MURDERERS' LEATHER By EDWARD ELMHIRST September 9th 1954
The last witch in Yorkshire, Mary Harker, who later became Mary Bateman, was born near Thirsk in 1768. According to the later accounts of her life, printed, wisely, after the events that had made her notorious, she soon gave evidence of a low cunning. She had what was then considered a good education for the daughter of an agricultural labourer, and went to school until she was 13; here she learnt to read and write, accomplishments she was later to use remorselessly against her more ignorant acquaintances. After a few years as a servant in Thirsk, she got employment making dresses in a shop in York, but she had to leave this post after her mistress had been robbed. She then moved to the new industrial Leeds and there set up as a rather inferior mantua-maker among the swarming factory workers.
When her business began to fail, she was happy to discover that she could supplement her income by telling fortunes. In 1792 she found another source of livelihood by marrying a wheelwright called John Bateman, a man both unlucky and unobservant. Next year a lodger lost two guineas, which were later found in the possession of Mary Bateman. No prosecution followed; "there can be little doubt," it was uncharitably recorded, "that the young man who she robbed made her infamy the price of his clemency." Her simple husband got a message calling him to his father's deathbed; but when he got there he was surprised and delighted to discover that the old man had never been healthier. When he got back to Leeds he was surprised again; Mary had stripped their house and sold everything that was movable.
In spite of this rather unsatisfactory married life, the Batemans again look up residence in the empty house, which Mary apologetically arranged to have refurnished as inexpensively as possible. This she did by the simple expedient of swindling local tradesmen. A new lodger was found - a bad choice on the part of Mary, who found him so insensitive and implacable that he actually made her refund money that he found her stealing. For this and other reasons the name of Bateman became locally so unpopular that her husband joined the Militia to get away from it all. Mary, not yet so confident enough in her abilities as a solo performer, trailed around the countryside in his wake.
After his demobilisation Mary entered into the second phase of her career. Her dilettante period of crime was over by 1798. For the next few years she found employment as a professional agent for a "screwer-down" a difficult art, needing explanation. Her victims were persuaded that some-body or other intended to do them evil, and that this potential evil-doer could only be prevented by "screwing down," which would stop them in their tracks. Mary did not claim to be able to exert this miraculous power of immobilisation herself, but she conceived of two phantom familiars, not like the two improbable little animals called Pye-wacket and Grizzel Greediguts, which had featured two centuries before in the witch-craft trials of Matthew Hopkins, but weighty and responsible ladies with respectable names. First was a Mrs. Moore, whose mere mouth-piece Mary claimed to be. Mrs. Moore was conjured up about 1799, and a man was enabled to have his creditors screwed-down by giving Mary money for the mythical Mrs. Moore . Mrs. Moore was also much employed as a screwer-down of husbands whose affections seemed liable to wander, and it was while acting for Mrs. Moore that Mary also started business as a part-time abortionist.
To be appreciated as an unofficial witch, Mary needed some widely recognised miracle. In Black Dog Yard in Leeds she announced that one of her hens had laid a phenomenal egg on which were clearly to be read the words CRIST IS COMING. The prophetic hen and its egg were then exhibited to anyone who cared to pay for the privilege. The mis-spelt and misbegotten egg achieved considerable local fame and Mary, by this time a skillful if unorthodox obstetrician, was able to stock the hen with other no less miraculous eggs for laying in the presence of witnesses. When the hen grew tired or resentful, it was sold to a neighbour who, finding no other mysterious messages vouchsafed, ate it in an unimaginative way.
Meanwhile Mrs. Moore, whose screwing-down had not been uniformly successful, gave place in 1803, without a protest, or perhaps with a simple metamorphosis, to the equally imaginary Miss Blythe, who could also rule destinies if suitably furnished with money. Two comparatively wealthy sisters were advised by Mary that their own futures and that of their business, a drapery, could be ensured by acting on the instructions of Miss Blythe. Miss Blythe sent a potion by the hands of Mary, which quickly eliminated one of the women. Another dose was needed for a curious mamma, and finally the other sister was poisoned a few days later.
Mary, though suspected, said that the plague had killed them all. Miss Blythe did not feature at the inquest, and, by the time Mary had been through the account-books, the dissolved drapery business could not pay its creditors more than eightpence to the pound.
This failure of the phantom Miss Blythe in no way made Mary Bateman desert her. After several minor jobs, Mary and Miss Blythe got together for the last time.
Rebecca Perrigo, living in Leeds, was much troubled with intestinal discomfort. Mary diagnosed this, not as indigestion, but as the effect of a curse which only Miss Blythe could counter. Mrs. Perrigo and her husband were convinced: thereafter this fatuous couple blindly obeyed letters of instruction handed to them by Mary, and alleged to be written in the hand of Miss Blythe herself.
In the following months a vast amount of goods and not a little money were extorted from the Perrigos. When they began to get restive, Miss Blythe advised them to eat some honey to which Mary would have added a mystic powder. This powder proved to be nothing more esoteric than corrosive sublimate, which killed Mrs. Perrigo very promptly and made her husband extremely ill. Their medical advisor a surgeon called Thomas Chorley, suspected poison, and very soon Mary Bateman was on trial for her life. Since she had a collection of arsenic pills in her house and was even carrying with her, at the time of her arrest, a bottle containing an unwholesome mixture of rum, oatmeal and arsenic, she made but a poor defence from the dock.
She was hanged at York, in company with another poisoner, on march 20, 1809. Her body was taken to the General Infirmary at Leeds where it was put on view at the charge of threepence a visitor, and no fewer than 2,000 people came to gape. It was afterwards dissected - this had been part of the sentence - and the greater part of her skin seems to have been tanned. Her skeleton, without the mandible but with an additional pair of ribs, remains in the Anatomy Department at Leeds Medical School.
Mr. Chorley, who had looked after the Perrigos and had analysed the brew that Mary carried with her, was also one of the dissectors at the Infirmary, and doubtless reserved various titbits for his friends. Among these was William Elmhirst, an eminently dull and upright Deputy Lieutenant for the West Riding. It seems improbable that so worthy a man would relish a portion of a murderess, but a folding cup made of Mary's skin certainly belonged to his son Robert, who possessed a certain appropriately sardonic humour. Other portions of Mary's skin were in existence, at least until the beginning of this century. Volumes bound in her leather were then in the library at Marlborough House; others were once in Methley Hall in Yorkshire; but recent search at both places has not discovered them.
Though Mary Bateman (executed 1809) seems to have been one of the earliest murderers to have her skin preserved, she was certainly not the last. Body-snatcher Burke (executed Edinburgh 1829) provided leather for a pocket-book, and Steptoe (Reading, c. 1810) furnished the raw material for a pair of gloves. Charles Smith (Newcastle, 1817) and William Corder (Bury st. 1817), the latter of whom achieved inexplicable notoriety for the very hum-drum murder at the Red Barn, both provided leather that was unfeelingly used to bind accounts of their respective trials. Johnson (Norwich, c. 1816) went to bind his namesake's great dictionary, and Kazia Westcomb (exeter, c. 1815) was used to cover Milton's Paradise Lost. Another edition of Milton was bound in Devon in the skin of George Cudmore (Exeter, 1830). Cudmore seems to have been one of the last to be tanned. In 1831 the practice was described as one that "cannot be too much reprobated: it engenders brutality, and has a tendency to make the most serious things objects of heartless sport or utter indifference."
Early in December 1945, a ripple of horror went round the civilised world at the revelations from the court-room at Nuremberg. There were there exhibited pieces of skin from a lampshade made of human parchment, and the judges heard authenticated tales of more household ornaments found in use in Buchenwald concentration camp, and of others made for the amiable wife of SS Standartenführer Koch.
To us in these islands, securely blanketed in our century of respectability, such happenings were horrible and incomprehensible. Yet in many libraries and elsewhere in our houses there remain similar relics, sometimes unrecognised, sometimes unrecognisable, to remind us that our great grandfathers were in no position to cast the first stone. They chose, it is true, the skins of the prosecuted guilty rather than those of the persecuted innocent, but there would seem to be little variation in the aesthetic standards involved.
It appears from this article that Edward Elmhirst had access to the skin cup when he wrote the article as it has a photo accompanying it which I haven't seen elsewhere and his name reveals that he was related to the family who originally owned it. I intend to discover if the family still owns the cup, if anyone has any information relating to the next of kin of Dr Edward Mars Elmhirst (who unfortunately died a few years after this article was printed) I would love to talk to them. It appears that Elmhirsts still own farm land near their ancestral seat, Houndhill.