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It is still one of the great legal controversies of the 18th century.
On January 1, 1753, an 18-year old girl named Elizabeth Canning disappeared from a country lane in what is now the heart of London. Canning, who worked as a maid in London, had been spending New Year’s Day with her aunt and uncle in Whitechapel and was walking back to London when she disappeared. After she failed to arrive in London, Canning's employer, John Wintlebury, contacted her mother who then raised the alarm. A volunteer search consisting of friends, family members and Wintlebury began investigating the disappearance. Since there was no organized police force in London at the time, it was up to the volunteers to knock on doors, distribute advertisements and flyers, and offer a reward for any information leading to her safe return.
While someone nearby had reported hearing a scream at the time of her disappearance, the search would peter out after several weeks. On January 29 however, Elizabeth Canning reappeared at her mother’s house in obvious distress. The normally neatly-dressed Canning appeared so bedraggled that her mother fainted on recognizing her daughter and seeing her condition. Along with bruises on her face and body and a bad cut near one ear, Canning was also half-starved and wearing only a petticoat and a bedgown. Neighbours and family members came to the house and immediately began questioning Elizabeth Canning about what happened.
They eventually managed to piece together a coherent story from Canning who was obviously traumatized by her experience. According to her, she had been walking along the country lane when she was attacked by two thugs near Bedlam Hospital. They robbed her of her money along with the nice dress she had been wearing. After striking her on the head, the thugs dragged her to a nearby large house while she was in a semi-conscious state. At the house, she was turned over to a group of women who then tried to force her into prostitution and locked her in a hayloft when she refused. She was left there for weeks with nothing but a loaf of bread, a pitcher of water, and the mince pie that she had been carrying. Canning eventually managed to escape but injured her ear in the process.
Though unable to identify the house in question, people hearing her story immediately suspected one particular house in the area that already had a sinister reputation. Not only was it filled with “gypsies”, derelicts and sneak thieves, but there were several “loose women” living there suspected of running a brothel. While Canning was far from certain based on the description of the house she was given, she eventually concluded that it was the right house.
After being given some time to recover, Elizabeth Canning was questioned by an Alderman who had doubts about her story but agreed to issue a warrant. Again due to the lack of a formal police force, the search was carried out by volunteers. To lend a semi-official status to the search, the Lord Mayor, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, supervised the search. Despite her frail condition, Elizabeth Canning was taken to the house as well to identify her abductors.
All of the residents of that house were arrested and arraigned a few days later. The Justice of the Peace in question, who happened to be the famous author Henry Fielding, signed the arrest warrants. The mistress of the house, Susannah Wells (who preferred to be known as “Mother Wells”) and a second woman, Mary Squires, were accused by Canning of stealing her corsets. Wells was also accused of “keeping a disorderly house” (another name for brothel). Since Squires was widely suspected of being a “gypsy” (though her exact ethnic origin was never clear), Canning’s accusation was considered proof enough and she was later went on trial for theft. Squires’ son, John, was also suspected of being one of the men who had abducted Canning in the first place though he managed to avoid arrest.
Despite the international publicity the case generated, Sir Crisp Gascoyne decided to investigate further. Elizabeth Canning’s description of the house had more than a few discrepancies, especially the room where she had supposedly been held. Mary Squires, for her part, produced witnesses who testified that she was in another town at the time of Canning’s alleged abduction. She also had a remarkable appearance, including an extremely large nose and an inflated lower lip, which Elizabeth Canning never mentioned.
Despite these discrepancies, Elizabeth Canning refused to recant her statement. This sparked a controversy that polarized English society. On one side were the Canningites, Elizabeth’s supporters, and on the other side were the “Egyptians” (based on the then-popular notion that gypsies came from Egypt). Pubs across the country became embroiled in fights over the case and large sums of money were raised on both sides, whether to defend or convict Mary Squires. It also became a celebrated cause in literary circles with Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and Voltaire each weighing in on the case. Things became so heated that the Lord Mayor himself was dragged from his coach and physically assaulted by a mob of Canning’s supporters.
After going on trial, Susannah Wells was publicly branded with the letter T on her thumb (T standing for theft) and sentenced to six months in prison. Mary Squires was sentenced to be hanged. Afterward, Elizabeth Canning was praised as a public hero and she was given a tidy sum of money courtesy of her supporters. Dissatisfied with the verdict, Sir Crisp Gascoyne reopened the investigation. After questioning one house resident whose testimony had been the most damaging against Mary Squires, Gascoyne managed to break down her story. He also questioned the witnesses who had provided the alibi for Squires.
Based on this investigation and his doubts about Elizabeth Canning’s story, he ordered her arrest for perjury and recommended that Mary Squires be released. Based on the reasonable doubt over the case, King George II granted a stay of execution for Mary Squires (and eventually a full pardon). All of this outraged the Canningites and some of them threw stones at the King’s coach.
It hardly ended there though. John Myles, the leader of the Canningites, arranged to have the men who had provided Mary Squires with an alibi charged with perjury. They were quickly found not guilty and released. To avoid arrest, Elizabeth Canning dropped out of sight and only turned herself in after a new Lord Mayor was installed. Her trial began in April, 1754, and went on for seven days with newspapers running pro- and con- editorials of the case. After a narrow vote, she was convicted of “Perjury, wilful and corrupt” and sentenced to one month in prison to be followed by her transportation to America for seven years.Canning’s defenders insisted that she had been telling the truth though her accusers suggested she had made the whole story up. The verdict also thoroughly ruined Crisp Gascoyne’s political career since much of the outrage was linked to his investigation. Still, being sent to America was not that much of a hardship for Canning since her supporters raised enough money to make her voyage comfortable. They also supplied her with money for a new start.
After arriving in Connecticut, she became part of the household of Reverend Elisha Williams. Technically an indentured servant, she was treated more like a member of the family. After Williams’ death in 1755, Canning married John Treat, a grandson of a former governor of Connecticut. They would have four children together before her death in 1773. She is buried somewhere in Wethersfield, Connecticut though the exact location of her grave has been lost to history.
Did Elizabeth Canning commit perjury? The case demonstrates many of the problems investigators face today when dealing with traumatized witnesses. Some later commentators on the case have suggested that Canning may have experienced a form of post-traumatic amnesia with many details she “recalled” afterward being implanted in her mind by overeager supporters. Modern investigators are specifically trained to avoid leading questions to avoid contaminating victim recall which may have happened in Elizabeth Canning’s case.
Whatever the actual facts of her disappearance, Elizabeth Canning’s case demonstrates the power that the media had, long before the invention of the Internet. Political careers were made and broken by newspaper editorials over the case. No real solution for what really happened in 1753 has ever been put forward and John Paget’s described the case as “in truth, perhaps, the most complete and most inexplicable Judicial Puzzle on record”.
And it still is today.
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