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

7 Ships That Disappeared Without a Trace

iStock/stock_colors
iStock/stock_colors

There’s something ghoulishly fascinating about a mysterious disappearance, and our vast oceans offer seemingly endless space in which to vanish. The true fate of many of these ships will never be known, but speculation suggests that storms, piracy, mutiny, accidental bombing, and even the attack of a giant squid could be responsible for their vanishings. Below are seven ships that have disappeared without leaving a trace.

1. The Patriot // The disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston (1783–1813) was the daughter of American politician and third vice president of the United States Aaron Burr. Theodosia had a privileged upbringing and a good education, and in 1801 she married wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, who went on to become governor of South Carolina. Sadly, in 1812, Theodosia lost her only son to a fever and she became sick with grief. Desperate for a change of scene, on New Year’s Eve 1812 she boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina to visit her father in New York. It is known that the ship left dock and sailed north, but what happened after that is a mystery. It never arrived in New York, and no trace of the ship or crew was ever found. A number of theories and legends have sprung up around the fate of Theodosia—some claim the ship was attacked by pirates and that she was forced to walk the plank, while others suggest that the Patriot got caught up in the War of 1812 and was sunk accidentally by an enemy ship. Perhaps most fanciful of all is the story put forward by a Karankawa Indian chief, who claimed that he rescued a woman who had washed up on shore after a shipwreck, and that before she died she gifted him her locket—with the name Theodosia inscribed upon it. Whatever the story, it is likely that after more than 200 years we shall never know the real fate of the Patriot and Theodosia Burr Alston.

2. The Merchant Royal // One of the richest shipwrecks never found

The Merchant Royal was tasked with taking treasures from the New World to Spain under the command of one Captain John Limbrey. In 1641 the ship was loaded with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver and a huge amount of precious jewels. As the ship entered the English waters, the weather turned bad, but unfortunately the pumps on board the ship broke and it began to take on water. Its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, with whom it had been sailing in tandem, came to the rescue of the captain and crew but were unable to take any of the cargo. The ship disappeared beneath the waves, somewhere off the coast of Land’s End.

Of course, with such valuable cargo, countless people have attempted to find the wreck, which has become known as the “Eldorado of the seas.” In 2007, it was thought that Odyssey Marine Exploration may have found the wreck after it salvaged 500,000 pieces of gold and silver from a site off the southwestern tip of Great Britain. This was later identified as treasure from a Spanish vessel—meaning that the unimagined riches of the Merchant Royal still await discovery.

3. USS Cyclops // Victim of the Bermuda Triangle?

The USS Cyclops was a huge steel-hulled fuel ship, tasked with carrying coal and other useful supplies for the U.S. Navy in the 1910s. On her final journey, the Cyclops set sail from Rio de Janeiro, with a full load of 10,800 tons of manganese ore and over 300 people on board. On March 4, 1918 the ship was spotted for the last time as it left Barbados and sailed into what we now sometimes call the Bermuda Triangle. The ship seemingly disappeared without a trace, and the case has been seen as especially mysterious since no distress call was made and no bad weather was reported in the region. Theories began to surface (some more imaginative than others) that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, attacked by a giant squid or octopus, or been victim of a violent mutiny. A huge search for the Cyclops was launched with a number of boats and planes scouring the area for debris or survivors, but nothing of the enormous ship was ever seen again.

4. The Witchcraft // The “unsinkable” luxury yacht

On December 22, 1967, experienced yachtsman Dan Burack and his friend, Father Patrick Horgan, set sail in the 23-foot luxury yacht Witchcraft to see the holiday lights off the coast of Miami. Unfortunately after just one mile the pair experienced difficulty when it seemed as if the yacht had hit something. Burack calmly called the Miami Coast Guard to report the trouble and request assistance. The official who took the call later commented that Burack seemed unconcerned—perhaps because the yacht was fitted with a special flotation device that was supposed to make the vessel unsinkable. The Coast Guard arrived at the scene just 19 minutes after the call, and were surprised to find no trace of the large yacht, no debris, and no sign of Burack or Horgan. Over the next six days, hundreds of square miles of ocean were searched, but nothing was ever found, and the Witchcraft has been chalked up as another vessel mysteriously lost to the Bermuda Triangle.

5. Andrea Gail // Lost in the “perfect storm”

The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long-liner boat that fished in the North Atlantic for swordfish. In September 1991 the ship, along with several other fishing vessels, set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts for the last fishing session of the season. By October, the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew was out off the coast of Newfoundland when the confluence of terrible weather fronts conspired to create what has been dubbed “the perfect storm.” The massively powerful winds were whipping waves as high as 100 feet, and any ship caught in their path faced being sucked into the wave and flipped over repeatedly. The devastating storm battered the coast of New England and Canada, and after the worst of it had passed and the Andrea Gail had failed to return to port, a number of rescue missions set out to find the ship—but nothing was ever found. The story of the storm and the imagined fate of the Andrea Gail and her crew was later told in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, as well as a Hollywood movie of the same name.

6. The USS Porpoise // Caught in a typhoon

USS Porpoise was a brig involved in 19th century exploration and surveying missions, taking part in a voyage in 1838 that confirmed the existence of Antarctica and later circumnavigating the globe. In 1854 the ship set sail from Hong Kong carrying 69 men in order to carry out a survey of the South Sea Islands. Somewhere between China and Taiwan, the ship sailed into dense fog and was separated from its partner ship, the USS Vincennes, and never seen again. Many ships searched for the ill-fated brig for over a year, but no sign was ever found, and it's thought to have been wrecked in a typhoon with all hands lost.

7. HMS Sappho // Presumed Wrecked Off Australian Coast

Over the course of a 20-year career, the British Navy ship HMS Sappho worked to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa, intercepting a number of ships loaded with slaves and freeing hundreds of people. In 1857, after wrongly chasing down and boarding an American ship—an event that caused something of a diplomatic crisis between America and Great Britain—the ship was ordered to set sail to Australia. The Sappho reached Cape Town without incident, and from there headed toward the Bass Strait, where it was last spotted by a passing brig on February 18, 1878. Bad weather was reported in the area, and it has been assumed that high winds caused the ship to founder and sink. No sign of the 147 crewmembers was ever found, but rumors abounded that the captain, Fairfax Moresby, had somehow escaped the wreck and made it to an island off Australia, where he was said to have lost his mind.

Bonus: Baychimo // Arctic ghost ship

The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
Mysterious Disappearances, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The SS Baychimo started life as a German trading vessel before being given to Great Britain after World War I as part of reparations. The Baychimo came under the ownership of the Hudson Bay Company, and made many voyages across the Atlantic from Scotland to Canada to trade with local Inuit tribes. In 1931, while journeying to Vancouver with a cargo of furs, the Baychimo fell victim to an early winter, as ice floes surrounded the ship and locked it in an icy embrace. The crew escaped the stricken vessel and fled across the ice floes to safety, but some returned a few days later to try to rescue the ship and its valuable cargo.

After over a month of braving the treacherous weather in a flimsy camp, a huge blizzard hit and the remaining crew lost sight of the ship. Once the storm had cleared, the watching crew were surprised to find the Baychimo had disappeared. They assumed it had sunk without trace. A week later the ship was spotted by an Inuit hunter and the crew raced back on board to gather as much of the cargo as possible. The captain decided the ship was too badly damaged to be seaworthy and so abandoned it, thinking it would soon break apart. How wrong he was. Over the years, the Baychimo was sighted a number of times, sometimes caught fast in ice, other times floating ghost-like through the Arctic waters. The last confirmed sighting was in 1969—an astonishing 37 years after it had been abandoned to its fate.

This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

The Time the Soviets Gave the U.S. a Hidden Spy Device—And It Took Seven Years to Discover It

A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
Daderot, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0

In the summer of 1945, at the tail end of World War II, a group of Russian schoolchildren arrived at the residence of the United States ambassador in Moscow—and they came bearing a gift. The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization 1, a kind of Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, presented a large carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, calling it a gesture of friendship to their wartime allies, the United States.

Harriman hung the wooden plaque in his study at the Spaso House, which served as his residence. But what he didn't know was that the plaque contained a cutting-edge listening device, used by the Soviets to eavesdrop on his conversations whenever they wanted. The plaque hung undetected in the ambassador’s study until 1952—a staggering seven years. It would come to be known colloquially as "The Thing."

The Walls Have Ears

A black-and-white photo of Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The device was the brainchild of the Russian inventor Léon Theremin. In the U.S., Theremin is best known for his eponymous musical instrument, the theremin, which he invented while working for the Soviet military in 1920. But almost two decades after creating the instrument, Theremin found himself in a Siberian gulag. Once in the prison system, he was conscripted to create high-tech radio listening devices in a secret laboratory.

With his second-greatest creation, The Thing, Theremin nearly upstaged himself. Unbeknownst to casual viewers, the wooden Great Seal of the United States he created was like a sandwich cookie, with a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna—which together acted as a microphone—standing in for the cream filling. Theremin's hidden bug wasn't connected to a battery or power supply; the device only worked when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter. This signal came via a van parked nearby that could broadcast a strong radio signal, activating the Thing and allowing the Soviets to eavesdrop, via a radio receiver, on unwittingly broadcasted conversations from within the Spaso House study.

Suspicious Voices

Exterior of Spaso House, residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
Exterior of Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
U.S. Embassy Moscow, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It was the British who first noticed something was amiss. In 1951, a British radio operator was monitoring Soviet air force radio traffic, in their own bit of espionage, when he recognized the voice of the British Air Attaché. It's not exactly clear what happened next, but the following year, an American listening to military radio traffic picked up a conversation featuring American-accented voices that clearly seemed to come from the Spaso House. A few bug-searching sweeps of the embassy, coordinated with the move-in of incoming U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan in May 1952, turned up nothing. But on September 12, 1952, with suspicions still raised, the State Department's security technicians Joseph "the Rug Merchant" Bezjian and John Ford conducted another search for good measure, knowing that the Soviets sometimes removed bugs and later replanted them.

At Bezjian's directive, Kennan sat at his desk and dictated an important-sounding message to his secretary while Bezjian searched the room with his radio instruments. When he switched on his receiver, he picked up a signal almost immediately. Something was broadcasting Kennan's voice from down in the study, and it was something very close by. Minutes later, the team found just what they were looking for—hanging right on the wall.

That night, Bezjian slept with the device under his pillow so that it couldn't be stolen back by the Soviets. It was shipped to Washington, D.C., the next day to be studied.

Kennan published his memoirs of the period in 1967. In the book, he wrote chillingly about the moment he realized that the Soviets had a microphone in his own private study: "It is difficult to make plausible the weirdness of the atmosphere in that room, while this strange scene was in progress … At this particular moment, one was acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor. It seemed that one could almost hear his breathing. All were aware that a strange and sinister drama was in progress."

Turnabout Is Fair Play

The U.S. didn't initially confront the Soviets about their discovery, and the device was kept secret from the media for several years. But the word got out in 1960: On May 1 of that year, the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane and then called a meeting with the United Nations Security Council, calling the U.S.'s espionage an act of aggression. The Thing was subsequently trotted out to prove that spying went both ways between the countries—and had for years.

By then, however, the device was well-known to British and American espionage agencies. After examining the bug's technology, the Brits were able to improve upon it and develop a listening device codenamed SATYR, which was utilized by the British, American, Canadian, and Australian militaries throughout the '50s.

It's not entirely certain where the Thing is located today. It was handed over to the FBI for analysis soon after its discovery, and at some point its membrane was damaged and had to be replaced. It was then sent to the National Security Agency, but it's not clear what happened after that. (The NSA likes their secrets.) However, there's a very faithful copy on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, along with a detailed exhibit showing exactly how Theremin and his lab built the device.

Unlike the original, handling the replica is encouraged; visitors can open up the wooden cabinet to view the recreated microphone and the resonant cavity inside. It's a way to engage with a particularly bizarre chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations—a time when even though the nations pretended to be friends, it was wise to beware schoolchildren bearing gifts.

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