Mary Bateman nee Harker was many things: a servant girl, a dress maker, a fortune teller…
She was also a compulsive thief, a religious charlatan, and an occasional poisoner.
Born in England in 1768, around the age of thirty-eight, Mary joined a budding religious denomination known as the Southcottians, based on the teachings of a self-proclaimed prophetess named Joanna Soutcoutt. Here she found a place filled with genuine believers – which makes her first (attested) crime almost more mischievous than malicious – a trend that wouldn’t last.
It was amongst her new flock that she ‘discovered’ the Prophet Hen of Leeds.
This was no ordinary Hen. Indeed, she produced some rather miraculous ova; her eggs revealed, as soon as they were laid, the immanent return of the Savior. Written, etched in the shells as if by some miraculous hand, were the words “Christ is Coming”. Mary, quite wisely, charged people to come and view the miracle fowl and its preternatural pre-omelets.
Whether or not the Lord was pleased remains undetermined. However, given that Mary was taking out the eggs, writing on them with a dyeing acid, and then reinserting said eggs into the Hen’s oviduct probably meant that the chicken probably wasn’t too overjoyed.
Now, if all of this had ended there it might have been one thing, a harmless ruse pulled off with a hapless hen. But Mary was compulsive when it came to stealing things – to the point that she might very well fit the modern criteria for a diagnosis of kleptomania. This chicken incident was a part of larger pattern – one that would lead Mary down a path that would end in murder, and eventually in her own anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin…
Around the time of the Apocalyptic Eggs, a couple named the Perigos approached Mary. Rebecca Perigo had been experiencing chest pains, and Mary quickly diagnosed her accurately – she had been bewitched. Mary started curing her with charms, amulets, and a special pudding…made all the more special as it was laced with poison.
Kids, Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid. And Never Eat the Pudding.
After two years of working on Rebecca, the hapless woman died; her husband, William, accused Mary of killing her. A subsequent police raid of the Bateman home turned up the personal belongings of multiple unrelated victims, not connected to the Perigos…
And then there was the poison…
Mary plead innocence; Mary plead pregnancy. Mary plead, plead and plead, but on the morning of March 20th, 1809, Mary was executed, hung after the jury listened to 11 hours of damning evidence.
Now, this is normally the part where I say something like, what’s the takeaway? Not yet.
Because whether or not Mary Bateman thought herself to be a witch, the popular sentiment of the day was that:
A) Witches were real
B) Mary fit the bill
C) A witches’ body had magical properties, in life…and even in death
So, while her spirit was exorcised through hanging, the people weren’t done with her mortal remains just yet…
Mary’s corpse was moved to the Leeds General Infirmary, where it was displayed for the public (3 pence per visitor, thank you very much).
Then came the dissection, which was a three-day event:
Day One was for medical students (student discounts available)
Day Two was for only the Finest of Leeds Gentlemen (5 guineas a head, only 100 seats available, order now!)
Day Three was for the ladies (a fair price for the fairer sex)
Were there souvenirs?
Well, as the old saying goes, exit through the gift shop.
You could buy individual strips of her skin, which were tanned and sold as magic charms for warding off evil spirits.
The tip of her tongue was specifically presented to the governor of Ripon Prison, the local House of Corrections.
And if you were literary minded, you could pop over to the local library – Mexborough House.
Here, until the mid nineteenth century, you could find two books, bound in Mary Bateman’s tanned skin:
Hurt of Sedition: How Grievous it is to a Common Welth (Sir John Cheeke, 1569), and
Arcadian Princesses (Richard Braithwaite, 1635)
Now, the takeaway…
Was Justice served?
Perhaps only an Arcadian Princess knows, tucked away on a dusty shelf…
Still bound up in the life, and death, of one Mary Bateman.
Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. And never eat the pudding.