Into each life a love is born for one and one alone, dear/The one I chose was surely not for me. . .(from “Poison Love”, by Johnny Wright and Jack Anglin, aka the country music duo Johnnie and Jack, 1951)
Into Mary Blandy’s life, there was indeed one love born–and, as is sadly not infrequent, the love she chose was wrong–so wrong it cost her her life.
Mary Blandy was born about 1720 in the little Oxfordshire town of Henley-upon-Thames, the only daughter of attorney and town clerk Francis Blandy and his wife. She was possessed, as the prim phrase goes, of considerable personal advantages: tall, black-haired and dark-eyed, with a figure like a goddess, well-educated and charming.
She was still unmarried in her mid-twenties, though, which apparently caused her doting father some distress. He made an unwise boast that he would give Mary ten thousand pounds dowry, which of course would become the fortune of her husband under the laws of the time.
There were suitors, but for one reason or another all of them were rejected until, when she was twenty-six, Mary met the man of her dreams: Captain William Henry Cranstoun, the nephew of a Scots nobleman.
God only knows what Mary Blandy saw in him. Cranstoun was twenty years her senior, shorter than her, heavyset and with a bad squint. He was also hideously scarred by smallpox. Worse yet, he had little income save his military pay and was desperately in debt.
Probably it was his charm and smooth line of patter that captured Mary.
Her father detested Cranstoun, and with good reason; when his noble uncle learned that Cranstoun was paying assiduous court to Mary, he warned Francis Blandy that Cranstoun was already married to a Scotswoman, by whom he had several children.
Over the course of the next five years, Cranstoun tried by both legal means and strongarm tactics to get his Scots wife to disavow their marriage to free him to marry his English heiress. From sheer exhaustion Anne Murray Cranstoun finally gave up her claim to be his lawful wife–only to have that claim overturned by a Scots court.
Meanwhile Mary Blandy and her father were at odds continually over her quite irrational affection for Cranstoun.
In mid-1751, Cranstoun hatched a plan. He set it in motion by sending Mary a gift of “Scotch pebbles”–semiprecious stones more commonly known as agates.
Along with the Scotch pebbles, he sent a powder. The powder was accompanied by a letter marked “powder to clean the Scotch pebbles”, but in the body of the letter Cranstoun instructed Mary that the powder was a love potion–not for her, but for her father. Cranstoun told her to sprinkle it on his food and it would magically change his opinion of his daughter’s suitor.
Mary did so.
The powder did not change Francis Blandy’s opinion of Cranstoun. In fact, it killed him.
The powder to clean the Scotch pebbles was arsenic, and Mary continued to add it to her father’s food even as his health deteriorated alarmingly.
Francis Blandy died on August 14, 1751. He was sixty-two.
His fortune, at probate, turned out to be some four thousand pounds–still considerable, but far short of the ten thousand he’d offered to the man who won his daughter’s hand.
The Blandy servants lost no time in telling the doctor who attended him in his extremity and the local authorities about Miss Mary’s “love potion”, and she was promptly placed under house arrest. One day, she found a door unlocked and went out for a walk, only to find herself chased by a mob across the border into Berkshire, where an innkeeper named Mrs. Davis took her in to save her life.
Thereafter, she was remanded to prison. At trial, on March 3, 1752, she insisted that she had given the powders to her father but had had no idea they were poisonous.
The court was dubious. She was convicted, and sentenced to hang. Her sentence was carried out on Easter Monday, April 6, 1752. After exhorting officials “Gentlemen, don’t hang me high for the sake of decency!” (she apparently feared the vast crowd that came to see her “turned off” would try to look up the skirts of her black sacque dress) and expressing a fear that she might fall if she mounted the ladder to the top of the scaffold, she covered her face with a black kerchief and signaled the hangman to drop her by dropping a prayerbook.
Cranstoun, the hound, never faced earthly justice; he ran off first to Scotland, then, under an assumed name, made his way to France, where he died in July, a bare three months after Mary.
As one might guess, Mary Blandy has not rested in peace. Sightings of her ghost have been reported at several places. At her old home in Henley-upon-Thames, she is said to stand under a mulberry tree in the back garden, accompanied by a male figure; it has never been ascertained whether her companion is the father she murdered or the lover who enticed her to murder, then deserted her.
Her spirit has also been reported at the Little Angel Inn, where the kindly Mrs. Davis saved her from a lynch mob. In Churchfield Wood, near Turville, she’s said to ride a white horse through the woods; horse and rider vanish without a trace.
In 1966, her trial was re-enacted in Henley’s Town Hall. During the re-enactment, several cast members reported that they spotted a tall young woman in a black eighteenth-century dress at the back of the courtroom; when approached, she invariably disappeared.
Three years later, a local theatre company put on a production of The Hanging Wood, a play about Mary Blandy written in 1950 by playwright and author Joan Morgan. (The story goes that the play was only put on once–in this 1969 production–and received such poor reviews it was never played onstage again after that first performance. Tough crowd–)
Several of the cast members of the play had also been involved in the 1966 trial re-enactment, and reported that, during rehearsals for the play, the production was plagued by poltergeist activity–doors opening and closing, lights going on and off, a mirror that jumped off the wall and was smashed on the floor–and also by sightings of the woman in black who had appeared–and disappeared– in the courtroom in 1966.
I wonder if Mary Blandy’s still trying to tell the world that she just wanted her father to approve of the man whom she loved, and never meant him harm.
I have a feeling the world’s still dubious. (^_^)
There are a number of websites with more information about Mary Blandy’s life, trial and death. One of the more interesting is the account from the contemporary compendium of true crime, the Newgate Calendar.
Other information comes from the late Peter Haining’s 2008 book The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings.
Sorry to be so late posting today but I’ve had to do it between thunderstorms–we’ve had three in Knobite Corner today–