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Laying an Egg

Posted Jun 16 2010 11:14am

England was in full religious ferment during the first few years of the 19th century.  Joanna Southcott was leading a messianic crusade with countless followers revering her as "the Lamb" who would bring them to salvation.  Other prophets like Richard Brothers had their own crusades  promising the imminent coming of God's kingdom on Earth (the English were considered to be God's chosen people).  Tales of signs and wonders proclaiming the impending Second Coming spread widely.

Which brings us to Mary Bateman (a.k.a. "The Yorkshire Witch").  Born Mary Harker on a small farm in North Yorkshire in 1768, Mary had few choices but to go into service (much as Joanna Southcott did).  Unfortunately, Mary was not a particularly good servant and quickly acquired a reputation for petty thieving which got her fired .  As a compulsive liar, thief, confidence artist, and all-around crook, Mary never managed to hold any job for long.  She was a very good actress however and managed to impress people with her claims of supernatural powers.  By 1788, she had set herself up in Leeds as a dressmaker and part-time fortune teller.  Her marriage to John Bateman nearly ended when her husband discovered his wife's criminal past.  On one occasion, she tricked him into going to his home town to see his father who was supposedly ill.  While he was away, Mary sold her husband's clothes to pay off a debt and avoid prison. He eventually joined the militia to get away from his treacherous wife but  eventually returned and the two of them eventually settled down into a larcenous life together (they had four children and Mary was the main supporter of the entire family).

With no other source of income, Mary became a full-time fortune teller and con artist.  Posing as "Mrs. Moore", a seventh child of a seventh child, Mary carried out elaborate schemes to trick victims into handing over Annewill[1] their savings to her.  She developed quite a reputation as a local miracle worker who could accomplish amazing things with her powers.  She was also a keen observer of new trends and always trying to find ways to exploit them for her own profit.  When Joanna Southcott's began "sealing" her followers in 1802 (giving them a special token to mark them as being among the 144,000 to be saved according to the Book of Revelation), Mary managed to get one of the markers herself.  It was then that she began one of her most notorious (and profitable) schemes.

Although her reputation as a fortune-teller had begun to suffer (too many of her victims complained), Mary played on her status as one of Southcott's "sealed" to make an amazing announcement. Like many other country women of her time, she kept several hens to supply her with fresh eggs and she claimed that one of them had laid an egg with the inscription "Crist is coming".  Mary announced that she had been granted a vision which told her that her hen would lay fourteen special eggs and that the last one would mark the beginning of the Apocalypse.  As word of this marvel began to spread, more eggs bearing religious inscriptions were laid and crowds quickly gathered (she charged them a penny each to seen her marvelous hens). Not only did the eggs proclaim Christ's coming, but they announced that it would happen very soon which added to the growing hysteria.  Along with making money from displaying the chickens, Mary also began providing pilgrims with special "seals" (a piece of paper bearing the initials "JC") which would guarantee its bearer admission into Heaven following the Apocalypse.  Thousands of visitors came to be saved. 

It's hard to say how long this would have gone on but a skeptical doctor managed to examine one of the eggs and found that the inscription had been written in ink.  When authorities were notified, they staged a raid on the tavern where Mary lived with her chickens.  They caught her red-handed (so to speak) inserting one of her special eggs up the chicken's egg duct so it could be "laid" later.  Mary was arrested and the resulting scandal forced Joanna Southcott to stop sealing her own followers because of the stigma.  

A little thing like public exposure didn't stop Mary Bateman for long.  She simply switched to becoming a practitioner of folk remedies (as well as being an abortionist).  Her services were in high enough demand that the inevitable rumours about the people buying her "medicines" didn't deter other customers.    Two Quaker sisters named Kitchen sought out her services until one of them sickened and died after taking "medicine" that Mary had provided.  When the mother of the two women arrived to deal with her daughter's death, she ended up sickening and dying as well along with her surviving daughter.  All three of them were buried in the same grave.  Although Mary insisted that all three of the Kitchen women had died of the plague, authorities quickly became suspicious.   After their creditors investigated what property was remaining, they found scarcely any furniture or belongings left in the Kitchen sisters' house. 

Amazingly, Mary was able to continue with her frauds despite the suspicion that she had crossed the line from theft to murder.  The previous death of another woman, Rebecca Perigo, was also being investigated after her husband complained to authorities in 1808.  It was the husband, still being fleeced by Mary two years after his wife's death, who arranged for a meeting at which she was arrested by two officers.  A search of Mary Bateman's house turned up items that had belonged to Rebecca Perigo and the Kitchen sisters.  The various ingredients that went into her "remedies" were also found, including poison.  After going on trial at York in 1809, Mary was quickly found guilty of murder despite her repeated claims of innocence.  Desperate to escape hanging, Mary even tried "pleading her belly" (claiming to be pregnant) although a medical examination proved otherwise.

With all her legal options exhausted, Mary Bateman went to the gallows on March 20, 1809.  More than five thousand people turned out for the hanging including many who still believed in her supernatural powers and were convinced that the "Yorkshire witch" would somehow save herself from death.  As the Annals of Yorkshire later described the hanging, Mary "was launched into eternity with a lie upon her lips having denied her guilt to the last".   As was the common practice of the time for executed murderers, her body was turned over the the local medical school for dissection.  There was enough public interest in Mary's corpse for the local hospital to charge money to see the body (more than 2500 people paid threepence each).  Her skin was also tanned and cut into pieces so they could be sold as souvenirs.  Believers in the powers of the ``Yorkshire Witch`` used the skin pieces as talismans (it would have galled Mary to know that she wasn`t making any money from her corpse).

Mary Bateman`s skeleton is still on display at the T hackray Medical Museum in Leeds, England.  Visitors seeing her there can appreciate her presence as a strange sort of testimonial to the power of human gullibility and how easily it can be exploited. 

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