Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Canning, Elizabeth

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CANNING, ELIZABETH (1734–1773), malefactor, was born on 17 Sept. 1734. When she first attracted public notice, her father, who had been a sawyer, was dead, leaving behind him a widow and five children, of whom Elizabeth was the eldest. In December 1752 she was a domestic servant in the family of one Edward Lyon, a carpenter in Aldermanbury. Previous to this she had been two years in a neighbouring alehouse, and had borne a good character. On New-year's day 1753 she went to visit an uncle and aunt of the name of Colley, who lived at Saltpetre Bank, near Wellclose Square. They saw her on her way home about nine p.m. as far as Houndsditch, where they parted with her. As she did not return to her mother's or master's house, she was circumstantially advertised for as follows: ‘Lost, a girl about eighteen years of age, dressed in a purple masquerade stuff gown, a white handkerchief and apron, a black quilted petticoat, a green under coat, black shoes, blue stockings, a white shaving hat, with green ribbons, and had a very fresh colour. She was left on Monday last near Houndsditch, and has not been heard of since. Whoever informs Mrs. Cannons [Canning], a Scowrer [sawyer] at Aldermanbury Postern, concerning her shall be handsomely rewarded for their trouble’ (Daily Advertiser, 4 Jan. 1753). Rumours being circulated that she had been heard to shriek out of a hackney-coach in Bishopsgate Street, this advertisement was repeated on 6 Jan. with her name in full, and some additional particulars. Prayers were besides offered up for her ‘in churches, meeting-houses, and even at Mr. Westley's.’ Also that infallible eighteenth-century oracle, a fortune-teller or cunning-man, was consulted. All inquiries were, however, in vain, and it was not until Monday, 29 Jan. 1753, a little after ten at night, that Elizabeth Canning returned to her mother's house in Aldermanbury Postern. She had been absent four weeks, and she came back in a most miserable condition, ill, half-starved, and half-clad. Her story, as it gradually took shape under the questions of sympathising neighbours, amounted in brief to this: That after leaving her uncle and aunt on 1 Jan. she had been attacked in Moorfields by two men in great coats, who robbed her, partially stripped her, stunned her by a blow on the temple, and finally dragged her away to a house on the Hertfordshire road. Here an old woman, after fruitlessly soliciting her ‘to go their way’ (i.e. lead an immoral life), cut off her stays, and thrust her a few steps upstairs into a room, where she had been confined ever since, subsisting on bread and water and a mince pie that her first assailants had overlooked in her pocket. Ultimately, she said, she had escaped through the window, tearing her ear in doing so. The mention of the Hertfordshire road seems immediately to have attracted suspicion to one Susannah, or ‘Mother’ Wells, who kept an establishment of doubtful reputation at Enfield Wash; and when, two days after her return, Canning repeated her story to Alderman Chitty, a warrant was issued for the apprehension of Wells. On 1 Feb. Canning, her mother, and a group of friends, went with an officer to Wells's house. Canning, who was still very weak, was taken from room to room. She identified (with certain discrepancies) a loft as the one in which she had been placed, and passing by Mrs. Wells, she selected one Mary Squires, an old gipsy of surpassing ugliness (there is a portrait of her in the ‘Newgate Calendar’) as the person who had cut off her stays and thrust her upstairs. The gipsy promptly declared that at the time of the occurrence she was a hundred and twenty miles away at Abbotsbury in Dorsetshire. The whole Wells household, however, including Squires's son George, a young woman named Virtue Hall, and a married couple, rejoicing in the extraordinary names of Fortune and Judith Natus, were taken before a neighbouring justice, Mr. Teshmaker of Ford's Grove. Squires and Wells were committed for trial for assault and felony; the rest of the party were discharged.

This, it has been said, took place on 1 Feb. On the 6th Canning's case was handed by Mr. Salt, a solicitor, to Henry Fielding, the novelist, then a Bow Street magistrate, for his opinion. Fielding, after giving this, was persuaded into allowing Canning to swear an information before him, and also into examining Virtue Hall. Next day Canning was brought to him, and repeated, with some variations, the tale she had already told to Alderman Chitty. The result of this was that another warrant was issued against the rest of the Wells household, and Judith Natus and Virtue Hall were brought before Fielding. Virtue Hall, after much apparent prevarication and contradictory evidence, finally told a story closely resembling that of Canning. This, with the aid of Mr. Salt, the solicitor for the prosecution (!), was embodied in an information which she signed. The curious laxity which permitted these proceedings was commented upon at the time, and would be unintelligible now (Stephen, History of the Criminal Law of England, 1883, i. 423).

On 21 Feb. Squires and Wells were tried at the Old Bailey. Canning retold her tale; Hall corroborated it. Three witnesses, Gibbons, Clarke, and Greville, were called to prove an alibi for Squires; but they were contradicted by a fourth named Iniser, and, in her statement before receiving sentence, by Squires herself. Squires was condemned to death; Wells to be burned in the hand, a sentence which was executed forthwith, to the delight of the excited crowd in the Old Bailey sessions-house.

Then began a new phase in the story. The lord mayor, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, who had presided at the trial ex officio, was not satisfied with the verdict. He made further and searching inquiries. He found that other witnesses were ready to prove the alibi of Squires. Virtue Hall, moreover, upon re-examination recanted her evidence. A respite was consequently obtained for Squires, and her case was referred to the law officers of the crown. They reported that the weight of the evidence was in her favour, and the king thereupon granted her a free pardon.

Meanwhile Fielding had published his ‘Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning,’ which was immediately answered by Dr. Hill of ‘The Inspector’ in the ‘Story of Elizabeth Canning consider'd.’ Other pamphlets by authors less illustrious began to multiply rapidly. Portraits of Canning and Squires appeared in all the print-shops, and the caricaturists entered eagerly into the controversy. The fine gentlemen of White's chocolate-house made collections for the heroine of the hour, and the rabble attacked Sir Crisp Gascoyne in his coach. ‘The town was divided between the “Canningites” and “Egyptians,” or “Gipsyites,” and “Betty Canning,”’ says Churchill in the ‘Ghost,’

was at least,
With Gascoyne's help, a six months' feast.

Churchill might have extended the time still further, for it was not until 29 April 1754 that Canning was summoned again to the Old Bailey to take her trial for wilful and corrupt perjury. Her different and differing statements were carefully dissected by counsel, and (rather after date) evidence was now tendered by Fortune and Judith Natus, to the effect that they slept in the loft during the whole of the time that Canning was said to have been confined there. As regards the Squires alibi, thirty-eight witnesses swore that the gipsy had been seen in Dorsetshire; twenty-seven, on the other hand, as pertinaciously asserted that she had been in Middlesex. The trial lasted eight days. The bewildered jury first put in a squinting verdict—they found Canning ‘guilty of perjury, but not wilful and corrupt.’ This qualified deliverance the recorder refused to receive, and they then found her guilty with a recommendation to mercy, though subsequently two of their number made affidavits that the verdict was not according to their consciences. When, on 30 May 1754, she came up to receive judgment, eight members of the court, led by the humane Sir John Barnard, were for six months' imprisonment, while nine were for transportation for seven years. She was consequently transported in August, ‘at the request of her friends, to New England.’ According to the ‘Annual Register’ for 1761, p. 179, she came back to this country at the expiration of her sentence to receive a legacy of 500l., left to her three years before by an old lady of Newington Green. According to later accounts, however (Gent. Mag. xliii. 413), she never returned, but died 22 July 1773 at Weathersfield in Connecticut. In ‘Notes and Queries’ for 24 March 1855 it is further stated, upon the authority of contemporary American newspapers (which give the month of death as June), that she had married abroad, her husband's name being Treat. Caulfield, in his sketch of her (Remarkable Persons, iii. 148), says that Mr. Treat was ‘an opulent quaker,’ and adds that ‘for some time she [Canning] followed the occupation of a schoolmistress.’ But how from 1 Jan. 1753 to the 29th of that month she did really spend her time is a secret that has never to this day been divulged. ‘Notwithstanding the many strange circumstances of her story, none is so strange as that it should not be discovered in so many years where she had concealed herself during the time she had invariably declared she was at the house of Mother Wells’ (Gent. Mag. ut supra).

[A full account of the above case is to be found in Howell's State Trials, 1813, xix. 262–275, 285–691, and 1418. The Gent. Mag. for 1753 and 1754 also contains much information, and a plan (xxiii. 306–7) of Wells's house at Enfield. Cf. also Genuine and Impartial Memoirs of Elizabeth Canning, 1754; Caulfield's Remarkable Persons, 1820, iii. 108–48 (which includes a portrait); Paget's Paradoxes and Puzzles, 1874, pp. 317–36; and Notes and Queries, ut supra. There are also innumerable pamphlets in the case besides Fielding's and Hill's. Sir Crisp Gascoyne published an Enquiry into the Cases of Canning and Squires, 1754; Allan Ramsay, the painter, in a Letter from a Clergyman to a Nobleman, 1753, wrote ably on the subject, and a surgeon named Dodd issued a Physical Account. Many other tracts, however, such as Canning's Farthing Post, Canning's Magazine, and the like, are eagerly sought after by collectors.]

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