When studying supernatural history one thing becomes painfully obvious very quickly: history is full of con men and snake oil salesmen. There are countless examples of people from throughout history who have been caught claiming to possess magical powers or strange abilities.
The Yorkshire Witch, Mary Bateman, was one of these people. Hers is a story of deceit, murder, and supposedly magical eggs dating back to the 1800s in Leeds, West Yorkshire in England.
Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch
Most of the details of Bateman’s life come from one source, The Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman, a book published just after her trial and resulting death. The book is deemed fairly reliable but we may have to take some of its claims with a pinch of salt: it was essentially written as a cash grab after a very high-profile case.
Bateman was born in Asenby, Yorkshire in 1768. It was recorded that her father was a farmer and her mother was most likely a housewife. Her youth was uneventful but she was a bright girl.
She learned to read and write at a young age (not a given for the daughter of a farmer during this time). From the age of 13, she worked as a servant girl in Thirsk, Yorkshire.
She held down this job until she was 20 years old. At this point, she decided a change of scenery was in order and moved to York where she became a dressmaker. It was in York where she revealed her true colors.
She was caught red-handed during a burglary and was forced to flee to Leeds. It appears theft was not a new hobby, a biography of Bateman states, “displayed what may have been a pathological need to steal. She was, moreover, none too discreet in the manner of her robberies”. Safe to say this was only the first of many brushes with the law.
Once in Leeds, she began working as a mantua maker (a mantua was a kind of dress). At the same time, she began working as a fortune-teller and “wise woman”. It seems likely that her fortunes were less than genuine and the cures she gave as a woman were likely to cause rather than cure injury.
She married John Bateman, a wheelwright, in 1792. The marriage did not make an honest woman out of Bateman. Over the next few years, she carried out a number of robberies. Evidently, her skills as a thief hadn’t improved any. She was caught several times and forced to bribe her victims to avoid legal woes.
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When her husband joined the army in 1796 she accompanied him in leaving Leeds. She was back within a year, however. During her time away she appears to have realized that she was a bad thief but a decent con artist.
She is reported to have roamed the streets of Leeds after a nasty fire begging for money and goods for those who had lost everything in the fire. Of course, she pocketed all of the donations. It has also been reported that during this time she used her reputation as a “wise woman” to carry out back street abortions.
Bateman and Her Prophetic Hen
In 1806 Bateman joined the followers of the prophetess Joanna Southcott, a local woman claiming to be a holy prophet of the end time). It was at this point she carried out her most successful (and profitable) con. Bateman claimed that one of her hens had begun laying eggs which were magically inscribed with the message “Crist is coming” (apparently Bateman was not a gifted speller).
“Christ is coming” was taken as a message that the end times (the apocalypse) were its way. Before long, crowds were flocking to Bateman’s humble home to view the holy eggs. Each person paid a penny to experience the miracle.
People were whipped into a frenzy, convinced the apocalypse was finally coming. Bateman used this religious fervor to pad out her profits. She began selling “seals” inscribed with J.C. on them. These seals guaranteed one’s entrance into heaven.
Of course, it was all a con. It was discovered that Bateman was writing on the eggs using a corrosive ink made from concentrated vinegar. She would write on the eggs before ‘reinserting’ them into the poor hen.
When the con was revealed Bateman promptly sold the bird to a neighbor foolish enough to still believe her. The hen, by this point dubbed “The Prophet Hen of Leeds” never laid another prophetical egg. Funny that.
Bateman the Poisoner
Sadly Bateman did not stop there. With her egg scam exposed she needed a new source of income, or a gullible mark. That same year she was approached by William and Rebecca Perigo. Rebecca was suffering from chest pains and was desperate for a remedy. Bateman informed the poor woman she had been cursed.
Luckily Bateman knew just the fix. Over the next year Bateman, for a hefty price, provided the couple with a magical cure. The cure was pudding laced with poison.
Tragically Rebecca eventually succumbed to the combination of her condition and poisoning in 1808. Her husband quickly came to his senses and in October of 1808 accused Bateman of poisoning his wife and even worse, defrauding him by selling him bogus remedies.
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Bateman cried innocent but was ultimately done for. A raid of her home revealed poison and the personal belongings of various victims. Bateman wasn’t going to bribe her way out of this one.
Her trial took place in York in 1809. The trial lasted 11 hours but it took the jury no time at all in finding her guilty of fraud and the murder of Mrs. Perigo. The sentence was death by hanging.
Bateman tried one last con. As her sentence was being declared she stated that she was 22 weeks pregnant and therefore ineligible for death by hanging. Twelve married women were promptly sworn into the jury to examine Bateman. Surprise, surprise, she was lying.
Bateman was hanged along with two men on Monday 20th March 1809. But this wasn’t the end of Bateman’s story. It had been decided an example would be made out of her.
Her corpse was sent to Leeds General Infirmary where the body was put on display. Visitors were charged 3 pence to view her body. Over a three-day period, she was then dissected by William Hey (a prominent surgeon). On the first day students were charged to watch and on the second local gentleman could pay 5 guineas to watch, finally, women were allowed to join for the third day.
Once the dissection was completed strips of Bateman’s skin were tanned into leather. These were sold as magical charms that could ward off evil spirits. As a final indignity, her liar’s tongue was collected by the governor of Ripon Prison, and two books were bound in her flesh.
The Dangers of Impersonating a Witch
Bateman paid the ultimate price for her misdeeds. Hers is a classic case of criminal escalation as she moved from petty theft to burglary to fraud to eventually murder. It seems that her greed was unquenchable.
Bateman is also an important reminder of how unscrupulous people can prey on the naive and unsuspecting. While her egg con sounds funny today, at the time her prophetic claims caused major unrest.
People genuinely believed the world was ending. Her fate post-death may have been grizzly but it is difficult to argue it was unearned. The irony that her skin was sold as magical charms after her crimes was likely lost on no one.
Top Image: Mary Bateman claimed god had written messages on the shells of her chickens’ eggs. Source: Gregory Lee / Adobe Stock.