Top left: Mary Bateman, the infamous Yorkshire Witch, producing eggs supposedly laid by a hen bearing the slogan ‘Crist is coming’; top right: the church of St Columba, Topcliffe-by-Thirsk, where she was baptised in January 1768 as Mary Harker; bottom left: a cartoon from a book published in the 1960s depicting Mary handing a bottle of poison to William and Rebecca Perigo; bottom right: the skeletal remains of Mary Bateman on display at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.
Rebecca Perigo, nee Stockdale (1760-1807) is one of the most tragic stories in my one-name study. She was a victim of the infamous Mary Bateman, known as “The Yorkshire Witch”. Rebecca was baptised at Bramley, near Leeds, in 1760, the daughter of Joshua Stockdale, a stonemason, and on 2 October 1786 she was married at the parish church of St Peter’s, Leeds, Yorkshire, to William Perigo, a poor clothier also from Bramley. Poor Rebecca died horribly and painfully in the spring of 1807, poisoned by Mary Bateman.
The hapless couple fell under the spell and evil influence of Mary Bateman, one of the most wicked women in the annals of crime in Britain. Though she has been dead for over 200 years, such was her infamy that she is still written about today.
She was not a witch in the traditional sense, but a serial fraudster, confidence trickster, bogus psychic and, ultimately, murderer. She was, according to contemporary accounts, charismatic and ostensibly charming but, above all, extremely adept at identifying the psychological weaknesses of gullible and simple people. She was a supreme exponent of the art of exploiting their fears and terror of witchcraft to rob them of all their worldly goods. She went to the gallows in 1809, but not before she had literally got away with murder, in the sense that she probably committed more than the one she was found guilty of, and ruined the lives of many victims.
Mary Bateman was born Mary Harker in 1767 or 1768 at Asenby, a township in the parish of Topcliffe, a few miles south of Thirsk in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the daughter of a respectable small farmer called Benjamin Harker and his wife, Ann. As a child, she mixed with gypsies and learnt some of their arts and skills in making potions.
She went into service at the age of 12 in Thirsk, and then worked for about a year in service in York, but was dismissed for theft. In 1788, aged 20, Mary turned up in Leeds where she worked as a mantua maker. She also developed a profitable sideline telling fortunes and making love potions for would-be sweethearts. In February 1793 she married at St. Peter’s Parish Church, Leeds, after a courtship of only three weeks, a carpenter and wheelwright called John Bateman. The poor fellow quickly regretted it when he discovered his wife’s criminal tendencies, for Mary stole from occupants of houses where they lodged, obtained money by deceit, and embarked on a lengthy series of frauds that entailed stripping her gullible victims of everything they possessed.
Through her supposed psychic powers, Mary Bateman became famous and feared throughout Leeds as a fortune teller and warder-off of evil spirits, performing what gullible people considered to be miracles but were really just conjuring tricks. Her most infamous deception involved a hen that laid eggs bearing the words “Crist is coming”. Mary produced the eggs from beneath the hen and charged a penny to view them. She had scrawled the message herself on previously laid eggs and then, in an act of extraordinary cruelty, re-inserted them into the unfortunate hen.
Eventually, Bateman’s activities become more sinister and she turned to murder. In 1803 she ingratiated herself with two Quaker sisters, the Misses Kitchin, who kept a draper’s shop. Both sisters died mysteriously, along with their mother, after taking medicines prescribed by Bateman. Bateman stripped the house, telling neighbours the women had died of the plague. Despite a doctor’s suspicion that the women had been poisoned, the authorities made only cursory enquiries.
Mary was so busy with her fortune telling that she invented mythical helpers as part of her frauds. Somehow, by luck and cunning, she managed to keep out of the authorities’ grasp. But the case that was to bring her to the gallows involved William Perigo and his wife, Rebecca, nee Stockdale.
In the spring of 1806 Rebecca Perigo became convinced she was possessed by an evil spirit. She was told about Mary Bateman and asked her to help get rid of it. Bateman informed the Perigos she knew a lady who lived at Scarborough who could read the stars and who could cure her and that if a flannel petticoat was sent to her she would at once communicate with this lady upon the subject.
William Perigo proceeded to Bateman’s house. Having handed over his wife’s flannel petticoat, Mary Bateman said she would write to Miss Blythe, who was the lady to whom she had alluded at Scarborough, and that an answer would be returned when he was to call again. When Perigo returned, Bateman produced a letter saying that it had arrived from Miss Blythe and that it contained directions.
It contained an order “that Mary Bateman should go to Perigo’s house at Bramley, and should take with her four guinea notes and that she should sew them into the four corners of the bed in which the diseased woman slept.” There they were to remain for 18 months. Perigo was to give her four other notes of like value. Unless these directions were strictly attended to, the charm would be useless and would not work.
On 4 August 1806 Mary Bateman went to Bramley and, having shown the four notes, proceeded supposedly to sew them up in silken bags at corners of the bed. The four notes desired to be returned were then handed to her by Perigo and she retired, directing him to go to her house as further letters might be expected from Miss Blythe.
In a fortnight another letter was produced, which contained directions that two pieces of iron in the form of horse-shoes should be nailed up by Mary Bateman at the Perigos’ door and that the pincers were to be sent to Scarborough, to remain in the custody of Miss Blythe for the eighteen months already mentioned in the charm.
Sums of money and gifts were handed over by the credulous pair for Miss Blythe of Scarborough, who, of course, they never met. When they finally began to ask questions, they received letters informing them they were to eat puddings to which they were to add a powder supplied by Bateman, otherwise they would die a terrible death. For once, one of Mary’s predictions came true — for the powder contained a poison
The couple ate the puddings for five days, but on the sixth day William Perigo could not stomach more than a spoonful of the foul mixture. His wife Rebecca, however, ate it all, dying in agony. At Mary Bateman’s trial, William Perigo related the symptoms: a violent heat came out of his mouth, his lips turned black and he had a pain in his head, 20 times worse than any common headache. His wife’s symptoms were even worse. Her tongue swelled so that she could not shut her mouth and was constantly thirsty.
Poor Rebecca expired on the 24th of May 1807, her last words being a request to her husband not to be “rash” with Mary Bateman, but to await the coming of the appointed time. Astonishingly, it was 19 October 1808 – well over two years after his first meeting with Mary Bateman and the commencement of the so-called charm, and 18 months after his wife’s death – before William Perigo finally decided to retrieve the guinea notes supposedly sewn into their bed. To his horror, he discovered just some rotting cabbage leaves, waste paper and a few old farthings. At long last realising he had been duped, he arranged a meeting with Mary Bateman on the pretext of acquiring from her some medicine. At this meeting she was arrested by William Duffield, the Chief Constable of Leeds. When she was searched, a phial containing arsenic was found in a pocket upon her person – it was later suggested at her trial that she intended it for the final disposal of William Perigo, since her powders had killed his wife but not him.
Mary Bateman’s trial for the wilful murder of Rebecca Perigo took place at York Castle on Friday, 17 March 17 1809.The trial lasted all day, the chief witness being William Perigo.
It took the jury only a few minutes to find her guilty. The judge sentenced Mary Bateman to the gallows. But even then, the drama wasn’t over! There was yet another dramatic twist in the tail. To the end, Mary tried to weave her spells. After being sentenced to death, when asked by the clerk of the court if she had anything to say, she claimed she was 22 weeks “gone with child” and at that time it was not legal for a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy to be hanged. The judge, Sir Simon le Blanc, on hearing this, ordered a jury of matrons – i.e. married women – to be empanelled to examine Bateman. A number of lady spectators present attempted to leave in order to avoid this duty. However, the judge ordered the courtroom doors to be locked and empanelled a jury of married women from amongst the many fashionable ladies present. Again, she was found to be lying and not “enceinte”, as a contemporary phrase put it.
At 5.0 a.m. on the Monday following her trial, 20 March 1809, Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch, was led at the age of 41 to her execution behind York Castle before a crowd of thousands. The crowd was so large because the belief had become widespread that somehow Bateman would cheat justice. Indeed, there were many supporters of Mary Bateman from Leeds who believed in her innocence and who actually believed that an angel would descend and remove her from the gallows.
Large crowds lined the route from York to Leeds when the body of the Yorkshire Witch was returned after her execution to the city where she had ruined so many lives. Her body was handed over to Leeds Infirmary for dissection, as was frequently the custom in those days with executed murderers. Such was the morbid fascination with the Witch that her body was put on show, the hospital raising some £30 by charging threepence to 2,500 people who queued to see it. They also had her skin tanned and pieces distributed as souvenirs.
Finaly, I can reveal a very distant personal connection to the Yorkshire Witch! I discovered that Mary Harker’s mother, Ann Duning, was born in 1732 at Boltby in the parish of Felixkirk, near Thirsk, the daughter of a James Duning. An Ann Duning then married Benjamin Harker in the parish of Brompton by Northallerton, further north of Thirsk, in 1754. The couple had a daughter baptised at Brompton in 1755 and then moved to the parish of Topcliffe-by-Thirsk where they had five more children, including Mary, between 1765 and 1778. It seems likely they were moving back to the area where Ann, the mother, had orginated.
An Ann Duning, daughter of James, is in the Felixkirk registers as being baptised there on March 19 1731/32, but was this the same Ann Duning who married Benjamin Harker at Brompton in 1754? I acquired from the North Yorkshire Record Office at Northallerton photocopies of the marriage of Benjamin Harker and Ann Duning at Brompton by Northallerton and the subsequent baptisms of all their children, one at Brompton and the rest at Topcliffe-by-Thirsk. The most significant record is that of the last and youngest child, John. The entry turned out to be from one of Yorkshire’s famous Dade registers and John Harker was recorded in 1778 in the following terms:
“John Harker, son of Benjamin Harker, of Asenby, labourer, son of John Harker of Scugdale, farmer, and of Ann, daughter of James Dunning of Boultby, farmer, by Jane, daughter of William Lumley of Cold Kirby, farmer, born on Monday the 7th of September, baptized on Sunday the 11th of October”.
This was a classic example of a Dade register entry, named after the Rev William Dade, a far-sighted Yorkshire cleric who introduced a system of giving considerably more information in the registers than had hitherto been the case. Boltby lay within the Parish of Felixkirk from where many of my ancestors came. Among them was a great-great-great grandfather who bore the rather splendid name of Lancelot Yellow (1723-1797).
Lancelot had a sister, Elizabeth, born in 1721, and on December 3 1764 the Felixkirk registers record the marriage of an Elizabeth Yellowlow to Thomas Dunning, both of Boltby. Though she would have been in her early 40s at the time of the marriage, I believe this was probably my ancestor’s sister, since I could find no other candidate.
But was Thomas Dunning a near relative of Ann Duning, mother of the Yorkshire Witch, Mary Harker Bateman? It certainly seems possible, though, due to a paucity of information in the registers at the time, I have not been able to establish the precise relationship. The link, if it is accurate, is tenuous in the extreme and I readily admit it.
Finally, I reported that the body of Mary Bateman was given up to Leeds Infirmary for medical research. In fact, a substantial portion of her upper skeleton survives to this day, almost two centuries after her execution. It resided for most of that time in Leeds Infirmary but now forms part of a display at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. Some years ago I was able to view the Yorkshire Witch’s remains. It was an eerie feeling gazing down at the bones of this wicked woman who was hanged over 200 years ago and who may – just possibly – have been a very distant relative of mine. All family historians like to talk about the skeleton in the family cupboard. But I couldn’t help asking myself whether I was one of a very tiny number of people who have seen the actual skeleton in the family cupboard!