Fenning, Elizabeth (DNB00)

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FENNING, ELIZABETH (1792–1815), criminal, the daughter of poor parents, was from the age of fourteen employed in various situations as a domestic servant. Towards the end of January 1815 she entered the service of Orlibar Turner of 68 Chancery Lane, London, a tradesman, in the capacity of cook. On 21 March following, Turner, his wife Charlotte, and his son Robert, while at dinner, all ate of some yeast dumplings prepared by Fenning and immediately became very sick, though the ill effect was not lasting. It was discovered that arsenic had been mixed with the materials of the dumplings, and suspicion alighting on Fenning she was summoned to Hatton Garden police-court, and was committed for trial. The case came on at the Old Bailey on 11 April 1815, when Fenning was charged with feloniously administering arsenic to the three Turners with intent to murder them. Very strong evidence was brought against the prisoner. It was conclusively proved that Fenning had asked and received leave to make the dumplings, and that she was alone in the kitchen during the whole time of their preparation; that the poison was neither in the flour nor in the milk; and that Fenning was acquainted with and had access to a drawer in her employer's office where arsenic was kept. Roger Gadsden, an apprentice of Turner, had eaten a piece of dumpling after dinner, though strongly advised by Fenning not to touch it, and was also taken ill. Fenning pleaded not guilty, and urged that she had herself eaten of the dumplings, a piece of testimony which was corroborated by Turner's mother, who said that she had been sent for, and on arrival had found the prisoner very sick. The prisoner, in asseverating her innocence, tried to show that Mrs. Turner had a spite against her. Five witnesses were called, who gave Fenning a character of respectability and good nature. The recorder's summing-up was strongly against the prisoner, and the jury finding her guilty she was sentenced to death. On hearing sentence pronounced she fell in a fit, and was moved insensible from the dock. Popular opinion was largely in favour of Fenning's innocence, and every effort was made by her friends and others to procure a remission of the sentence. On the day preceding that fixed for the execution a meeting was held at the home office to consider the case. Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary, was out of town, but the lord chancellor (Eldon), the recorder, and Mr. Becket were present, and after a minute investigation of the facts came to a decided conclusion that there was no reason for interfering. Lord Eldon summoned another meeting in the evening, and the same result was arrived at. Accordingly on the following morning, 26 June, Fenning was hanged, in company with two other malefactors, Oldfield and Adams. Intense public interest was excited, it being still very generally believed that Fenning was innocent, a belief which was strengthened by her emphatic declaration on the scaffold: ‘Before the just and almighty God, and by the faith of the holy sacrament I have taken, I am innocent of the offence with which I am charged.’ At her funeral, which took place five days later at St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury, the pall was carried by six girls dressed in white, and as many as ten thousand persons took part in the procession which was formed to the grave. The case of Elizabeth Fenning is remarkable as showing how powerful is a steady and consistent declaration of innocence on the part of a criminal to produce a general belief in it. Dr. Parr (see 'Parr' in Lowndes's Manual) and Dickens (Letters, iii. 240) believed in her innocence; but the evidence against her was very strong.

[Celebrated Trials, 1825, vi. 143; Ann. Reg. 1815; Times, March and April 1815.]

A. V.