Firstly today, I feel I must apologise in advance, as I have a completely awful person to tell you about. At least five humans and one hen will be seriously harmed in the tale I am about to tell you. Mary Bateman was a terrible woman with no redeeming qualities and she was hanged on this day in 1809. But her story is morbidly fascinating. This hen, however, is not the Hen of Doom. She’s my hen and her name is Lillian. She’s just been enjoying some dandelion leaves, which are her favourite.
Mary was born Mary Harker, at Asenby near Thirsk in North Yorkshire in 1768. She worked as a servant in Thirsk and then in York as a dressmaker. She seems to have left both jobs under a cloud, with suspicions of theft. In 1788, she moved to Leeds, which was then a rapidly expanding industrial town. She continued to work as a dressmaker but began to supplement her income with fortune telling. In 1792 she married a wheelwright called John Bateman. He’d only known her for three weeks. It wasn’t a very smart move on his part, but he doesn’t appear to have been a very smart man. There was the occasion when Mary went to his workplace with a forged letter bringing news that John’s father was on his deathbed. He rushed to his father’s side and was delighted to find that he was perfectly well. He was in for another surprise when he returned. Mary had sold all their furniture. Not long after that, he left again, to visit friends. When he came back, she’d sold all his clothes. John didn’t like his wife very much and he left her to join the army. Unfortunately, she followed him.
In 1799, he was demobilised and they returned to Leeds. There, Mary took up a new career as a ‘screwer down’. This means that she would find some credulous person and persuade them that there was an individual who wished ill on them, or make a woman believe that her husband was about to leave her for someone else. She would then offer, for a fee of course, to have them screwed down so that they would find themselves magically unable do harm or to leave. She frightened people into paying up and they often had to sell their belongings in order to do so. Mary did not claim to do the work herself. She told everyone she was just an intermediary for a Mrs Moore. Mrs Moore did not exist and neither did her victims’ enemies. No one really needed screwing to anything, apart from perhaps Mary Bateman.
By 1803, she was working in a shop that belonged to two sisters called Kitchen. When one of them fell ill, she brought medicine which she claimed came from a country doctor. The woman got worse and she died. Following this, the other sister and also her mother became ill, both were nursed by Mary and also died. There was no inquest and it was thought that they died of cholera, but Mary claimed it had been the plague. Everyone got frightened and their house and shop were locked up for a time. But when someone did eventually go in, it was found that all their belongings had been taken and the accounts were missing. Based on what I’m going to tell you about in a minute, it is quite likely that Mary poisoned them.
But first, I want to tell you about her hen. I don’t have a picture of either Mary or her hen, so here is Lillian again, with her friend Annis the duck.
In 1806, she claimed that she had a hen that had laid an egg with the words ‘Crist is coming’ written on it. She had the egg to prove it. She had been rather taken up with the antics of Joanna Southcott, had obtained one of her ‘seals’ and now rather fancied herself a prophetess of doom. She had been granted a vision which told her that the hen would lay fourteen such eggs and that the last one would mark the beginning of the Apocalypse. More eggs were laid, news spread and crowds turned up to see the miraculous hen. They were charged a penny a time for the privilege. Not only that but, like Joanna Southcott, she began to sell paper seals that would guarantee entry into Heaven at the End of Days. Fortunately, a sceptical doctor managed to get hold of one of the eggs and he saw that the inscription had been written in ink. Though you’d think the spelling would have been a clue as well. Authorities were notified and Mary was caught red-handed, shoving an egg up the poor hen’s bottom so that it could be ‘laid’ later.
Undeterred by the negative publicity, Mary continued her criminal career. She invented a new imaginary helper. A Mrs Blythe, who lived in Scarborough. Also in 1806, she met William and Rebecca Peruga. Rebecca was a nervous woman who believed she was possessed by evil spirits. Mary agreed that was definitely the case and offered the help of Mrs Blythe. Mary showed them the instructions that she had received from Mrs Blythe, explaining that the letters must immediately be burnt. Mrs Blythe first sent four guinea notes and gold coins which Mary was to sew to each corner of Rebecca’s bedspread. The Perugas must then, in exchange, send four guinea notes to Mrs Blythe, via Mary. Next, William was instructed to nail two horse shoes to the door. They later received further requests to send to Mrs Blythe: money, some cheese, china, silverware, tea, sugar and finally some bedclothes as the lady was now unable to sleep in her own bed because of the battle she was having with Rebecca’s evil spirits.
Then, another letter arrived, predicting illness in the Peruga household. To combat this, Mary asked them to give her half a pound of honey. Into it, she mixed a special medicine and also gave them powders which they were to mix into a pudding and eat. No one should eat it but them and if there was any left, they should destroy it. As all correspondence with Mrs Blythe was also destroyed, it was clearly Mary’s intention that they should poison themselves and destroy the evidence. Rebecca died on May 24th 1807. William survived, and began to get better once he stopped eating the puddings.
William decided to take a closer look at the notes and coins that had been sewn into his wife’s bedspread. He found only copper coins and cabbage leaves. He pretended that he wanted to buy another bottle of medicine from Mary, but he took a Constable with him. Mary was arrested and her bottle of medicine was found to contain a mixture of rum, oatmeal and arsenic. Finally, the law had caught up with her and she was hanged for murder on March 20th 1809 at York. Her execution was attended by around 5,000 people, many of whom still believed that she had supernatural powers and would be saved by some sort of divine intervention. She was not.
Her body was taken to Leeds Infirmary where is was put on public display at threepence a time. It raised thirty pounds for the hospital, so there must have been 2,400 visitors. That was not the end of Mary’s post-mortem career. Her body was dissected and a large part of her skin was tanned, cut into strips and sold as curios. Her skeleton was used for anatomy lessons and afterwards put on display at the Thackray Museum in Leeds. It was removed in 2015 and is now in the care of the University of Leeds.