The Elizabeth Canning Mystery

It is still one of the great legal controversies of the 18thcentury. 

On January 1, 1753, an 18-year old girl named ElizabethCanning disappeared from a country lane in what is now the heart ofLondon.   Canning, who worked as a maidin London, had been spending New Year’s Day with her aunt and uncle inWhitechapel and was walking back to London 200px-Elizabeth_canning[1]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 inLondon at the time, it was up to the volunteers to knock on doors, distributeadvertisements and flyers, and offer a reward for any information leading toher safe return. 

While someone nearby had reported hearing a scream at thetime of her disappearance, the search would peter out after several weeks.   On January 29 however, Elizabeth Canningreappeared at her mother’s house in obvious distress.   The normally neatly-dressed Canning appearedso bedraggled that her mother fainted on recognizing her daughter and seeing her condition.  Along with bruises on her face and body and abad cut near one ear,  Canning was alsohalf-starved and wearing only a petticoat and a bedgown.   Neighbours and family members came to thehouse and immediately began questioning Elizabeth Canning about what happened.

They eventually managed to piece together a coherent storyfrom Canning who was obviously traumatized by her experience.  According to her,  she had been walkingalong the country lane when she was attacked by two thugs near BedlamHospital.   They robbed her of her moneyalong with the nice dress she had been wearing.   After striking her on the head, the thugs draggedher to a nearby large house while she was in a semi-conscious state.  At the house, she was turned over to a groupof women who then tried to force her into prostitution and locked herin a hayloft when she refused.   She was left there for weeks with nothing but a loaf ofbread, a pitcher of water, and the mince pie that she had been carrying. Canningeventually managed to escape but injured her ear in the process.

Though unable to identify the house in question, peoplehearing her story immediately suspected one particular house in the area thatalready had a sinister reputation.  Notonly was it filled with “gypsies”, derelicts and sneak thieves, but there wereseveral “loose women” living there suspected of running abrothel.   While Canning was far fromcertain based on the description of the house she was given, she eventually concludedthat it was the right house. 

After being given some time to recover, Elizabeth Canningwas questioned by an Alderman who had doubts about her story but agreed toissue a warrant.  Again due to the lackof 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, ElizabethCanning was taken to the house as well to identify her abductors. 

All of the residents of that house were arrested andarraigned a few days later.  The Justiceof the Peace in question, who happened to be the famous author Henry Fielding, signedthe arrest warrants.  The mistress of thehouse, Susannah Wells (who preferred to be known as “Mother Wells”) and asecond woman, Mary Squires, were accused by Canning of stealing hercorsets.   Wells was also accused of“keeping a disorderly house” (another name for brothel).   Since Squires was widely suspected of beinga “gypsy” (though her exact ethnic origin was never clear), Canning’saccusation was considered proof enough and she was later went on trial for theft.   Squires’ son, John, was also suspected ofbeing one of the men who had abducted Canning in the first place though hemanaged to avoid arrest.

Despite the international publicity the case generated, SirCrisp Gascoyne decided to investigate further. Elizabeth Canning’s description of the house had more than a fewdiscrepancies, especially the room where she had supposedly been held.  Mary Squires, for her part, producedwitnesses who testified that she was in another town at the time of Canning’salleged abduction.  She also had aremarkable appearance, including an extremely large nose and an inflated lowerlip, which Elizabeth Canning never mentioned. 

Despite these discrepancies, Elizabeth Canningrefused to recant her statement.  Thissparked a controversy that polarized English society.  On one side were the Canningites, Elizabeth’ssupporters, and on the other side were the “Egyptians” (based on thethen-popular notion that gypsies came from Egypt).    Pubs across the country became embroiled infights over the case and large sums of money were raised on both sides, whetherto defend or convict Mary Squires. It also became a celebrated cause inliterary circles with Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and Voltaire eachweighing in on the case.   Things became so heated that the Lord Mayorhimself was dragged from his coach and physically assaulted by a mob of  Canning’s supporters. 

After going on trial, Susannah Wells was publicly brandedwith the letter T on her thumb (T standing for theft) and sentenced to sixmonths in prison.   Mary Squires wassentenced to be hanged.    Afterward, Elizabeth Canning was praised as a public heroand she was given a tidy sum of money courtesy of her supporters.    Dissatisfied with the verdict, Sir CrispGascoyne reopened the investigation. After questioning one house resident whose testimony had been the mostdamaging against Mary Squires, Gascoyne managed to break down her story.   He also questioned the witnesses who hadprovided the alibi for Squires. 

Based on this investigation and his doubts about ElizabethCanning’s story, he ordered her arrest for perjury and recommended that MarySquires be released.  Based on thereasonable doubt over the case, King George II granted a stay of execution forMary Squires (and eventually a full pardon).  All of this outraged the Canningites and some of them threw stones atthe King’s coach.  

It hardly ended there though.   JohnMyles, the leader of the Canningites, arranged to have the men who had providedMary Squires with an alibi charged with perjury.   They were quickly found not guilty andreleased.    To avoid arrest, Elizabeth Canning dropped outof sight and only turned herself in after a new Lord Mayor was installed.    Her trial began in April, 1754, and went onfor  seven days with newspapers runningpro- and con- editorials of the case.   After a narrow vote,  she was convicted of “Perjury, wilful andcorrupt” and sentenced to one month in prison to be followed by hertransportation to America for seven years. 

Canning’s defenders insisted that she hadbeen telling the truth though her accusers suggested she had made the wholestory up.  The verdict also thoroughlyruined Crisp Gascoyne’s political career since much of the outrage was linkedto his investigation.  Still, being sentto America was not that much of a hardship for Canning since her supportersraised enough money to make her voyage comfortable.  They also supplied her with money for a newstart.

After arriving in Connecticut, she became part of thehousehold of Reverend Elisha Williams.  Technicallyan indentured servant, she was treated more like a member of the family.   After Williams’ death in 1755, Canningmarried John Treat, a grandson of a former governor of Connecticut.  They would have fourchildren together before her death in 1773. She is buried somewhere in Wethersfield, Connecticut though the exactlocation of her grave has been lost to history.

Did Elizabeth Canning commit perjury?   The case demonstrates many of the problemsinvestigators face today when dealing with traumatized witnesses.  Some later commentators on the case havesuggested that Canning may have experienced a form of post-traumatic amnesia withmany details she “recalled” afterward being implanted in her mind by overeager supporters.  Modern investigators are specifically trainedto avoid leading questions to avoid contaminating victim recall which may havehappened in Elizabeth Canning’s case.  

Whatever the actual facts of her disappearance, ElizabethCanning’s case demonstrates the power that the media had, long before theinvention of the Internet.  Politicalcareers were made and broken by newspaper editorials over the case.  No real solution for what reallyhappened in 1753 has ever been put forward and John Paget’s describedthe case as “in truth, perhaps, the most complete and most inexplicableJudicial Puzzle on record”. 

And it still is today.


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