The Woman in Black Bombazine


Bombazine. Silk warp, worsted weft. A corded fabric, luxurious yet unyielding.

And when it is black, it does very well in those stern, rather chilling dresses those English used to use for mourning.

I have not been entirely honest with you in my relating of the story of Mary Blandy, whose first part lies here.  Mary administered the Captain’s love potion, which was in fact arsenic trioxide, in Francis Blandy’s porridge, and it killed him. But it was not the first time she had done so.

On two occasions previously she had dosed him up with “powders to clean Scotch pebbles” sent by her dashing lover, and on each occasion she had plenty of opportunity to see the grievous effects it had upon her father.

Even when Francis lay dying, he managed to tell his daughter this: that he forgave her. Perhaps, he schemed desperately, that itself might save her life.

Some records say that she was put under house arrest; but someone left the door open and she ‘went for a walk around Henley ‘ after her father had died.  But Francis had been a popular chap, and as mobs are wont to do, they gathered with a sense of outrage. And mobs were, and still are, dangerous things. On her return to Blandy House Mary clocked the crowd and turned tail away, down the hill, to the Angel Inn which still, to this day, perches on the bridge over the Thames. There the landlady was sympathetic, and sheltered her.

But three days later, they came to take her away.

She went to Oxford Gaol, a forbidding place with expressionless windows and a granite-grey facade. Her gaolers liked her immensely, and after the jury delivered a resounding guilty verdict they were desperate on her behalf.

But Mary Blandy seemed not ever to see the weight of what she had done, nor of the predicament she was in. She arrived home from her trial asking for a hearty supper. “Don’t mind it,”she told them: “What does it signify? I am very hungry; pray, let me have something for supper as speedily as possible.”

Some time passed between the verdict and execution day; purportedly because Mary had no-one to pass her wealth onto, and arrangements must be made to transfer them to a distant cousin.

On April 6th, 1752, Mary wore black bombazine. Her hands were tied with black ribbons. She was taken to a beam, set up between two trees. There were steps going up to the gallows, and Mary begged not to be hanged too high, lest folks might see up her skirts.

The woman in black bombazine seemed calm, they said.

Mary prayed, and then dropped her prayer book to signal the hangman to kick away the steps. She hung there for half an hour. A blackbird sang on the beam, but they say no blackbird has ever sung there since.

In July of that year an act was passed which stipulated all hanged criminals should be dissected afterwards. But Mary had timed her demise well. Her body was carried by six men back to the Gaol, and then taken from Oxford to the church at Henley, where she was buried in the church chancel, between her father and mother.

And you’d think, wouldn’t you, that that was the end?

Not a bit of it.

To be continued…..

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37 thoughts on “The Woman in Black Bombazine

    1. To be truthful, the story tells itself, Kathy. It’s powerful stuff which captivated England when it was happening, and for years afterwards.
      And in Henley I’m not sure she ever really left.

  1. I wonder if she really believed it was a “love potion”? Anyhoo, it’s an interesting story, Kate. Really kept me on the edge of my seat.

    1. In a way, Judy. He didn’t get what he had schemed for. But he didn’t pay the price she did: a scheduled, public and brutal death where she even had to worry that men would look up her skirts as she hanged. Nasty man, to lead her and leave her with that fate.

  2. It just gets sadder, Kate. I can’t help feeling sorry for Mary. She must have been so unhappy even before the Captain showed up, to actually want to kill her father.

    1. i agree: or different. I mentioned that I wondered whether she was autistic: it would explain her seeming inability to grasp her fate and to feel the weight of what she had done, and also the need for such a large dowry.
      We will never know, I suppose.

  3. When the mob came and got her and dragged her from the jail,
    They strung her from the old willow cross the way.
    And the moment before she died,
    She lifted up her lovely head and cried,
    Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.
    (with apologies to Cole Porter)

  4. More? Amazing story! At first I thought the decision to let Mary provide for her wealth was very civilized. But then to learn that dissection was a common practice following a hanging strikes me as shocking. I’ll be pondering that for awhile. Lead on, Kate.

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