• Visit our partners: Our Partners:
  • Visit our partners: Our Partners:

True crime. Casually done.

Mary Blandy: The Poisoner

Written by Arnaldo Teodorani

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary-blandy-1.jpg#/media/File:Mary-blandy-1.jpg

As you may have guessed from that period-accurate title, today’s story takes us to 18th Century Britain.

Our main character is Miss Mary Blandy, who in April of 1752 stood accused for the most appalling of crimes: the murder of her own kin.

More precisely, she conspired with her diabolical paramour, captain William Cranstoun, to slowly poison her own father with arsenic.

Her trial made quite the sensation in Georgian Britain, and it is still cited as a landmark case due to a very early use of forensic medicine by the prosecution.

And the verdict is still reviewed and discussed today, as Mary may have not been fully aware of her own actions.

Perhaps, she had been tricked by her lover into dousing Mr Blandy’s food with what she believed to be a herbal remedy known as ‘love powders’.

So, was Mary a conniving murderer or a love-stricken dupe?

I shall lay out the facts for you, my dear Reverend Whistler, and we’ll put it to our jury of listeners to issue the final verdict.

KEEPING UP WITH THE BLANDYS

Mary Blandy’s exact date of birth is not known. We know that the month was July. The year, 1720.

She was born into a wealthy family, residing in Henley-on-Thames, on the border between the counties of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, England.

Rowing enthusiasts should be familiar with this pleasant market town, home to the annual Royal Regatta.

This location has a solid reputation for being rather posh, a much sought-after post code for the rich and famous.

From direct experience I can testify that the inhabitants of Henley are not exclusively millionaires.

In fact, I have lived there for many years, before Simon kindly offered unpaid accommodation in the Ever-Expanding Cellar of Scribblers.

But it is a fact that mega rich rockstars such as the late George Harrison have, or had, made Henley their home. Or 2nd. Or 3rd.

Back in the 18th Century, this town did not attract star musicians yet.

It was more common to rub elbows with upper-middle class professionals, such as Mary Blandy’s father Francis, an attorney and Town-clerk.

Francis and his wife, also called Mary, doted on their daughter, blessed with intelligence, culture, wit, grace and a fine figure.

Alas, at a young age Mary Jr had contracted smallpox – and her face had been scarred by the marks typical of this disease.

Mr Francis, being a good pragmatist, realised that his daughter’s tainted beauty may have not been enough to attract a suitable suitor. Therefore, when Mary reached marrying age, he spread word that her dowry amounted to £ 10,000.

In the mid-18th Century that kind of money could have bought you 2,141 cows, or 1,459 horses.

In today’s money, we are talking about more than 2.3 Million pounds, or almost 2.9 Million dollars.

Decades later, Jane Austen would open her most famous novel with the lines:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’

To paraphrase, we could say that

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of no fortune, must be in want of a wife with a rich dad’

As you may expect, Mary soon started to entertain scores of gentlemen callers. But she wouldn’t just settle for any fashionable fop in a powdered wig and tight breeches.

And when she didn’t reject her suitors, it was her parents who deemed them not good enough for their lovely daughter.

By 1747, Mary was 27 years old.

At that age, most respectable women in her position had already tied the knot and given birth to scores of children.

Or had died of some gastro-intestinal fever that today could be sorted out with access to clean water.

But she was still unmarried. Or, as she was described back then, a spinster.

Today we would call her simply a single lady. And she was waiting for the right man to put a ring on it

THE DUPLICITOUS CAPTAIN

The World started spinning in the right direction for Mary on one fateful night, when the Blandys attended a dinner party hosted by their friend Lord Mark Kerr. At the candle-lit table, our protagonist locked eyes with one of the guests, Captain William Henry Cranstoun.

Allow me to imagine a swarm of ill-concealed passion staining her cheeks, in a red as bright as ruby, as deep as sin.

I like to picture this first meeting as if portrayed in a bodice-ripping romantic novel, from the likes of Dame Barbara Cartland.

The covers of these novels usually feature an astonishingly beautiful lady, corset half undone, swooning into the muscular arms of some period inaccurate hunk, sporting long hair and pecs so chiselled you could play the bongos onto.

A quick scan through the pages of such romances may introduce the virgin reader to a cornucopia of suggestive euphemisms, such as

[cue sax solo]

Lascivious …

Heaving …

Tumescent …

Turgid …

Throbbing …

Manhood.

But I am afraid, my dear listeners, that Captain Cranstoun was no Mr Darcy, as portrayed by a young and humid Colin Firth.

Contemporary descriptions render him as short, overweight, and scarred by pox marks.

Nonetheless, he appeared as an adequate prospect to both Mary and her parents.

He was an officer with the Royal Marines, with solid battle experience.

In fact, he had once fought for the Jacobites against His Majesty’s Government. To over-simplify, Jacobitism was a rebellious movement, very prominent in Scotland, which advocated for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty on the British throne.

Many Scottish nobles had joined the Jacobite ranks, but had later returned into the fold of the British army – and captain Cranstoun was one of them.

He was, in fact, the fifth son of a Scottish peer, related to many nobles north of the border.

Sure, a fifth son was expected to inherit little more than hot air and kind words from his parents’ estate, but Cranstoun belonged to nobility nonetheless!

Francis Blandy encouraged the courtship, welcoming the captain into his home.

The romance was swelling … but it soon burst.

Francis Blandy’s good friend, Lord Kerr revealed that Cranstoun had already a wife and child, living in Scotland!

It appears that on the 22nd of May 1744, Cranstoun had married one Anne Murray in Edinburgh. The marriage had been sealed in secret, as Anne was a Roman Catholic, while William was a Presbyterian.

On the 19th of February 1745, Anne had given birth to a baby daughter.

When confronted with these facts, the captain vehemently denied being already married. In his own version, Anne Murray was merely his mistress. He had at one time promised to marry her, but on the condition that she converted to Protestantism.

When she refused, he had called off the engagement!

But Mr Blandy became highly suspicious of Cranstoun and made further enquiries.

In early 1748, Blandy learned that Anne Murray had taken action in Edinburgh’s Commissary Court to have the marriage declared legal.

Blandy confronted Cranstoun again, demanding the truth. The captain was cornered, but he insisted that the two had never been married. He was confident the Scottish court would rule in his favour!

Mr Blandy was distrustful, and yet his wife and daughter were squarely in Cranstoun’s corner. They even invited the captain to stay at their place for six months!

Whilst he was there, Francis Blandy received a letter from Edinburgh carrying interesting news: on the 1st of March 1748, the Court had issued its verdict.

William Cranstoun and Anne Murray were indeed man and wife!

BOTANICAL REMEDIES

I realise that thus far this episode is more ‘Casual Civilist’ than ‘Casual Criminalist’, but don’t worry, we’ll soon get to the point where someone dies in atrocious fits of pain for your entertainment.

Captain Cranstoun reassured his prospective father-in-law that he would fix the whole mess. He set out for London to consult with his attorneys and file an appeal.

A few days later, Mary and her mother also visited London. Mrs Blandy had been suffering from gastrointestinal trouble, and needed to see a specialist.

During those days, Mary evaded her mother’s watchful eye to escape to St James Square. There, she met frequently with her beau, and together decided to arrange a ‘secret marriage’.

Back then, the Church of England allowed for marriages to take place anywhere, provided they were celebrated by an ordained clergyman.

No paperwork required, no questions asked.

This custom encouraged the practice of secret marriages, conducted without parental consent and often involving bigamous grooms or brides.

It appears that this secret union actually took place, although it was clearly not legal: Cranstoun’s appeal against his marriage in Scotland had not been filed yet.

In summer of 1749, Mary and her mother returned to Henley. In September, Mrs Blandy’s conditions worsened.

Mary fetched for the local pharmacist, Mr Norton, who called for a Dr Addington.

But there was nothing they could do. Mrs Blandy died on the 20th of September 1749.

Recorded cause of death: intestinal inflammation.

Or was it?

Based on what happened later, contemporary chroniclers suspected foul play.

‘Someone’ – and by someone we mean Mary and Cranstoun – may have slipped some pernicious powders into Mrs Blandy’s food.

This is plausible, but unlikely. Mrs Blandy had always been an ally to the lovers, what would be the motive to get rid of her? It would have made more sense to eliminate the other Blandy …

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

After the death of his future mother-in-law, captain Cranstoun returned to Henley, even though Mr Blandy was by now openly hostile to his presence.

Mary was concerned: she needed his father’s approval to marry!

And Cranstoun was concerned: he needed her father’s dowry!

A plan started to form.

Cranstoun mentioned to Mary that he knew one Mrs Morgan back in Scotland: a ‘cunning woman’ expert at mixing ‘love powders’.

 By slipping them into Mr Blandy’s food or drink, he would feel better disposed towards the captain, and towards the idea of the two lovers marrying.

The concept of a ‘love powder’ was quite widespread at the time. Countless quacks would peddle these popular remedies, claiming they could ‘soften’ the attitude of the sternest of foes – or even help people fall in love!

I wouldn’t even dignify them with the rhetorical question

‘Did they actually work’?

Because of course they didn’t.

Typical ingredients of such powders included henbane, also known as ‘stinking nightshade’.

Which sounds like an insult you would hurl against an herb.

“You stinking nightshade! You filthy piece of botanical sh*t!”

And a totally deserved insult at that, considering that it contains the poison scopolamine.

Now, we don’t know the alleged composition of Mrs Morgan’s alleged love powder. We only know that Cranstoun travelled all the way to Scotland to acquire it, and returned to Henley in August 1750.

Once again, the captain made himself at home in the Blandy residence. Talk of unwanted guests.

The captain stayed until November 1750, and somehow managed to slip some pinches of love powders into Blandy’s tea.

According to a later testimony from Mary herself, his father did seem to mellow! At the same time, though, strange events took place. The house appeared to be haunted by some kind of poltergeist.

Mary could hear disembodied hands rapping on walls, invisible feet rustling about, doors banging and slamming. On one occasion she even heard some ‘unearthly Scotch music’!

The haunting culminated when one night, a spectral presence resembling Mr Blandy burst into Cranstoun’s room.

Were these early premonitions of the doom that was to befall the house of Blandy?

Sure enough, Francis Blandy’s health soon begun deteriorating. The 62-year-old already suffered from gout, but now he was beset with colic and heartburn. His teeth started to fall out.

The love powders had appeared to soften his stance towards Cranstoun, but it was only a temporary phase.

Mr Blandy could not stand the sight of Cranstoun and told Mary that he should not show his face around the house.

Not until he had sorted out his legal troubles with his Scottish wife, at least.

Unbeknownst to Blandy, the captain’s appeal had already been lodged with the Scottish Courts … and had already been rejected!

The captain and Anne Muray were legally married to all intents and purposes!

During the winter of 1750 to 51, Cranstoun wisely acquiesced to Blandy’s will, and retreated back to Scotland.

From there, he sent a packet to Mary, in April 1751, containing some ‘Scottish pebbles’.

These were just that: pebbles. But back in the day they were all the rage in high society, as they were used to decorate flower beds and potted plants.

Alongside the pebbles, Cranstoun sent some white powder. This was labelled as a substance to properly clean the decorative pebbles.

But in his letters, Cranstoun described it as Mrs Morgans’ love powders. And he asked Mary to continue with the treatment, mixing the granules into her father’s tea.

Allegedly, Mary had some doubts as to effectiveness of the concoction, and even raised concerns about their effects of her dad’s health.

Nonetheless, she executed the orders of her beau.

And the consequences would soon become apparent.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_(Molly)_Blandy_before_her_execution,_1752_Wellcome_L0036006.jpg

A CRUEL GRUEL

During June of 1751, Francis Blandy felt sicker and sicker.

Not only him. Two members of his staff, maid Susan Gunnell and cleaning woman Ann Emmett had the bad idea of drinking some of his leftover tea.

They both fell violently ill for three days.

Mary took an interest in their well-being, making sure they drunk white wine, whey and broth.

This sounds like the most disgusting cocktail ever, but at the time it was believed to be a cure against … arsenic poisoning!

So, there you go: Mary later claimed to believe Mrs Morgan’s love powder was an herbal cure to soften her father’s temper. And yet, she administered a known cure for arsenic.

Was Mary in good faith, sincerely trying to change her father’s opinion of Cranstoun, via chemistry applied to magic?

Or was she conspiring with her lover to eliminate the person who most opposed their union?

In any case, in her letters to Cranstoun, Mary only referred to the substance as ‘powders’.

And she wrote that the ‘powders’ were not working.

Was this a reference to the fact that Blandy still hated the captain? Or that Francis was still alive?

Cranstoun replied to continue with the plan.

On the 4th August, Mary asked Susan, the housemaid, to prepare some gruel for her father. For the uninitiated, ‘gruel’ is a thinner version of porridge which can be drunk directly from a cup.

I am sorry if I am offending the oatmeal aficionados, but it sounds absolutely disgusting – with or without arsenic.

The following evening, Susan served the gruel to Mr Blandy. Upon drinking it, he almost immediately experienced violent stomach pain and started vomiting.

He pulled through the night, and on Tuesday morning he was seen by Mr Norton the apothecary. When the man asked about the patient’s diet, Mary lied and replied he had only had peas the night before.

That night, Susan was ordered to warm up the leftovers of the gruel.

Reheated gruel sounds even more disgusting – with or without arsenic. Nonetheless, Mr Blandy still fancied some of it! Mary herself carried her father to bed and served him the thin porridge.

Unsurprisingly, Blandy started retching again.

On Wednesday morning, the remaining gruel was brought back into the kitchen. Ann Emmett, the house cleaner, tucked into the leftovers – and promptly threw up!

Susan Gunnell suggested disposing of the remaining foul concoction to put an end to that retch fest, but Mary overruled her: the current batch was perfectly fine, and could be reheated again!

At this stage, Susan became suspicious. It was clear the porridge was causing people to feel terrible. Why Mary insisted on dishing it again to her father?

A MAID INVESTIGATES

The resourceful maid turned into an amateur sleuth and examined the pan used to cook the preparation.

She noticed a white, gritty settlement at the bottom. Being adept in the art of slaying rats by means of poison, she immediately recognised the substance. It looked like arsenic!

Susan hid the pan away from Mary and the next day took it to a neighbour, Mrs Mounteney, who summoned Norton the apothecary. The chemist took the pan to his lab, and promised to perform tests on the white powder.

On Friday the 9th of August, the Blandys were visited by Mary’s maternal uncle, Reverend Stevens.

Susan called him aside and confided to him a terrible suspicion: Mary was trying to poison her own father! Stevens was appalled at the news and advised Susan to speak to Mr Blandy.

The next day, Susan mustered her courage and spoke to Blandy. After an initial moment of shock, the man realised this could indeed be the case. He wondered who could have given the poison to Mary, and Susan suggested Cranstoun.

Francis exclaimed:

”Oh, that villain! … I remember he mentioned a particular poison that they had in their country.”

Had I been in his place, I would have immediately escaped that house.

Or at least rejected any other meal served within its walls.

But clearly Blandy was endowed with more fatalistic courage, and he simply went downstairs to have breakfast.

His clerk, Robert Littleton, and Mary were present.

Mary served a cup of tea to her father.

Again, the hell I would have drunk from that cup!

But Blandy tasted it, and glaring straight into Mary’s eyes, he remarked how bad it tasted. Had she put anything into it, he wondered.

Thus confronted, Mary trembled.

Blandy then stood up. As he left the room, he stared again at his daughter and said:

“It is my fortune to be poisoned at last”

Mary must have understood that the game was up. She rushed to her room, retrieved some letters and a packet of powder, and threw them onto the kitchen fire.

Susan – the legend! – was able to rescue the packet, which bore the label

“The powder to clean the pebbles with.”

On that very day, Mr Blandy worsened again. Mary herself called for the physician who had treated her mother, the eminent Dr Addington

The doctor examined Blandy and found he had bloodshot eyes, a yellow complexion, swollen tongue, inflamed throat and dry lips. All combined, these symptoms suggested poisoning.

As Addington was about to leave, Susan sneakily pressed into his hands the small packet of white powder she had saved from the fire.

The good doctor visited again Mr Blandy over the next days, and asked him if he had a suspect in mind. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he named his own daughter as her poisoner, describing her as

‘A poor love-sick girl’

He then added:

‘I forgive her’.

CSI: 18th CENTURY

Dr Addington took action and proceeded to question Mary. Did she really believe that Cranstoun had been providing her with ‘love powder’? Had she never suspected that she had been unwittingly poisoning her father?

Or maybe she had been wittingly doing so …

To be on the safe side, the doctor had Mary locked in her bedroom, and placed under guard.

Mr Blandy, by now on his deathbed, said he was ready to forgive Mary and called for her. The woman fell on her knees, begging for forgiveness. Once more, she claimed not knowing the white powder was arsenic.

To Blandy, the blame lay squarely onto Cranstoun’s shoulders. He lamented:

“Oh, such a villain! Come to my house, ate of the best, and drank of the best that my house could afford, to take away my life and ruin my daughter.”

Two days later, on the 14th of August 1751, he slipped in and out of consciousness, until he exhaled his last breath around two in the afternoon.

It was time to launch an official enquiry.

The use of forensic medicine in criminal matters was still in its infancy. But the seriousness of the case demanded for some serious scientific muscle!

Dr Addington was joined by a team of medical professionals to perform an autopsy. These were the local apothecary, Mr Norton, a surgeon, Mr Nicholas, and another physician, Dr Lewis.

Addington’s observations are stomach-churning, as you would expect from a post-mortem. For example, he found purple spots on the victim’s heart, black stains in his lungs, and a peculiar discoloration in his liver and spleen.

Combined with other elements, Addington’s findings pointed to only one possible cause of death: poisoning.

The coroner in charge of the inquest also collected statements from Susan and other members of the staff. His conclusion was that Mary Blandy

“did poison and murder him.”

The type of poison used was analysed by Addington, with help from two chemists in nearby Reading.

They collected the sediment salvaged from the pan, plus the powders retrieved by Susan. They then tossed them onto a red-hot iron and observed that the powder did not burst into flames, but rose in thick white fumes which smelled of garlic.

This result confirmed that the powder was, indeed, arsenic.

In the meanwhile, Mary was still under house arrest, confined to her rooms under the watchful eye of Ed Herne, a Parish clerk.

But not for long.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_execution_of_Miss_Mary_Blandy_Wellcome_L0040863.jpg

ESCAPE AND CAPTURE

On the 15th of August, the day after Blandy’s death, Ed left her unguarded. Apparently, he had been called to dig Mr Blandy’s grave. But this Herne guy happened to be also an old pretender to Mary’s hand, so he may have voluntarily left his post.

Whatever the reason, Mary seized the moment.

Cautiously, she peered out of her door, silently glided through the empty hallways of her house, and walked out onto the streets of Henley.

Only a few yards separated her from the Henley bridge, over the River Thames.

Mary walked briskly, hoping to leave the town unnoticed.

But word had spread of her parricidal act. Someone did see her, they raised the alarm and a baying mob chased after her!

What a scene! What pathos!

A popular streaming service should take note, and adapt the story into a costumed drama combining gritty realism with a cavalier attitude to historical truth …

Exterior. Night.

A group of drunken tavern-dwellers are swigging pints of ale in the streets of Henley, lit by a pale moon. Mary Blandy sneaks undetected amongst them, hastily making for the bridge. A sudden gust of wind removes her hood.

MARY BLANDY
Oh dear Heavens!

TOOTHLESS TAVERN WENCH
Cor blimey lads! ‘Tis her! The father-slayer! She is running away!

TOWN CRIER
(Cries)

RED-NOSED REVEREND
‘Tis true! ‘Tis her! Come hither, my brethren! Let us apprehend her!

TOWN PEOPLE
Huzzah!!!

A mob of drunken town people gives chase. Somehow, they are now equipped with pitchforks and torches.
A chimney sweeper is trampled by the mob. As he falls on the ground, a louse bites him.
He contracts typhus. He coughs – and dies.

MARY BLANDY
You scurrilous rabble! You shall never catch me!

The mob has almost caught her.
Captain Cranstoun emerges from the river below. He vaults over the parapet of the bridge and faces the mob.
His moist white shirt clings to his sculpted pectorals. His breeches are so tight, the audience has difficulty breathing.

CAPTAIN
You heard her, rapscallions! Whomsoever taketh a step forward shall taste my blade!

A group of men take a step forward.
The Captain whips out his tumescent katana, turgidly throbbing away at the oncoming attackers.
They all scream in pain. They contract sepsis – and die.
Toothless Tavern Wench creeps from behind with a dagger. Mary intercepts her and send her flying into the river with a move of Aikido.
The Wench accidentally drinks the unsanitary waters of the Thames.
She contracts cholera – and dies.

The Mob retreats

MARY BLANDY
May the Lord bless you, my beloved Captain! Hast thou brought along some of your portentous love powder?

CAPTAIN
Why, my dear, of course. And I shall give it to you. I shall give it to you good.

The captain lays two long, thin, perfectly parallel lines of white powder.

I admit this last page may be the result of a double espresso too many.

And I hope our dear audience has already guessed that the truth was far more mundane.

Mary managed to cross the bridge without much difficulty, and found refuge in a nearby tavern, the Little Angel – which by the way is still in business!

And captain Cranstoun was not present at the incident, as he was in Scotland at that time.

After the narrow escape from the mob, a family friend offered to escort Mary back to her house. Before leaving the inn, she allegedly confessed to a couple of patrons that she was fully aware of giving poison to her father.

On the 16th of August, the mayor of Henley issued an arrest warrant against Mary. On the following day, she was escorted to the nearest County prison, Oxford Castle.

Always a Lady, Mary brought along one of her maids and her tea caddy.

In fact, she did enjoy a preferential treatment. She was allowed to entertain visitors, serve tea, play cards and even stroll in the gardens of the head warden.

While preparing this episode, I visited the Oxford Castle prison with my unpaid research assistant, i.e. my 12-year-old daughter.

We had the opportunity to visit a reconstruction of Mary Blandy’s cell, which while not luxurious, was certainly more comfortable than the ordinary cells reserved for the ‘riffraff’.

The tour guide boasted that the Oxford Castle is now the eternal residence of Mary Blandy’s ghost, which apparently has been spotted, heard and/or perceived around the building.

Interestingly, this jail is built around a much older Saxon tower, itself erected above an underground chapel.

According to the tour guide, a corner within this chapel is the most haunted spot in all of Oxford. The guide challenged the tour participants to stand in said corner, and only my daughter dared braving this supposed hot bed for ghosts.

I took a photo, which of course showed a mysterious tiny ‘orb’ of light floating next to my daughter …

Was it Mary, popping in to say ‘good morrow to thee’?

I will leave it to Simon to comment on the likelihood of such occurrence, and return to the main narrative.

The good times for Mary in her luxury jail ended when authorities picked up rumours of an escape plan, being plotted in London. From then on, she had to wear shackles around her ankle and was not allowed in the gardens any longer.

She wouldn’t have to suffer these humiliations for long, as the day of the trial was approaching.

MANSLAUGHTER OR MURDER?

Back in the 18th century, the prosecution at trials was initiated and funded by relatives of the victim.

But in this case, the victim’s relatives were also relatives of the accused party! Understandably, they did not want to pay for her prosecution!

As Mr Blandy had been a Town clerk, Henley’s town council could have footed the legal bill. But those cheapskates refused to do so. Instead, they petitioned the Secretary of state, Duke of Newcastle, asking for the government to pay for the prosecution.

The government agreed, appointing three lawyers. Mary also hired three defence attorneys, which was rather uncommon at the time.

The trial eventually took place on the 3rd of March 1752, before the Oxford Court of Assizes, to be presided by judges Heneage Legge,

[nope, no idea of how to pronounce that]

and Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe.

The prosecution called Dr Addington and the other medical professionals as witnesses. They confirmed that the substance being fed to Mr Blandy was arsenic.

Next, Susan and other house staff testified that Mary had been in possession of the powder, and had insisted her father be served the same vomit-inducing gruel, again and again.

Now, I should point out that nobody had actually seen Mary mixing the white powder with her father’s food or drink.

Nonetheless, Mary admitted to feeding the substance to Mr Blandy.

But the thesis of the defence was that she was unaware of the true nature of the compound. To her, it was harmless ‘love powder’, not arsenic.

In April of 2022, a stage production at Henley’s Kenton Theatre has re-enacted Mary’s trial. At the end of the performance, the audience was asked to play the part of the jury. Their opinion was that Mary’s premeditation and culpability could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The final verdict was manslaughter.

I contacted Dr Hilary Fisher in Henley, a local historian and expert of the Blandy case, to ask her opinion. In her view:

“(Mary) was no starry-eyed teenager on her first date. She had heard all the bad reports about Cranstoun and she herself had found evidence of his duplicity; I find it hard to believe that a mature, reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated woman of the world didn’t stop to question what she was doing, and continued doing it even when it was obviously making her father ill … I would convict her of murder in the knowledge that she would probably not serve more than 15 years …”

So, these are the contemporary opinions.

But what did the Oxford jury think, back in 1752?

After barely five minutes of deliberation, they returned their verdict: Mary Blandy was guilty of murder.

Then, Judge Legge, thus addressed her:

“You are convicted of a crime so dreadful, so horrid in itself, that human nature shudders at it—the wilful murder of your own father! … That father with his dying breath forgave you. May your heavenly Father do so too! … “

“Nothing now remains but to pronounce the sentence of the law upon you, which is, that you are to be carried to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God in His infinite mercy receive your soul.”

The execution took place on Monday the 6th of April 1752. Mary had spent her last days either praying, or writing letters to King George II, hoping for a pardon that never arrived.

At half past eight, Mary was led to the gallows by the executioners, a reverend and the Lord Sheriff of Oxford.

She was allowed to address the 5,000 onlookers who had gathered for the spectacle. Once again, she stated that she was unaware that the powder was poison.

She then turned to the executioners:

‘Gentlemen, do not hang me high, for the sake of decency.’

With the noose around her neck, Mary maintained her composure and never cried, unlike many among the crowd.

The next morning, she was buried between her father and mother at St Mary’s Church in Henley.

CONCLUSION

But what of captain William Cranstoun you may ask?

After all, he was the true guilty party in this whole tragic affair!

At the time of the trial, Cranstoun was known to reside in Berwick-upon-Tweed, just south of the Scottish border.

The government issued a warrant for his arrest, and the Mayor of Henley dispatched a messenger to apprehend him, but the sneaky captain had already escaped.

With help from his friends, Cranstoun crossed the Channel and hid in Boulogne, on France’s northern coast. From there, he moved eastwards, chased by some of Mary’s relatives. Eventually, he sought refuge in Flanders, where he fell ill of an unspecified disease.

In November 1752, he was reported as being ‘raving mad’, beset with auditory hallucinations of heavenly music. A physician who visited him noted that his body was so swollen, it seemed about to burst.

The nefarious captain, the diabolical lover, met his demise on the 30th of November, in the town of Furnes, Flanders.

Authorities searched his possessions, finding three of Mary’s letters, later published in a pamphlet by an anonymous author.

In the first letter, dated June 30, 1751, Mary admitted being

‘conscious of the Affair being discovered’

And she feared that the ‘Affair’ might be

‘the occasion of a bad consequence to us both’.

In the third letter, of August 1, 1751, she wrote

‘I am going forward with all convenient speed in the business … but am sometimes in the greatest frights, there being constantly about me so many to be kept insensible of the whole affair … ‘

And then:

‘though I suffer more horrors of mind … I will pursue that which is the only Method … of ever being happy together’

It sounds as though Mary was fully aware of the seriousness of the ‘affair’ or ‘business’ in which she had become embroiled. She mentions ‘horrors of the mind’ and the need to keep people unaware – or ‘insensible’ – of what is happening.

But she always avoided direct mentions of arsenic or poison in her writings. Would these letters be treated as conclusive evidence in today’s courts?

I will leave it to you to interpret whether this was the admission of guilt from a calculating parricide, or the concerned rants of a love-stricken pawn.

[Ends]

Dismembered appendices

Number one.

The case of Mary Blandy has some curious connections with the Jacobite uprising. Captain Cranstoun had fought on the Jacobite side. His Scottish wife was herself a Jacobite, brother of a Jacobite officer and niece of the secretary to Bonnie Prince Charles, the Jacobite leader.

Even some members of the Blandy family had fought on the rebel side.

The uprising had been dealt a deathly blow in 1746, but British society still held much resentment against Jacobitism.

So, Mary’s and Cranstoun’s connection to that rebellion was picked up by the press at the time, and it has been speculated that this resentment may have played a part in Mary’s guilty verdict.

Number two.

Earlier on I mentioned that Mary’s ghost has been spotted at the Oxford Castle prison. Well, it seems like Mary has a propensity for ubiquity as her spirit is said to be haunting also the Little Angel tavern – now a country pub – and the Kenton Theatre, the location of her ‘mock’ re-trial.

Which is odd, considering that the theatre was opened only in 1805, and it was constructed over an empty plot of land. So, the ghost of Mary Blandy would have little reason to roam that particular spot.

I always found it interesting how people who led relatively normal and sedentary lives, after death become some sort of wizard time-traveling space-warping ninjas, capable of appearing in several locations – often at the same time – and able to interact with the material world in unexpected ways.

Anyways, I will not question here the veracity of Mary’s ghost’s sightings. This is a topic better suited for another of Simon’s shows, Decoding the Unknown.

Related Articles

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected

50,997FollowersFollow
346,000SubscribersSubscribe

Latest Articles