The Henley Poisoner

The Henley Poisoner

On a visit to Oxford Castle, I was particularly intrigued by the tragic story of Mary Blandy, who was executed for poisoning her father in Henley-on-Thames, which is close to where I live. Although this case took place in the 18th century (outside my historical comfort zone), I decided to investigate…     Mary Blandy was born in Henley, around 1720. Her father, Francis Blandy, was a successful lawyer and the town clerk. The family lived at 29 Hart Street (now a dental practice) in the town centre. Mary’s mother died about 1749, but by this time, Mary had already met her future husband. Captain William Henry Cranstoun was a captain in the army. The son of a Scottish nobleman and some 20 years her senior, he had met Mary when his regiment was in the district. The couple fell in love and planned to marry, but there was one major obstacle: William already had a wife. Captain Cranstoun returned to Scotland several times to try to have his marriage dissolved and, in the meantime, he sent letters and packages to Mary, whose father disapproved of the match. In August 1752, Francis Blandy fell ill, complaining of bowel pain, a sore throat and ‘a stench in his nose’. As his condition worsened it became apparent that his daughter had been adding a white powder to his porridge. The powder had come from her lover, Captain Cranstoun, who had sent her ‘Scottish powder’ to clean some pebbles that he had given her to be set into earrings. It is unclear why Mary was adding the powder to her father’s food,...
The Bembridge Smugglers

The Bembridge Smugglers

My Isle of Wight smuggling trail has already taken me to Shanklin and to St Helens, where I discovered the scandalous story of Sophie Dawes. I have uncovered many secrets of the Island’s shady past and visited some very atmospheric smugglers’ pubs (I wanted the full experience!). My next stop was Bembridge, where I enjoyed a delicious alfresco lunch in the Crab and Lobster, and came across some female smugglers.     Bembridge is a small village at the easternmost point of the Island, overlooking the Solent. In the 18th century, along with most places on the Isle of Wight, it was renowned for smuggling or ‘free-trading’. Fishermen sailed from Bembridge harbour across the English Channel in small vessels to France, landing in Cherbourg and Honfleur, to stock up on tobacco, brandy, gin (my favourite tipple) and other luxury goods, which they then transported back to the Island without paying the exorbitant duties. High above the village, Bembridge Windmill, which was built in 1700, served as a marker for the returning boats.     An estimated two thirds of islanders took part in smuggling, and the raids were usually organised at meetings in public houses, one of which was the Crab and Lobster. Perched on the cliffs above the shore near Bembridge Harbour, it is the perfect spot for night-time operations. Once the goods arrived on the beach, the local community helped to shift the goods, ready for concealment, re-distribution and sale on the mainland. When I was researching smuggling activities in Bembridge, it came to my notice that many of the women of the village were caught taking...
The Whitby Hand of Glory

The Whitby Hand of Glory

On a recent trip to Whitby (full details here) I encountered one of the most fascinating and gruesome artefacts I’ve ever seen in a museum. There is a clue to what lurks in this eclectic collection on the signpost, which draws you in to its sinister attraction: Whitby Museum has the only known surviving Hand of Glory.     A Hand of Glory was a charm made from the hand of a hanged man (not sure about women too). If the executed man was a murderer then his hand could be used, when combined with fat from the same corpse, as a magical tool. The instructions were published in a French grimoire, Petit Albert, in 1722. It was vital to use the hand that committed the crime, which was then dried and preserved in an earthenware pot, with nitre, salt and long peppers. Next you had to make a candle out of the felon’s body fat, using virgin wax and sesame. When the candle was placed in the hand it cast a sleeping spell over other people in the vicinity, with the exception of the carrier, which meant that burglars could use it to enter a property to steal household goods, while the occupants were ‘sleeping’. The only antidote was to extinguish the candle with bloodied milk.     The name ‘Hand of Glory’, or ‘Main de Gloire’, in French is probably a corruption of ‘mandragore’, also known as ‘mandrake’, which is a deadly poisonous plant associated with magic. A relative of Deadly Nightshade, it was used in tiny quantities to induce sleep or relieve pain, but too much...
A weekend with Dracula

A weekend with Dracula

I’ve always fancied going to Whitby, in North Yorkshire, to explore the Gothic setting for Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula. Last weekend, my sister and I set off on our own Dracula-inspired adventure to this infamous seaside town in pursuit of mysterious death, bloody horror and of course, scampi and chips. Our accommodation of choice was The Black Horse Inn, right in the heart of the town. One of the oldest public houses in Whitby, it has a fascinating past, including as a funeral parlour and a brothel, making it entirely appropriate for our stay! The tiny serving bar, believed to be one of the oldest in Europe, had an astonishing range of alcoholic beverages, including several types of gin, which suited me perfectly. Fortunately, after our five-hour road trip we were sufficiently tired to sleep deeply enough to be unaware of any bats buffeting their wings against the window in the dead of night. The next day, we were ready to explore….     Our first stop was the world-famous Whitby Abbey. We climbed the 199 steps up to this magnificent ruin, which looks out over the harbour and the North Sea. In Dracula, on the night of the storm, when the Demeter made its way into the harbour through the sea-fog (we saw some sea-fog too), the searchlight of one of the lighthouses revealed a corpse lashed to its helm with a string of rosary beads and a crucifix. As soon as the ship arrived, a huge black hound jumped ashore and fled up the steps to the abbey. I have to admit that it was quite hard...
A Grisly Discovery

A Grisly Discovery

Whilst clearing out his mother’s loft recently, Richard Anderson came across a cardboard box with some very sinister contents: a package of brown paper and old newspaper, and a long piece of string. A label revealed that the items were evidence collected in the Amelia Dyer trial, in 1896, after she was arrested in Reading. Richard’s ancestor, Detective Constable James Anderson, was one of the investigating officers on the case, and the objects had been kept in his family home for 120 years. Here’s the story behind the grisly artefact: On 30 March 1896 bargeman Charles Humphreys navigated up the River Thames near Reading, towing a boat of ballast. He was moving slowly towards the Clappers footbridge, when he spotted a brown paper parcel floating in the water. Leaning over the side of the barge with a hook, Charles and his mate dragged the package through the water towards them. Humphreys’s companion unravelled the damp parcel, which had been tied with macramé twine. He cut through two layers of flannel and pulled back the sodden fabric to expose a child’s foot and part of a leg.     Later, the police unwrapped the parcel to find the body of a baby girl, aged between six months and one year, swaddled in layers of linen, newspaper and brown paper. Around her neck was a piece of tape, knotted under her left ear – she had been strangled. Her corpse had been weighted down with a brick. On examination of the dried brown paper, Detective Anderson found a name and an address: ‘Mrs Thomas, of 26 Piggott’s Road, Caversham.’ This led...