Mary Channel: Where Her Wit Failed Her

     On an unspecified day in April 1703, in a small town close to Dorchester, Mary Channel was sentenced to being burned on the stake at the age of eighteen for poisoning her husband, who she detested, and was forced to marry because of her parents. This unfortunate tale began with Mary, who was born into a wealthy family and by a young age, had such an accelerated progress in her learning that she was outsmarting her teachers. She was also described as very polite, beautiful, charming and majestic; carrying herself in a way that made her appear sophisticated and was well liked by all around her. Also at a young age, she had many suitors lined up, all wanting so badly to have her hand in marriage. Amongst one of those men was Mr. Channel, his first name is not mentioned, who was a wealthy grocer from Dorchester. Mary immediately did not like him, saying he was ill proportioned. She detested him. Mary’s family liked Mr. Channel, therefore they made the decision that he would be the one she would marry. Mary, however, did not want anything to do with him and said he was not good enough for her. Her parents pressed her constantly until she finally agreed to have a speedy marriage. Mary and Mr. Channel get married, and then Mary completely focuses how to get rid of her husband and set herself free of her marriage. She conjures up a plan by asking the maid to go to the store to get her some white mercury, claiming it was for a rat problem. When she maid brings her the white mercury, she excitedly cooks a meal for her husband and puts the poison in. When he eats it, he claims it tasted funny, so he asked Mary’s brother, who was staying with them at the time, to try it. Mary told her brother not to try it, which stirred some suspicion in the room. When Mr. Channel asked the maid to taste it, Mary grabbed it from the maids hands and soon after, Mr. Channel began to swell, and died before he could get any assistance by a doctor. It was evident then that Mary had poisoned him, yet despite this she denied it entirely, but with so much evidence laid against her, she was committed to Dorchester jail. Mary pleaded her innocence and really captivated the judges and all the people who heard of her trial. However, with the outstanding evidence and her deceased husbands friends being people of high status, her testimony did nothing, and was sentenced to be burnt on the stake until death. Some of her last words included her belief in Christ, and her holding her parents responsible for her coming to such a terrible fate.

The story of Mary Channel is one that is very interesting and, also quite sad. Although her case is indeed lawful, it is unfortunate that she had to come to that fate. I felt like this trial allows the reader to see the negative side to arranged marriages, and the lengths that some women went to get out of those marriages. It also ties in well with the gender roles within that society, and demonstrates how helpless women were, despite their own achievements. I also feel like this trial allows the reader to see the benefits and the dangers of a liberal education, and many ways it can be of advantage and disadvantage. My argument is that Mary’s parents should not have forced a marriage upon her that she did not want to be in. Her parents knew she was a very well developed girl and exceeded all expectations of an average eighteen year old by her being so intelligent for her age. Her parents’ biggest mistake was exposing Mary to a liberal education, where she was exposed to stepping outside of traditional methods and to think for herself as a woman, yet she was bound to the traditional way by her parents choosing her spouse, and urging her to marry him until she said yes.  As the story continues the reader sees how desperate she seemed to be, by conjuring up a plan to kill her husband. I believe at this point in the story, Mary, despite her wit and intelligence, is acting irrationally by thinking of whatever she can to rid herself of her marriage, also by poisoning him in front of company. Although she did not want everyone at the table to be poisoned when Mr. Channel complained of it tasting strange, she made it obvious that there was something wrong with his food. When Mr. Channel started to swell up, they immediately knew she had something to do with his death. As horrible as this sounds, I would have thought someone of her level of intelligence would think of a better way to kill her husband. As a result to this, the reader then sees how again, her wit fails her because she failed to think of the details that emerged with murdering her husband. It did not matter what she said, her fate was already decided by the judges, despite her convincing pleads of innocence. She was careless in her operation, but I really do not think she would have done it had she not been forced to marry a man she did not love, as her final words have stated.

Had Mary went to a traditional school, she may have gotten lessons on how to run a household. Had she gone to a school like this, maybe she would have eased into more of a traditional arranged marriage, but because of her exposure to a liberal education, she knew better, and went to extreme measures to somehow free herself from her marriage. I can sympathize with her to a certain extent, but clearly it is not right to murder someone. My belief is that if she knew that she was going to be this unhappy, she just should have said no to her parents. She should have put her liberal views to good use and stood her ground and dealt with the consequences with her parents afterward. She could have stepped outside the bounds of her parents’ wishes but instead was the one who chose her fate. I cannot help but think if Mary was living in the twenty-first century, how much opportunity she would have had, and how much she would have succeeded. I believe she said yes to her parents because she was in fear of disobeying them, and did not want to disappoint them in any way since she has been a success story most of her life. I mostly felt as if the responsibility for this crime was indeed left with her parents. It was unwise of them to ask their daughter to marry someone she did not like, because it was responsible for her downfall, ultimately because she wanted to make her parents happy.

Although I could not find any other information about Mary Channel, her story was fascinating to me because it showed a sad story of a young girl who despite her intelligence, took on a lot as an eighteen year old girl, and she ultimately chose her fate when she agreed to her parents insists to marry Mr. Channel. I also believe that she was not made to fall in love with someone that was chosen for her. I feel like she needed to fall in love with someone she wanted to fall in love with, not someone who came along, had money and won over her parents, which is where, I believe, most of her resentment towards her husband and parents came from, which could be why she felt like she had no other choice but to go through with this crime. This case really drives home the role of women in the eighteenth century. It is discouraging to think of how women were allowed to go to these liberal schools but were still expected to carry on a traditional way of life, and how no matter how able the woman may be, they still did not have a choice when it came to how she was going to live her life. It also shows the unhappiness, not only with Mary but so many other women who were forced into marriages they did not want to be in, and how desperate they could be to get out. As easy as it is for any woman living in London in 2012 to say that they have no problem saying no, but that really goes to contrast the differences between society in between then and now. In today’s society if a woman killed her husband she would also go to jail, and possibly get the death sentence depending on the location, and Mary was burnt on the stake, so the punishment for murder is something that somewhat remains the same. Although I do not agree with how Mary Channel went about taking the life of her husband to free herself, I feel like it was a very desperate attempt to regain her freedom and free will from her liberal education that she lost along with getting married.

All info came from this entry on The Newgate Calendar and Malefactor’s Bloody Register


2 comments on “Mary Channel: Where Her Wit Failed Her

  1. lalanapaul says:

    Great story! Just watch your passive and active voice in the retelling of the beginning parts. A couple spelling mistakes *When she maid, maybe meant to be *the maid. *burnt on the stake perhaps, *burnt at the stake? Other then those minor things, the trial is extremely engaging and heartfelt. It brings to light many of the issues with arranged marriages and the role of women in the 18th century. Loved it 🙂

  2. aagiddings says:

    Hello, I enjoyed reading your post. I found the section about Channel’s education especially interesting. You brought to light the fact that even if a woman had proved her intelligence by going through a university program, she would still not have been trusted when it came to making decisions about her own life.

    One section of your post that you might want to look at, is the part in which you talk about “traditional schools,” which you claim were places that Channel probably would have learned about sewing, cooking, cleaning, and caring for a family, had she gone to such an institution. I certainly don’t know everything about 18th century London, and perhaps there were such places, but I think that most of these skills would have been learned in the home, rather than at school.

    The only other minor thing that I would like to point out is that I felt that you downplayed the difficulty of escaping from an arranged marriage. You wrote that Channel should have just said no to her parents (you did say that you understood this was a difficult ordeal, but I still felt it was somewhat downplayed). Saying no to an arranged marriage is not usually just a matter of saying no. In the middle East if women refuse to go through with an arranged marriage, they are often ostracized by their family. Again, I am not certain that this was the case in 18th century England, but I think it may have been more difficult than simply saying no. I think if you emphasized the difficulty of escaping from an arranged marriage, you would have illuminated just how desperate Channel’s situation was. Anyways, that’s just a thought.

    Well, I’ll stop annoying you with my ramblings. Your post was a fun read and it illuminated some interesting facts about the life of women living in 18th century London.

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