When in 1665 the Great Plague came to the city, the people of York were understandably terrified. When a small girl fell ill, the locals – fearing an outbreak – locked her in a house rather than nursing her. After a few dreadful days without food or water she died, but as it turned out she didn’t have the plague after all. Rumour has it that her tear stained face can be seen at the window of ‘The Plague House’ in Minster Yard.
2. The Shadow of Clifford’s Tower
In 1190, anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise across England. An accidental house fire was the pretext for a local mob to attack the home of a Jewish family in York. Fearing the worst, the Jewish community sought safety within York Castle taking refuge in what is now Clifford’s Tower – it was then a wooden tower.
With the keep besieged and surrounded, the local rabbi proposed collective suicide to avoid being killed by the massed mob outside. The keep was set on fire – so the bodies couldn’t be mutilated – then the trapped men killed their wives and children before killing themselves. Those few Jews who surrendered – promising to convert to Christianity – were massacred by the waiting mob.
3. The Yorkshire Witch
Although the story of Dirk Turpin is more well-known, the most famous female hanging in York was that of Mary Bateman – or ‘The Yorkshire Witch’ – in 1809. Bateman, a criminal since childhood, had made a fraudulent living in later years by claiming to be possessed of supernatural powers.
A couple she was in the process of duping became suspicious so she attempted to poison them – and succeeded in killing the wife. She was hanged by William ‘Mutton’ Curry – who had himself once been sentenced to hang for sheep rustling – and after her death her body was displayed in public. Thousands paid to view it – with the proceeds going to charity – and somewhat bizarrely strips of her skin were sold as lucky charms.
4. Upon Micklegate Bar
It had long been a tradition for the heads of traitors to be displayed atop of spikes along Micklegate Bar. The last recorded episode coincided with the last major attempt to unseat a sitting British monarch by force. 22 Jacobite rebels – supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty – were executed in the city.
The punishment for treason by men was to be hung, drawn and quartered (the punishment for women was to be burnt at the stake – apparently for the sake of decency). The process consisted of being dragged by a horse to the gallows, hung in the normal way but without the drop (to prevent the neck being broken) and then finally being cut down to be disembowled and mutilated.
The heads were then sent on a tour of the country but York was allowed to keep two, which were put on display in the time honoured style. It was commonly believed that you needed to be buried with your skull and two large bones in order to get into heaven. So the severed heads served not only as a warning to the people of York, they also guaranteed eternal damnation.
5. The Grim End of Margaret Clitherow
Margaret Clitherow was caught hiding Catholic priests, which in sixteenth century York was a serious offence. In court she refused to enter a plea fearing that if she were to say ‘not-guilty’ the judges would force her children to betray her. She was sentenced to be ‘pressed’ – a particularly grisly method of justice.
Taken to the toll booth on Ouse Bridge, the door of her own house was laid on her and then huge stones were heaped upon it. Although under the rocks for 6 hours, she was dead within 15 minutes. Her body was buried in waste ground but friends recovered it and gave her a proper burial in an unknown location. In the process, however, her hand was removed and it can be found today in the chapel of the Bar Convent (there is also a shrine dedicated to her on The Shambles).
All these stories and more can be found in Horrible Histories – Gruesome Guides: York