The Elizabeth Canning case is a fascinating one now, as it was in the 1750s: abduction, theft, violence, perjury, racism, maidenly virtue under assault, judicial and media infighting, politicians using current events to advance their own agendas, and questions that remain unanswered to this day. A full account of the controversy and politics surrounding the case will have to wait for another entry, (it’s not really the point of this one and the full story is lengthy and a bit convoluted) but it is profoundly intriguing and I encourage anyone who has never heard of the case to research more deeply into the case (a link to the Wikipedia article can be found at the end of this entry).
For those not in the mood to go digging for the full details, or more interested in what some random internet cat lady/amateur historian took away from the case, here’s a brief outline of the facts.
The evening of January 1st, 1753, Elizabeth Canning, an 18-year-old domestic servant, did not return home from a visit to her aunt and uncle. Her employer and parents immediately began a search for her. Her uncle reported that he had escorted her a little more than halfway back to her lodging before leaving her to continue the rest of the way on her own. Family and friends searched for her for weeks, prayers were read for her safe discovery during church services, and advertisements were placed in newspapers. For weeks, nothing was heard.
Then, on the night of January 29th, Elizabeth returned home. She was dirty, emaciated, half-dressed, and her head bore a bandage stained with dried blood from an old head-wound. Her mother fainted on seeing her daughter again, and in such a state. She must have been a terrible, and pitiable, sight. When she recovered, young Elizabeth had quite the tale to tell.
On the night of the 1st, she claimed, while walking home, she was attacked by two men near New Bethlehem Hospital (a topic I definitely need to do one or more entries on soon). These men robbed her, hit her over the head, and carried her off while she was still half-conscious. When she recovered consciousness, she said, she was made to walk the rest of the way to a large house. There, Elizabeth explained, an old woman asked her if she would become a prostitute for them. When she refused, she was, by her account, stripped and confined to a darkened loft with nothing but a pitcher of water and a quartern loaf of bread. (According to the website Foods Of England, once standardized by the 1822 Bread Act, a quartern loaf would have weighed almost 5 pounds before baking.) She said she managed to scavenge some new clothes from inside a disused fireplace in the loft, and that she remained in confinement for weeks before managing to uncover a boarded-up window and escaping through it.
From her account of the area, and the fact that she said she thought she heard the name “Wills or Wells,” her employer decided that she had most likely been held at the home of Susannah Wells, some 10 miles away. Her friends, reportedly worried that she might die before giving formal evidence, called a physician to come treat her and then took her to the home of “Mother” Wells to identify her prison and captors. A poor widow, Mrs. Wells supported herself, among other ways, by keeping animals, running an ale house, and taking lodgers.
When warrant officers arrived at the house, they noted that the loft did not match Elizabeth’s description, and that the window showed no evidence of having been unbarred and utilized in any sort of escape. Regardless, Elizabeth identified Mrs. Wells as her captor , and her lodger Mary Squires as the woman who had stripped her and stolen her clothes.
What follows is a Law and Order-level courtroom drama featuring coerced confessions, competing witness statements, a media circus, racist slanders against some of the accused, witness intimidation, and angry mobs congregating outside the courthouse.
Squires was charged with assault and theft. Wells, despite it being her house where Elizabeth was allegedly held, was charged with the much lesser charge of “well knowing” what Squires had done, essentially having been an accessory to the assault and theft, and not having prevented the kidnapping or intervened in Elizabeth’s captivity. Both were convicted by the jury. Wells, for her role, was sentenced to have her hand branded and was to serve 6 months in prison. Squires, found guilty of the theft of Elizabeth’s clothes, was sentenced to death by hanging.
The judges involved in the case were not satisfied with this verdict and resolved to keep digging. The trial judge (Sir Crisp Gascoyne) appealed, well before the second investigation was over, to the king himself to have the sentence of death commuted. Both sentences would eventually be overturned and Elizabeth Canning convicted of perjury, but not before Mrs. Wells had been branded and served out her prison term. Elizabeth would be sentenced to penile transport and spend the rest of her life in Connecticut, USA, where she would live comfortably for some years under the care of a Methodist minister before going on to marry and have a family.
The miscarriage of justice of the initial verdict aside, a jury, fully believing that a teenage girl had been abducted and held with almost no food and even less water for almost a month, for the purposes of coercing her into a life of prostitution, found the theft of 10 shillings worth of clothing to be the crime worthy of death.
My cultural relativism absolutely broke when I first read about this. Yes, prostitution in the era was both legal and common. Yes, most of those prostitutes entered the profession out of financial desperation or, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, were coerced into it in a manner very similar to the one Elizabeth describes. Yes, assault was considered a civil dispute rather than any sort of attack on society or violation of a person’s civil liberties.
But, really? Just… really? Six months in prison for holding a girl captive and near starvation in a dark loft for the purpose of forcing her into prostitution? Death by hanging for stealing a girl’s clothes?
I really don’t have anything profound or pithy to say summing all this up but, if I ever need a reminder that morality has changed, that the the value of human dignity has become more esteemed than ever before, that things may be bad but they could damn well be worse, all I need to do is look at the punishment records from the Old Bailey the day of February 21st, 1753.
For More Information:
https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=175302210040 / https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=s17530221-1
All images are public domain in their country of origin. Images from Wikimedia Commons and https://publicdomainpictures.net