Mary had been very clever up to this time. Through Mrs. Blythe she continued to demand items of value from the Perigo’s but not more than she assessed that they could afford, in view of William’s successful business.  Her real problem was that William had lived rather than died as planned.


William decided at length to examine the little silk purses that contained the guinea notes and gold coins that Mrs. Blythe had asked to have sewn into Rebecca’s bed clothes, surely they should still contain the notes and coins that had been placed in them.  Instead they contained cabbage leaves and copper coins.  Now it seems that the penny had finally dropped with William. He arranged a meeting with Mary on the pretext of buying another bottle of medicine and took assistance with him, in the form of Constable Driffield.  Mary had brought with her a bottle of liquid containing oatmeal and arsenic with which she presumably hoped to silence her principal accuser.  As soon as she saw the constable she tried to make out that it was William Perigo who had bought the bottle for her.  He was not impressed by this charade.  Mary was now taken into custody and when the constable searched her house and were able to recover many of the items that had been sent to Mrs. Blythe by the Perigo’s.

She appeared before the magistrates the following day charged with Rebecca’s murder.  They committed her for trial at the Yorkshire Lent Assizes of 1809 which opened at York Castle on Friday the 17th of March before judge Sir Simon Le Blanc.


Evidence of the handwriting on Mrs. Blythe’s letters being identical to Mary’s was given and how Mary had sent the letters to Scarborough and had them mailed back so that they would bear the correct postmark.  A thorough search by constables in Scarborough had revealed, predictably, that there was no Mrs. Blythe.  Forensic evidence was provided by a Mr. Chorley who had analysed the remains of the honey and found that it contained mercuric chloride which was extremely poisonous and this was consistent with the symptoms displayed by the Perigo’s. 

Mary’s defence was straight forward denial of any involvement with the death.


Sir Simon Le Blanc summed up and told the jury that to bring in a guilty verdict they had to satisfy themselves on three points.  These were that Rebecca had died from poisoning, that the poison had been administered with the knowledge and contrivance of Mary and that it had been done in the expectation of causing Rebecca’s death.  He went on to remind them that although there was a strong case against Mary for having systematically defrauded the Perigo’s this did not make her automatically guilty of murder.


The evidence of criminality and murder was so overwhelming that it did not take the jury long to deliver its verdict.  In accordance with the usual procedure Mary was asked if she had anything to say as to why sentence of death should not be pronounced on her.  Breaking into floods of tears she pleaded her belly, in other words claimed to be pregnant.  As a result the judge ordered the court doors to be locked and immediately empanelled a jury of matrons to examine her.  They found her not to be pregnant and so he proceeded to sentence her to be hanged and afterwards dissected on the following Monday.  She was aged forty one at this time and had an infant child with her in prison up till the time she was condemned.


Over the weekend Mary wrote a letter to her husband in which she enclosed her wedding ring and asked him to give it to their daughter.  She admitted some her crimes but continued to deny the murders.  It was reported by the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper that she continued her criminal habits even in the condemned cell, telling the fortune of one of her female attendants for a guinea.  On the morning of execution she was up at five o’clock for a communion service in the chapel.


Mary was executed on Monday, the 20th of March 1809 by William “Mutton” Curry the Yorkshire hangman, alongside Joseph Brown who had been convicted of the murder of Elizabeth Fletcher.  Curry was nicknamed “Mutton” as he had twice been convicted of sheep stealing and reprieved on both occasions, the last on condition that he remain prisoner in the castle and carry out the executions there, which he did from 1802 to 1835.  The New Drop gallows was set up in the area behind the castle and some five thousand people came to watch Mary die. Despite the best efforts of the chaplain, the Reverend George Brown, Mary persisted in her denial of the murder(s) and her other criminal activities to the end, dying as one report put it “with a lie on her lips”.  It seems though that many still believed she had supernatural powers and there was some sympathy for her.  It was reported that some of the spectators really thought that she would be saved from death by some divine intervention at the last moment, but this was not to be. A broadside was published detailing the crimes and execution of Mary and Joseph Brown.


After execution Mary’s body was sent to the Leeds Royal Infirmary for dissection and afterwards put on display.  The public paid three pence each to view her body and thirty pounds was raised for the hospital.  Strips of Mary’s skin were sold as curios. 

Her skeleton was used initially for anatomy classes and afterwards, together with a plaster cast death mask of her skull put on display.  It can still be seen in the Thackray Museum in Leeds, to whom it was loaned by the Infirmary. See photo.


Mary was always stealing from and defrauding people and was well known as a thief so why wasn’t she informed on by the people of Leeds?  It is probable that they feared her witchcraft more than her predations.  It would be easy to brand William Perigo as totally naive for allowing himself to be so completely taken in by Mary but no doubt he was desperate to save his wife’s life and when the doctor could offer no hope he looked elsewhere for assistance.  Sadly he found one of the most criminal women of the time. 


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