On New Year's Day 1753, Elizabeth Canning, an eighteen-year-old maidservant, vanished. A month later she turned up, claiming to have been assaulted and held prisoner; when her description of the house she'd been held in seemed to point to one Susannah Wells, Canning identified her and another woman named Mary Squires as her captors.
The trial was an 18th-century media circus (more on that later); at first Wells and Squires were convicted and sentenced, but the case was immediately reopened by the Lord Mayor of London; this time Canning was convicted of perjury and deported to the American colonies. Until her death, she stuck to her version of the story, and Wells and Squires stuck to theirs. The Rashomon-like case apparently retained enough notoriety that 20th-century writer Josephine Tey based a novel upon it, updating the circumstances to a modern setting.
Back in the winter of 1753, though, the story Canning told when she returned (emaciated and with marks of an injury on her head) was that she had been assaulted by two men, robbed and struck unconscious; that when she came to, her attackers had let her to a house where an old woman had tried to recruit her for the sex trade; and that when she refused, the woman had beaten he, stolen her corset stays and put her in a hayloft with "a black pitcher not quite full of water, and about twenty-four pieces of bread ... about a quartern loaf." After subsisting on this for several weeks, she had given up hope of release, and managing to work one of the boards loose on a window, climbed out and found her way home after five hours of walking.Trying to piece together where she'd been held, friends and family noted that Canning thought she'd heard the name "Wills or Wells" used, and that she'd recognized a coachman through the window who drove on the Hertford Road. As it happened the widowed Mrs. Susannah Wells lived on the Hertford Road, and a local paper immediately reported the whole story including the suspicion cast on Wells .
This is pretty much where *any* hope of a professional, unbiased investigation would have gone off the rails, if there'd been such a hope on the first place: England in 1753 -- had not only no forensics, but no police as such -- Robert Peel wouldn't be along for seventy years. So Canning and her family had to have the local alderman swear out a warrant and then go oversee Wells' arrest themselves. (They did have a warrant officer and several peace officers.) There, Canning seems to have identified everybody in the house as having been present when her abductors had brought her in a month before. Meanwhile, she was still recovering from her captivity, and her family still needed to prosecute the case against Wells themselves. They needed a backer, and they got one in the form of novelist magistrate Henry Fielding, who proceeded to issue a warrant against everybody in Wells' house, imprisoned two of them (both young women) and cross-examined them until they corroborated Canning's story. The actual charge was theft of Canning's corset stays, worth ten shillings: a more serious charge at the time than assault, and a hanging offense. Eventually Wells was sentenced to branding and imprisonment and Squires to death.
Meanwhile Grub Street was having a field day -- Squires was described as a "gypsy," adding racism to the rousing narrative of "innocent maid defends her virtue against a gang of crooks." (George Rousseau in his 2012 biography of John Hill, a popular writer and supporter of Squires, links the ferocity of the Canningites' racism to a bill in under discussion in Parliament at the time that would have granted Jews the vote.) Outside the trial, mobs attacked anybody they recognized as being related to Wells or Squires.
So who took upWells and Squires' side, and why? The Lord Mayor seems to have been genuinely horrified by the behaviour of the opposing "Canningites," but also seems to have suspected them of supporting Canning as a political attack on himself. John Hill mostly just hated Fielding -- London newspapers had just got through the "Paper War of 1752–1753," which Hill later claimed was a joke or publicity stunt he and fielding had cooked up and which had got *way* out of hand. Hill began collecting witnesses who could testify Squires and her family had been travelling in another part of the country during the month of January. Meanwhile the Canningites, for their part, hunted up witnesses willing to say the opposite.
Canning went on trial for perjury in the spring of 1754. Family and neighbours testified that she'd been genuinely injured and emaciated when she returned home. Canning's mother attempted to claim the young woman was too stupid to invent falsehoods, but was forced to admit she could read and write. Adding to the grotesque comedy, all the witnesses who'd attested Squires presence in the neighbourhood at the time of her supposed crime fell apart on the subject of the exact dates, because England had changed over from the Julian calendar to the current one in 1752, a few months before the incident. The jury's initial verdict was that Canning was "Guilty of perjury, but not wilful and corrupt." They were told they had to find her wilful and corrupt as well, or she couldn't be guilty of perjury.
She appears to have started a new life after she was sent to the American colonies. It wasn’t a long one by modern standards, but she lived with a Methodist family who believed in her innocence; eventually she married somebody. She died at thirty-eight. I don’t know how old Wells or Squires were at the time of their deaths — Wells had served her prison sentence by the time of Canning’s conviction, and Squires had been pardoned and wasn’t executed.
I need to address my own bias here: I heard of the Canning case via an online discussion among people who *hated* Tey's version. In Tey's version, the accused women are now a middle-class mother and daughter in straightened circumstances, while their accuser is still working class; and it's taken for granted almost from the opening that she's a lying liar who tells lies. Her age has been lowered to fifteen years old from eighteen, but only to further condemn her — she’s a cunning piece of jailbait who’s accused two total strangers of a serious crime in order to account for the month she spent with a married man (to whom she’d — of course — lied about her age) until his wife caught up with them and beat her. Tey’s “elopement gone wrong” version at least fits a one-month timeline better than “covering up a pregnancy” or “covering up an abortion,” which seem to be the usual suspicions among Canning’s modern disbelievers. The viciously classist take on the case was what had irked the readers on the discussion thread, but at least one person also argued that when a mystery is set up in binary terms, the resolution needs to be a third possibility, unsuspected by the characters. Otherwise you might as well watch a coin toss. I freely admit, therefore, that when I heard about the Canning case and its *lack* of resolution, it struck me as more interesting than the novel; and when I looked up the details I was hoping to find room for a third explanation. I'm not a historian, and this was a quick overview, based on only the most easily accessible sources, but I think I succeeded in finding enough doubts to satisfy myself. I did eventually come across a few other theories that Canning’s story was basically true but she misidentified her attackers, though a few of them still veered into “crazy girl hallucinated it,” which I’m not sure is any less depressing than “evil bitch made it up to cover some sexual misconduct.”
I’m not so sure she needed to be crazy, either, or even full-on amnesiac from the head injury.
Back when she, her family, and the peace officers they’d brought along had entered Susannah Well's house, Canning had stated that the hayloft looked like the one she'd been held in, but with more hay. Somebody had noted that boards across the windows appeared to have been put up, or put back up, recently. This, I think, is where it's possible for Canning to have gone off-course without deliberately lying.
It goes without saying that an eighteenth century house and barn wouldn't have had electric light; it's not unlikely that Elizabeth Canning never got a good look at any of her captors. Furthermore it doesn’t sound, from her account, as though she saw any of them during her month-long captivity after that first night when they put her in the hayloft. Even leaving aside confusion from her head injury or pressure from the peace officers to agree that they'd found her assailants, the situation could have primed her for false memories, and as the trials wore on, With both mobs and local political leaders piling on fuel, and Canning herself reduced to a token to be blamed or protected, the sunk cost of her efforts could have made her even more convinced that she was facing down her true tormentors.
Tags: crime, history