Today I have an unsolved mystery to tell you about. At around 10 pm on January 29th 1753, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Canning turned up at her mother’s house at Aldermanbury in the City of London. She had been missing since the night of January 1st. Her face and hands were black with dirt, she was wearing only a shift, a petticoat and a bedgown. Around her head, was wrapped a filthy rag that was soaked in blood from a wound on her ear. Her mother fainted.
Elizabeth had worked and lived not far from her mother’s home as maidservant to a carpenter named Edward Lyon. He described her as honest but shy, and her previous employer thought the same. On New Year’s day, having the day off, she had gone to visit her aunt and uncle and spent the evening with them. They had walked her part way home and left her near St Botolph’s Church in Houndsditch. She did not arrive home. Her employer and her family searched the city, but no trace could be found. Advertisements were placed in newspapers, prayers were read in church. The only vaguely useful evidence was that someone had heard a woman cry out from a hackney coach in the early hours of of January 2nd.
Mrs Canning’s house was soon filled with concerned neighbours but Elizabeth was, at first, unable to speak. She was attended by an apothecary and when she recovered a little, she told everyone what had happened. On her way home she had been attacked by two men near the Bedlam Hospital. They had robbed her, partially stripped her of her clothes and then hit her across the temple rendering her unconscious. She had awoken, still with the two men, but beside a large road where there was water. They had made her walk to a house where an old woman asked her if she would ‘go their way’, by which she meant become a prostitute. When Elizabeth refused, the woman had cut off her corset, slapped her face and pushed her upstairs into the loft. She had remained there until January 29th. She had spoken to no one, but thought she heard the name ‘Wills’ or ‘Wells’. She had been given only bread and water and had scavenged the clothes she was wearing from a fireplace in the loft. The loft’s only window was boarded over but she had been able to see, in the yard, a coachman she thought she recognised and guessed that she was on Hertford Road. She had made her escape by prying the boards away from the window and jumping out.
Her neighbour’s identified the house as that of ‘Mother’ Susannah Wells at Enfield Wash and they quickly obtained a warrant for her arrest. Several of them went, along with the warrant officer and peace officers to the house. They took Elizabeth with them, despite her poor health, so that she could identify her captors. The warrant officer searched the house and found the loft to be not at all as Elizabeth had described it. Nor could he find evidence that she had jumped from the window. But when Elizabeth came into the house, she immediately identified an old woman who was lodging there, Mary Squires as the woman who had cut off her corsets and another two women, Virtue Hall and a women presumed to be Mary Squires’s daughter, as having been also present at the time. She also recognised the loft and it seemed as though the boards on the window had been put there recently. Wells and Squires were arrested. Wells for keeping a disorderly house, Squires for cutting off the corset.
Elizabeth was very much perceived as the wronged party and received a great deal of support. The trial was huge, press coverage was massive. It involved the novelist Henry Fielding, who was then a magistrate. Support was very much in favour of Elizabeth who appeared to be, and perhaps was, an innocent young woman. Imprisoned after refusing a life of prostitution by a person who the press portrayed as an ugly old gypsy. Pamphlets were published (there were always pamphlets in the eighteenth century – think of them as twitter, but before the internet and considerably more verbose), public subscriptions were raised to help her with her case. Eighteenth century law bore little regard for an individual’s personal safety and it was rather chilling to find out that Mary Squires was not charged with either assault or kidnapping, but the theft of a corset, which was worth ten shillings. It was a crime that, if guilty, was punishable by hanging. Both Wells and Squires denied having ever seen Elizabeth before she came to the house with the warrant officer. Elizabeth Canning’s supporters behaved appallingly at the trial. There were several people willing to speak on behalf of Mary Squires, but all save three were prevented from attending by a mob outside the Old Bailey. They wanted to testify that Mary, a lady who travelled about, selling bits and pieces, had been nowhere near Enfield Wash on January 1st. Susannah Wells said the same. The three men who did make it through were beaten up by the crowd as they left.
Wells and Squires were convicted. Wells to be branded on the thumb and imprisoned, Squires to be hanged. But the case really rested on the testimony of Virtue Hall, who had at one point admitted that she had been there and seen it all. But Virtue changed her story so often that it was really impossible to tell what was true and what was not. I can’t entirely blame her for this. Fielding’s questioning of her was extremely rigorous and it seems likely to me that the poor woman was just trying to guess what he wanted her to say.
After the trial, the judge, Sir Crisp Gascoyne (excellent name) had his doubts and applied to the king, George II, for a stay of execution. More investigations were done, more press, more pamphlets, more threats of violence. Eventually Mary Squires was set free and Canning was arrested. It was all a huge mess that was not helped by the recent change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian one, the previous September. People were still trying to get their heads around the fact that they had lost eleven days and had difficulty knowing on what date they had seen anybody. Canning’s defence seems to have rested largely on the idea that she was too stupid to have made it all up, but when it was proved she could write a little, it was decided that she wasn’t an imbecile after all. The witnesses who claimed to have seen Mary Squires at Enfield Wash were discredited and Elizabeth was convicted of perjury. She was transported to America and lived there for the rest of her life. People tried subsequently to ask her what had really happened, but she refused to speak of it.
So no one knows what really happened to Elizabeth Canning during January 1753. Perhaps she really was kidnapped, but was it by Wells and Squires? It has been speculated that she disappeared for almost a month because she was pregnant and needed to keep the birth a secret. If so, what happened to the child? Was it given away to a wealthy family in need of an heir? If so,where did her head injury come from? It is a case that has fascinated writers, conspiracy theorists and lawyers for over two hundred and fifty years. But likely, we’ll never know what really happened.