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Cruel or Stupid? The Tale Of Mary Blandy

Cruel or Stupid? The Tale Of Mary Blandy

Estimated reading time: 30 minutes

Mary Blandy was in a tizz. At 2pm on Wednesday 14 August, her father, Francis Blandy died. The doctors suspected Arsenic, and she was the main suspect. Confined and guarded in her room, Mary paced up and down. Would they believe she had stupidly thought she was giving her father a love potion? Or would the world think she had cruelly fed him arsenic in a bid to poison him to secure her fortune and be with her lover?

Henley Bridge
Illustrated in William Cooke’s book

Mary Blandy’s childhood.

Francis Blandy was a gentleman and an attorney-at law who lived in Henley-upon-Thames in Oxfordshire England. On 15 July 1720 he and his wife, Mary Stephens, baptised their daughter Mary at Henley Parish Church. Blandy was well-known, acting as steward for many local families and served as town-clerk for many years. Legends about his wealth abounded.

Mary grew up in a house, now demolished, on the London Road close to Henley Bridge and near the White Hart Inn. Her mother educated her at home. Mary was intelligent, accomplished and had winning ways that charmed everyone she met. But, while her figure was fine, smallpox had ravaged her face. With a rumoured dowry of £10,000, many men approached her father’s door for her hand. But none were good enough. Even seasons in Bath and London failed to bring a marriage to fruition. With the average age of marriage of 26, Mary was fast approaching the status of an old maid.

Image of smallpox from the 18th century
Drawing of Smallpox

Meeting William Cranstoun

One of Mary’s father’s acquaintances was Lord Mark Kerr who lived at a place called The Paradise in Henley. He was well connected and uncle of Lady Jane Douglas, a rich heiress. One night, while dining at The Paradise, Mary met Captain, the Hon William Henry Cranstoun. His face was also pitted with smallpox.

Cranston was a First Lieutenant of Sir Andrew Agnew’s regiment of marines and had fought against the government for the Jacobites at Culloden. Now he was recruiting for the King’s army. Frances Blandy had turned away soldiers who were suitors before. But Cranstoun was the fifth son of a Scottish peer, and able to claim kinship with many Scottish nobles. As a fifth son, Cranstoun’s financial prospects were not great, and many thought he was attracted by Mary’s dowry and not Mary’s charms. Nevertheless, at their next meeting in 1747, Cranstoun declared his passion for Mary. Francis Blandy was pleased, boasting of Cranstoun’s noble connections. Here was a suitor who was worthy of Mary. He  invited Cranstoun into his home. All was going swimmingly, but there was a problem. Cranstoun was already married.

Miss Molly Blandy printed for B Dickinson - February 3 1752 - Etching Wellcome
Miss Molly Blandy printed for B Dickinson
February 3rd 1752
CC: Etching Wellcome

Cranstoun’s Relationship with Anne Murray, a Jacobite

On 22 May 1744, William Cranstoun married Anne Murray in Edinburgh in a secret ceremony. Her family were Jacobites and Roman Catholic, and so Protestant William did not advertise the marriage.  For some months, the couple lived together before she returned home. In letters, Cranstoun admitted she was his wife, but his own mother was suspicious. On 19 February 1745, Anne gave birth to a daughter. According to some sources, members of his family attended the baptism. Cranstoun however maintained that Anne was no more than his mistress, and that although he had promised to marry her, it was on the basis that she adopt his Presbyterian faith. When she did not so, the engagement came to an end.

Anne took action in the Scottish courts to have the marriage declared legal. Meanwhile in Oxford, Lord Mark Kerr picked up his quill and wrote to Frances Blandy, telling him that Mary Blandy’s paramour had a wife and child living in Scotland.

Mary Blandy would be Ruined

Mary’s father met with Cranstoun, demanding to know the truth. Cranstoun said that Anne Murray had wilfully misrepresented the situation, and the proceedings in the Scottish court were a form of blackmail. Lord Mark had only intervened because of an old quarrel.  Cranstoun was confident the Scottish legal action would go in favour.

At first, Mary’s mother believed “poor Polly was ruined,” but her daughter loved Cranstoun. Mrs Blandy was only too willing to accept Cranstoun’s explanations. After all, Mrs. Blandy had a soft spot for Cranstoun. When, on a trip to London with Mary, Mrs Blandy fell ill, she asked for Cranstoun. According to Mary, her mother’s spirits revived when Cranstoun arrived. They returned to Henley with Cranstoun, who spent six months at their home. While there, Mr. Blandy received a letter from Anne Murray. She enclosed a copy of the decision of the Commissary Court in Edinburgh dated 1 March 1748. The court decreed William and Anne were man and wife. In the meantime, Cranstoun’s financial situation worsened and the court ordered he was to support Anne and his daughter.

A Secret Marriage?

Cranstoun convinced the Blandys that the decision would be overturned on appeal, and set off to London to sort out his affairs. Mary’s mother was ill, and so she and Mary visited London for medical advice. There, they stayed with Mary’s uncle. But any hopes of entertaining Cranstoun at her uncle’s house were dashed. Her uncle refused point blank to let Cranstoun into his house. So, arrangements were made with a Mrs. Pococ,k for Mary and Cranstoun to meet at her lodgings in St. James Square.

At this time, either William or Mary suggest a “secret marriage” in accordance with the customs of the Church of England. Mary wanted legal advice as to whether such a marriage would be legal. They both later said that a marriage took place.

Death of Mary Blandy’s Mother

Mary and her mother returned to Henley. But in September 1749, Mrs. Blandy became ill. Mr. Norton, the local apothecary, and Dr. Addington attended her, but to no avail. She died on 20 September 1749 with her family at her side. Although she died of intestinal inflammation, many later believed that Mary poisoned her mother.

Cranstoun visited Henley, but soon Mary started to complain about unkind comments her father made about her lover. Disappointment set in, and Mr. Blandy was no longer for the match. Sometime on that visit, Cranstoun mentioned that he knew “the famous Mrs. Morgan,” “a cunning woman” in Scotland who made powders, which she called love powders.  Cranston, said if he had any of the powders, he “would put them into something Mr. Blandy would drink.” Maybe Mr. Blandy would then feel better disposed towards Cranstoun.

Love Powders

Cranstoun returned to Henley in August 1750. But, his relationship with Mr. Blandy was going downhill rapidly. He had not resolved the Scottish marriage. Tensions must have been high for Mary “seldom rose from the table without tears.” Her father spent his evenings at the coffee-house to avoid his guest. Luckily Cranstoun had bought some love powders with him.

Love Powders were nothing new. Old recipes list ingredients such as herbs, mandrake root, honey or henbane. If you were at the Golden Ball in Stone Cutters Street in the Fleet market in London, you could buy Mr. Delore’s famous love powder or love-drops for Five Shillings a bottle. But did anyone believe they worked? One morning to prove the magic powders worked, Cranstoun poured some into Mr. Blandy’s cup of tea. And there was a miraculous change in Blandy’s attitude to Cranstoun. The powder seemed to be working.

Filtre d'Amour - Love Potion
Filtre d’Amour – Love Potion

Strange Going-Ons

Cranstoun stayed in Henley until November 1750. During his stay, strange things began to happen. Mary began to hear unearthly music. Was it Scotch music, a harbringer of doom? There were rappings, rustlings, banging of doors, footfalls on the stairs, and other eerie sounds. One night, in the middle of the night, Mr Blandy’s wraith “with his white stockings, his coat on, and a cap on his head” visited Cranstoun in his room. Such goings on boded no good for Mr. Blandy. According to Cranstoun, the cunning Mrs. Morgan would say they were the messengers of death. Mr Blandy would be dead within a year.

The Scottish Peebles and Superstitions

Of course, many pooh-poohed these superstitions, but from then, Mr. Blandy’s health seemed to decline. He was 62, suffered from gout, colic and heartburn. His teeth began to fall out. He told Mary that Cranstoun could not show his face again at the house until his matrimonial difficulties were quite decided. What he did not know, was that Cranstouns’ appeal in Scotland had been dismissed. While his wife lived, Mary and Cranstoun could not marry.

In April 1751, Mary received a letter from Cranstoun, telling her he had seen Mrs. Morgan again and would be sending her some powder and “Scotch peebles.” Ornaments of Scotch peebles were all the rage that year. There is some dispute as to whether the presents arrived in April or June, but Cranstoun ordered Mary to mix the powder in tea. Mary was worried it might impair her father’s health and doubted the powders would work, but gave the love powders a try.

Mr. Blandy gets sick

In June, Francis Blandy was frequently sick. He always had his tea in a separate dish to the rest of the household. But one morning, his servant, Susan Gunnell, drank the tea he had left. She said she was violently ill for three days. Another day, a charwoman, Ann Emmett, who often worked at the house, drank his leftover tea, and became so ill she almost died. When Mary heard Emmett was ill, she sent white wine, whey and broth to her. These were known cures for arsenic poisoning. Was Mary being kind to a dear friend, or was she covering her back?

Mary wrote to Cranstoun that the powders weren’t working. The meaning is cryptic. Were they not making her father love Cranstoun more, or was there some other deadly deed, they were failing to perform? Cranstoun wrote back, telling her to add the powders to anything where they would not float on the top. He is also supposed to have written that his mother, Lady Cranstoun, was readying an apartment for her at Lennel House in Berwickshire, his fmaily home. Was this in anticipation that the love powders would work, Blandy would come round and let Mary marry Cranstoun? Or was it because they knew the powders were killing Mr. Blandy and Mary would soon be free to travel to Scotland to live with Lady Cranstoun?

Miss Mary Blandy 1751, Engraving of two ladies sat having a cup of tea by the fire
Miss Mary Blandy
1751 Engraving
Source: Look and Learn, Peter Jackson

The Gruel

On Sunday 4th August, Mary asked Susan Gunnell to make some gruel. The following day maids watched Mary stir the gruel, and then rub some between her fingers. On Monday evening, Susan Gunnell carried a half pint mug of gruel to her master to take before he went to bed. Blandy started vomiting, purging and was in violent pain. Mr. Norton the apothecary came on Tuesday morning. Mary told him her father had only eaten peas. That afternoon, Mary asked another servant, Elizabeth (Betty) Binfield is she would come with Mary to Scotland if anything happened.  

On Tuesday night, Gunnell warmed the gruel. Mary carried more to her father in the parlour. Gunnell helped him to bed, when he immediately started retching. Gunnell later emptied the basin of his vomit.

Wednesday morning dawned and Betty Binfield bought downstairs the remains of her master’s gruel. Ann Emmett, working in the house again, helped herself to the left-overs. She was violently ill with the same symptoms as Mr. Blandy. Susan Gunnell meanwhile thought they should make a fresh batch of gruel, but Mary discouraged her. The current batch was fine. Susan Gunnell, an older woman, became to wonder if something was up with the gruel.

The Maids’ Suspicions

By now the maids were suspicious. Susan examined the pan, and found a white gritty settlement at the bottom. They would have known that arsenic was white and gritty, as arsenic was a common rat poison. They locked the pan in a closet. Next day, Susan Gunnell took the pan to a neighbour, Mrs. Mounteney, who called for the apothecary. Mr. Norton took the pan away to test the contents.

The following day Mary’s uncle, the Reverend Mr. Stevens of Fawley, arrived. Susan confided her suspicions that Mary was poisoning her father. The good Reverend told her to tell her Master. Susan slept on the advice, and on Saturday morning, told Mr. Blandy. He was shocked, but then asked where Mary could have got the poison. Susan suggested Cranston. “”Oh, that villain!” cried Blandy, realising in a flash the horrid plot of which he was the victim, “that ever he came to my house! I remember he mentioned a particular poison that they had in their country.””

Susan advised him to seize Mary’s letters, but Blandy would have none of it, but he did ask Susan to secure any powder she could find.

Mr. Blandy Confronts Mary Blandy

Mary Blandy

Mr. Blandy went down to breakfast with his clerk, Robert Littleton, and Mary. Mary handed her father a cup of tea. “He tasted it, and, fixing his eyes upon her, remarked that it had a bad, gritty taste, and asked if she had put anything into it. The girl trembled and changed countenance.” When he finished his breakfast, Mr. Blandy went into the kitchen to shave and said “It is my fortune to be poisoned at last,” looking very hard at his daughter.

Mary left the room, went up to her room, retrieved some letters and powder and threw them onto the kitchen fire. Was she destroying evidence that could be used against her, or against Mr. Cranstoun? Was she protecting his honour, or trying to save her neck? But her attempts did not succeed. The maids rescued what they could, including a packet which said “the powder to clean the pebbles with.”

Dr. Addington comes to call

As Mr. Blandy became more ill, Mary asked the apothecary to bring Dr. Addington from Reading. Addington was an eminent physician and had treated her mother. Dr. Addington arrived at midnight. His patient was in bed, but told Addington that after drinking the gruel on Monday night, he had “an extraordinary grittiness in his mouth, attended with a very painful burning and pricking in his tongue, throat, stomach, and bowels, and with sickness and gripings, which symptoms had been relieved by fits of vomiting and purging.” After he drank the gruel on Tuesday, Blandy had the same and worse symptoms. His belly swelled, and his body felt as if an infinite number of needles were darting into him at once.

Addington examined Blandy and found that his tongue was swollen, his throat inflamed, his lips dry with angry pimples. His eyes were bloodshot, his pulse low and his complexion yellowish. Together the symptoms suggested to Addington that Mr. Blandy was being poisoned.

Addington gathers Evidence

Dr. Addington asked Mary if her father had any enemies. Mary said none. Addington stayed a day. As he was about to leave, one of the maids pressed into his hands, the paper on which was written “powder to clean the peebles with.” He opened the half-burnt paper carefully. Inside was a white powder. It tasted of arsenic.

The apothecary, Mr. Norton then gave him some of the powder from the pan. Addington tested this immediately on a red-hot poker flame and again later at his leisure, but suspected it was arsenic poison. As he left the house, Dr. Addington warned Mary, that if her father should die, she would be ruined.

Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British, The Doctor’s Consultation, 1815-1820, Watercolor with pen and brown ink, over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.87

Over the next days, Addington questioned Mr. Blandy, Did he know he was being fed poison? Did he know by who?  “The tears stood in his eyes, yet he forced a smile, and said—”A poor love-sick girl—I forgive her—I always thought there was mischief in those cursed Scotch pebbles.”

Mary Raises more suspicions

Mary wanted to warn Cransoun, who was still at Lennel House in Berwickshire. She signed and sealed the letter. As was normal, she gave the letter to her father’s clerk Littleton to post. But out of her sight, Littleton, broke the seal. Upstairs, he read the letter to Mr. Blandy. He said very little but smiled,” Poor love-sick girl! What won’t a girl do for a man she loves?'”

Dr Addington questioned Mary about the poison. Did she really believe in the childish business of the “love philtre?” Why if it was innoxious, did Cranstoun describe the powder “as something to clean pebbles with?” Why had she not called the doctors earlier? None of her answers satisfied him.

The doctors now confined Mary to her chamber and set a guard. They took her keys, papers, and anything with which she could hurt herself or anyone else, including her stockings, buckles and garters. She protested that she did not know the powders were poison until she saw their effects, but no-one was listening.

A Father Forgives

All in the house now refused Mary access to the sickroom, but her father on Monday morning, said he was ready to forgive Mary, if she would but endeavour to bring that villain to justice. Mary went into her father’s room. He told her that her letter to Cranstoun had been intercepted and the magic powder found. She fell to her knees, and begged his forgiveness, which her father gave. Mary admitted putting the poison in the gruel, but not the tea, but not to harm him. She thought it was a love powder. Her father turned in his bed, and said to her “Oh, such a villain! come to my house, ate of the best, and drank of the best that my house could afford, to take away my life and ruin my daughter.”

She begged her father not to curse her, and he gently replied “I curse thee! my dear, how could’st thou think I could curse thee? No, I bless thee, and hope God will bless thee and amend thy life. Do, my dear, go out of my room, say no more, lest thou should’st say anything to thy own prejudice; go to thy uncle Stevens, take him for thy friend; poor man! I am sorry for him.”

That was the last time Mary Blandy saw her father.

Mr. Blandy’s Horrendous Death

Francis Blandy weakened on Tuesday. His countenance, pulse, breath and power of swallowing were extremely bad. His cold and clammy hands trembled. he slipped in and out of delirium and his face “was ghastly”. He was in great pain. On the morning of Wednesday 14th August 1751, he recovered his senses for an hour or more, and then died around 2pm.

Forensic Evidence.

Forensic evidence was in its infancy, but with the seriousness of the suspected crime. Dr. Addington set out to find the proof that Mr. Blandy died from poisoning. The Coroner opened his enquiry at his home, the following afternoon. Addington and the other medical witnesses, Dr. Lewis, the apothecary Mr. Norton and a surgeon, Edward Nicholas, performed an autopsy. Addington observed a Livid Back, Loose fat, Muscles pale and flaccid, cawl yellower than is natural … heart variegated with purple spots, lungs blotted most with black ink. Liver and spleen much discoloured. Gall stone. Stomach, bowels, duedenum, pericardium, all were inspected, and Addington recorded his observations in detail. Drs. Addington and Lewis presented their findings to the coroner. In their real opinion the cause of Mr. Blandy’s death was poison.

The coroner also took statements from the servants. He concluded that Francis Blandy was poisoned, and that Mary Blandy “did poison and murder him.”

Further ForensicTests

Addington took the white sediment to Mr. King a chemist in Reading to test. King concluded it was white arsenic. Addington himself tested the arsenic. When thrown on a red-hot iron the powder did not flame, but rose entirely in thick white fumes, and smelt of garlic, just as arsenic does. he boiled and filtered the substance. and then he bought some known arsenic off Mr. Wilcock a druggist in Reading and carried out the same tests. The results were identical.


Killing a father was considered the most heinous of crimes. A father gave life and protected his children. Mr. Blandy had showered Mary with love, education and a good life. When the Coroner ruled that Mary had killed her father with poison, few would treat her with sympathy.

Mary’s Escape?

Meanwhile Mary was thinking of getting away. On the day before her father’s death, she asked her footman to go away with her immediately to France. He refused. She asked Betty Binfield if she would go to a local inn and hire a post-chaise and come away to London with her? Betty asked Mary if she was planning to go North or by sea? When Betty refused to help, Mary pretended she had been joking. After her father died, Mary paced up and down in her room, guarded by Ed Herne, the parish clerk.

Ed Herne was an old flame. On Thursday morning, he went off to dig a grave for Mr. Blandy. Left alone, Mary having “nothing on but a half-sack and petticoat without a hoop” ran out of the house, into the street over Henley Bridge, with a baying mob on her tail. Word that she had poisoned her father, was spreading. The landlady of the Angel, seeing trouble brewing, called to Mary and ushered her into the tavern.

Mary said she just wanted some air, but others believed she was trying to escape.

At the tavern, she spoke to a Mr and Mrs Lane and is said to have confessed that she was more to blame than Cranstoun as she gave the poison to her father and “knew the consequence.”

How Will It Go For Me?

A friend of Mr. Blandy’s took Mary home in a “close post chaise to preserve her from the resentment of the populace.” At home the sergeant and mace bearer were waiting. “How will it go for me?” Mary asked. “Very Hard,” they responded unless she could support her story, that she was an innocent dupe and had not known the powders were poison by producing Cranstoun’s letters. “I am afraid I have burnt some that would have brought him to justice. My honour to him will prove my ruin.”

Friday dawned. That evening Mr. Blandy was buried. At that time, women did not attend funerals. Only four mourners attended. During the day, the mayor issued a warrant for Mary’s arrest. On Saturday morning, she was taken to Oxford Castle. She took a maid and possessions for a lengthy stay, including her tea caddy.


At first, Mary’s imprisonment “was more like a retirement from the world than the confinement of a criminal.” She could walk in the keeper’s garden, drink tea, play cards. While in prison she learnt that her father could never had paid a £10,000 dowry. His whole fortune only amounted to £4,000. Meanwhile, in London the authorities heard of a plan to effect her escape. They ordered the jailer to take more care of her, and he obliged by rivetting double sets of irons around her ankles and stopping her walks in the garden. Her only visitor was now the Rev. John Swinton.

The Historic Trial

Mary’s trial was historic, not just because she was being tired for parracide by poison, but also because of how the trial was conducted.

Pamphlet - Tryal of Mary Blandy
Pamphlet – Tryal of Mary Blandy

In the eighteenth century there was no crown prosecution service. Normally prosecutions were initiated by the victim or a victim’s relatives. By in Mary’s case, none of her relatives want to prosecute her. Prosecutions were costly, and it seems the Town Council at Henley did not want the expense. But the “Noblemen and Gentlemen in the Neighbourhood of Henley” petitioned the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State asking that the government bear the costs of the prosecution. The Lord Chancellor Hardwicke advised that if there were sufficient grounds to proceed against Mary for her father’s murder, the prosecution should be carried out at the expense of the Crown. This upped the ante for a successful prosecution. Accordingly three lawyers were appointed to prosecute the case.

The government also discussed whether they should hold the trial quickly by way of a King’s Commission. They feared that two witnesses, who had also experienced the effects of poison, Susan Gunnell and the old charwoman may not survive the winter. But eventually, it was decided to hold the trial as part of the normal Assizes. Accordingly, the trial took place on 3 March 1752 during the Oxford Assizes, before two judges Heneage Legge, and Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe.

The trial was also unusual as Mary instructed three lawyers to defend her. Defense counsel were not common at this time.

The Trial

The Trial followed the set procedure. The grand jury met to review the evidence and decide if there was sufficient evidence that Mary poisoned her father. There was, so the trial could proceed. On the day of the trial, the jury was sworn in, and the prosecution opened its case. Carefully crafted, the prosecution case first called witnesses to the horrendous injuries and pain Mr. Blandy suffered, then called evidence to prove the substance was arsenic and the called witnesses to the events in the house. Professional doctors spoke before the servants. Mary’s defence team only attacked one witness. The evidence for arsenic poisoning was strong, but the evidence against Mary was circumstantial. She admitted she mixed the powders in the gruel but as a love potion, not as a poison. And murder required malice aforethought.

The Courtroom

Mary wrote that the Judges and all the gentlemen of the law treated her as a gentlewoman, but there was chaos in the courtroom. The crowd roared at each piece of evidence. The judge tried to sum up but the noise was so loud, nobody could hear his words. The judges cried for silence, and bid the crowd shame to let the jury hear. As the judge finished summing up the evidence, Mary and her counsel were hopeful. But the jury stayed in court. They did not move, took no time to consult and less than five minutes later, declared she was guilty.

The judge turned to her. “You are convicted of a crime so dreadful, so horrid in itself, that human nature shudders at it—the wilful murder of your own father! A father by all accounts the most fond, the most tender, the most indulgent that ever lived. That father with his dying breath forgave you. May your heavenly Father do so too! … Nothing now remains but to pronounce the sentence of the law upon you, which is, that you are to be carried to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God of His infinite mercy receive your soul.”

Would a Reprieve Arrive?

Mary spent the next few weeks in Oxford gaol. Each day, Reverend Swinton attended and prayed with her. She wrote letters, setting out her own account of the her relationship with Cranstoun and the events leading to her father’s death by poison. And she hoped. Hoped that a reprieve would come, or that the King would showhis mercy and pardon her. Behind the scenes, townsmen petitioned against her. Too many people thought the crime of poisoning her father with arsenic too heinous to receive any mercy. And Mary continued to hear music performed by invisible spirts. Was death coming after all?

A rumour circulated that the executioner would finish Mary’s life on Friday 3 April. Crowds gathered on the Castle Green. Mary watched from a window. The execution could not proceed until the Sheriff arrived. How long did she have? When Mary was told late Sunday evening that the Sheriff was now in town, she asked not to be disturbed. She spent the night in prayer, sleeping little. That night, the music she heard was more heavenly than ever before. At half past eight in the morning the Sheriff, her attorney and Rev. Swinton came to her door. There would be no reprieve.

Mary Blandy’s Execution

Mary Blandy was very calm on the day of her execution. She looked down from a window on the gallows, “made by laying a poll across upon the arms of two trees.” She observed it was very high. As she made her way to the gallows, opposite the door of the gaol, she wore a black crape sack. Black paduasoy ribbons tied her hands and arms. At the foot of the gallows, Rev Swinton read prayers. Then Mary addressed the spectators. Yet again she admitted administering the powder, but restated that she had no idea it was poison. With death upon her, and God’s tribunal awaiting, she did not waver from her story. She also denied that she had nothing to do with her mother’s death or that of Mrs. Pocock. Stating that she hoped for salvation in a future state, she mounted the ladder.

Five steps up, she paused “Gentlemen, do not hang me high, for the sake of decency.” But they urged her upwards. Two steps higher, she stopped, trembled and said “I am afraid I shall fall.” The hangman passed the halter around her neck. She pulled a handkerchief over her face. At no point, did she cry. She prayed and then held out a little book she had in her hands, her signal to the executioner.

A sketch of The execution of Miss Mary Blandy
A sketch of The execution of Miss Mary Blandy
CC: Wellcome


Approximately 5,000 people attended the execution. Many were in tears. Mary’s composure and strength broke them. Utmost decorum was maintained in the hanging, as Mary wished. After about half an hour, the Sheriff ordered that Mary be cut down. No-one claimed the body. No hearse or coffin was nearby. Instead, one of the Sheriff’s men carried her through the crowd “in the most beastly manner, with her legs exposed very indecently for several hundred yards.” The next morning, she was buried between her father and mother at Henley Church in the presence of a large crowd.

Mary’s Confession

Mary’s execution spawned many false accounts and confessions, and it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. They are riddled with bias. Some believe she meant to kill her father with poison, others that she was an innocent dupe. But there is one confession which stands out. After her trial but before her execution, Reverend Swinton wrote Mary’s confession, at her desire and with her approval. It paints a picture of an innocent, following the orders of Cranstoun, admitting to administering a powder, but never knowing it was a poison. When Cranstoun read the confession, he started to pray for Mary’s soul. He was sure she had gone to God telling the most fallacious of lies.


Cranstoun never stood trial for his role in the poisoning of Frances Blandy, and yet he supplied the arsenic. The government issued a warrant for his arrest. The Mayor of Henley had sent a messenger to Berwick to apprehend Cranstoun, but Cranstoun had already flown. Cranstoun was now in a bad way financially, as the War Office stopped his half pay. Friends helped Cranstoun escape to Bologne in France, where he hid. Mary’s relatives were on the warpath, hunting him down and threatening revenge. Cranstoun started to open up about his role in the affair. He was adamant. Mary was as much a part of the affair as he, and she well knew the effect of the powder. After her mother’s death, about 9 or 10 months before her father died, he said they had talked about how they could get her father out of the way. He admitted that he proposed the method, but said she readily accepted it.

Maybe Cranstoun began to hear music from invisible spirits, for he fell ill towards the end of November 1752. The apothecary and physician who attended him, thought he was “raving mad” and that his body swelled to such a degree, he would burst. He died on November 30 1752 in a room in the house of M. Maulset, at the sign of the Burgundy Cross in Furnes, Flanders. His portmanteau trunk was in his room. And in it, were letters from Mary. Could they help show if she was guilty or innocent.

Mary Blandy’s Letter

Cranstoun kept three of Mary’s letters. In the first, dated June 30 1751, Mary writes that the powders will not mix properly. “The old Woman that chars sometimes in the House, having drank a little Liquor in which I had put some is very bad: and I am conscious of the Affair being discovered… When you write, let it be as mystically as you please.” She also said she was in great distress of mind when she thinks of the Affair in Hand. Evidence that she knew it was poison?

Her second letter, dated July 16 1751, is more cryptic. There are references to polishing the Peebles, a confirmation she will let Cranstoun know quickly once she finds “the good Effects of the Scheme.” Her third letter, dated August 1, 1751, contains an admission. She is “going forward with all convenient speed in the Business,” and is “sometimes in the greatest Frights, there being constantly about me so many to be kept insensible of the Affair.” On balance, it looks as if she knew exactly what she was doing.

Jacobite Connection

Reading the different accounts, what struck me are the Jacobite references. Even Mary’s relatives are referred to as being in a “Scotch regiment in the French Service.” Five years before the trial, government forces crushed the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. Many escaped to France and served in the French Army. Sentiment against Jacobites still ran high in England in 1751. Cranstoun’s wife was the sister of Jacobite rebel, Sir David Murray who fought on Culloden Moor. Because of his young age, the government reprieved his death sentence as a rebel and transported him. She was also the niece of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Secretary, Mr. Murray of Broughton. Did the Jacobite connection help to condemn Mary? It definitely did not go unnoticed in the press.

Anti-Scottish Satire showing Cranston addressing Mary Blandy in her shroud, with her father beside her
Anti-Scottish Satire showing Cranston addressing Mary Blandy in her shroud, with her father beside her

Mary Bland’s Reputation Over the Ages

Today the same debate continues, as that which ranged during the end of her life. Was she a cruel heartless murderer, or was she as her father said, a poor lovesick girl? And even today, there are people on both sides of the fence. I tend to think she knew exactly what she was doing and that it was a poison, but …

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I have written this article largely based on the actual documents of her trial, and contemporaneous records as published in “Trial of Mary Blandy” edited by William Roughead in 1914.


When searching for information about Mary, beware of dates. In September 1752 Britain moved to the Julian Calendar. The calendar lost 11 days. I have used the modern day equivalents, but the dates will be different in records from 1751 and 1752.

Pamphlets (available as stated or through the US National Library of Medicine):


Tryal of Mary Blandy for the Murder of her Father at the Assizes held at Oxford on Saturday 29th February 1752

A Letter from a Clergyman to Mss Mary Blandy now a Prisoner in Oxford Castle with Her Answer thereo as also Miss Blandy’s own narrative of the crime for which she is condemned to die.

The Case of Miss Blandy and Miss Jeffreys fairly stated and compared.

Mis Mary Blandy”s Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun

Captain Cranstoun’s Account of the poisoning the later Mr. Francis Blandy.


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