The Prophet Hen of Leeds




“Christ is coming.”

Depending on the context, the above sentence can be anything from a benediction to a warning of impending Apocalypse. While often, the context makes the intended meaning clear, other times, it obfuscates the message. In Leeds, England, in 1806, the message was certainly clouded by the messenger.

The message appeared on the recently-laid eggs of a hen.

As retold in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, details of the eggs caused a “panic[ked] terror” in the area as a “great number of visitors” traveled to Leeds to visit this allegedly prophetic chicken. And when they arrived, the promise of a hen laying eggs bearing the Apocalyptic message was delivered upon.

But of course, the world did not end in 1806. The eggs weren’t the word of a harbinger of doom, redemption, or anything else — because the eggs weren’t truly a message from the unknown. What happened?

The owner of the hen, per Wikipedia, was a woman named Mary Bateman, more commonly known as the “Yorkshire Witch.” Bateman, a repeated fraudster who would end up dying in the gallows for murder, had used some sort of “corrosive ink” (acid, perhaps) to inscribe the quote on eggs — and then re-inserted the eggs into the hen, so that they could be laid again. Her ruse was discovered one morning when a visitor to the “prophetic” hen caught her in the act.

Bonus fact: What was Bateman’s capital crime? Also in 1806, she convinced a husband and wife, complaining of chest pains, that they were cursed. She further convinced them that the curse could only be lifted by consuming some enchanting pudding she had concocted. But Bateman had laced the pudding with poison, perhaps in an effort to keep her clients from naturally recovering from the chest pains. The wife ended up dying from the poisonous pudding (the husband didn’t like the pudding and stopped the “treatment” earlier).

From the ArchivesSeeing Red in the Hen House: It’s about murderous chickens wearing sunglasses.

Related: A book titled “Chicken of the Apocalypse,” proving that there’s a book about virtually every possible topic.