6.5.17

GIVING WITCHES A BAD NAME

Summer Strevens. The Yorkshire Witch: The Life and Trial of Mary Bateman. Pen and Sword History. 2017.

This is not a book for Wiccans, occultists or historians of the esoteric. Indeed, the ‘witch’ of the title should always be in quotes as it refers to one of the most barefaced charlatans of all time – actually considerably more than just a brazen hustler.
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Mary Bateman (1768-1809), was not only a plausible and accomplished confidence trickster – focusing on duping the superstitious and believers in charms and curses – she was executed for murdering one of her victims, although the evidence of her life and modus operandi suggests strongly that she was, in fact, a serial killer. Even with the quotes, Bateman the ‘witch’ gives witches a bad name.

As a poverty-stricken child in the north of England, Bateman kept company with gypsies and learned at least the outward trappings of fortune telling, which was to become rather useful over the years. However, her preferred method of trickery was to convince her dupes that they were being cursed, then relieve them of not only their money, but often pretty much everything they owned, almost down to the last flannel petticoat, in payment for her services as a ‘witch’ – the remover of curses and the healer of physical and mental ailments.

She preferred to create the problem, then offer to solve it. And, with some ingenuity, she claimed not to perform this herself, but to be merely the intermediary between her clients and, first, one ‘Mrs Moore’ and then a ‘Miss Blythe’, both adepts in the arts of witchcraft. Neither of these prophetesses actually existed, of course, and both were said to live at such a distance from the victims – and Bateman herself – that investigation into their operations was unfeasible. (For example, while Bateman and her clients lived in the Leeds area, Miss Blythe was believed to be a resident of Scarborough, some 67 miles away. While this is no distance at all on today’s A64 route, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was conveniently remote.)

In Summer Strevens’ account, it soon becomes clear that Bateman simply couldn’t help herself. She was a compulsive liar and con-artist, with an almost admirable audacity, beginning with petty theft – which, before she went freelance and polished her act, got her serially fired as a domestic servant – before moving on to more serious crimes. Much, much more serious crimes, though not occasionally without their comedic, not to say surreal, aspects.

One of her more bizarre activities was to claim to own a hen that laid eggs that bore the words: ‘Crist [sic] is coming’. This cannily tapped into the current End Times hysteria, then whipped up by the 'prophetess’ Joanna Southcott (who might have been seriously deluded but was no money-grabbing con). Bateman did very nicely out of her miraculous eggs until a curious local physician witnessed her re-inserting one such egg into the backside of the unfortunate hen. (Presumably part of the show was to get the credulous to witness the laying of the egg for themselves.) While she escaped the clutches of the law on this occasion, what outcry there was seemed to be mostly focused on the cruelty to hens – odd, one might think at such a brutal time.


Bateman did very nicely out of her miraculous eggs until a curious local physician witnessed her re-inserting one such egg into the backside of the unfortunate hen

Indeed, Bateman frequently escaped the law, though often by the skin of her teeth. One of her tricks, when caught, was to swiftly repay monies or goods stolen – but secretly by using resources newly thieved from someone else! Mary Bateman never, ever passed up an opportunity to deceive, even attempting to extort money while in the condemned cell awaiting her execution.

Conning the credulous was bad enough, but Bateman turned to poison – the preferred method of despatch for female murderers at that time, as arsenic was freely available for pest control, among other legitimate domestic uses.

Although she caused the death of several known victims, and presumably was behind the demise of many whose names have long since disappeared into the mists of history, she was finally undone by bringing about the hideous death of 46-year-old Rebecca Perigo.

Suffering palpitations and depression – which were only worsened when the friendly ‘witch’ Bateman told Rebecca she was cursed – she and her husband William obeyed all her demands. Even the most bonkers ones. Bateman rather cleverly interspersed apparently senseless demands, such as hammering metal into beams in a certain configuration – thus reinforcing the aura of folklorish spells - with more obvious ones, such as giving her money, food, furniture and all manner of other useful stuff. Not that she ever demanded anything for herself. Miss Blythe of Scarborough’s letters did the dirty work.

It goes without saying that every letter ended with the emphatic instruction to burn it after reading, though Bateman couldn’t resist adding little faux-magical demands, such as having to burn it in the fire of a pub after buying a pint first.

The Blythe/Bateman demands began to get somewhat odd, including the delivery of a new bed (Miss Blythe found she could no longer sleep in the one she had), and the Perigos were not only running out of resources to fuel the long con, but perhaps were also beginning to listen to those around them who were less gullible. So it was time for Bateman to revert to her Plan B. Eliminate the ‘marks’.

Basically she supplied the Perigos with some special honey, which they were to take when ill – and she covered all possibilities by having Blythe prophesy that they would be very ill indeed. And to ensure the swift fulfilment of the prophecy, they were also to eat a pudding made with a paste she provided. Rebecca took a great deal of the pudding, and as she began to be violently, appallingly sick, then obediently resorted to the magic honey… William took a tiny bit, felt ill and desisted, while watching his wife die horribly. But Bateman’s plan had backfired. He was still alive.

When a physician fed some of Bateman’s paste and honey to a cat and then a dog, and they died, it was only a matter of time for Mary Bateman. Even so, Miss Blythe maintained a grip on the widower, spinning an ever-more elaborate web of lies to extort yet more from the bewildered, grief-stricken man. In the end, even he knew he’d been had, and when Mary demanded he meet her in a lonely spot, he turned up – but together with the Chief Constable of Leeds. Even then, she used all her wiles, staging an act of vomiting and accusing Perigo of giving her a bottle of poison (which she had taken along herself for obvious reasons). Later it was shown to contain oatmeal and arsenic.

Finally, it was all up with Mary Bateman. Details of her trial are scant, and in any case she, as was the way at the time, had no counsel for the defence, nor was she permitted to speak up for herself. It was just a matter of waiting for the noose.

One of the oddest aspects of Bateman’s criminal history is the role – or conspicuous lack of it – of her husband, John. From the very beginning of their marriage he must have known his wife was up to no good: with some regularity their home would suddenly contain goods manifestly not their own. Even more startling, he himself was a victim of his wife’s con when, in order to get him out of the way, she presented him with a letter, purportedly from his father who lived many miles away, saying he was very ill and to come to him immediately. When John arrived and found his father perfectly well and denying all knowledge of a letter, surely the game was up. But through it all – which included serial moves from area to area to escape her victims – John seemed to accept his wife’s eccentric relationship with the truth and basic, grim criminality.

Certainly over the years he must have benefited from her cons. At her trial for the murder of Rebecca Perigo, it was revealed that she had extorted from the Perigos, among incidentals such as items of clothing and a goose, ‘six strokes of malt’ – a ‘stroke’ was about two bushels in dry measure or 16 gallons/73 litres – ‘seven strokes of meal’, and 60lbs (27kg) of butter, plus two barrels of 327 litres. (presumably full but with what goes unmentioned)… Within the confines of the circles she moved in, and conned, this was literally heavy-duty. She had also extorted no less than £70 in hard cash – about twice the annual wage of the average servant.

Unsurprisingly, John Bateman was himself arrested for theft and fraud, though being of good, sober character and a hard worker, he was cleared. This is despite the fact that he had been actively involved in his wife’s activities, such as collecting the bed for Miss Blythe from a pub as part of a ‘long con’, and of course he knew the reason for their moonlight flits from house to house. Cleared of any personal wrong-doing as he was, however, did him little good in the end. He ended his life in extreme poverty, his wife of many years having died under circumstances of the gravest ignominy on the gallows.


Summer Strevens suggests that John Bateman’s escape from the law, and his wife’s grisly fate, were results of the then universal view that as a woman was naturally loving and nurturing, when she turned bad she was extra-wicked for upturning the natural order of things, and therefore deserved the fullest fury of the law. While this sort of sexism was indeed prevalent, the fact remains that men were also, of course, found guilty of an astonishing array of crimes. It’s still a mystery why John Bateman was not one of them.

While incarcerated in the Female Prison in York (now the world-famous Castle Museum, though you’d search the captions in vain to discover this), Mary Bateman was allowed to nurse her youngest child, and indeed even moved the hardened prison officers by her show of maternal tenderness. Incredibly, she had, apparently, been a good mother to her family – apart that is from setting a somewhat extreme example of how not to live a respectable life.

Even in jail she tried to extort money, apparently, while – with every evidence of genuineness – repeated literally to her dying breath that although she had been a thief and fraudster, she had never killed Rebecca Perigo. Quite clearly, though, she had, and would have also killed Mr Perigo, just as she had despatched many others over the years either for pure profit or to keep them quiet when they became suspicious about her activities. Does this make her a sociopath or a psychopath?

Summers thinks that broadly speaking, either term could have applied to Bateman, but basically we know so little about her emotional background and day to day behaviour that it must remain a matter of conjecture. We do know, though, that throughout she rarely acted in the heat of the moment (unlike a sociopath, apparently, though some psychiatrists would argue with this interpretation) and was described by contemporaries as having ‘an air of placidity and composure… her manner of address was soft and insinuating, with the affectation of sanctity…’ She was also, more to the point, the perfect picture of trustworthiness and possessed of charm and plausibility. Whatever psychological category she might or might not fit into, she was fully equipped to be the near-perfect conwoman.

Her execution in York in 1809 was something of a big event, though estimates of the size of the crowd – Trump-like – varied from 5,000 to 20,000. Even at the lower estimate that’s still a lot of near-hysterical bayers for blood. Many took along the children to make a day of it. Although not tried as a witch (in any case witchcraft in England was seen as a felony and not devil worship) but as a common criminal, Bateman’s reliance on ‘prophecies’ – not to mention miraculous eggs – and herbal ‘remedies’ had earned her the title of ‘the Yorkshire Witch’. The macabre theme continued after her death, as her body was dissected and her skeleton, skin and tongue found their way into various museums. Her skin was used to bind books.

It is on the topic of her post-mortem adventures that the author becomes slightly frustrating. While admirably denouncing the salacious desire to ogle Bateman’s skeleton, the mention of a three-dimensional reconstruction of her face for a television documentary succeeds in whetting the appetite. Yet apart from the cover picture, taken from a pamphlet after her death – and again, though curiously flipped, inside – there is no image of Mary Bateman in the book. The illustrations are disappointing, for even if we would deny we share any of that early 19th-century crowd’s lust for grisly detail, surely the very reason we picked up a book about a woman designated by such an intriguing nickname is that we want to get to know this remarkable Yorkshire Witch woman. That tantalising 3D image would do nicely. We want to look at her face and search for any signs of shared humanity. Or lack of it. It might be a fruitless exercise – it usually is – but that’s what we want to do. Sorry.

It’s worth a read, certainly, for social historians and criminologists – Strevens is a meticulous researcher – and is engaging enough. But the rest of us might need a little more. – Lynn Picknett



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