The Terrible Crimes and False Wonders of Mary Bateman, the Witch of Yorkshire

Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," with her prophetic egg
Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," with her prophetic egg
Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch, Google Books // Public Domain

Tales of witchcraft and persecution are woven throughout the darkest history of Great Britain. Over hundreds of years, thousands of women were accused of sorcery, consorting with the devil, shape-shifting, causing illness, and worse. Some of the accused were innocent of the crimes attributed to them, yet others, of course, were not. One not-so-blameless woman was Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch, whose career of murder and fraud was finished at the end of a rope.

A Young Witch

Mary Harker was born to a North Yorkshire farmer and his wife around 1768. Though her childhood was comfortable, she developed a love of stealing, and by the time she entered domestic service around the age of 12 she was an experienced thief. As one 1811 account of her life put it, she was of a "knavish and vicious disposition"—and soon people were onto her schemes. Mary's thievery cost her job after job, and eventually her reputation for dishonesty made it impossible for her to find employment at all.

With her local options severely limited, Mary moved to the metropolis of Leeds in the late 1780s. There, she managed to find work as a seamstress through a friend of her mother's. As a couple of other Yorkshire women were doing at that time, she also established a sideline as a witch. Mary told fortunes, brewed love potions, and removed "evil wishes" for the local servant girls and sometimes their employers. In 1792, she married a wheelwright, John Bateman; he either didn't know about, or didn't mind, Mary's darker predilections.

John Bateman was an honest man, but Mary couldn't stop stealing. The couple was forced to move constantly to escape the threat of discovery and punishment. None of that mattered to Mary, however, not even after she and John had children. Soon, she added a new type of fraud to her repertoire.

Around the time the 19th century dawned, Mary began claiming to be the agent for an entirely fictitious "Mrs. Moore." According to Mary, as the seventh child of a seventh child, Moore was capable of "screwing down" (supernaturally binding) those who would cause her clients harm, whether that person was a philandering husband or a determined creditor. Eventually, Mary also began pretending to be the go-between for a Miss Blythe, a more garden-variety psychic who could "read the stars." Blythe, too, was a product of Mary's imagination.

Before long, clients were flocking to Mary's home, hoping to hear what their futures might hold. Mary took their names—and, of course, a payment—and supposedly delivered it to Miss Blythe. She then passed on her predictions to the clients, along with any charms that the fictional psychic thought might aid them. Mary became an effective shopfront for the imaginary soothsayer, selling a variety of magic potions and charms that she claimed could ward off evil, repel curses, and even cure illness. She also served as a part-time abortionist.

All together, it was a lucrative business, but it seems that even that wasn't enough for the ambitious Mary Bateman. Soon, she turned to murder.

A Caring Nurse

The first people to die by Mary's hand, in 1803, were three women from a family named Kitchin. Mary started by befriending them, and sometimes helping out in their drapery shop in Leeds. She also told them their fortunes, passed along (for a fee) from Miss Blythe. But when one women fell ill of an unknown cause, Mary "nursed" her with special powders she prepared.

Soon, all three women were dead. Mary blamed the deaths on the plague, and, fearful of infection (and possibly Mary's wrath as well), locals decided to say nothing. When creditors looked into the Kitchin estate, they discovered that the drapery shop, and house, had been stripped bare—and the account books were missing. But no one thought to blame Mary.

Mary deployed her deceptions with skill: As soon as she sensed her luster was fading she moved on, charming a new batch of clients who had never heard of the name Mary Bateman. She sought out the ill and anxious and promised to offer the magical answer to their problems. Seemingly kind and supposedly well-connected, Mary was rarely without customers.

Around 1806, Mary also turned her hand to apocalyptic prophecy. She began spreading the story of "the Prophet Hen of Leeds," claiming that a chicken she owned was laying eggs inscribed with the words "Crist [sic] is coming." People flocked to Mary for magical protection and for the price of a penny, she promised that they would be spared from the forthcoming end times.

The truth was rather more banal. Mary had inscribed words on the eggs using vinegar (which etched the shells) before deftly popping them back into the hen's oviduct, where they would be "freshly" laid. A local doctor who spied on her discovered the deception, but Mary apparently wasn't punished. All in all, her fraudulent farm animal act would be the least of her crimes.

Mary Bateman's Last Deception

In the spring of 1806, news of the apparently kindly and talented Mary reached a couple in Bramley named William and Rebecca Perigo. Rebecca suffered from a nervous disorder, and complained of a fluttering in her side that she had been told was the result of an "evil wish." Rebecca turned to Mary Bateman for help—and Mary graciously agreed to refer the case to Miss Blythe.

Mary claimed that Miss Blythe had told her to sew silk bags containing guinea notes, donated by the Perigos, into the corners of Rebecca's bed, where they should remain undisturbed for 18 months. As "Miss Blythe" continued to work on Rebecca's case, she demanded money for magical supplies as well as china, silver, and eventually even a new bed for herself; she claimed she needed all of the items for supernatural reasons. With each demand, the couple handed over the cash, then burned the letter at "Miss Blythe's" instruction, so evil spirits couldn't read its contents.

The Perigos had given Miss Blythe a small fortune when they received a chilling note from the psychic that warned of a forthcoming mysterious sickness: "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, but the works of God must have its course."

Thankfully, Miss Blythe said she could help. Mary supplied them with special powders from Blythe that were to be sprinkled into puddings, which the couple should eat alongside a special pot of honey. The instructions they received with the powders stated that on no account must anyone other than the Perigos partake of the magical food, nor must they summon a doctor, as this would only serve to make the supernatural illness even worse.

The obedient Perigos were lambs to the slaughter—Mary had laced the food with poison, and the couple fell ill almost immediately. William later recalled that "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 a common head-ache, [and that] everything appeared green to him." He also suffered from a "violent complaint in his bowels."

On May 24, 1807, Rebecca Perigo died, but William did not. He was left bereft, and for two desperate years continued to rely on the potions provided by Miss Blythe, even as she asked for more money and his wife's clothes.

As the years passed, William's faith began to waver. He wondered why his constant payments and gifts to Miss Blythe didn't seem to have done much good. Finally, he unpicked the stitches on the silk purses that Mary had sewn into Rebecca's bed. Inside, he found only found wastepaper, metal, and small change, not the money he had given to Miss Blythe. William realized he had been duped.

He confronted Mary about what he'd discovered. She replied that he must have opened the bags too soon. William retorted, "I think it is too late," and promised to come back the next morning to settle things. When he returned, he brought a Constable Driffield, who hid nearby. Mary tried to turn the tables and claim Perigo was the poisoner, declaring that "that bottle which you gave me yesterday night has almost poisoned me and my husband, who is ill in bed in consequence of taking it."

For once, William—and the constable—were one step ahead of her. At that ridiculous line about the bottle, Driffield appeared and arrested her. A search of Mary's house uncovered items Miss Blythe had supposedly demanded of the Perigos. Even Mary's gift of gab wouldn't save her this time.

A "Sedate and Respectable" Witch

The keep at York Castle
The keep at York Castle
life.inphotos, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

As the Hull Packet newspaper put it in late 1808, after Mary had been arrested, the ruse targeting the Perigos was "almost without precedent, for gross villainy on the part of the deceiver, and blind credulity on the part of the deceived."

When Mary's trial for the murder of Rebecca Perigo opened at York Castle on March 17, 1809, she stuck to one defense: deny everything. In a written statement, she claimed "it is utterly false that [I] ever did send for any poison by any person," and spoke in court only to deny the charges. The Hull Packet reported that Mary looked "very plausible"—not like someone hiding poison in her potions. She was said to have seemed "sedate and respectable," despite having "a tongue in her head that would weedle the devil."

As witnesses came forward from across Leeds to tell of extortion at the hands of Mary Bateman, it soon became apparent that the scope of her crimes was far broader than initially suspected. For many, the unexpected deaths of the Kitchins six years earlier now took on a more sinister cast. Something else became clear, too: There was no Miss Blythe nor any Mrs. Moore. In fact, Mary's handwriting matched that of Miss Blythe perfectly, but she made no attempt to explain the similarity.

A doctor who analyzed the remains of the Perigos' honey found corrosive sublimate of mercury. Tests on a bottle in Mary's possession also found that it contained a mixture of rum, oatmeal, and arsenic. The jury swiftly returned a verdict: guilty. There was, the judge said, not "a particle of doubt" on the matter, and he declared to Mary, "For crimes like yours, in this world, the gates of mercy are closed." A death sentence seemed imminent.

Mary, once so stoic, tearfully declared that she was pregnant. If true, a death sentence would be postponed, if not set aside altogether. But the court-ordered medical examination found no evidence of a pregnancy, and Mary was sentenced to death. She continued to protest her innocence even as she kept up her business from the condemned cell, making magical charms for fellow female inmates.

On March 20, 1809, Mary went before hangman William "Mutton" Curry. As she mounted the New Drop gallows, thousands of people turned out to watch the last moments of the Yorkshire Witch, as she would soon become known. To her final breath, she denied the murder charges against her. Though some said she died "with a lie on her lips," others still believed in what the Lancaster Gazetter called "the pretended Sorceress," and hoped that she would be saved by a miracle.

Of course, no miracle came.

Mary's body was brought to the Leeds Infirmary, where the public paid three pence to view her remains. Thousands attended her dissection, and afterwards, those who wished could purchase a dried and preserved patch of skin as a souvenir. Her skin was even used to bind several books, at least one of which was allegedly owned by the future George IV. Though now in storage at Leeds University, her skeleton was on display for over two centuries, first at the Leeds Medical School, and later at the Thackray Medical Museum—where it served as a reminder of one of the most cunning murderers the area has ever known.

Additional Sources: The Romance of Crime; Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events, Vol II.; Celebrated Trials, and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence; Women and the Gallows; Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity; Queens of Crime; Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum; Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; York Castle in the Nineteenth Century; Lives of Twelve Bad Women; Yorkshire's Murderous Women; "Chronological Sketch of the Most Remarkable Event of the Year 1809," Lancaster Gazetter; "More Witchcraft," Leeds Mercury; "Witchcraft, Murder, and Credulity," Lancaster Gazetter; "Yorkshire Lent Assizes, 1809," Hull Packet

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
kieferpix/iStock via Getty Images

Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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