"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Fatal Fame of Mary Blandy

"Alas! the record of her page will tell
That one thus madden'd, lov'd, and guilty fell.
Who hath not heard of Blandy's fatal fame,
Deplor'd her fate, and sorrow'd o'er her shame?"
~"Henley," anonymous 1827 poem

In the year 1720, Mary Blandy was born into a notably comfortable and pleasant mileau. Her father, Francis Blandy, was an attorney in the pretty town of Henley-upon-Thames, in Oxfordshire. He was a skillful and reputable lawyer with a busy practice that left him both wealthy and respected. Mary's mother, who also came from a "good family," was eulogized as "an emblem of chastity and virtue; graceful in person, in mind elevated." The little family (Mary was an only child,) was a well-liked part of the local gentry. Mary grew up into an intelligent, charming, and pampered child, who seemed set for a dull, but fortunate life.

No doubt this aura of placid respectability explains why Mary's eventual murder trial was one of the great scandals of the 18th century.

As Mary grew into young womanhood, her parents naturally anticipated finding her a suitable husband. She was no beauty, but her fine mind, pleasing manner, and--last but by no means least--her dowry of a reputed ten thousand pounds, made her an object of great fascination to the eligible young men of her circle.

However, the local beaus were not good enough for Francis Blandy. He doted on his daughter, and dreamed of her making a more brilliant match than she could find in the relative backwater of Henley. Mary's parents took her to spend a season at Bath, famed for being Britain's leading matrimonial shopping center. She made the acquaintance of a number of young men who would have been happy to propose to her, and whom she herself would have happily accepted. Although most parents of Blandy's station in life would have found any of them entirely acceptable, Francis still was not satisfied. Her suitors were all "in trade," or not wealthy enough for his liking. Mr. Blandy's insistence about finding Mary the husband of his dreams was leaving her in danger of never finding a husband at all.

By 1746, Mary was a 26-year-old spinster. She was well into the age when a young lady was considered "on the shelf" and she was getting increasingly frustrated about it. This sense of time running out undoubtedly contributed to the attraction she instantly felt to a man she met at a dinner party, a 32-year-old Scottish soldier named William Henry Cranstoun.

Cranstoun seemed an unlikely sort to sweep any woman off her feet. A contemporary bluntly but eloquently described him as "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." If you are imagining that the Scot had a character and charm that made up for his lack of conventional male beauty, think again. This same biographer commented that "He has a turn for gallantry, but Nature has denied him the proper gifts; he is fond of play, but his cunning always renders him suspected."

At first, Francis Blandy was inclined to brush aside Mary's newest suitor as quickly as he had dismissed all the earlier contestants. But then, he learned that Cranstoun had blue blood in his inelegant veins. He was the grand-nephew of General Lord Mark Kerr, a leading Scottish patrician, and was the fifth son of William, fifth Lord Cranstoun.

Francis Blandy was, unfortunately, a complete snob. Unattractive and impecunious as William might have been, the idea of Mary landing a husband connected by blood to a good portion of the Scottish aristocracy absolutely enchanted her father. When Cranstoun made a formal offer for Miss Blandy's hand, her parents were joyfully ready to give it. Even when Cranstoun confided to Mary that he had a previous romantic entanglement, with a Scottish woman who was--completely falsely, of course!--claiming to be his wife, it did nothing to dampen the Blandy ardor for this highborn captain.

All was romantic bliss up until the moment when Lord Mark Kerr heard of the engagement. He wrote Francis to give the disconcerting news that young Cranstoun already had a quite bindingly legal wife and child back in Scotland.

Oh, dear.

When the Blandys confronted the captain with this revelation, Cranstoun waved it off with a quite epic effrontery. He admitted that the lady, Anne Murray, had been his mistress. However, he had only agreed to marry her if she renounced her Catholicism and joined the Presbyterian faith. As she refused to do so, he felt entirely justified in breaking their engagement. When it was pointed out to him that he had previously admitted that Anne was his wife, he coolly replied that he had only done so to "amuse" her family. The question of the disputed marriage was currently before the Scottish courts, where, Cranstoun assured the Blandys, he would soon be vindicated.

Francis Blandy reacted with all the outrage of someone who had thought they had struck gold, only to find they were saddled with plated tin. He was all for throwing the mendacious fellow out of the house and locking the door behind him. Mary's mother, however, had become genuinely charmed by the Scot, which just proves that old adage about never accounting for taste. She was more than willing to believe any alibi Cranstoun offered, no matter how feeble. And as for Mary herself, she was by now so anxious to avoid eternal spinsterhood that she was even more loath to let go of what she secretly feared would be her last chance at matrimony. Francis' womenfolk managed to convince him to let the conditional engagement stand.

In the spring of 1748, Cranstoun went off to London, where he was to remain until that happy day when the Scottish legal system would declare him to be a free man. In the meantime, he and Mary kept up a correspondence that would eventually lead them into true crime history.

On March 1, 1748, the Commissary Court delivered Cranstoun--and Mary--some very bad news. It decreed that he and Anne Murray were legally married, and ordered the captain to pay his wronged lady an annuity of forty pounds, plus ten pounds child support. Cranstoun also had to pay all the legal expenses involved, which amounted to some hundred pounds. Cranstoun appealed the decision, but this effort was soon dismissed. The captain was now not only in quite a financial hole, but his despicable treatment of his wife left him an object of public scorn.

Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, really.

Despite these setbacks, Mary and her mother still stubbornly clung to Cranstoun. When Mrs. Blandy fell terminally ill in September 1749, practically her last act was to tell her husband, "Mary has set her heart upon Cranstoun; when I am gone, let no one set you against the match." Despite this deathbed appeal, Francis Blandy had come to the conclusion that Mary's Scottish suitor was much more trouble than he was worth. He would have been even more pessimistic if he was aware that Mary had learned still more uncomfortable news about her betrothed: Not only had Cranstoun fathered a child by a "Miss Capel," he was currently keeping a mistress. It is some measure of Mary's love--or, rather, desperation--that not even these revelations could dissuade her from doing everything in her power to marry this man.

Cranstoun confided to his lady-love that he had a plan for dealing with her father's negative attitude. He told her of a Mrs. Morgan, a "cunning-woman" who had provided him with certain wondrous "love powders." If a bit of this powder was mixed into something Mr. Blandy ate or drank, his attitude towards Cranstoun would be miraculously transformed from antipathy into affection!

In November 1750, Cranstoun returned to Scotland--carrying with him a generous sum Mary had given him to relieve the more pressing of his debts. Before departing, his stay had been made unpleasant by seeing a ghost in his room, which was accompanied by unsettling spectral music and knockings. Mary sadly told the servants that Cranstoun informed her that he feared this ghost was a messenger of death. She did not think her father would live very much longer.

Once Cranstoun left Henley, Mr. Blandy finally put his foot down. He ordered his daughter to write to her suitor, telling him not to show his face to them again until his matrimonial entanglements were "quite decided." Mary did write Cranstoun, but, unfortunately, we are unaware of how she communicated her father's ultimatum--or how Cranstoun replied. We do know, however, something that Mr. Blandy did not know: that Cranstoun's efforts to have his marriage dissolved had failed. He was bound to his wife "till death do they part." The lovers were greatly anxious that Mr. Blandy never find this out. If he did, the promised £10,000 dowry would undoubtedly be withheld. He might even write Mary out of his will altogether!

This was a highly uncomfortable situation, and clearly not one that could last forever.

In the summer of 1751, Cranstoun sent Mary a supply of the "love powder" he had obtained from Mrs. Morgan, along with some "Scotch pebbles" (a variety of agate that was a popular jewelry item of the day.) He instructed her to mix the powder in her father's tea. She did so, although she professed to feel doubts about its efficacy. As it was his habit to have his tea served in a different dish from the rest of the household, it was easy to see that he, and he alone, received the "love powder."

Soon, after this, Mr. Blandy began to suffer bouts of serious stomach pain and vomiting. One morning, a servant drank his untouched tea. She immediately became very sick for about a week after. On another occasion, his leftover tea was given to an elderly charwoman employed by the family. It was a gift that nearly killed her.

In early August, Mary prepared some gruel for her father. One of the maids noted that Mary performed the curious act of taking some of the gruel in a spoon and rubbing it between her fingers. After drinking this gruel, Mr. Blandy became ill--so much so, that the family apothecary was summoned. This medical man, a Mr. Norton, assumed the patient was merely suffering "a fit of colic." When he asked Mary what her father had been eating, she said nothing about the gruel, merely that he had had "some peas on the Saturday night before." After Norton left, Mary brought her father more gruel, which brought on another violent vomiting fit.

The next morning, when the remains of Mr. Blandy's gruel was brought down to the kitchen, their charwoman--who, after the tea incident, should surely have known to be wary about Blandy family leftovers--ate it. And, yes, she again became dreadfully ill.

It began to occur to the Blandy servants that something odd was going on. They examined the pan that had been used to make the gruel, and noticed a white, gritty substance at the bottom. They locked up the pan overnight, then took it to Norton the apothecary for professional examination.

Meanwhile, Francis' brother-in-law, the Rev. Mr. Stevens, arrived on the scene. The maids confided to him their suspicions about what was behind Mr. Blandy's alarming and mysterious illness. He advised them to bring their fears to Blandy himself.

The next morning, they broke the news to their master that they believed he was being poisoned by his own daughter. It is significant that Francis Blandy expressed no disbelief in the idea that Mary might try to kill him. He only questioned where she could have gotten the poison. When Cranstoun was proposed as a source, everything suddenly became dreadfully clear. "Oh, that villain!" Francis cried. "That ever he came to my house!"

Mr. Blandy went down to the breakfast table. Mary was already there, along with Francis' clerk, Robert Littleton. Littleton noted that his employer appeared to be "in great agony, and complained very much," which was surely justifiable under the circumstances. When Mary handed her father his tea, he tasted it gingerly. He stared at his daughter. The drink had a bad, gritty taste, he observed. Might she have put something in it?

Mary became very flustered and fled the room.

In a blind panic, Mary collected all of Cranstoun's letters and whatever remained of the "love powder," and dashed to the kitchen. She threw the bundle into the fireplace and "stirred it down with a stick." As soon as her back was turned, the maids--now thoroughly into their roles as amateur detectives--fished out from the grate what they could. They were able to retrieve a paper packet where Cranstoun had written the suggestive words, "The powder to clean the pebbles with." It still contained a small amount of white powder, which they handed over to Mr. Norton.

The next day, Mr. Blandy took a turn for the worse. Anthony Addington, a leading doctor of the day, was summoned. When he arrived, a brief consultation with the patient was all he needed to convince him that Blandy was being poisoned. Dr. Addington asked Mary if her father had any enemies. "Impossible!" she exclaimed. "He is at peace with all the world and all the world is at peace with him." She gave her opinion that her parent was merely suffering from "colic and heartburn."

Before Addington left, Norton gave him the sediment from the pan and the white powder retrieved by the maids. The doctor told Mary bluntly that if her father died, she would certainly be blamed.

This warning caused Mary's incredibly reckless behavior to cross over into sheer suicidal stupidity. She wrote to Cranstoun, advising him of her father's serious illness, and warning "Dear Willy" to "take care what you write," lest any accident happened to his letters.

Mary gave this letter to Robert Littleton to post. Instead, he opened the letter, read it, and promptly showed it to his employer. Blandy merely smiled wanly and said, "Poor love-sick girl! What won't a girl do for a man she loves?"

Although the household had decided that Mary should be barred from her father's bedside, Francis insisted on sending her word "that he was ready to forgive her if she would but endeavour to bring that villain to justice." When she was brought to see him, Mary begged his forgiveness, promising that she would never have anything to do with Cranstoun again. "I forgive thee, my dear," Francis replied, "and I hope God will forgive thee; but thou shouldst have considered better than to have attempted anything against thy father." Mary protested her innocence. Yes, she had put powder in his gruel, "but it was given me with another intent."

"Oh, such a villain!" cried Francis. "To come to my house, eat and drink of the best my house could afford, and then to take away my life and ruin my daughter! Oh, my dear, thou must hate that man, must hate the ground he treads on, thou canst not help it!" When a tearful--and, one hopes, sincerely repentant--Mary begged her father not to curse her, Francis replied, "Nay, I bless thee, and hope God will bless thee also and amend thy life." He advised his daughter to leave and say no more, "lest thou shouldst say anything to thine own prejudice."

If it's amazing to think what a girl might do "for a man she loves," it's even more incredible to contemplate what an indulgent father might do for his daughter.

In the meantime, Dr. Addington performed tests on the white powder Mary had employed. Relatively crude as the scientific methods of the day may have been, he had no trouble immediately identifying the substance as white arsenic.

Mary was immediately confined to her room, and all of her papers, as well as "all instruments wherewith she could hurt either herself or any other person" were taken away from her. She continued to insist that she was nothing more than Cranstoun's dupe. She had believed that the "white powder" would merely make her father "kind" towards Cranstoun. She had no idea it was poison "till she had seen its effects." Even to her own ears, it must have been a remarkably unconvincing defense.

Francis Blandy grew steadily weaker, until he finally died on August 14, 1751. Mary's reaction to the news was to try to persuade one of the servants into helping her escape to the Continent.

It will be no great surprise that the coroner's jury had little difficulty ruling that Francis Blandy died from ingesting arsenic, and that his daughter "did poison and murder" him. A warrant was issued to apprehend Cranstoun, who was believed to be in Berwick, but it was too late. Mary's evil genius had disappeared. His relatives, not wishing to see a hanging soil their otherwise illustrious family tree, had arranged to have him smuggled into France.

While in jail awaiting her trial, Mary received some news. As her father had died intestate, she was his sole heiress. Alas, it turned out that Francis' fortune amounted to less than £4,000. The promised £10,000 dowry that had inspired Cranstoun's courtship, and led Mary down the road to murder, proved to be nothing more than a figment of Francis Blandy's boastful imagination.

A novelist would never dare invent such a grimly ironic twist.

Mary stood trial on March 3, 1752. It has gone down in judicial history as the first murder trial where solid scientific proof of poisoning was given, but it's doubtful the defendant appreciated the honor.

The proceedings contained no suspense. There was no question that Francis Blandy died of arsenic poisoning, that arsenic was present in the gruel prepared by his daughter, and that arsenic was in the powder Mary had in her possession. Servants in the Blandy household testified that Mary often spoke of her father as "an old villain," and that if only her father were dead, she "would go to Scotland and live with lady Cranstoun." Even more charmingly, the defendant was quoted as remarking, "Who would grudge to send an old father to hell for £10,000?"

Obviously seeing the futility of trying to refute the evidence against her, Mary merely presented herself as a victim. She continued to insist that she had believed the powder Cranstoun sent her was "an inoffensive thing," that would do nothing more than make her father more amenable to her proposed marriage. It was a weak defense, to be sure, but it was the only one she could employ. She made no effort to try to explain why, after she saw that the gruel she gave her father had made him dreadfully ill, she attempted to serve him more of the same.

In his closing address to the jury, the judge summarized the entire case in one sentence: "What you are to try is reduced to this single question, whether the prisoner, at the time she gave it to her father, knew that it was poison, and what effect it would be?"

After consulting among themselves for five minutes, the jurors returned a verdict of guilty.

Mary retained the unsettlingly impassive demeanor she had shown ever since her arrest. Upon hearing that she was to be hanged, she merely asked the judge to "allow me a little time till I can settle my affairs and make my peace with God." Showing a good deal more emotion than the condemned woman, the judge assured her this would be done.

When Mary returned to her cell, she found the keeper and his family in tears at the news of the verdict. "Don't mind it," Mary told them coolly. "What does it signify? I am very hungry; pray, let me have something for supper as speedily as possible."

In the six weeks she was granted before her execution, Mary maintained her role as an innocent victim of Cranstoun's sinister deception. She wrote a "Narrative," giving her questionable version of events. It was a huge publishing success, spawning a flood of pamphlets either defending "The Fair Parricide," or excoriating her. Thanks to the power of the printing press, this otherwise commonplace poisoner became an 18th century literary sensation.

Mary's execution took place on April 6th. On the gallows, she swore to the last that she had never meant to kill her father. The 19th century Chief Justice, Lord Campbell, scoffed that this merely proved "the worthlessness of the dying declarations of criminals, and the absurdity of the practice of trying to induce them to confess." As she climbed the ladder, her last words were to ask the executioner, "do not hang me high, for the sake of decency." The following day, Mary was, at her own request, buried between her mother and father.

As for the man who instigated this domestic tragedy, while William Cranstoun paid no legal price for his sins, it is somewhat satisfying to report that he did not exactly escape punishment, either. The fugitive had taken lodgings in Flanders, where, on December 2, 1752, he died after a short but extremely painful illness. His small store of personal belongings, "consisting chiefly of Laced and Embroidered Waistcoats," was sold to pay his debts. As he had converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, he was buried in the Cathedral Church, "in great solemnity...and a grand Mass was said over the corpse."

His was certainly a soul that needed all the prayers it could get.


  1. Wow, that William Cranstoun was quite the charmer. As the mother of two daughters I have to say that this is what you get when you lead a child down a desperate path. Had Mary made her own choice, she might have died a happy, doting mother and grandmother rather than a "Fair Parricide."

  2. It's interesting to ponder the effects of a hundred or so years of mystery fiction - murderers in the 19th century were a bit more worldly; I wonder if it had to do with reading about crime and crime detection in books and stories, none of which Mary would have had.

    In any case, another interesting story.


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