By all accounts, Mary Eleanor Bowes should have had a happy life. She was born into one of the wealthiest families in England, as her father was the wealthy mine owner George Bowes. She was an only child, and she was much cherished by her parents. However, when her father unexpectedly died in 1760 when she was only 11 years old, her world was turned upside down.
She was now one of the richest heiresses in all of Britain. Her father had left her his entire fortune, but with one stipulation: his daughter could never take another man’s name. If she married, she would have to keep her maiden name or lose her fortune.
She married for the first time at age 18, to John Lyon, the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorn, and he took her name. The two were never in love, but they stayed together and had five children. Nine years after their marriage, Lyon died. This left Mary in a predicament, because she was pregnant due to an extramarital affair. Because her husband had been away from home for some time, it would not be hard for people to figure out the child was the result of an illicit affair. She needed another husband quickly.
Her lover, George Gray, had agreed to marry her, but a man named Andrew Robinson Stoney had other ideas.
Stoney, violent man with a history of domestic violence (he had severely abused his first wife) wormed his way into Mary’s social circle. He wanted her money and would stop at nothing to get it. When the handsome gold-digger failed to convince her to ditch her fiancé, he staged an elaborate ruse. First, he planted anonymous stories in the newspaper about her affair. Then, he challenged the paper’s editor to a duel.
The editor was in on the scheme, and so was a local doctor, who doused Stoney with animal blood to make him appear wounded. When Mary found him in this state, he said his only wish was to marry her. The doctor said he would die, so she agreed. Of course he lived, but Mary kept her promise.
She immediately regretted her decision. He controlled every aspect of her life, from the clothes she wore to the conversations she could have. He read all her mail, and even decided who her friends could be. Her own mother was not allowed to see her, and he forced the servants to act as spies and report on her every action.
But this was almost nothing compared to the physical abuse. He beat her constantly, even with heavy objects like candlesticks. When he found out she had transferred her wealth to her children, he beat her until she revoked the document and gave him control of her money. At this point, her first husband’s brother had the children removed from her home.
As the years went by, things only got worse, and there was nothing she could do about it. Divorce was nearly impossible to obtain, and men were given complete control over their wives. It was even legal to beat them.
But Mary’s treatment evoked the pity of several of her maids. Four of them helped her escape the house in disguise in the middle of the night. She filed legal proceedings for divorce as she hid from him in London, but Stoney found out where she was hiding and had her kidnapped.
For ten days she was held prisoner and tortured so badly she nearly died. She managed to be freed when a farmer turned Stoney in to the authorities. He was jailed for three years, and Mary won her divorce four years after she instigated the case.
Understandably, she never remarried and spent the rest of her life living quietly in the country. She died in 1800 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.