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The Yorkshire Witch Was Equal Parts Con Artist and Serial Killer

Stealing, telling phony fortunes, faking prophetic messages on 'freshly laid' eggs, and poisoned puddings were just the beginning for Mary Bateman.

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  • Photo Credit: Yale Law Library / Flickr (CC)

Mary Bateman, Yorkshire’s first female serial killer,  went from being a run-of-the-mill thief and con artist to drawing her victims with claims of supernatural powers, earning her the nickname, “The Yorkshire Witch”. 

Born Mary Harker, she grew up in a comfortable family setting in the north of Yorkshire in 1768. As young as five years old, Mary was described as having a “knavish and vicious disposition”. She began to steal at a young age, hiding things in her father’s barn before pretending that she simply found items months later. At the age of 10, she went to work as a servant girl before subsequently being let go for petty theft. Mary wound go on to move from town to town, stealing from locals and working as a con artist before being fired. 

She moved to Leeds in 1788, at the age of 20, taking a job with a seamstress. In her spare time, Mary gained a reputation, running a side business as a witch. This involved brewing "love potions", working as a fortune teller for the local servant girls, and removing “evil wishes” for these same locals—and sometimes, for their employers. Mary claimed that she could ward off evil spirits for four pieces of gold. 

Mary learned at a young age to move on quickly when she was falling out of favor with the locals. By ducking from town to town, she was able to find a new customer base that knew nothing of her deceptive trades.

Related: 9 Famous Witches Throughout History

Mary was in Leeds for three years before she met John Bateman, a wheelmaker. Whether or not John was aware of Mary’s reputation as a thief and a witch is unknown. The two had a brief, three-week courtship before they were married in 1792. While John was an upstanding member of the community, his wife couldn’t turn away from her the thieving ways that had led to her leaving Yorkshire in the first place. This caused the pair to move constantly in an attempt to avoid prosecution. Unable to stand his wife’s antics, John joined the army, leaving Mary to ply her trade as a witch, thief, and con.

Like many people at that time, Mary kept chickens. One of her most well-known cons began in 1806. It involved a hen laying eggs that bore prophetic messages, such as ‘Crist is coming’

In actuality, Mary would write these messages on the eggs herself, etching them into the shell with vinegar before putting them back into the hen’s oviduct, making it seem as though they were newly laid. People reportedly came from all over to see the eggs, and paid for the privilege to do so—a penny per view. But a penny wasn’t enough to go on, and a hen can only produce so many eggs.

By this time, Mary had also begun to pretend to be a go-between for two completely apocryphal persons—Mrs. Moore and Miss Blythe. Mary claimed that Mrs. Moore could help young women that found themselves in compromising situations, convincing them that she had the capability of “screwing down” or supernaturally binding anyone that planned on doing them any sort of disservice. Miss Blythe, on the other hand, had the ability to tell fortunes, using the same fortune-telling tricks that Mary used before she married John. 

While these schemes made Mary money, they weren’t enough to satisfy her greed. By the time her hens were well-known, Mary had already begun to turn to murder to fill her pockets. 

In 1803, Mary ingratiated herself to the Kitchin family, occasionally working at their drapery shop in Leeds. She plied her usual trade, taking their money to have their fortunes told by Miss Blythe. When one of the Kitchin women fell ill, Mary tended to her. It wasn’t long before all three Kitchin women were dead. Mary blamed their sudden passing on the plague, and the townspeople heeded this, fearing a spread in infection.

However, when creditors made their way to the Kitchin estate to take stock, they found that the house and drapery shop had been emptied entirely, and the account books had gone missing. Perhaps fearing Mary’s supposed powers, local authorities never questioned her about the missing items, or the suspicious passing of the family members.  

Related: Historical True Crime Stories Every True Crime Lover Should Know

In 1806, news of "the Prophet Hen of Leeds" and Mary’s divining skills had reached a couple named William and Rebecca Perigo. Rebecca suffered from a nervous disorder, a plight that she hoped Mary could ease from her. Mary agreed to help with this ailment, passing the complaint on to Miss Blythe. 

Mary would claim that Miss Blythe ordered Rebecca to sew silk bags with the Perigo's guinea notes into the corners of Rebecca’s bed, and that they should be left there for eighteen months.  She also expected money for supplies, as well as china, silver, and a new bed. All of these were needed for Miss Blythe to work on Rebecca’s case. 

This deception continued, especially as Miss Blythe sent along a note, warning of impending doom in April of 1807: 

My Dear Friends,—I am sorry to tell you, you will take an illness in the month of May next, either t’one or both, but I think both…

This letter also advised them to consume a special honey and pudding provided to them by Mary. 

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The couple soon fell ill. Rebecca succumbed to her illness nearly a month after they were first given the special honey and pudding, but William survived, going on to consume the cures provided to him by Mary for another two years. William described the illness as “a violent heat came out of his mouth, which was very sore, that his lips were black, and that he had a most violent pain in his head twenty times worse than any common head-ache.” He also “had a violent complaint in his bowels: he could eat nothing for days...” 

Growing suspicious and despondent, William opened the bags that had been sewn shut around the bed and found that where he’d believed there had been guineas, there were cabbage leaves. William met with Mary, bringing a constable with him. 

Mary arrived with a bottle that had a mixture of oatmeal and arsenic. Though she tried to claim that it was something that William had sold to her, she was arrested. When the police went through her home, they found remains of the concoction that Mary had given to Rebecca.

The pudding and honey that Bateman had given the couple were laced with poison. They contained traces of mercuric chloride—a toxic substance that can, in trace amounts, be used as a fungicide and antiseptic. Use of the compound in high amounts can cause extensive tissue damage.

Related: Lydia Sherman: The Derby Poisoner

Once she was found guilty at her trial, Mary went on to try and talk her way out of her sentence, tearfully claiming to be pregnant. Had this been true, her punishment would’ve been postponed. However, an examination found the assertion to be false. It was ordered that the following be carried out: 

“The sentence of the law is, and the Court doth award it, That you be taken to the place from whence you came, and from thence, on Monday next, to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and that your body be given to the Surgeons to be dissected and anatomised; and may Almighty God have mercy upon your soul.” 

Mary Bateman was hanged at age 40 at York Castle on March 20, 1809, in front of a crowd of 5,000 people. Her subsequent dissection was nothing less than a circus, and some people would go on to buy strips of her skin as charms—it was even used to bind books. Her skeleton is currently in the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. 

Featured photo: Yale Law Library / Flickr (CC)