Elizabeth Canning

Elizabeth Canning

Elizabeth Canning (1734-1773) was an Englishwoman who claimed that she had been abducted and her kidnappers tried to force her to become a prostitute. She ended up being convicted for perjury. She was born on September 17, 1734 in the City of London and began working as a maid at the age of fifteen or sixteen. Her employer at the time of her disappearance and perjury was Edward Lyon, a carpenter. While some, such as Tobias Smollett, would describe her as an "obscure damsel of low degree," she was reported to have a good character (meaning chastity) and a strong work ethic.

She disappeared on January 1, 1753, and she reappeared on January 29 1753 at her mother's house near St Mary Aldermanbury in London. She told her neighbours and friends that she had been kidnapped. According to her story, she had been abducted by two men in Moorfields (a notorious district for highwaymen at the time). They had partially stripped her, robbed her, and hit her in the temple, rendering her unconscious. They then dragged her to a house on the Hertfordshire road. There, an old woman solicited her to become a prostitute. When she refused, the woman cut and took some of the stays in her clothing, forced her into a second storey room, and held her prisoner until she relented, giving her nothing but water and crusts of bread. After nearly a month, she said, she had escaped through a window and walked to her mother's house.

It was one of the friends of Canning who felt that the house had to be that of "Mother" Susannah Wells, a madam who kept a house in Enfield Wash, nearly ten miles from London and Canning's mother's house. Lyon told the story to his friends in his pub. On February 1, a posse lead by the pubkeeper, with a representative from the Lord Mayor of London, took Canning to Enfield. Canning was taken from room to room in the house, and she repeated her story, with notable inconsistencies, and agreed that it was, indeed, the house. She picked a local Romany woman, a Miss Mary Squires [Believed to be related to Australia's first brewer James Squire] , as the one who had imprisoned her and taken the stays.

On February 7, depositions were given to Henry Fielding, who was Justice of the Peace for Middlesex, and he issued a warrant for detention. Wells and Squires were arrested. A girl named Virtue Hall, a prostitute from the brothel, was interrogated by Canning's lawyer, and she claimed that she had never seen Canning, not to mention witnessed Squires robbing her, but the lawyer, and possibly Fielding, talked her into corroborating Canning's story, and Canning's lawyer wrote up her evidence.

The trial took place on February 21, 1753 at the Old Bailey in London. The courtroom was packed, as the newspapers had inflated public interest in the salacious story. Mary Squires said that she had been travelling in Dorset during Canning's supposed imprisonment, and three witnesses supported her alibi. More witnesses had come to give evidence on her behalf, but the mob, incensed against the "Gypsy," prevented their entering the courtroom. On the other side, Canning and Hall presented their story. The verdict was that Wells would be subject to branding on the thumb and six months in prison. Squires was sentenced to be hanged for stealing Cannings's stays. John Gibson, William Clark, and Thomas Grevil, who had testified that they had seen Squires in Dorset, were to be tried for perjury because, during the sentencing phase, Squires offered up another alibi that differed from her travel story. The three men who had testified for Squires were also pardoned when no one appeared to testify against them.

Chief magistrate and Lord Mayor of London, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, however, was dissatisfied with the verdict. He first opened his own enquiry, which resulted in several more witnesses of Squires in Dorset. He therefore appealed to George II. The king granted first the stay in execution and a pardon in May of 1753. Wells, meanwhile, suffered her sentence and was not released until the end of her six month term. Canning was then indicted for wilful and corrupt perjury on June 9, 1753.

The resulting press frenzy was fierce. The two camps were called the Canningites and Egyptians (for "Gypsy"). Henry Fielding wrote "A Clear Statement of the Case of Elizabeth Canning," and two of his enemies wrote replies. John Hill wrote "The State of Elizabeth Canning's Case Considered," and Allan Ramsay wrote "A Letter to the Right Honourable the Earl of -- Concerning the Affair of Elizabeth Canning." Voltaire would base his own 1762 "Histoire d'Elisabeth Canning, et de Jean Calas" on Ramsay's account. Gascoyne wrote "An Address to the Liverymen of the City of London, from Sir Crisp Gascoyne." Gascoyne was physically attacked in his coach, and he received death threats. In addition to the high minded accounts, which suggested either that Canning's account was true or that Canning was concealing either a pregnancy or abortion, there were many more vulgar accounts, filled with xenophobia and racism as well as suggestions that Canning was already spoiled and without virtue. One caricaturist made a print in which Squires was riding a broomstick, as if in only that way she could have been in two places at the same time.

The trial began at the Old Bailey on April 29, 1754, and there followed seven full days of evidence. The first verdict was guilty of perjury but not wilfulness nor corruption. When that was disallowed, the jury agreed to corrupt and wilful perjury. In the sentencing phase, the jury was nearly hung. Eventually, it agreed 9/8 on one month of imprisonment and seven years of transportation.

Some of Canning's influential supporters in the East India Company arranged her trip so that she was taken to America in comfort instead of in a convict ship. She sailed for America in July 31, 1754. Elizabeth Cooke, wife of a Governor of the Bank of England, arranged £100 trust that was to be paid to Canning when she'd return. She was sent to Wethersfield, Connecticut to live with Reverend Elisha Williams, who died soon after her arrival.

She married John Treat, a great-nephew of a Governor of Connecticut and had five children. She died 1773 at the age of 38. During her later years in America, she never explained what had happened to her during her missing month, and she slowly faded from view, especially after marriage.

Further speculations and writings

Later historians and writers have had their own views about the case. Austin Dobson added an entry about Canning to the 1886 edition of "The Dictionary of National Biography" as a "malefactor".

Various writers, including Arthur Machen, Agatha Christie and George Borrow, have referred to the case. Josephine Tey's "The Franchise Affair" is based on the Canning case, although placed in the 20th century.

Non-fiction about the case includes:
* Lillian de la Torre (pseudonyme of Lillian Bueno McCue) - "Elizabeth Is Missing" (1947)
* John Treherne - "The Canning Enigma" (1989)
* Judith Moore - "The Appearance of Truth: The Story of Elizabeth Canning and 18th Century Narrative" (1994)


*Fraser, Angus. "Elizabeth Canning" in Matthew, H.C.G. and Brian Harrison, eds. "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography." vol. 9, 910-911. London: OUP, 2004.

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