Monday, 30 May 2016

Murder and Lies: Mary Bateman, The Yorkshire Witch

Sometimes you live in an area for years without realising what fascinating events took place just down the road. It was over two years after leaving Leeds that I heard about Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch", whose terrible deeds led her to an equally terrible fate as the first decade of the 19th century came to a close. 

On Friday 17th March, 1809, Mary Bateman came to trial at York Castle. The charge against her was one that ensured a good crowd came to witness events: “The wilful murder of Rebecca Perigo, of Bramley, in the West-Riding.”  

The story started in 1806 when Rebecca Perigo, wife of William Perigo, became convinced that someone had laid an “evil wish” upon her. Her niece Sarah told her that she knew a woman who might be able to help, and accordingly visited Mary Bateman to ask for her assistance. Mary assured the young woman that she knew someone who could cure her aunt – although not naming her, she told the worried Sarah that she would write to ask for assistance and that she should hear back in a fortnight's time. Mary also instructed Sarah to get her aunt to send a flannel petticoat, or “any garment worn next the skin” to send to the un-named woman to aid in the process of breaking the ill wish. 

William Perigo accordingly took the requested petticoat to Mary Bateman, thus beginning an acquaintance that was to end so fatally.  Mary's intention was, she told the worried husband, to send the petticoat to a Miss Blythe in Scarborough, for she was the woman who would be able to help his wife.  

Reassured, Perigo went home, returning to Mary's house on the agreed date to hear what Miss Blythe had prescribed for his wife. It was a curious letter indeed: Mary was instructed to go to the Perigo house, taking with her four guinea notes that Miss Blythe had sent. They were to be put into the bed there, one for each corner. The notes must be left there for 18 months it was stressed, otherwise the “cure” would be ineffective. In return, William Perigo must give Mary Bateman four guinea notes in return, to be sent bacl to Miss Blythe. There also came a warning: the first charm, involving the requested petticoat, had not worked due to Rebecca Perigo discussing the matter with others. Miss Blythe would not consent to further helping the woman unless she promised solemnly not to talk about it with anyone from now on.  

Mary visited the house as arranged, and William Perigo was satisfied that the notes in question were genuine before giving her his own notes to send to the helpful woma in Scarborough. Mary sewed the original notes each into a silk bag, and, with the Perigo couple looking on, the bags were placed inside the bed without incident. William Perigo then walked Mary Bateman part of the way home, confident that his wife's torment would soon be at an end.

This was far from the end of the matter however, and over the next few months, a variety of requests came from Miss Blythe in Scarborough, the following items given to her via Mary Bateman by the too-trusting William Perigo:

  • One goose 
  • Two pairs of Men's shoes
  • A goose pie
  • A tea caddy
  • Several shirts
  • A counterpane
  • A piece of woollen cloth
  • A silk handkerchief
  • A silk shawl
  • A light coloured gown skirt
  • A light coloured cotton gown
  • Two pillow slips
  • A new waistcoat
  • Sixty pounds of butter
  • Seven strokes of meal
  • Six strokes of malt
  • A quantity of tea and sugar
  • Two of three hundred eggs
  • A pair of worsted stockings
  • A pair of new shoes
  • A pair of black silk stockings
  • Three yards of Knaresborough linen cloth
  • Ten stones of malt
  • A piece of beef
  • Three bottles of spirits
  • Two table clothes
  • Two barrels
  • Two napkins

One of the most curious items requested and given was a bedstead and mattress, the use they were to be put to never being fully explained. William Perigo also handed over money in various amounts, in all totalling about seventy pounds.  As the months went on, letters were exchanged with instructions given and promises made; all with the firm reminder that the correspondence should be destroyed after reading. 

Matters took a sinister turn in April 1807 when the Perigos received a letter with alarming news.

“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.”

All was not lost however; after this mysterious pronouncement came better news. Although it might seem that they were at death's door, the Perigos would pull through, if they were to follow the instructions included within the letter. Rebecca Perigo was to take half a pound of honey to Mary Bateman's home in Leeds, where Mary would put into the honey “such like stuff” as Miss Blythe would send to her. Another “such stuff” was also to be put into a pudding, which William Perigo and his wife were to eat for six days. If they felt ill during that time, they were simply to take a tea-spoon of the doctored honey. They were not to begin this course of treatment however until they received word to do so. 

A Yard in High Court Lane where Mary Bateman lived
Leeds Library and Information Services

Rebecca Perigo followed the instructions in the letter, and took the honey to Mary Bateman, returning with six powders. William Perigo himself visited the helpful woman not long after; It was strange, he opined, that Miss Blythe had foreknowledge that they would be unwell. It was not strange at all, Mary Bateman corrected; on the contrary, Miss Blythe knew everything to do with him, but all would be fine if they followed her directions.  

Word came to the Perigos that they were to start eating the pudding on 11th May. They were reminded that it must be taken every day and that if they became sick they were not, under any circumstances, to call for a doctor. They were only to make as much pudding as they themselves would need, and were not to share it with anyone else. The door to the house must also be kept closed and they were, by all accounts, not to see anyone unless strictly necessary. This rigorous regime would not have to be maintained for too long - by 25th May, Miss Blythe assured them, it would all be over, and Rebecca Perigo would have cause to take Mary Bateman by the hand to thank her for her help.

Accordingly, on 11th May, the couple started the course of treatment prescribed. For five days William and Rebecca Perigo followed the instructions they had been given, eating the powder-laced pudding with no apparent effect. The next day however the powders to be added were of a greater quantity than on previous days, and eating the pudding made William Perigo feel so sick that he only managed one mouthful. His wife however managed three or four before being overcome with vomiting. This was surely, his wife insisted, the illness Miss Blythe had said would strike them – they must now, without further ado, take the honey. William Perigo took two spoonfuls, while Rebecca Perigo swallowed down six or seven of the mixture. They were sick for the next twenty-four hours, and although they were in a very bad way, Rebecca insisted that they could not call for a doctor without the most direst of consequences.  

In the evidence he gave later, William Perigo stated 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, everything appeared green to him.”

On top of that, he also had a “violent complaint in his bowels,” and it was several days before he could eat anything and slowly started to recover.  

Rebecca Perigo's symptoms were of the same nature but much more extreme; her tongue grew so swollen she could not close her mouth, she complained of thirst constantly and after a steady decline, died on 24th May, the date before that which Miss Blythe had declared Rebecca would be thanking Mary Bateman for her intervention.

Shortly after the death of his wife, William Perigo paid a visit to Mary Bateman, the sorry state of the wretched man only to be imagined at. He did not mince words, telling her that he wished that they had had a doctor during their illness, but they had instead followed what Miss Blythe had instructed. When Mary Bateman suggested that the reason his wife had not recovered was that not every drop of the honey had been taken, William Perigo made it clear that he thought the honey to be at fault, if only because if not for that he would have sent for a doctor and his wife would still be with them.

After that, a series of increasingly bizarre letters arrived from Miss Blythe, speaking of Rebecca Perigo rising from the grave to bring her husband further harm, requesting one of his dead wife's gowns and paying a guinea and a half for some coals.

Illustration showing Mary Bateman and the ill-fated Perigo Couple

On 19th October 1808, William Perigo finally went to open the bags that were secreted in his bed all those months ago. There had been more money added over time, but,  much to his amazement, the money was all gone, and he wasted no time in heading to Leeds to take Mary Bateman to task.

Mary's explanation was that William Perigo had opened the bags too soon. Not satisfied, William told her he would return the next day with “two or three men and have things settled.” Mary Bateman pleaded with him not to, saying that if he would meet her, alone, at a specified time and place, she would satisfy him. It is not certain what William Perigo took that to mean, but it was agreed that they would meet the following day near the bridge over the Leeds and Liverpool canal.

William Perigo did go to meet her the next morning, though, as a precaution, he took two men with him who kept their distance to see how events unfolded. When he saw Mary he told her that he was not alone. No doubt realising that she was trapped, the woman did her very best to turn the tables, countering by exclaiming loudly for anyone nearby to hear:

“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.”

She then appealed to a woman nearby, asking if she had seen the transaction that had supposedly taken place, alleging that William Perigo had tried to poison her and put her life in danger. It was a bold attempt, but her luck had finally run out, and Mary Bateman was arrested. 

A search of Mary Bateman's house turned up a good many of the articles the Perigos had sent for “Miss Blythe”, and others came forward with evidence that left Mary Bateman without a leg to stand on. At her trial she was condemned to death for the murder of Rebecca Perigo, scant comfort for the still grieving husband she had left behind. 

Sentenced to death, Mary wrote to her husband, expressing sorrow for the shame she had brought on her family through the various frauds she had committed throughout her life, those involving the Perigos being only the last of many. Until the end however she remained  adamant that she was not guilty of the crime for which she was to hang, a final attempt to save herself by pleading pregnancy failing after she was examined and found to be lying. 

It seems that she kept to her old tricks right to the end, and gave a spell to a young woman also in prison who wanted to see her sweetheart. Again like Perigo, the charm involved money, and when the young woman unbound it and found her money gone, she complained to the Governor of the Castle who saw that some of the money at least was refunded to the girl.

Mary went to the noose on 20th March, 1809. After being cut down, her body was sent to Leeds General Infirmary for dissection. In more recent times her skeleton was on display at the William Thackray Museum, Leeds, until 2015 when it returned to Leeds University. 

Images of Mary's skeleton, along with a partial facial reconstruction, can be found here.