I adore historic houses; there is nothing I love more than having a spare couple of hours to delve into the histories of unique country manors, town houses or the small yet powerful dwellings of previous earthly occupants. I’ve visited a variety of houses around Yorkshire – a lot on numerous occasions – yet I was ashamed to have not visited Castle Howard in my adult memory. I had a spare weekend and decided to take the rural and scenic route to the Howardian Hills to visit Castle Howard at Christmas. The overall theme of the house and grounds is The Twelve Days of Christmas, with each room of the spacious, yet intimate, building representing each day of festivities.
I must be honest; I am not overly impressed by modern installations in historic spaces. I’ve seen some amazing ones – and I’ve also seen some average and confusing ones. Museum galleries and creative exhibitions do an amazing job of innovative designs, from audio, projections and interactive mediums yet for me, historic houses are like a freeze frame – they contain and reflect the cultural tastes, values and the stories of the inhabitants of a specific time and I feel that sometimes modern installations alongside authentic spaces sometimes loses that feel.
Castle Howard is an exception to this – the Christmas installation is honestly one of the most amazing and innovative designs I have ever seen. While each room represents a particular Christmas day of the song they also carry an individual theme. A masquerade theme embellished with feathers lies in the first bedroom while one dining room depicts a scene perfect for the sugar plum fairy. Yet each space is linked by a combination of traditional and original Christmas décor which illuminates the space without losing any of its everyday charm.
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 sawit) 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)
I have various historical interests and for my MA dissertation I decided to integrate my different interests and academic skills – focusing on the medical effects of dress reform and also putting a philosophical spin on it! The focus of my dissertation was the life and work of Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, a Canadian born writer and corset maker (or stay-maker, as Madame Caplin stated) who worked at 58 Berners Street, London throughout nearly the entire 19th Century. She was born in 1793 and died in Surrey on 2nd August 1888 – her long life was full of innovation, inspiration and individualism.
There are various claims on the internet that Madame Caplin invented the corset. The original purpose of the corset, as a stay and support of weight and to lift the body to avoid deformation harks back to Ancient Greece albeit in a basic sense, a cincture around the waist to support the back and breasts. (A topic which Caplin herself builds upon within her own writings)
Rather than Caplin inventing the corset, she reformed the 19th century ‘contemporary’ corset, which, she claimed, had lost its original purpose and became subject to tight-lacing and ill-constructions due to particular expectations of the female body. Health was compromised and women became oppressed both physically and mentally, the latter becoming internalised by women.
“The elegant form, the flexibility of motion, the gentle warmth, the cheeks crimsoned with the roses of delight, the brilliant eyes darting rays of love, or sparkling with the fire of genius, enlivened by the sallies of wit, or animated by the glow of passion, are the inheritance of those only who are in good health, and a moment is sufficient to destroy them. The whole is expressed in one word,—there is an absence of health.” (Madame Caplin, Health and Beauty, Chapter 11: Health, Dress & Its Relation to Temperaments)
Madame Caplin’s Hygienic Corset (first credited to her husband, Dr Jean Francois Isidore Caplin purely for its medical acknowledgement) was fitted with elastic panels to support key organs from deformation and won the only award for corset-making at the 1851 Great Exhibition. I have been lucky enough to meet this particular corset, a beautiful blue ribbed silk corset with a cream lining. (It measures as a 20 inch waist) The particular colour of the silk corset was for display purposes only, (which provides an answer for its immaculate condition for its age) all of Madame Caplin’s corsets made to buy were either black or white. You can find images of this corset, and another of Caplin’s corsets (A pale blue Petticoat Suspender corset, through the Museum of London’s online site)
Madame Caplin’s success triggered her 24 different designs in total, covering a range of different activities and impact of a woman’s life. This includes juvenile corsets for correct and supported physical development into adulthood, spinal and scapula contractors to treat weakened muscles and bodily forms and Gestation corsets, for safe development of the body during pregnancy.
I first became mesmerised by Madame Caplin during an evening lecture within a fashion gallery at a local museum – her unique name and corsetry designs stuck and I was quick to conduct further research on this interesting historical figure. Madame Caplin was born Emily Ann Pelletier to English born parents and on her arrival to England she was first married to a man with the last name Galloway. (and on early register she had used the name Roxey Ann Galloway) She later met and worked with Dr Caplin, adopting his name and her French title probably to boost her public profile (with French fashion and corsetry dominating Europe) and marrying him at a later date.
I was also quick to access a copy of her monumental book, Health and Beauty: Or Corsets and Clothing. The text details her idea of corsetry reform, her progress and effects of her designs in an eloquent manner, as well as providing insights into her business strategies. The book had numerous editions throughout the 19th century; it was first published in 1856 and was revised over the next decade.
In my opinion, Madame Caplin was more than a 19th century corset maker and writer; she was a visionary, a social reformer, an underappreciated heroine in medicine and modern, medical research. I claimed that Madame Caplin was inspired by the American transcendental movement: she acknowledged and promoted the enlightened female body, its connections with nature and the integral relationship between the spirit of the mind and the spirit of the body. These three factors along the unlocking of new worldly truths and human empowerment were enabled and represented by the reformed corset.
“The head is the treasure-vault of all our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and passions; the thorax contains the heart and lungs; the abdomen all the digestive and secretive organs; and even the orifices are all mysteriously furnished.” (Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, Health and Beauty, Chapter One: Of Health and Beauty)
Previous Research surrounding Madame Caplin tends to take an exclusive reformative dress perspective, her surviving corsets which lie in the Museum of London have constant interest and examination, while there is little in-depth analysis of her literature. This realisation is somewhat ironic. To refer to the introductory paragraph, Madame Caplin is clear on her position on dress and health and her purpose of her literature – which is overlooked by modern research.
Regarding transcendentalism, I claimed that there were subtle philosophical references within the text which connects dress reform, spiritualist ideologies and medical reform – providing new insights into the three domains. Transcendentalism is an individualistic theory, inspiring each member to find their own path and original impacts within the world. Madame Caplin utilised her experience of ill-constructed corsets, her experiences and knowledge to produce her original creation – which was then projected onto others. Her female customers, newspaper reporters and medical professionals all accepted her corsetry designs and therefore, its different spiritual elements and connections.