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Mary Arnold, the Female Monster (1843)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Former prostitute uses carnivorous beetles to blind her own infant child. Hopes to increase its value as a tool for begging, but wins only a prison sentence and transportation.

The Broadside
Penned by John Morgan for a Westminster print shop, the verse sheet is undated. We know from a rival broadside on the case that Mary was born in 1809, however, which suggests her trial must have come somewhere around 1840. The verses, which would have been written on the day the trial ended, are in the classic ballad form of alternating four-beat and three-beat lines. I've made a few small amendments to help the scansion, but these are very minor.

Mary put two meat-eating beetles in walnut shells and strapped them over her baby's eyes

The rival broadside - shown above - is illustrated with a stock woodcut of a courtroom scene, which also appears on the same company's sheet about an unconnected 1843 murder trial. Its use here is striking for its depiction of a figure in the dock with mutton-chop whiskers - presumably not a true likeness of Mary Arnold - and the very crowded public gallery. We know Mary's trial attracted a big crowd, so at least this last element is accurate.
Like many broadsides of its time, this one's illustration erases the background behind the dock or the gallows in order to draw the eye there.

The Ballad
Of all the tales was ever told,
I now will one impart,
That cannot fail to terror strike,
In every human heart,
The deeds of Mary Arnold, who
Does in a jail deplore,
Oh such a dreadful tale as this,
Was never told before.

This wretched woman's dreadful deed,
Does everyone afright,
With beetles placed in walnut shells,
She robbed her child of sight.

Now think you tender parents all,
What must this monster feel,
The heart within her breast must ten,
Times harder be than steel,
The dreadful crime she did commit,
Does all the world surprise,
Black beetles placed in walnut shells,
Bound round her infant's eyes.

The beetles in a walnut shell,
This monster she did place,
This dreadful deed, as we may read,
All history does disgrace,
The walnut shells and beetles with,
A bandage she bound tight,
Around her infant's tender eyes,
To take away its sight.

A lady saw this monster in,
The street while passing by,
And she was struck with terror for,
To hear the infant cry,
The infant's face she swore to see,
It filled her with surprise,
To see the fatal bandage tied,
Around the infant's eyes.

With speed she called an officer,
Oh shocking to relate,
Beheld the deed and took the wretch,
Before the magistrate,
He said that she must face a trial,
Which did the wretch displease,
And she is now transported ten,
Long years across the seas.

Is there another in the world,
Could plan such wicked deed?
No-one upon this Earth before,
Of such did ever see,
To take away her infant's sight,
'Tis horrible to tell,
To bind black beetles round its eyes,
Placed in walnut shells.

The Facts
We know from a second broadside on the case - this one from another Seven Dials printer called Paul - that Mary was born on October 10, 1809, to a poor farming family. She was the youngest of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters above her. They lived at Mount Gold Farm near somewhere called “Witen Wilfton”, which I've been unable to locate.
The Arnolds' children turned out to be a thoroughly bad lot. “Two of the boys, when not much more than 18 years of age, were transported,” Paul tells us. “One of them for poaching and the other for housebreaking. The girls also turned out very wild, and led a dissolute sort of life.” Mrs Arnold died when Mary was about 16, due to what Paul calls a broken heart caused by her children's misconduct.
Mary, we're told, was “a very fine and forward girl (who) was at the age of 14 as much a grown girl as some females are at 17 or 18”. A local land-owner's son called Jasper Ewell took a fancy to her and set about winning over both Mary and her father. “After these intrigues, various strategies at last accomplished his wicked and bad design,” Paul writes. “She at last became pregnant and gave with life a fine little boy, who we are glad to state died when very young. The poor old man now began to decay through the heap of troubles and at last death put an end to his life.”
Deserted by Ewell, and with no family left to support her, Mary turned to prostitution, and that's how she earned her living for the next four or five years. Eventually, she met a travelling pedlar, and they lived together until the November before the trial, when he died of consumption.
It's not clear when Mary had her second child, or who the father was. We don't even know if it was a boy or a girl. What we do know is that Mary was now “driven to the last pitch of poverty” and saw begging as her only hope. It's never stated outright why she decided to blind her child, but presumably she hoped to increase the sympathy it provoked in passing strangers, and hence persuade them to part with a little more cash. The same idea comes up in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, where Mumbai gangsters blind street kids with acid for exactly the same reason.
Mary's method was even more cruel. She took two carnivorous beetles, placed each one in half an empty walnut shell, and then bandaged the shells face-down across her infant child's eyes. Even in Victorian England, where the poor faced disease and violence every day, this caused a national shudder of both revulsion and horrified fascination.
“Fancy, my readers, which of you, a mother, could take black beetles, put them under walnut shells, and then bind them over the eyes so as to make them be continually eating away the eyesight?” Paul asks. “This remarkable trial caused a deal of excitement, and the court was crowded to excess. The indictment being read over to her, she pleaded not guilty, but the evidence being most conclusive, the jury without hesitation returned a verdict of guilty.”
Mary was sentenced to prison for 12 months, one week of every month to be spent in solitary confinement, and then transportation to Australia for ten years, where everyone assumed she'd die. Her child was sent to the blind asylum.

The two broadsides discussed here are the only accounts we have of Mary Arnold's crime, but they're both perfectly consistent with one another. As far as I know, the ballad's never been recorded.


The hear Doc Bowling & Sons sing The Monster, their own take on Mary Arnold's tale, please visit the Soundcloud page here.

Doc Bowling's also arranged Mary Arnold as a traditional blues, which he sings with his regular band The Blues Professors. To hear my field recording of them performing it at an April 2013 London gig, please click here.

* A Copy of Verses on Mary Arnold the Female Monster (J Morgan, Westminster)
* The Trial and Sentence of Mary Arnold (Paul, Seven Dials)

Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

Bonus songs

The Tyburn Jig

Corkery's Farewell

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here