Wednesday 30 November 2022

Review: The Yorkshire Witch by Summer Strevens


Hanged on the Knavesmire at York in 1809, Mary Bateman met her end at the same place as one of the Pendle witches in 1612. However, Mary, the ‘Yorkshire witch’ was not executed for witchcraft and, even if she had, the modern story of a poor, innocent woman railroaded by the justice system wouldn’t have applied to her. Mary Bateman was anything but innocent, a thief and con-artist who was hanged for murder, it’s very possible she killed at least three other people, making her a serial killer. 

She started from a young age with a career of opportunistic thievery, a habit that never really left her. As a result she was passed from job to job and moved from area to area and town to town. There was one time she bumped into an errand-boy from a butcher’s shop and pretended to be a cook angry for the lateness of the beef. She them bopped him on the head and took the beef home to cook. She married John Bateman, a conscientious cooper, who swore that he knew nothing of his wife’s criminal propensities. This seems unlikely, as in one case she forged a message from his mother, saying she was dying so that she could get John out of town in order to sell off all their furniture and pay back money she had stolen to someone else. Mary may have been brave in her criminal dealings but she wasn’t wise and frequently found herself having to give back items she’d been caught stealing, a practice that kept her out of official trouble.

One of her more successful swindles was to pose as a charitable collector, particularly after a great cotton mill fire. She’d collect money and useful items for the injured families and keep it all. She also set up shop as a ‘wise woman’, a keeper of botanical and magical lore who could heal the sick, end curses and find lost objects. This is where her nickname as a witch came from. It’s also became her principal hustle and the one that sealed her fate.

One interesting link between Bateman and one of my other interests is that she became a Southcottian and received (or had forged) one of Joanna Southcott’s famous seals. She used these connections to score free accommodation with a woman in York, who she proceeded to swindle in time-honoured fashion and when she went back to Leeds she had a new plan. She announced to the world (and Southcottians in particular) that she had discovered ‘The Prophet Hen of Leeds’, a fortune telling chicken whose eggs foretold the coming end-times. The first one read, ‘Crist is coming’, which may have included a crucial spelling error but was presumably not bad for a chicken. It caused a sensation, with people paying to see the miraculous hen and her marvellous eggs but the hoax was rumbled pretty soon when Mary was caught stuffing a pre-messaged egg into the chicken.

Away from the Southcottians, she also carried on her role as wise woman, or rather, as the intermediary between customers and a real wise woman (the non-existent, Miss Blythe). Her longer con involved her reading a fortune for someone, often a dark one, and suggesting the help of Miss Blythe to combat it. The usual way ‘Miss Blythe’ combat a dark fortune was to be sent 4 gold guineas, to seal them in pouches with special mystical ingredients and, via Mary, to deliver them to the person in need to sew into their bed. There was a warning though, not to open these packages for a set time period. For those poor people that did, they found the guineas had magically turned into lead weights or other useless items. In the more difficult circumstances, Miss Blythe would need other help. One family were told that the demonic forces had possessed Miss Blythe’s tea set and sugar, so they’d need to buy a replacement for her. Another bought Miss Blythe underwear, another a new dress. It seems painfully obvious what was happening, especially when Mary Bateman used that tea set or wore that dress, but maybe that’s part of the con, like spelling mistakes in a phishing email.

Bateman eventually went too far, feeding a couple, William and Rebecca Perigo, a special ‘magic’ pudding with arsenic in it, followed by honey laced with antimony. The wife died and, for a while, the husband kept going to her for advice. The husband tested the cake on a cat, which died and then went to the police. He arranged to meet up with Mary for more advice but had special constables in attendance. The arrested her and she pretended to throw up, claiming that William had given her a drink. It was a bottle with arsenic in that she had intended to give him. She was convicted of the murder of Rebecca Perigo and hanged. It’s very possible that she was not the first victim, there were the two Misses Kitchin and their mother who all died in quick succession after employing the services of Mary, who also claimed all their belongings when they died. They weren’t looked into and it’s unknown how many people were swindled or even killed by Mary Bateman.

Her post-mortem treatments was particularly brutal. Part of her skeleton was on display at a Leeds museum until 2015. Her pickled tongue ended on somebody’s mantlepiece and her tanned skin was used to back two books and also made into souvenirs distributed all over Yorkshire. Interestingly, her dissection also showed that she had a genetic anomaly that give her an extra rib.

The story of Mary Bateman is a fascinating one of crime, gullibility and the continuation of old, folk beliefs into the 19th century. The book The Yorkshire Witch by Summer Strevens is a fairly flawed affair. From the bibliography, it’s clear that the book is largely a reskinning of a contemporary biography with a few additions. The main addition is the last chapter, intended to be a modern psychological look at Mary but largely being a slightly waffly, trite discussion of Mary as a psychopath or sociopath. I don’t think this chapter was really helped by references to Cleopatra or Lucretia Borgia, she may have used poison but was not playing the high power games of those women. I think it probably didn’t need twin tower references either. The book is often padded out by digressions, as books based on limited sources have to be. I did enjoy the information about the York hangman, William ‘Mutton’ Curry but I didn’t need to be told that the Romans called York, Eboracum. I also thought Strevens was a little too liberal in her use of the exclamation mark, it gave the book a ghost tour flavour which is very York but not very authoritative. It’s still a fascinating story though and this book the easiest way to read it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment