matrimonial bargains

Mary Blandy was a female murderer in 18th century England. In 1914 William Roughead, who appears to be the Truman Capote of his day wrote of her trial for the killing of her father

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“Mr. Blandy, business-like in all things, wanted full value for his money; as none of Mary’s local conquests appeared to promise him an adequate return, he and his wife and daughter spent a season at Bath, then the great market-place of matrimonial bargains.

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The first suitor to appear with matrimonial intent was a thriving young apothecary, but Mr. Blandy quickly made it plain that Mary and her £10,000 dowry were not to be had by any drug-compounding knave who might make sheep’s eyes at her, and the apothecary returned to his gallipots for healing of his bruised affections.

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Dining with her parents in the summer of 1746, Mary Blandy encountered her fate. Among the guests was one Captain the Hon. William Henry Cranstoun, a soldier and a Scot, whose appearance, according to a diurnal writer, was unprepossessing. “In his person he is remarkably ordinary, his stature is low, his face freckled and pitted with the smallpox, his eyes small and weak, his eyebrows sandy, and his shape no ways genteel; his legs are clumsy, and he has nothing in the least elegant in his manner.” The moral attributes of this ugly little fellow were only less attractive than his physical imperfections. “He has a turn for gallantry, but Nature has denied him the proper gifts.” He was at this time thirty-two years of age, and, as the phrase goes, a man of pleasure.

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Mr Blandy found to his surprise and joy that the little lieutenant, with his courtesy style of captain, was no less a person than the son of a Scots peer. As a very much “younger” son, he probably had little more than his pay and a fine assortment of debts. But for Mr Blandy it was a chance to marry his daughter to a man who called the daughter of an Earl grandmother, and could claim kinship with half the aristocracy of Scotland.

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Cranstoun, formally proposing to the old folks for their daughter’s hand, was well received.  The mother enjoyed for the first time the company and conversation of a man of fashion, and Mary felt amid the Henley meadows paradisiacal experiences with her beau. But her happiness received an unexpected check when her father was told the amazing news that his daughter’s lover already had a wife and child living in Scotland.

The old attorney was justly incensed at the unworthy trick of which he had been the victim. In all the majesty of outraged fatherhood, he sought an interview with his treacherous guest. That gentleman, whose acquaintance with “tight corners” was extensive and peculiar, rose gallantly to the occasion.

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Mr. Blandy, accepting his guest’s denial, allowed the engagement to continue in the meantime, until the result of legal proceedings should be known. He was as loath to forego the chance of such an aristocratic connection as was his wife to part from so “genteel” a friend; while Mary Blandy–well, the damsels of her day were not morbidly nice in such matters, more than once had the nuptial cup eluded her expectant lips, she was nearing her thirtieth year: such an opportunity might not occur again.

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We hear nothing further of their doings until Thursday, 28th September 1749, when Mrs. Blandy became seriously ill. The complaint of which Mrs. Blandy died was, as appears, intestinal inflammation, but, as we shall see later, her daughter was popularly believed to have poisoned her. 

Francis Blandy was much affected by the loss of his wife. At first he seems to have raised no objection to Cranstoun’s constant presence in the house, but soon Mary had to complain of the “unkind things” which her father said both to her lover and herself. 

Miss Blandy states that, apropos to her father’s unpropitious attitude, her lover acquainted her of the great skill of the famous Mrs. Morgan, a cunning woman in Scotland, from whom he had received a certain love powder. Mary said she had no faith in such things, but Cranstoun assured her of its efficacy, having once taken some himself, and immediately forgiven a friend to whom he had intended never to speak again. “If I had any of these powders,” said he, “I would put them into something Mr. Blandy should drink.” Such is Mary’s account of the inception of the design upon her father’s love–or life.

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One morning, Mary states, Cranstoun put some of the magic powder in the old gentleman’s tea. Mr. Blandy, who at breakfast had been very cross, appeared at dinner in the best of humours, and continued so all the time Mr. Cranstoun stayed with him. After this, who could doubt the beneficent efficacy of the wise woman’s drug?

A day or two afterwards, when Cranstoun was out, Mary, so far anticipating her wifely duties, entered his room in order to collect his things for the wash. She found more “dirty linen” than she expected. In an unlocked trunk was a letter of recent date, addressed to the gallant captain by a lady then enjoying his protection in town. Even Miss Blandy’s robust affection was not, for the moment, able to overlook a treachery so base. A disgusting scene ensued. For two hours the wretched little captain wept and raved, imploring her forgiveness. On his knees, clinging to the skirts of her gown, he swore he would not live unless she pardoned his offence. Mary foolishly yielded.

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From about that date Francis Blandy’s health began to fail. He was in the sixty-second year of his age, and he suffered the combined assault of gout, gravel, and heartburn. He ordered Mary to write to Cranstoun telling him on no account to show his face until his matrimonial difficulties were “quite decided.”

But if Miss Blandy were to secure a husband and Cranstoun lay hands upon her £10,000, some step must be taken. Both knew that while his wife lived Cranstoun could never marry Mary. At any moment her father might learn the truth and alter the disposition of his fortune. That they openly agreed to remove by murder the obstacle to their mutual desires is unlikely. Cranstoun, as appears from all the circumstances, was the instigator of the plot; probably nothing more definite was said between them than that the “love powder” would counteract the old man’s opposition; but from her subsequent conduct, it is unlikely that Mary acted in ignorance of the true purpose of the prescription.

In April, she received from her lover a letter informing her that he had seen his old friend Mrs. Morgan, who was to oblige him with a fresh supply of her proprietary article, which he would send along with some “Scotch pebbles” for his betrothed’s acceptance. “Ornaments of Scotch pebbles,” says Lady Russell, “were the extreme of fashion in the year 1750.” Mary consented to give the love philtre a fair trial.

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Miss Blandy was seen by the maids at mid-day stirring gruel with a spoon in the pantry. On Tuesday Mr. Blandy had become seriously ill in the night, with symptoms of violent pain, vomiting, and purging. The strange circumstances attending this gruel aroused the maids’ suspicions. They examined the contents of the pan and found a white, gritty “settlement” at the bottom. They prudently put the pan in a locked closet overnight. Next day Susan sent for Mr. Norton, the apothecary, who removed it for examination.

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Dr. Addington arrived at midnight. From the condition of the patient, coupled with what he learned from him and Mr. Norton, there was no doubt Mr. Blandy was suffering from the effects of poison. Mary was that evening confined to her chamber and a guard was placed outside.

The person charged with the duty of warding Mary in her chamber was Edward Herne, parish clerk of Henley. Next morning, Ned Herne leaving his fair charge unguarded, went off to dig a grave for her now dead father. As soon as the coast was clear, Mary, with “nothing on but a half-sack and petticoat without a hoop,” ran out into the street and over Henley bridge, in a last wild attempt to cheat her fate.

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She was quickly recaptured and removed to Oxford Castle. At first, we are told, “her imprisonment was indeed rather like a retirement from the world than the confinement of a criminal.” She had her maid to attend her, the best apartments in the keeper’s house were placed at her disposal, she drank tea twice a day, walked at her pleasure in the keeper’s garden, and of an evening enjoyed her game of cards.

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Then a rumour reached the authorities in London that a scheme was afoot to effect her rescue. The Sheriff of the county was instructed “to take more particular care of her,” the felon’s fetters were riveted upon her slender ankles; and there was an end to the daily walks amid the pleasant alleys of the keeper’s garden.

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Mary Blandy’s trial lasted thirteen hours. The Crown case clearly established the fact that arsenic was the cause of Mr. Blandy’s death. Mary was found guilty and condemned to hang.

As she was climbing the fatal ladder, covered, for the occasion, with black cloth, she stopped, and addressing the celebrants of that grim ritual, “Gentlemen,” said she, “do not hang me high, for the sake of decency.” 

The reader may care to know what became of Cranstoun. That “unspeakable Scot,” it has regretfully to be recorded, was never made amenable to earthly justice. He was, indeed, the subject of at least four biographies, but human retribution followed him no further.