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The Strange Case of Elizabeth Canning

The filthy and disheveled girl collapsed into her mother’s arms. Elizabeth Canning had been missing for 29 days and only now had found her way home. Although ill and exhausted, she managed to gasp out an extraordinary story of being kidnapped by a gypsy family and held in their house against her will. It did not take long for the authorities to identify the house and arrest two of the gypsies. One was branded with a red-hot iron an the other sentenced to death. Only then did one man begin to suspect the truth of Elizabeth Canning’s account…

Case of Elizabeth CanningBy the middle of the 18th century news was beginning to travel fast in England, helped by new roads and the introduction of the stage coach. In local inns the increasing numbers of strangers were lionized when they brought the kind of tidings people hungered to hear — of murder most foul and of strange and evil happenings. And it was largely in that manner, in the early months of 1753, that almost everyone in England seemed already to have heard of (and would hear much more of ) an 18-year-old servant girl named Elizabeth Canning whose story was stranger than any that might be concocted by a passing stranger seeking to impress the gullible country folk.

Elizabeth Canning — 29 Lost Days of a Liar?

On New Year’s day 1753, Elizabeth Canning left her home in Houndsditch, in the City of London, to visit her uncle who lived only some two or three miles away to the east, near the River Thames dockland. At soon after ten that night her uncle watched her set off from his house and saw her walking swiftly away, westward, into the cold darkness. And, somewhere in that darkness, she completely vanished.

The next day her distraught mother, who had spent a sleepless night waiting for her daughter to return, ran from neighbor to neighbor until the whole of the City appeared to be ringing with what, in the days before a properly organized police force, was called a ‘hue and cry‘. Yet the weeks passed with no news of Elizabeth Canning, until even her family began to accept the general verdict that the girl had been ‘done away with’ by one of the many merciless thieves or vagabonds who haunted London’s narrow, sinister alleys.

Then, on January 29, as she was locking her house for the night, Mrs Canning heard a faint tapping on her street door. She opened it and there, to her utter amazement and shock, stood her missing daughter, Elizabeth Canning.

Elizabeth Canning’s Ragged Return

Yet it was not the same neatly dressed, cheerful Elizabeth Canning who had left home 29 days before. The girl was filthy and her eyes were glazed with exhaustion. Instead of her best going-to-church clothes she wore on New Year’s Day, she was clad in a ragged, greasy petticoat and a tattered nightdress. There was a dirty piece of rag around her head, bloody from a recent ear wound.

She fell forward into her mother’s arms and Mrs Canning, and the neighbors who had come to help, could see that the girl was genuinely ill and hysterical. She was carried to her bed and told to lie quietly and rest but she begged to be raised up and rapidly, and almost without pause for breath, she poured out a strange account of her disappearance.

On the way back from her uncle’s house, she said, she was crossing Moorfields — then an open space in the City, near Cheapside — when she was attacked and knocked unconscious by two men. When she regained consciousness she found she was being dragged by the men along a deserted road toward a gloomy, mysterious house. She was pushed through the doorway of the house and there confronted by and old woman who challenged her with the strange question: “Will you go our way?”

The thoroughly frightened girl shook her head vigorously and was again seized and this time bundled upstairs to an attic room and locked inside. There, she said, she was left absolutely alone for 28 days, hearing no one, seeing no one. She would have starved but for a jug of water and some bread which she found in the attic and a mince pie which her uncle had given her.

On the 29th day she managed to tear away some wooden slats that had been nailed over the window. She squeezed through the bottom half of the window frame, slid down the eaves to the road and escaped. By good fortune she had found the right way back to the City and had run all the way home until she was just about ready to drop from exhaustion.

Even for the 18th century, clouded by fears of nameless perils, it was an extraordinary story and, naturally enough, the first question Mrs Canning and neighbor’s asked was: Where is this mysterious house? To their surprise, Elizabeth Canning said she thought she could place it. Promptly she declared: “It was on the Hertford Road. Through a crack in the boards over the window I saw a coach on the road and I do know the man on it to be a Hertford coach driver.”

Immediately one of the neighbors, Robert Scarratt, uttered a cry. Snapping his fingers he announced: “It must be Mother Wells’s. Yes, it is certain sure to be her house. Mother Wells — ’tis she must be sought out over this!”

There was, indeed, a house on the Hertford Road occupied by an elderly Mrs Wells and rumored by many to be a haunt of ‘ill-disposed persons’ and suspected by others to be a brothel. And it seemed at once to the more knowing neighbors that Elizabeth Canning’s story was confirmed. For what could the strange question “Will you go our way?” have been but an invitation to prostitution?

Wasting no time, Mrs Canning and her friends went the very next morning to see a magistrate who, without demur, issued a warrant for the arrest of Mother Wells. From the magistrate’s office the Cannings and the neighbors went off with the magistrate’s clerk, who was to serve the warrant, and descended on Mother Wells like a seething lynch mob.

Yet mystery was still piling upon mystery. For as soon as Elizabeth Canning entered the house on the Hertford Road she totally ignored Mother Wells and, instead, pointed an accusing hand at an old Gypsy woman hunched over the fire and cried: “That is she! There is the woman who robbed me!”

Elizabeth Canning Accuses a Gypsy

The gypsy was Mary Squires, aged 70, and of an ugliness that was almost unbelievable. She had a huge, bulbous nose and a lower lip that was around an inch and a quarter thick and bloated eyes. Whatever she was, she looked evil — although almost certainly modern medical science would have found that she was suffering from some kind of glandular imbalance.

Mary Squires the Gypsy Woman - Case of Elizabeth CanningWithout a moment’s hesitation she shrieked her denials of Elizabeth Canning’s accusations and declared that on New Year’s Day she was more than one hundred miles away from the Hertford Road, in Abbotsbury in the west of England. Her son, George, who was also present in the house, supported his mother’s story for he, too, had been with her at Abbotsbury, he said.

The others present in the house when the Canning posse arrived were Mary Squire’s daughter, Lucy, a man named Fortune Natus and his wife Judith, and a prostitute who was the possessor of the unlikely name of Virtue Hall. Everyone present was taken by the unofficial posse to the home of a local magistrate who, after hearing Elizabeth Canning repeat her charges, ordered Mary Squires and Mother Wells to be taken into custody and the rest of the Hertford Road household to be freed.

At this stage no one, including the two magistrates, had bothered to ask Elizabeth Canning any searching questions and yet there were clearly many baffling aspects to her incredible story. The description of the house that she had given to her mother and the neighbors hardly tallied with the real place itself and, most important of all, she had said nothing whatsoever, before the moment of confrontation, of the gypsy woman. And, in view of the woman’s grotesque and exceedingly unusual appearance, it was astonishing that she should not have mentioned her.

There was also the inexplicable fact, as Elizabeth Canning stated it, that bread and water should have been so conveniently ready and waiting in the attic prison when, as it seemed, she had been taken prisoner by sheer chance. Beyond all that, however, was the unfortunate but obvious fact that no one could look less like a potential recruit to prostitution than Elizabeth Canning. She stood not quite five feet tall and had a reddish, country-bumpkin face that had been badly scarred by smallpox. In no way was she the cheeky, well-built, lascivious young woman for whom 19th-century young bucks would have handed out money.

All the same, Mary Squires and Mother Wells were brought to trial at London’s famous Old Bailey and, despite their vehement denials and witnesses who testified that the gypsy woman had been in the West Country at New Year, both were found guilty. Mary Squires was sentenced to be publicly hanged at Tyburn Tree, near to the place where London’s Marble Arch now stands, and Mother Wells was ordered to be branded on the hand with the letter “T”, to signify that she had harbored a thief.

In accordance with tradition, the branding was carried out there and then and the onlooking London mob howled with pleasure as the sheriff’s men applied their red-hot irons and Mother Wells screamed at the agony of her burning flesh.

It seemed that the only rational man in London was the City’s Lord Mayor, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, for he saw the discrepancies in Elizabeth Canning’s bizarre story and he successfully petitioned the king, George II, to allow the execution of Mary Squires to be postponed while further inquiries were made regarding her west of England alibi. Sir Crisp himself undertook some of the investigation with a diligence and aptitude that entitled him to a place in history as one of the first of Britain’s detectives.

News of the investigation spread throughout the country with the most extraordinary results. Even in the remotest rural areas people formed themselves into vehement groups, for and against Elizabeth Canning. Quarrels broke out in inns, there were fights between rowdy mobs in the streets, some of whom championed Elizabeth Canning as a martyr and the lord mayor as a ‘lover of the gypsies’, and others who branded the girl as a liar and Sir Crisp as a hero seeking to uphold true justice.

After 15 months the issue was finally settled. Sir Crisp’s investigation, exhaustive and detailed, showed beyond doubt that both Mother Wells and Mary Squires were entirely innocent. Mother Wells’s pitifully injured hand could not be restored but Mary Squires was released from prison and presented with a Royal pardon. Elizabeth Canning, the cause of all the misery, was arraigned for ‘willful and corrupt perjury’.

Her trial presented no problems for the prosecutor who declared that Elizabeth Canning’s fantasies were about as credible as idiot talk “about the art of flying, which some soaring geniuses think practicable.” A host of more than thirty witnesses came forward to testify that neither Mother Wells nor Mary Squires had ever met Elizabeth Canning before the moment when the Canning posse descended on the Hertford Road house.

A verdict of guilty was inevitable and Elizabeth Canning was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to ‘His Majesty’s Plantations in America’. She was taken away weeping and protesting her innocence. Every detail of her story was true she declared to the court and to her sorrowing mother.

Elizabeth Canning’s Naive Fantasy?

Elizabeth Canning left behind her a mystery that is as baffling today as it was more than 200 years ago. Although her account of her kidnapping appeared palpably thin at her own trial, she at no time varied it in any essential detail. There were some who said that she had deliberately ‘disappeared’ in order to give birth to an unwanted child. Yet there was never the slightest evidence that she had been pregnant and, in any case, she was essentially a naive, innocent type of girl who would have found it difficult to conceal great personal anxiety, let alone plan to deal with it in secret.

Since Elizabeth Canning was well known to be so naive and innocent of nature how could she concoct such an elaborate fantasy and persist in it totally? Perhaps there was some dark element of hysteria in that curious young girl that enabled her to block out the truth and believe wholly in her invented account. No one will ever know.

The subsequent history of Elizabeth Canning, so far as it is known, is a remarkable story in itself. She is said to have become a schoolteacher in America, at the end of her sentence, to have married a wealthy Quaker named Treat and lived happily with him and the children of the marriage. She died, also according to legend, on July 22, 1773, at Wethersfield, Connecticut, leaving behind descendants somewhere ion the United States who may (or may not) know the secret of Elizabeth Canning’s 29 ‘lost’ days.

A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning — by¬†Henry Fielding, published 1753

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