Born in London, Summer Strevens now lives and writes in Oxfordshire. Capitalising on a lifelong passion for historical research, as well as penning feature articles of regional historical interest, Summer’s published books include Haunted Yorkshire Dales, York Murder & Crime, The Birth of Chocolate City: Life in Georgian York, The A-Z of Curiosities of the Yorkshire Dales, Fashionably Fatal , Before They Were Fiction and The Yorkshire Witch: The Life and Trial of Mary Bateman, the first dedicated biography of the woman who on the morning of 20th Match 1809 was hanged upon York’s ‘New Drop’ gallows before an estimated crowd of 20,000 people. Though tried and convicted on a single murder charge, the contemporary branding of Bateman as a serial poisoner is doubtless accurate. Not only focusing on the details of her felonies and the consequences to her victims, the macabre legacy of her mortal remains is also examined, a bone of contention (literally you might say!) with the continuous public display of her skeleton in the Thackray Medical Museum until the recent removal of this controversial exhibit.
Last Autumn saw the publication of Burned at the Stake: The Life and Death of Mary Channing. In 1706 19-year-old Mary Channing was convicted of poisoning her husband and became the last woman to be burned at the stake in Dorset. Despite her impressive attempts to defend herself, the jury had taken only half an hour to find her guilty. Yet on the pronouncement of the death sentence, Mary ‘pleaded her belly’ and thus postponed her execution until after she had given birth to her child in gaol. Once the sentence had been reinstated, however, her botched burning was witnessed by a crowd of 10,000 spectators.
While Mary has been granted a kind of grim celebrity, as well as an established place in the annals of female murderers, a measure of compelling sympathy for her case is nonetheless another lasting aspect of her legacy. Her fate still holds a macabre fascination, as it did for Thomas Hardy, who recorded some of the grislier details of her demise in his notebooks; her story also the inspiration for his poem ‘The Mock Wife’.
Summer’s latest book, published October 2018, is The First Forensic Hanging – The Toxic Truth That Killed Mary Blandy
‘For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.’ This was the last request of modest murderess Mary Blandy, who was hanged for the poisoning of her father in 1752. Concerned that the young men amongst the crowd who had thronged to see her execution might look up her skirts as she was ‘turned off’ by the hangman, this last nod to propriety might appear farcical in one who was about to meet her maker. Yet this was just another aspect of a case which attracted so much public attention in its day that some determined spectators even went to the lengths of climbing through the courtroom windows to get a glimpse of Mary while on trial. Indeed her case remained newsworthy for the best part of 1752, for months garnering endless scrutiny and mixed reaction in the popular press.
Opinions are certainly still divided on the matter of Mary’s ‘intention’ in the poisoning of her father, and the extent to which her coercive lover, Captain William Cranstoun, was responsible for this murder by proxy. Yet Mary Blandy’s trial was also notable in that it was the first time that detailed medical evidence had been presented in a court of law on a charge of murder by poisoning, and the first time that any court had accepted toxicological evidence in an arsenic poisoning case. The forensic legacy of the acceptance of Dr Anthony Addington’s application of chemistry to a criminal investigation another compelling aspect of The First Forensic Hanging.
As this is Summer’s third book in a series of biographical accounts of 18th-century female poisoners published by Pen & Sword, it has to be said that her fascination with the subject means that guests don’t necessarily dine happily at her table!
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