The Case of Mary Blandy: Guilty or Innocent?

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

The case of Mary Blandy divides opinion even today. Was she an innocent victim of a confidence trickster who was used and abandoned to a miserable fate or was she complicit in the murder of her father? Was Mary innocent, naïve and manipulated, thrown to the wolves by her own father and set up for a tragic end or cold-hearted, an unnatural daughter and murderess who was rightly executed for a terrible crime?

Our response to a case like this probably says as much about us and our world view as it does about the available evidence left to us from the C18th court case, trial and execution records and contemporary attitudes to female murder suspects. There is a lot to unpack here in terms of gender roles, misogyny, social mores and changing attitudes towards female agency and issues of manipulation and coercion.

Francis Blandy was a wealthy lawyer and town clerk in Henley on Thames. He was a respected member of the local community and lived with his wife and only daughter, Mary, in Hart Street near the White Hart Inn. Mary’s baptism is recorded on 15th July 1720 at Henley Parish Church. Her mother educated Mary at their home and she was raised to be a well-mannered and accomplished young lady in the Anglican faith who should have looked forward to a comfortable, middle-class life of domesticity and respectable marriage.

The first blow to Mary’s hopes was contracting deadly smallpox which often left sufferers scared for life, if they survived the disease itself. In a society where female beauty was prized so highly in terms of making a good marriage, people would have sympathised with Mary but it would also have counted against her and literally marked her out as a negative quality through no fault of her own and severely damaged her marriage prospects.

Color illustration depicting smallpox pustules, shown on the face and hand of a woman, in profile, wearing a scarf, with inset close-ups to illustrate pustule stages, and their presence on the eyelid, from the volume “Contagious and Infectious Disease: measures for their prevention and arrest, small pox (variola), modified small pox (varioloid), chicken pox (varicella), cow pox (variole vaccinae), vaccination, spurious vaccination, ” authored by Joseph Jones, Edward Jenner, George Pearson, and William Woodville, 1884. Courtesy Internet Archive. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

As the years passed there was concern over whether Mary would ever marry despite seasons in fashionable resorts like Bath and visits to London which were used as an opportunity for Mary to meet potential suitors. There was enormous social pressure on young women to marry ‘well’. During the C18th there was very little prospect for genteel young women to earn their own living, tying them to either a husband, marriage and motherhood or to stay in their childhood home and become nurses to ageing parents. Financial considerations were often paramount, with parents arranging marriages to ensure their daughters were cared for and off their hands before they passed away.

It is impossible to know what Mary’s parents thought about Mary’s situation and whether their actions were motivated by love and concern for her future or by desperation to see her settled as they aged or whether they considered her to be a burden. Some accounts suggest that Francis let it be known that Mary would have an enormous dowry of £10,000 as a means of attracting suitors; others suggest that rumour inflated the sum well beyond anything Francis could actually have bestowed on her and that he cared deeply for his daughter’s happiness.

Was Mary effectively put up for sale with a price tag around her neck by her own father and humiliated by this experience? How would she have felt to be considered so ugly that only a large financial inducement would persuade a man to offer her marriage and respectability? Did she deeply resent her father’s actions or were they both swept along by contemporary obsessions with wealth and status and the rumour-mill?

This is quite crucial in terms of deciding whether Mary’s relationship with her father had deteriorated even before William Cranstoun was introduced to her and might explain why she would have contemplated murdering her father. It also raises the question of whether Francis left Mary exposed to the attentions of a confidence trickster by effectively advertising her wealth and set in motion the events that would lead to her ruin.

Conversely, Mary may have been grateful to her father for offering such a sizeable dowry if she was keen to be married and move on with her life. Did she want children and the possibility of running her own household and was she conscious as the years went on that time was running out? Mary’s mother suffered from ill health and Mary might have worried what would happen when she died. Would she be trapped as her father’s companion and nurse forever?

A number of potential suitors did show interest in Mary but they were all rejected – this perhaps suggests that her parents were concerned to find the right man for their daughter or that Mary had more say in the matter than might have been initially considered. It might also indicate that Francis Blandy was holding out for a better match and wanted to climb the social ladder by arranging a marriage into the nobility which left Mary increasingly frustrated with her father and his ambitions as her youth was spent and her child bearing years ebbed away. Was she equally ambitious or would she have accepted one of these men quite happily if she hadn’t been blocked by her parent’s desire for a better connected son-in-law?

Lord Mark Kerr lived at The Paradise in Henley. He was extremely well connected and uncle of Lady Jane Douglas who was a rich heiress and Mary was invited to dine at his property. It was there that she was introduced to Captain, the Hon William Henry Cranstoun. Cranstoun was described by a contemporary 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.”

Perhaps Mary saw a kindred spirit in him; someone who had also been marked out by a cruel disease and unfairly judged for his physical appearance. Perhaps she was also, in part, attracted to his social status as the fifth son of a Scottish peer and his rank as a First Lieutenant of Sir Andrew Agnew’s regiment of marines who had fought at Culloden against the Jacobites.

Francis had turned away other soldiers before but the family seemed to have welcomed Cranstoun despite this and his modest personal wealth. Francis boasted of his noble connections and was perhaps willing to overlook the negatives in order to finally see Mary settled. He seems to have had no concerns over whether Cranstoun was more drawn to the dowry than the daughter.

In 1747, Cranstoun declared his passion for Mary and he was invited into the family home as an honoured guest and potential son-in-law. Cranstoun seemed to charm the family and provide the solution to their problem. When Mary’s mother fell ill she called for Cranstoun especially and he lifted her spirits. She remained under the spell of his charms to the end.

Francis was a businessman and experienced lawyer. He may have been blinded by Cranstoun’s aristocratic manners and his elevated connections in Scotland but it seems odd that he didn’t investigate more thoroughly before welcoming Cranstoun into his home and agreeing to his engagement to Mary.

The bombshell exploded when Francis was informed by Lord Kerr that Cranstoun was already married in Scotland to Anne Murray, a catholic and had fathered a daughter with her. Cranstoun denied this and said that Anne was only his mistress and he intended to appeal to the courts to prove that they had never been legally married. She was only after financial reward and he couldn’t marry her as she was a catholic and he was Presbyterian which was a huge impediment to any union.

It all sounds highly implausible and all too common a case of a man seeking to throw off an inconvenient secret marriage and abandon a woman who he had left raising his child once a better prospect came along. Cranstoun suggested that Lord Kerr was trying to spoil his chances with Mary and ruin his reputation because of a falling out between them. He was the innocent victim of manipulation and character assassination and Francis seems to have believed him at first but he became increasingly disillusioned with his house guest and spent more time at the coffee house than at home before finally commanding Mary to break off all contact with Cranstoun and never see him again.

Mary was devastated. After finally securing the attentions of a suitable potential husband, having him accepted into her family and making plans for her marriage, she was now not only back to square one but her reputation was now compromised by association with a man who might be a liar and fortune hunter. Her heart had been broken and she longed to believe Cranstoun’s version of events.

If Francis had been taken in, why not Mary who had far less experience of the world than her father and was under enormous social pressure to secure a match. After so many long years of waiting, she had found a soul mate and the chance of a new life to see if all being snatched away from her. She must have been desperate and vulnerable at this moment. Was she also angry and resentful of her father’s command to drop her lover or even complicit in Cranstoun’s scheme to marry in secret in order to prevent their separation and rid themselves of her father’s disapproval?

Mary later swore that there had been a clandestine marriage between them which she believed to be legally binding which had taken place in London while she was visiting her uncle with her mother, who had taken ill. Mary had arranged a meeting with Cranstoun at a friend’s lodgings in St James’s Square, as her uncle had forbidden him entry into his house. They had eloped and married in secret.

On March 1, 1748, the Commissary Court decreed that Cranstoun and Anne Murray were legally married and ordered him to pay his wife an annuity of forty pounds, plus ten pounds child support for his abandoned daughter. He was also liable for all the legal expenses involved, which put him several hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Cranstoun appealed the decision, but it was dismissed. His reputation was tarnished, as was Mary’s by association. To pour salt on the wounds, there were other accusations against Cranstoun of mistresses and children he had tried to cover up.

To most of us, the warning bells would be ringing loud and clear by this point. Mary’s mother was terminally ill and clung to her belief in Cranstoun’s innocence to the very end, hoping that her daughter would be joined with the man she loved but Francis had finally seen the light. Mary’s mother died in September 1749. Due to her symptoms, which included intestinal inflammation, some people later thought that Mary had poisoned her too but there seems little motive as she mother was a defender of Cranstoun’s character and encouraged the match to the end. Cranstoun returned to Scotland to try to sort out his affairs with a large helping of Mary’s money to pay off his legal debts.

After her death, when Francis had hardened in his disapproval of Cranstoun and he had lost an advocate, Cranstoun suggested to Mary that he knew a means by which he could win her father round. He had heard of a ‘cunning woman’ in Scotland called Mrs Morgan who made love potions. If Mary could add a special powder to her father’s tea or food he would alter in his feelings towards them and support their union.

Love potions were commonly used in this period and despite much scepticism on the part of the public when the case came to court, it is feasible that Mary believed in the notion of a love potion and fell for Cranstoun’s scheme. Arsenic was used as a tonic and when taken in small doses it could perk up a patient so when her father first ingested the powder she may have observed a positive change in his demeanour and believed it was working.

Arsenic Poisoning symptoms

Cranstoun sent her love letters along with the special powder and certain Scottish pebbles which were fashionable at the time. He passed the powder off as something to clean the stones with but Mary followed his instructions and mixed it into her father’s tea or porridge. As the arsenic residue built up in Francis, he became increasingly unwell. Mary wrote to Cranstoun that the powder wasn’t working. This letter was used as evidence that Mary was impatient at the delay and wanted to run away to Scotland to be with her lover. Cranstoun replied that she needed to use more and that his mother was preparing a home for her in Scotland. This could be interpreted both ways – Mary needed to use more potion to win her father over and then she would be free to travel to Scotland or that she needed to increase the poison to be free of the impediment to their marriage.

Servants who drank from the remaining tea or porridge were violently ill. During the later trial it was noted that Mary sent remedies of white wine, whey and broth which were used against Arsenic poisoning to Ann Emmett, a charwoman who had been almost died after drinking some of Francis’s tea – was Mary aware of the contents of the powder all along or just using popular remedies for stomach pains and purging?

The servants began to be suspicious of Mary after they saw her putting something into her father’s food and they witnessed the violent reactions of anyone who had eaten or drank anything that Francis had ingested and the maid took the gritty residue that she found at the bottom of the cooking pot to a neighbour who called in the local pharmacist.

The servants finally alerted Francis to the possibility that Mary was poisoning him. Once he learned that Cranstoun was the source of the powder everything fitted into place. He confronted Mary who broke down and admitted to adding the powder and begged his forgiveness. It is very telling that Francis forgave her and called her a ‘love-sick girl’. He clearly thought that Mary was an innocent party in the affair and blamed Cranstoun entirely even as he lay dying in agony from the effects of the Arsenic.

Mary was first held under house arrest in her room while investigations were carried out. All harmful objects were removed, suggesting that some thought she might attempt suicide after her father’s death. It is unclear whether this was due to her mental state, guilt or desire to escape punishment for her crimes.

Mary pleads for forgiveness

Mary found her door unlocked on day and decided to take a walk in Henley but she had become the object of local hatred and was persuaded by an angry mob and had to seek shelter in a friend’s house. Perhaps she had been unaware prior to this incident of how she was viewed by the local population or how she would be perceived and judged more widely in society. Again, this might suggest a naivety on her part or lack of judgement which seems consistent with her blind faith in her lover and his version of events.

The inquest into Francis’s death concluded that he had been poisoned and Mary was conveyed to Oxford Prison to await her trial where she was put in leg irons to prevent an attempted escape although she enjoyed fairly comfortable conditions due to her comparative wealth and was treated well by her gaolers. Cranstoun had already fled to France to escape justice, leaving her utterly alone to face the full penalty of the law. he died penniless there in 1752 and never stood trial for his part in the murder.

Mary appeared at the assizes in Oxford in March 1752, before The Honourable Heneage Legge, Esq., and Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe. The trial was held at the Divinity School in Oxford as the Town Hall was undergoing building work at the time. The trial was note worthy because it was the first time detailed medical evidence had been presented in court on a charge of murder by poisoning and heard testimony by Dr. Anthony Addington who had conducted medical analysis of comparative samples to prove that the powder Mary had put in her father was arsenic.

Mary defended herself with the help of three counsels, with what has been described as “intelligence and zeal” denying any intention to harm her father and that she had believed the powder to be a love potion and administered it only to win her father’s approval for her relationship with Cranstoun.

The combined medical testimony and evidence supplied by her servants condemned her and she was found guilty of the murder. She requested a little time to set her affairs in order and remained composed throughout the six weeks that followed whilst the case became a ’cause celebre’ and was endlessly discussed in the papers and in wider society. Mary took this time to write a great deal in her condemned cell including “Miss Mary Blandy’s Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun” which was described by Hoarce Bleakley as the “most famous apologia in criminal literature.”  She corresponded with various people and even had ladies to tea while she awaited her final fate, maintaining her innocence of the crime of murder to the end.

Given the evidence and testimony against Mary by the household servants and her initial attempts to destroy the love letters and remaining powder there was little hope for her not being found guilty by the court. Her actions certainly appeared suspicious and motivated by her desire to be with her lover at whatever cost. Her failure to connect the illness of the servants after ingesting the powder laced food and drink and her father’s deteriorating state with the harmful effects of the potion seem too wilful to prove innocence yet she seemed to trust Cranstoun so thoroughly that it is possible that she completely believed his version of events and doggedly pursued his instructions in the hopes of a happy ending.

Time was running out for Mary and she began to think about her final moments and the nature of a public hanging. She was concerned that the gallows would be so elevated that men in the crowd might look up her skirts as she died and famously requested ‘for the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high’. On the eve of her execution she wrote the following:

‘I, Mary Blandy, do declare, that I die in a full persuasion of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion, and a sincere, though unworthy, member of the Church of England. I do likewise hope for a pardon and remission of my sins, by the mercy of God, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, my most blessed Lord and Saviour. I do also further declare, that I did not know or believe that the powder, to which the death of my dear father has been ascribed, had any noxious or poisonous quality lodged in it; and that I had no intention to hurt, and much less to destroy him, by giving him that powder; All this is true, as I hope for eternal salvation, and mercy from Almighty God, in whose most awful and immediate presence I must soon appear. I die in perfect peace and charity with all mankind, and do from the bottom of my soul forgive all my enemies, and particularly those who have in any manner contributed to, or been instrumental in bringing me to the ignominous death I am so soon to suffer. This is my last declaration, as to the points therein contained; and I do most earnestly desire, that it may be published after my decease. Witness my hand, MARY BLANDY.’

For her execution, she chose “a black crape sack, with her arms and hands ty’d with black paduasoy ribbons.” 

She was hung on 6th April 1752, that being Easter Monday in that year either in the Castle Yard next the old Castle Mound or on a mount at the Westgate of the city, still proclaiming her innocence to the watching crowd and thankfully she lost consciousness quickly and died bravely. Her remains were conveyed to Henley where she was interred at the parish church next to her parents the following day.

Although her contemporaries continued to believe her guilty of the murder, Victorian reassessments were more forgiving and tended to focus on her naivety and the romanticism of the love potion narrative. The fact that her father seemed to forgive her actions and saw her as a victim of Cranstoun’s schemes has been increasingly used to argue that Mary was innocent and the real villain was always her unscrupulous lover who left a trail of heart hearts behind him, abandoned her as he had abandoned his true wife and daughter and tried to flee from the consequences of his actions.


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One Response to “The Case of Mary Blandy: Guilty or Innocent?”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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