Mary Bateman – The Yorkshire Witch

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Mary Bateman – The Yorkshire Witch

by Summer Strevens

The story of Mary Bateman, known as The Yorkshire Witch, or The Leeds Witch is well-known and has been covered previously by On: Yorkshire Magazine. But in a new book, author Summer Strevens goes deeper and attempts to explain the methods and motives behind Britain’s first female serial killer…

While Mary Ann Cotton has recently been labelled as Britain’s First Female Serial Killer, another likely contender hailing from Yorkshire may well have been vying for the title decades earlier…

On the morning of 20 March 1809, a Monday, the usual day designated for the execution of murderers, the woman who had earned herself the title of ‘The Yorkshire Witch’ is executed upon York’s New Drop gallows. She hangs before a crowd variously estimated at between five and twenty thousand people. Among the multitude who come to see Mary Bateman die are some who have travelled all the way from her hometown of Leeds, many of them on foot, and doubtless many of them the victims of her hoaxes and extortion.

mary bateman - the yorkshire witch leeds by turner painting

The growing Leeds metropolis is captured in Joseph Mallord William Turner’s ‘Leeds’

“She gains the trust of the desperate and poor who populate the growing industrial metropolis of Leeds”

In spite of her supernatural sobriquet, Mary was not a witch in the traditional sense. She was what we would term today as a consummate con-artist – a charlatan of the first order, a compulsive liar, confidence trickster, thief and fraudster. Through her ‘artifice and deleterious skill’ she deceives many victims by instilling in them the belief that she does indeed possess magical powers. According to contemporary accounts, Mary is charismatic and ostensibly charming and above all extremely adept at identifying the psychological weaknesses of the gullible.

Easily gaining the simple trust placed in the her by the desperate and poor who populate the growing industrial metropolis of Leeds at the turn of the nineteenth century, she is a supreme exponent of the art of exploiting their fears. She uses ancient folk memory of witchcraft to rob them of all their worldly goods. Mary, however, does much more than cause misery and penury, adding murder to the list of her diabolical deeds.

Along with the theft of money and goods, Mary increasingly turns to fortune-telling as her main source of income. It is said that through exposure to gypsies in her early life, she has learnt many of their arts – and embellishes her prophesies with the wisdom she seeks from a Mrs Moore whom Mary always consults on behalf of her clients. Incidentally, the lady is pure invention on Mary’s part, but this doesn’t stop her from taking payment on Mrs Moore’s behalf.

mary bateman - the yorkshire witch leeds arsenic

Bateman poisoned her victims with arsenic
Image: Science Museum, London

“Elimination of her victims became a necessary and expedient measure”

While the mystical and mythical Mrs Moore, whose supernatural powers apparently stem from her being the seventh child of a seventh child, proves a profitable invention, Mary is to later employ the services of the equally fictitious Miss Blythe. Supposedly residing in Scarborough, Miss Blythe is at a safe enough remove to maintain the pretence of her existence. Plus, she is equally adept at seeing into the future and, through the agency of Mary, comes highly recommended as an exponent in the removal of ‘evil wishes’ through the provision of magical cures. With, of course, Mary charging exorbitantly for her expertise.

As the extent of Mary’s thefts and frauds escalate, the eventual elimination of her victims became a necessary and expedient measure against their discovery and exposure of the ruthless pact into which they have entered with the Yorkshire Witch. The charms and cures with which her delusional and desperate victims willingly dose themselves are laced with arsenic.

While Mary Bateman is tried and convicted on a single murder charge, we can say with a measure of certainty that she kills at least three others. In all probability she is responsible for many more deaths that escape detection, including any number of unrecorded fatalities resulting from those young women who sought out Mary’s services as an abortionist.

Evading the grasp of the authorities for over twenty years, though not officially recognised as such, the labelling of Mary Bateman as a serial killer is therefore doubtless an accurate assertion.

‘The Yorkshire Witch: The Life and Trial of Mary Bateman’ by Summer Strevens is available for £12.99 from Pen & Sword Books

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