The Unexplained: Why did they hang the Yorkshire Witch?

She claimed to be a medium, and her odd techniques eased women into their graves.

The women of olden England were very talented—a goodly number of them could shape-shift.  Did you know that?  They were shape-shifters, sorcerers, mistresses of the devil, conjurers, hexers, and witches—depending on whom you talked to.  

That is what many superstitious people believed of their neighbors and that is what many innocent women were persecuted for—because of the overactive imaginations of others.

Occasionally, a woman seemed to possess true evil tendencies.  One was Mary Harker, later Mary Bateman, and she became known as The Witch of Yorkshire.

The big mystery is: what made her this way?  She was born into a comfortable life in North Yorkshire in 1768.  Mary stole a few things from others when she was younger, although she had everything she needed. 

She realized she loved stealing so much, she wanted to do more and more of it.  When she started working as a domestic at age twelve, she could not stop herself from stealing at the homes where she worked.  When she was accused, she became vicious.  She went from job to job, stealing and getting dismissed.

Mary had to move to gain employment.  She had developed too foul of a reputation where she was.  She was able to go to Leeds and become a seamstress.  That alone was not exotic enough for her, so she started a side business as a witch. 

Her first real clients were local servant girls.  She told their fortunes, made potions, and even performed hexes.  She was soon performing the same services for the servant girls’ employers.  It seems some folks thought she knew what she was doing.

A respected, but naïve, wheelwright named John asked her to marry him in 1792.  He knew nothing of her dark ways so she agreed to become Mary Bateman.  Soon the honest John Bateman found himself having to move them about constantly as Mary’s thievery was caused more and more problems.

Mary increased her soothsaying enterprise as it was becoming very lucrative.   She claimed to be the medium of two made-up characters, Mrs. Moore and Miss Blythe.  According to Mary, the former was the 7th Child of a 7th Child, and as such had special powers.  These powers allowed her to put the whammy on her clients’ rivals and enemies. 

More and more people were requesting the services of Mrs. Moore and Miss Blythe through Mary.   Mary also had a legendary magic chicken that laid eggs with cryptic messages written on them.  Mary achieved this with a little reverse engineering—on the sly. (Use your imagination)

Mary’s situation might have remained okay.  Authorities may have been content to give her warnings and wrist-slappings.  It may have been – if she had not made the mistake of branching out into nursing.

Since Mary was an old pro at con-artistry, she soon got a reputation as a kind and caring nurse.  That is why it is odd that three women from the same family soon wound up dead.  She had been a sometime-worker in their drapery shop. 

When one of the women, by chance, got sick, Mary convinced them that she could heal her.  She was attentive and caring as she administered her powders and potions.  The other two women fell ill and Mary’s odd techniques eased them—all three—into the grave.  Mary was so clever with her evidence and excuses that no one thought to blame her.  Later, when a lot of the women’s possessions and property were found to be missing, no one connected it with Mary at all.

If clients ever lost enthusiasm for Mary’s services, she just moved on to a new group of admirers.  An elderly couple requested her services as they had heard wondrous things said about her via the grapevine. 

Mary went immediately to help out the aging and mildly infirmed couple.  The wife was dead by poison, in a short time.  The husband, who would not eat much, stayed well for two more years.  He had once had a bad experience with one of her remedies and his mouth was on fire.  All this time, Mr. William Perigo had paid Mary handsomely.

Mr. Perigo had not forgotten some vague irregularities that had gone on in the Perigo household while Mary was there.  He decided to do some detective work on the sly.  He discovered one of the potion bags Mary fixed that had contained some of his gold coins were now missing the gold coins. 

When he had asked her why potions did not work, she always told him he had not waited long enough.  William discovered several frauds in his household but did not let on.  He made an excuse to go to town and brought the law with him.

A search of Mary’s home revealed many items that Mary had stolen from the couple.  She went on trial for the suspected death of Mrs. Perigo.  In the courtroom, Mary was the picture of cool respectability. Witnesses came forward to relate her evil deeds.  She was unflappable and her excuses seemed plausible.  

A doctor was brought in to analyze the concoctions in Mary’s medicine kit.  Some of them contained arsenic.  The judge was furious and declared that mercy was out of the question.

She was sentenced to hang and taken to prison.  She made a remarkable effort to save herself by saying she discovered she was with child.  A panel of twelve female examiners could find no evidence of a delicate condition.

She was hanged on March 20, 1809.  She professed innocence up until her last minute on the scaffolding.  A huge crowd had gathered.  Her remains were used for study at the Leeds Medical School.  The gawkers at the hanging had been after souvenirs—garment scraps, whatever they could pluck off.

The big mystery: why are there people like Mary?  They have no empathy or conscience.  They are born with something missing.  It is way more complex than being born without a kidney or other body part.  Will we ever know the answer?

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of The Scavenger’s Song. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

 

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