A Leeds Folktale: “Poor Mary, the Maid of the Inn”

By Stephen Basdeo

In the 1780s a new generation of artists, poets, and novelists emerged. Disdaining the neo-classicism of times gone by which often celebrated the deeds of ‘great men’, they turned instead to more humble subjects in a bid to understand more about humanity and man in his ‘statue of nature’ and innerlichkeit (‘inwardness).[1] The Romantics also sought to understand the effect of extreme of mental states such as grief, anguish, despair, and despondency on the individual.[2]

Robert Southey

Young Robert Southey, in his poem ‘Mary, the Maid of Inn’ in 1796, sought to understand, and represent in poetry, the effect that the hanging of criminals had upon condemned felons’ families.

Published in Poems (1797),[3] and in many forms thereafter, ‘Mary the Maid of the Inn’ was based upon a long-standing local folk tale from the town of Leeds, West Yorkshire.[4] The poem tells the story of a good young woman named Mary, from Kirkstall, Leeds.

Although first published in Southey’s expensive poetry anthology, ‘Mary’ was soon reprinted in a variety of cheap forms including one penny chapbooks and broadside.

When the reader first meets Mary she is a ‘maniac’

Who is yonder poor Maniac, whose wildly-fix’d eyes

Seem a heart overcharged to express?

She weeps not, yet often and deeply she sighs;

She never complains, but her silence implies

The composure of settled distress.

No pity she looks for, no alms doth she seek;

Nor for raiment nor food doth she care:

Through her tatters the winds of the winter blow bleak

On that wither’d breast, and her weather-worn cheek

Hath the hue of a mortal despair.[5]

Mary is homeless; she does not seek charity but merely sits, listless, as the people pass her by and she is unfazed by the harsh weather. She is mentally ill but her illness remains undefined; from the classical period until the early nineteenth century ‘mania’ was a catch-all term which corresponds to modern diagnoses of bi-polar disorder and depression.[6] Eighteenth-century treatments of the mentally ill are usually—and sometimes with justification—caricatured as unnecessarily cruel, where the emphasis was upon effecting cures for the patient by ‘breaking their will’. It is well-known that Bedlam hospital, along with some other asylums in rural areas, used to charge visitors a shilling to enter and gawp at the ‘lunatics’.[7]

Brutal Georgian treatments of the mentally ill were ended in 1770.[8] More humanitarian modes of treatment began to prevail with the passage, in 1773, of the Madhouses Act which regulated all asylums in the country, with a team of inspectors set up to monitor the institutions, more humanitarian modes of treatment began to prevail and the worst abuses were put an end to.[9] The mentally ill were to become objects of pity to be treated humanely rather than as spectacles for morbid fascination, and Mary appears likewise an object of pity as Southey proceeds to tell the story of how she became a maniac.

Resurrection Men depicted in G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)

Mary was once a bar maid and two of her customers dare her to go walking through the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey on what is a dark evening to see the ghosts that allegedly haunt the place, and she jokingly consents. As she walks among the ruins she suddenly comes across a party of resurrection men—people who dug up corpses and sold them to doctors for medical science—digging up a freshly buried corpse.

Even more shocking is the fact that among the men is her fiancé, the ‘worthless’ Richard:

            Ere yet her pale lips could the story impart,

            For a moment the hat met her view;

            Her eyes from that object convulsively start,

            For what a cold horror then thrilled through her heart

            When the name of her Richard she knew![10]

Richard is eventually caught, hanged, and his body is left in a gibbet for all to see. The hanging of her fiancé shocks Mary and turns her into a ‘maniac’.

When speaking of criminals in popular culture the focus is, unsurprisingly, upon the criminal. But young Southey’s approach was innovative for its time, for wanted to explore the results of criminals’ actions, and their eventual hanging, upon the mental health of their family members who have done nothing wrong.

Kirsktall Abbey, Leeds during the 1700s

[1] Philip Shaw [online], ‘Landscape and the Sublime’, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, 15 May 2014, accessed 13 July 2020. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/.

[2] Judson S. Lyon, ‘Romantic Psychology and the Inner Senses: Coleridge’, PMLA, 81: 3 (1966), 246–60.

[3] Robert Southey, Poems, 3rd edn (Bristol: Biggs and Cottle, 1799), pp. 151–58.

[4] The History of Kirkstall Abbey, Near Leeds, Yorkshire: With an Historical Sketch of the Cistercian Order of Monks (Leeds: John Heaton, 1831), p. 29.

[5] Robert Southey, Mary, the Maid of the Inn (Glasgow: Poet’s Box, 1869), i.

[6] Lisa Hermsen, Manic Minds: Mania’s Mad History and Its Neuro-Future (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011), p. 2.

[7] Phil Barker, Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing: The Craft of Caring, 2nd edn (London: Hachette, 2009), pp. 21–22. Hogarth had satirized this practice in the 1730s, although sometimes the motivation behind asylum managers’ allowing visitors into the institution was the raising of funds for the patients’ upkeep and building maintenance.

[8] Andrew Scull, Charlotte MacKenzie and Nicholas Hervey, Masters of Bedlam: The Transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 283n.

[9] Clive Unsworth, Mental Disorder and the Tutelary Relationship: From Pre- to Post-Carceral Legal Order’, Journal of Law and Society, 18: 2 (1991), 254–278: With the passage, in 1773, of the Madhouses Act which regulated all asylums in the country, with a team of inspectors set up to monitor the institutions, more humanitarian modes of treatment began to prevail and the worst abuses were put an end to.

[10] Southey, Mary, the Maid of the Inn, p. i.

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