sjhstrangetales

“FOR THE SAKE OF DECENCY GENTLEMEN, DON’T HANG ME HIGH”

Posted on: May 22, 2018

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Mary Blandy has the dubious honour of being Henley-on-Thames’s most famous ghost.   She was a well-to-do woman in the 18th century who was hanged for poisoning her father with arsenic.   Since then her ghost seems to have incurred a number of spectral legends in and around the affluent Oxfordshire town.

Mary was born in 1720, the daughter of Francis Blandy, a wealthy lawyer.  She was his only child, and the apple of his eye.  Mary was well-educated, and respected in her neighbourhood.   Unfortunately, due to having been left scarred by an attack of smallpox, Mary was no beauty, but Francis let it be known that he had settled a dowry of £10,000 on her (a huge sum in those days).    Not surprisingly, the wolves soon came sniffing around, and Francis had unwittingly sealed his doom.

It is said that, on a trip to the fashionable spa town of Bath with her parents in 1746, Mary made the acquaintance of one Captain William Henry Cranstoun, the son of a Scottish nobleman.   The two hit it off, and for about a year, Captain Cranstoun even moved in with the Blandys, but things soon proved to be complicated.  It turned out that William already had a wife, Anne Murray, up in Scotland, who had had a son by him.  William kept making return trips to Scotland, stressing to Mary’s father  that he was making great efforts to get his marriage annulled.   Francis though was sceptical about this, and looked as if he was getting cold feet about the whole arrangement.

What happened next is a matter of some conjecture, but Mary claimed that William sent her a powder, saying it was a “love philtre”, and that if she slipped it into Francis’s food he would soon come round and be amenable to them.   Whether Mary really believed this fanciful tale is still open to debate, but she put the powder into her father’s tea and gruel.   Francis became ill, and so did some of the servants, who tasted it too.   When it became clear that Francis was dying he called for Mary, and gave her his forgiveness.   It was unlikely everyone else was going to be quite so forgiving though.

Wen Francis died on 14 August 1751, a local doctor advised Mary that she could be held responsible.  Mary immediately burnt all Cranstoun’s letters, and tried to dispose of the incriminating powder by chucking it on the fire.  Unfortunately (for Mary that is), a housemaid, Susan Gunnell, was quick off the mark, and snatched some of the powder from the embers.  It was sent to a chemist for analysis.   Perhaps, to no surprise to anyone, the powder turned out to be arsenic.

Mary was put under house arrest and confined in her room.  Somehow though she managed to get out and brazenly went for a saunter around Henley, where she was greeted with some considerable hostility by the locals.  So much so that they chased her across Henley Bridge and into Berkshire, where Mary took refuge with her friend, Mrs Davis, who was landlady of the Little Angel Inn at Remenham.

Meanwhile Captain Cranstoun was doing some fleeing of his own.  He managed to escape to France, and eventually wound up in Belgium, where he died, penniless, and suffering from an intestinal ailment, several months later.

Mary was carted off to Oxford Castle Gaol to await trial.   Her story had become a considerable ’cause celebre’, and her trial was to become famous for being the first time that forensic examination of arsenic – by Dr Anthony Addington – was to be used.   The trial opened at 8 AM on 3 March 1752, and lasted one whole day.   The audience was mainly made up of excitable students from the university, and Mary reportedly defended herself with intelligence, saying she had put the powder in her father’s food, but she had had no idea it was arsenic.   She tried to paint herself as the innocent wronged woman, issuing the rallying-cry “what woman can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make for us?”  But the Court was having none of it.  By 9 o’clock that night Mary had been granted a date with the hangman.

On her return to Oxford Castle Gaol, Mary was greeted by the jailer’s family, who were upset on her behalf, as they had become charmed by their now famous inmate.  Mary though seemed unperturbed by her fate, and brusquely told them “don’t mind it”, and then announced she was hungry and wanted a speedy supper.  She dined heartily off mutton chops and apple pie.   Whilst in jail Mary had been informed that her father had left only £4000 in his Will, so the infamous £10,000 dowry – the cause of all the trouble – wouldn’t have materialised anyway.

There is some speculation as to exactly where Mary met her death.  Some say she was hanged in the courtyard of Oxford Castle (which to me seems the most logical place), or in what is now the site of the Westgate Shopping Centre.   Wherever it was, Mary walked out to her doom on the morning of Easter Monday, 6 April 1752.   She was wearing “a black crepe sack”, and her arms and hands were bound with black ribbons.   As she ascended the ladder to the noose, Mary noticed that some spectators in the crowd were trying to look up her skirts.  She uttered the legendary phrase “for the sake of decency gentlemen, don’t hang me high”.

It is said that throughout the execution had blackbird had perched on the crossbar of the gallows, and that no blackbird ever perched there afterwards.

If the people of Henley-on-Thames thought that was to be the last of Mary though, they were to be mistaken.  Reports of her spectral presence in the area have lasted down the years.  On one occasion it is thought that she objected to a play about her, which was being put on at the local Kenton Theatre, and indulged in some petulant glass-smashing.   She is also thought to have haunted the Little Angel Inn, as well as the Catherine Wheel pub, and ghost walks have been held in her honour in the area.   She has also been reputed to haunt Oxford Castle and the Westgate Shopping Centre (goodness knows what she makes of that).

Mary has been in the news as recently as 2011, when her former home, Park Place, was bought for a staggering £140 million by a Russian oligarch.   It was the highest sum ever paid for a house in Britain.   I wonder if Mary came as part of the package …

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