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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[UPDATE: FOR SOME LATE-BREAKING NEWS ON MARY ARNOLD, PLEASE SEE OUR OCTOBER 2010 LETTERS PAGE HERE.]
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)