Studies of witchcraft often centre on groups of witches or spirits, the Salem witch trials, the Pendle and Samlesbury witches or even the Loudun possessions in 17th century France. Persecution and superstition of witchcraft began to fade towards the end of the 18th century, yet the concept of spirits and possession which were often associated with witchcraft began to be overruled by notions of deviation, criminality and manipulation. One example of individual witchcraft is the extraordinary life of the “Yorkshire Witch”, the creator of “The Prophet of Leeds Hen Hoax”, the serial thief and convicted murderer of Rebecca Perigo.
I became fascinated by the life of Mary Bateman after unintentionally visiting key places of her life. I’d spent my childhood driving past her childhood village, I volunteered in the place of her incarceration and death (now a museum) and I worked in a place where her skeleton was displayed until 2016 (however, I never saw it) Mary Bateman is well known in Leeds; her story, classification as a witch and reasons for her choices continue to be debated in the 21st century.
Mary Bateman was born Mary Harker in Asenby, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire and was baptised in Topcliffe, a nearby village in 1768. She was the third child of six children and is stated to have been a part of a well-respected farming family.
Little is known about Mary’s family or childhood events. Her exact birthdate and baptism was not recorded; the implication of neglect or lack of importance for her arrival can be considered a foreshadowing of Mary’s later endeavours. Biographies of Mary’s life state she spent time with travellers on their visits to rural North Yorkshire; they taught Mary the art of fortune telling. Mary is also described as being a troublesome child, often recorded as a liar, a thief, manipulative and lacking empathy. At the age of 9 Mary stole and hid a pair of shoes at her home later claiming she had found them in a barn.
In order to stabilise her juvenile, villainous character she was sent away and placed into domestic work at the age of thirteen. She was employed within a number of houses around Thirsk but excused under “suspicious circumstances.” She later moved to York and finally to Leeds in 1788. Mary became a skilled mantuamaker and had a quick courtship and marriage to John Bateman. It was soon after she was married that the earlier tendencies as a thief intensified; she stole money and silver from lodgers, material from draper shops and sold on her husbands own possessions!
Mary Bateman also claimed to have supernatural abilities and witchcraft tendencies, conducting fortune telling and selling charms for a number of purposes such as miraculous healing and helping poor.
However Mary was fundamentally a trickster, her ulterior motives for her supernatural claims was to deceive, to rob, to kill. She was never arrested or tried for witchcraft, her infamous nickname “The Yorkshire Witch” emerged in 1806, the year of her infamous Prophet Hen hoax. The nickname was exaggerated the next year, in which she was arrested and tried for the murder of Rebecca Perigo. Pamphlets, broadsides and word of mouth instilled Mary’s position of an alleged witch; her victims, the spectators and even doctors became curious and superstitious about Mary’s character. Thousands flocked to see her execution at the New Drop, York, convinced that her supernatural abilities would allow her to vanish from the drop at the final moments.
Mary utilised her “skills” of fortune telling and charms to manipulate the public. Her first recorded “scam” had a Mrs Greenwood as the victim and included “Mrs Moore”, a figment of Mary’s imagination (later replaced by a more wicked figment, Mrs Blythe.)
“Mary attempted to persuade that she, Mrs Greenwood, was in danger of domestic misfortunes of committing suicide and that her skill would be necessary to prevent so dire a catastrophe. Next she informed her that her husband, who was away from home, was taken up for some offence and placed in confinement and that four men were sent to watch him.”
Mary claimed that “four pieces of gold, four pieces of leather, four pieces of blotting paper and four brass screws” were needed instantaneously so Mrs Moore could “screw down the guards “ surrounding Mrs Greenwood’s husband. On this occasion Mrs Greenwood claimed she had no gold and on Mary’s suggestion she ‘robbed’ gold, Mrs Greenwood distanced herself from Mary’s devious intentions.
Mary can be perceived as adapting and ‘perfecting’ her rituals of charms, telling her victims to stitch particular objects into bedcovers which would then disappear as a result of their protection (in reality, Mary was snatching possessions for her own gain) Letters sent by “Mrs Blythe”, the wise woman in charge who was based in Scarborough, were instructed to be burnt when read by the victims – in order to stop the tracing of Mary’s impact and presence.
Generally the public were both mesmerised and manipulated by Mary’s claims and she was often recommended and called upon for help. The Perigos, William and Rebecca, contacted Mary and “Mrs Blythe” after they feared that Rebecca had become possessed. Rebecca was struggling both physically and mentally, complaining of a “fluttering in the breast” and being “haunted by a black dog and other spirits.” Following the process of sewing money into bedsheets, Mrs Blythe then recommended a potion.
“The 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. The Perigos were to eat puddings for six days.”
Rebecca died on the 24th May 1807 from poisoning. Investigations into the honey consumed states that it contained a fatal dose of mercuric chloride. William remarkably survived which foiled Mary’s overall plan. He became suspicious of Mary, going against the the instruction to burn letters and planned a final meeting with Mary, bringing along a Constable who was given the evidence. Mary was arrested and sent to the Yorkshire Assizes. She was hanged in March 1809.
Mary’s crimes and persona had a significant impact on medicine and the public even after her death.
Firstly, her body was taken from York and transported to medical facilities in Leeds – a rare outcome as hanged bodies were normally kept in the area of execution. Murderers and other felons were to be dissected and used for medical purposes rather than a burial which was the case for Mary. However her skeleton was kept intact and put on public display. (This earnt a large amount of money for the hospital through fascination of a “witches” body)
Secondly, her skin was stripped and made into leather pouches, claiming to be magic charms to discourage further evil spirits. At this point in history the medical profession was influenced by the empirical sciences, the perceptions of dissecting a body enabled physicians to know the body logically and physically. These factors, the treatment, display and use of Mary’s body demonstrate the power of superstitious beliefs alongside 18th century ‘science.’ Mary’s skeleton, which is still preserved today, lies within a teaching hospital – yet continues to be predominately known as the “Yorkshire witch”, Mary’s story being the dominant force rather than its medical purpose.
Mary’s confession and copies of her letters to the Perigos can be found within the following sources and bibliography.
- Anonymous, The Extraordinary life and character of Mary Batemann, The Yorkshire Witch: Traced from the earliest thefts of her infancy, etc. till her execution on the 20th March, 1809. (12th Edition, Leeds, 1811)
- “Mary Bateman: The Yorkshire Witch”, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/bateman.html
- Summer Strevens, The Yorkshire Witch: The Life and Trial of Mary Bateman (Pen & Sword Books, 2017)