The Illusion of Justice: the Tale of Elizabeth Canning and the Gypsies

Elizabeth Canning

It’s often found to be incredible how much our own opinions and bias can change the filter on stories we hear. The gossip of the morning can reveal the dark secrets of the night, casting a shadow over the things we thought clear as day. Which struggling with the concepts of bias beliefs, a mysterious case comes to mind that has baffling and teasing the minds of historians for years upon decades: The Curious case of Elizabeth Canning. . It was a case that started off as a common mugging that evolved into what could consider to be a dividing line of morals for the common folk regarding the unwanted citizens in their town: The gypsies. In the end, we can see how the people’s views of Gypsies ultimately held a judgmental and tragic leash on a trial began with one view on the story and ended with a completely different one.

To truly understand this case, we must begin with the story as told by the eighteen year-old servant-girl during the trial that would convict the supposed offenders in the case, Mary Squires and Susannah Wells. As the victim, Canning was only asked a select questions regarding her involvement during the events of her incident and it is really the only material we can use to put ourselves in the judge’s shoes when attempting to emulate the ultimate decision and verdict.

On January 1st 1753, Elizabeth Canning was departing from visiting an uncle and aunt outside of London when she found herself in the company of a pair of rowdy men. In the late hour of nine, she found herself cornered as the men searched her possessions and took what few shillings she had on her. Upon resisting the mugging, Canning found herself bound, gagged and struck upside the head, knocking her into a convulsive fit.

She claimed to awake roughly a half an hour later on a roadside just outside the property owned by Susannah Wells in Enfield, figuring that she had been dragged by her captors after falling into her fit. Canning was brought inside and was placed in a room with three women who Canning referred to as ‘gypsies’, one of which being a suspect in the trial, Mary Squires.

Mary Squires had a reputation in London that she ran a house of debauchery, and Canning claimed that she did not disappoint that popular opinion. The victim claims that when she was put before Squires, the gypsy head of household asked Canning if she commits herself to ‘their ways’. Canning notes that she had been left alone with the women, which leaves the impression that the rowdy men had effectively sold her to the gypsies as their newest working girl.

According to Canning, Squires would take a knife and cut off the corset that the victim was wearing, slapping and taunting the girl as she’s dragged to the hay-loft and locked within. She claims she was locked there with only 24 loaves of bread and a pitcher of water for nearly a ‘month of weeks’ as she put it. Canning was never visited and she never attempted to escaped the locked room under fear of harm. After the month had passed, Canning made her escape by breaking through a boarded window, falling eight feet to the ground and injuring her ear in the process. Canning claims she immediately fled back to her home in London where she recounted her story to family.

Outraged and disturbed, Elizabeth’s family and local men rallied together to approach Wells’ home and inspect the home. The occupants, as expected, refused to comply and Canning attests to threats being thrown her way from Squires. Both Mary Squires and the owner of the establishment, Susannah Wells, were taken into custody for trial. Canning also singled out one of the gypsies, Virtue Hall, for being present during the ordeal and would be called upon during the trial.

Following Canning’s recollection of events, multiple witnesses were called to stand including the two accused women and Virtue Hall, the woman singled out by the victim at Wells’ property for being present for the altercations. Wells defended herself by stating that she had never once encountered Canning until she arrived with what she would assume to be a lynch mob and that she had no contact with Squires during the time in question. Squires claimed that she had been away in the town of Dorset during the first week of January, even producing witness supporting her alibi. She noted that she wished to say her piece earlier, but was not given the permission to do so. Virtue Hall recounted her side of the story and noted that she had never seen Elizabeth Canning during the period of her alleged kidnapping. After a discussion with one of the leading investigators, Hall promptly changed her testimony to support Canning’s claims.

Following Hall’s change of heart, the judge declared that a verdict had been reached. Squires and Wells were both pronounced guilty, but with their own individual sentences based on their roles in the instance. Susannah Wells was branded on her thumb for being a supporter of the gypsies and for owning a ‘disorderly house’, as well as given time in the Newgate prison. Mary Squires was to be hanged for the robbery and assault of Elizabeth Canning. With both women sentenced for their crimes, it seemed that justice had been served. What followed the trial, however, would be a controversial chain of events that would lead to an entire community being torn apart by differing views and morals.

Though the trial of Susannah Wells and Mary Squires had come to a close, not everyone was pleased with the outcome. Sir Crisp Gascoyne, Lord Mayor of London, had an alternate view on the entire situation and sent a request to King George II for the punishments to be pardoned so he could investigate the matter further. The King approved the request freeing Squires and Wells and suddenly it was Elizabeth Canning who came under fire for perjury, which sparked a fevered reaction from the community who had began seeing Canning as the victim rather than suspect. Immediately, Sir Gascoyne was dubbed ‘King of the Gypsies’ by the common folk and became a symbol of controversy due to his support of the two gypsies he helped pardon. Gascoyne claimed that he found the alibi from Squires to be satisfying since she presented the court with a string of events she attended during the time of transgression backed by the accounts of several witnesses. Following a swift trial, Elizabeth Canning was charged with perjury and sentenced to jail time followed by deportation to America. Needless to say, the crowd went wild in the worst possible way.

The Communities that surrounded London began to fuss over the case beyond what any person would have expected from a ‘simple’ robbery. Supporters of Canning came flooding in to voice their displeasure of her ‘stolen justice’. Canning had become a heroine to the people for refusing to commit to a life of sin and dishonor at the cost of her health. But there were still so many people that supported the idea that the correct verdict had been discovered through a more thorough investigation, praising the Lord Mayor for his actions. These two groups would come to be known as the ‘Canningites’ (Pro-Canning) and the Egyptians (Pro-Gypsies) who would debate the topic and take turns hopping on the soapbox for a few moments in order to preach their beliefs in an attempt to rationalize the curious nature of morality as it applies to Canning and Squires. This division would inspire a mystery that has lasted even until modern days where upon reflection, we see so many sides of the argument.

The issue that keeps this story from being crystal clear is that neither the prosecution nor the defense in the initial trial were solid. The prosecution banked their entire case on Canning’s retelling with very little else in use for proving its validity. Virtue Hall might have backed Canning’s story, but it was only after a questioning period that very well could have been a bullying/bargaining for her to aid in the prosecution of the unwanted gypsies. Canning brought both a bloodied scarf and the water pitcher to the trial, claiming both to be evidence to her claims. There was no examination or questioning of the defense regarding if the pitcher was even part of the house’s inventory or whether Canning had been in possession of a scarf. If she was able to use the scarf to stop the bleeding to her ear, why on earth was this not taken from her when she was robbed? As for the defense, they had many witnesses brought forward to validate Squires’ whereabouts, yet they did not have the time to really flesh out the claims and really debunk the Canning story. Wells’ didn’t even make a proper defense; even in that age I’m sure a claim of ‘I never saw that person before in my life’ wouldn’t fly with any judge. All in all, it just seemed that the trial didn’t hold much punch and lacked the significant evidence and testimony to really get a proper undeniable result. I feel Lord Gascoyne was justified in opening the case again, considering how much the case relied on the knowledge of how despised Gypsies were with the common folk.

When a trial depends completely on the hatred of gypsies in order for a verdict to be found, what could be said about the time period and the people’s beliefs of the time? Canning’s testimony made sure to constantly slip in lines about how cruel the gypsies were despite not being asked on the matter; an asked question would relate to where she was held, and Canning would respond that it was in the hayloft after she had been brutalized and stripped. Nice detail, but it’s not necessary for the proceedings. All it served to do was to play off the people’s hatred of the ungodly gypsies. These people were seen as the scum of the earth, so if Canning needed to place blame on anyone for anything, why not the most hated people in town? Wells found out first hand that the crime of being a gypsy was rewarded with jail time and a branding upon the thumb, an irrevocable memento more accustomed for harsher crimes like treason. Someone with that mark would find no defense for their actions, but thanks to Lord Gascoyne, the punishments were stopped at just that.

Regarding Gascoyne’s interference, it really says a lot about the judicial system of the time that an entire verdict can be undone and reversed simply due to a Lord’s decision. Granted the case wasn’t open and shut from the start, but the power used to change the result came under fire from the townsfolk. Was this something that commonly happened and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back? or was this the first time a Lord had stepped in to involve himself with the result, breaking the status quo? Or maybe, just maybe, the townsfolk was simply just ticked that they couldn’t get the gypsy heads tightened in a noose; One less heathen on the earth, after all!

As a final note, I leave everyone with this question: Were the townsfolk more outraged at the change of decision due to their love for the young Canning’s courage in the face of the gypsies, or were they mad that they couldn’t have justice served in a manner that suited everyone by exposing the gypsies as rebels and heathens? I would say it’s both in little ways, seeing as they are essentially the same bias reaction to the minority.

This misdirection of morals really shows just how clouded judgments were at the time, to the point where both sides of the argument were still in the end fighting against the common enemy: The terrible gypsies that walked our world, casting their devil seeds wherever they slept. Canning was just a martyr for the people’s ambitions to fight the gypsies, even including her possibly bias imaginings of her captors being who she claimed they were. Was she really in this situation as her story claims? Or had she just been covering her own actions of the night with a story that everyone would surely believe? Perhaps we’ll never know, but the mystery of the Elizabeth Canning trial holds a bewitching and mesmerizing effect that would be questioned and studied for ages to come. All with the hopes of unraveling a truth lost in the protesters’ cries of bias.



The Proceedings of Old Bailey

HistoryToday – Elizabeth Canning

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Historical Mysteries, by Andrew Lang : The Case of Elizabeth Canning


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