Two hundred and seventy years ago, Mary Blandy killed her father. We think.
We’re not actually sure, because, well, she was female and therefore people were so concerned about whether she cried in the courtroom they didn’t have time to examine evidence or consider anyone else as the possible killer. Facts have always been pesky nuisances compared to the ease and tranquility of gender stereotyping.
You probably don’t know who Mary Blandy was, because this is all she’s known for. The really fascinating element of her story is that, if she did kill her father, she was likely more pissed off about what happened AFTER the murder than she was about whatever allegedly drove her to do it.
In 1746, twenty-six year old Mary is in grave danger of becoming an old maid. Her father, Francis, an attorney worth a total of 4,000 pounds, offers 10,000 pounds to whoever will marry his daughter (you can smell the desperation, can’t you?). Suitors suddenly abound, but the only one with even the scantiest ties to nobility is William Cranstoun.
Several months into the courtship, the Blandys learn that Cranstoun is already married and his wife is pregnant. Mr. Blandy is so upset that Cranstoun, eager to keep his relationship with Mary, administers a powder to Mr. Blandy’s tea, causing Mr. Blandy to adopt a sudden congenial mood and accept Cranstoun back into his favor. When the “love potion” wears off, however, Cranstoun leaves the Blandy home with little hope of returning.
Now if you watch Sherlock or Castle or remember anything from The Bloodhound Gang on The Electric Company, you may be asking a couple of questions. Was the powder really only meant to make Mr. Blandy more friendly towards Cranstoun? If so, why didn’t Cranstoun bring barrels of it and just keep the friendship flowing? If not, what exactly was Cranstoun’s intent? Did Mary know about any of this? And what was Cranstoun’s overall game plan, anyway? Was he thinking they’d overlook his marriage and baby? Was he hoping to start a polygamy craze in England?
Some time later, Cranstoun mails Mary some Scottish pebbles, a popular gift of the time, along with some white powder for cleaning the pebbles. He instructs Mary to mix some of the powder into her father’s tea in order to make him agreeable, just as the mysterious powder had done nearly six months before. Mary obeys her love, but Francis Blandy becomes violently ill. Doctors determine the cause of death to be arsenic poisoning. Mary is sent to await trial at Oxford Castle (which sounds lovely but was actually a prison).
Once again, I imagine you have questions: What? Mary is taken to prison? On what evidence? What about Cranstoun’s role in all of this? And why oh why did she not kick Cranstoun to the curb the very moment she learned he was married?
Mary is found guilty of murdering her father and sentenced to be hanged. Often criticized for acting too “masculine” in the courtroom (she reportedly shed only a single tear), Mary admitted to giving her father the powder, but pled ignorant to knowledge of its poisonous effects. While the trial only lasted thirteen hours (including the five-minute deliberation by the jury, who didn’t even leave the courtroom), it caused a sensation. People snuck into the courtroom windows, and it was one of the first instances of court reporting (so if you are still re-watching footage from the O.J. trial, you probably have Mary Blandy to thank).
For six-pence, individuals could buy accounts of Mary’s case, her trial, and letters written by her while in prison. One of the most popular letters sold was one written to Mary by an unidentified clergyman, begging her to confess and repent. Mary’s response was reverent, emphasizing her religious beliefs and Cranstoun’s deception of her faithful heart. She’s kind of a sniveling mess, constantly bringing up gender as a factor for her innocence: “Think what power man has over our sex, when we truly love! And what woman, let her have what sense she will, can stand the arguments and persuasions men will make use of?” Blech.
Interestingly, Mary later revised this narrative, making it over five times its original length and significantly less emotional. She cut most of the exclamation points, and references her womanhood far less often: “Nor will this at all surprise the candid reader, if he will but dispassionately consider the whole case, and put himself in my place.” Much better.
This final version was finished on April 4, 1752, and Mary requested that it be published after her death. She was hanged on April 6.
Because of the sensation her trial had created, she knew that her words would be read, and that her potential audience included many women. Her role as the dutiful daughter, forever entangled in unlucky choices made by her parents and not allowed to direct the events of her own life, is the crux of her argument.
I believe that Mary wanted to represent herself before, or at least while, she was (mis)represented by men. She wanted to demonstrate for women readers that she took enough control of her life to wield the power of the pen, yielding to no male advice, no editors, and no proofreaders, before submitting her words to the public. It was too little, too late, clearly, but at least she showed some spirit eventually. She wrote on her own terms, with no apologies.
And, as you might have guessed, Cranstoun was never questioned about or accused of this crime. Which makes me think that Mary also wrote her story because she was pretty pissed off.