Alright readers, prepare to get your thinking caps on. You should be SO glad that you’ve stumbled across this blog today! I have quite a special treat for those interested in discrimination, justice, and (somewhat) happy endings…Well at least not a terrible ending, since no one is hanged!
The baffling case of Elizabeth Canning is not only one of the most notably famous cases of the eighteenth-century, it is also one of those intriguing, unsolved mysteries. It’s a case that tore the communities of London apart; half in favor of the alleged victim of the story, Canning, and half in favor of the accused gypsie, Mary Squires. It is up to you to read on through Canning’s account, through the details of both sides of the trial, and refer to the sources listed to make up your mind about who the real victim is in this fascinating 18th century law case. Let’s begin.
Elizabeth Canning (pictured above, and here) was an eighteen year old woman, working as a servant and living in Aldermanbury, London in the eighteenth century. One day Elizabeth, who also went by the name Bet, disappeared from her village after a visit with her uncle. She returned a month later with a story of abduction and maltreatment.
In Bet’s legal account of the story, she was robbed of her money, gown and hat and she abducted by two men in Moorfields on Janurary 1st, 1753. The men threatened to kill her if she screamed for help, hit her over the head, and took Bet to the house of Susannah Wells in Enfield Wash. Once they arrived the people in the house told Bet she would have to do as they commanded, and she would receive fine clothes in return. (this is interpreted to mean Bet would become a prostitute)
“It was said she must do as they did; and if so, she should have fine clothes; she said, she would not, but would go home”
When Bet would not cooperate, she was forced by a woman with a knife upstairs to a room. Bet claimed this woman stripped her of her stays (term for fully boned lace bodice worn in the 18th century), then told Bet that there was water and bread in the room for her to survive on, and finally threatened that if she made any noise she would slit her throat. Bet claims that she never saw this woman again while being trapped in the room. According to Bet, she spent a total of twenty-eight days locked up in the room with only a quarter loaf of bread, and three quarters of a gallon of water. She also said she had a penny minced pye in her pocket at the time, but that along with the pitiful amount of bread and water, was all she survived on for nearly a month.
Bet Canning was severely constipated in this room as well, only finding herself able to urinate. On the 29th of January, Canning could not withstand the entrapping any longer, so she made a hole through a board over the window, climbed through and slid out, finally jumping down behind the back of the house. She walked to the road and continued to walk all the way back to her mother’s house. She was found to be very thin, in terrible condition, and unable to even manage to swallow wine or water. The apothecary arrived and confirmed that Bet had suffered at Wells house. He granted a warrant for Susannah Wells to be apprehended for her cruelty. Canning’s story resulted in her family, the townsmen, and the magistrate coming together to have an investigation of Wells’ home. Canning identified a gypsie, Mary squires, as the same lady who drove her upstairs with a knife after refusing prostitution. Wells and Squires were taken in custody for the trial.
A Little History on Gypsies
To break up this story a bit, allow me to give you an important back-story on gypsies during the 18th century. Gypsies were believed to have originated from India, traveling to East and Western Europe, and Scotland in the early sixteenth century. In family packs, they migrated and were associated with professions such as “hawking and pedling, acting as tinkers and street performers, and most common of all, as fortune-tellers”. By the eighteenth century, London and its surrounding areas had a high population of gypsies during the winter months. Gyspies were considered to be ugly and accused of dishonesty, craftiness and theft. There was also a negative racial connotation with gypsies because they had swarthy (dark) skin.( more info on this found here)
The trial was held at the Old Bailey in 1753. Elizabeth’s swore to telling the truth with her testimony of the happenings and she gave a description of the room in Well’s house and of various objects within the room that matched when investigated. At this time, the public was outraged at the thought of a hideous gypsie capturing a poor young servant and threatening her with prostitution and knives. People wanted Bet’s safety from the vile gypsie and for Squires to be punished for her crimes.
Curiously enough however, Mary Squires maintained to her claim of never seeing Canning before, but when Elizabeth saw Squires she confirmed it was her who robbed and trapped her.
“Madam, do you say I robbed you? Look at this face, and if you have seen it before, you must have remembered that God Almighty never made such another”- Squires
When Canning told her when it was; she continued,
“Lord madam! I was 120 miles off at that time”.
When asked where she was she said, she was at Abbotsbury in Dorshetshire. Upon seeing Mary Squire’s son George, Bet also accused him of being one of the men who abducted her (hmmmm…), but he was not involved in the trial. George Squires testified to being out of town with his mother and sister during the time of these events.
There were four people who also confirmed that they saw Squires, not in Enfield Wash, but elsewhere during this time. There were some inconsistencies that came up with Canning’s account of the story. First off, she was unable to remember specific items, saddles and drawers, in the room. Secondly, a claim of Judith Natus, a woman living in Well’s house, said she had lain in the room Canning was in for eleven weeks. Natus stated Elizabeth “had been there but a very little time”. This evidence was just left behind by the investigator, who happened to be a close friend of Canning’s (wow, note on bias in 18th Century law!). He thought within himself Canning had given false evidence and he said that he
“quite dropt his opinion of Canning”.
A final important piece of this trial that should be mentioned is the confession of another gypsie of Well’s house, Virtue Hall. First, Hall agreed with Squires claims of being away and stated she had never seen Canning during this alleged abduction and confinement. After a break in court and a discussion with an investigator, Hall changed her testimony to go in accordance with Canning’s story. (Think: was Virtue coming through with the truth after feeling guilty for trying to cover for her gypsie mate, or was she forced into lying for Canning because it was what society wanted?)
After Virtue’s interrogation : On Mr. deputy Mollineaux’s cross-examination he was asked whether he heard anything of Virtue Hall? he said,
“He had heard she had recanted.”
Mary Squires was convicted with the assault and theft of Elizabeth Canning, and was sentenced to be hanged. Susannah Wells was charged with the knowledge of her accomplice’s crimes and being in charge of a disorderly house. For her punishment, she was humiliatingly branded on the thumb.
“For God’s sake do not swear my life away; look in my face, and be sure of what you say” -Mary squires to Elizabeth Canning.
After the trial, some people in town were not satisfied with the verdict. In particular, Sir Crisp Gascoyn the Lord Mayor of London favored Squire’s alibi that she was in another town at the time of the crime. Because Squires had reliable witnesses such as a clergyman, Gascoyn decided to appeal to King George II who pardoned Squires. Elizabeth was suddenly to have her own trial in the matter, indicted for perjury and imprisoned. Communities in London were outraged by this and Gascoyne was referred to as “The King of the Gypsies”. There were printed issues in coffeehouses at this time with an image of a gypsie on a broomstick, but there were also theories floating around of Canning hiding an illegitimate baby or abortion. (Wow, 18th century coffeehouses did start up some gossip!)
There were also a rise in pamphlets, some in defense of Canning and some in defense of the gypsie. With these came anti-Canning pamphlets (and I’m sure anti-gypsie pamphlets as well).Communities around London complained that Bet had her justice stolen from her. Some people considered Bet to be a heroine. The people who heard of the happenings split up into two support groups, the Canningites in favor of Elizabeth and the Egyptians, in favor of Squires. They kept up the debate about the case within Wells’ house and who was innocent.
“Elizabeth Canning [and] Mary Squires the gypsy were such universal topics in 1752 [1753-54] that you would have supposed it the business of mankind, to talk only of them…” –Tate Wilkinson, actor and manager in 18th century
Bet’s Trial and Sentence
Elizabeth Canning was found guilty under the claim of perjury and she was sentenced to imprisonment and deportation to America. She married there, had children and died in 1773.
What does this tell us about the 18th Century?
The nice part of all of this: someone who would have ordinarily been hanged for such accusations was acquitted of her alleged crime. Hooray! Gypsies – one point, Upper class London supremacists – zero. The dispiriting part about this case is that from this story alone we can see a lot wrong with 18th century society prejudice and its law system.
Due to the overt negative connotations with women’s sexual freedom, the discrimination and maltreatment of gypsies, and the poor rulings of the law system at this time, I firmly believe Mary Squires was wrongly accused and sentenced to an unjust punishment.
Alright, check out the reasoning behind my first of my accusations against 18th century society.
Prostitution in 18 Century
Prostitution was basically for the poor unemployable, sometimes orphaned, lower class of London during this time. The idea of prostitution also became associated with a need for money rather than desire for sex. While prostitutes were tolerated and accepted by some of society, there were of course those who condemned this behavior, considered it immoral and the prostitutes were still associated with the rest of the urban, lower class citizens. They also of course had police control to worry about, though the laws of prostitution were not completely clear at this time. (more info on this here).
So, now knowing this was the societal impression of this occupation, we can understand that if Bet had a sexual desire she wished to fulfill, she might have felt as though she had no choice but to hide it. While she was a servant and probably did not need to take up this occupation for more money, there is the possibility that it was something she wanted the freedom to do. Society would not be accepting of this, especially because she was not from the conventional lower class that primarily took this job upon themselves. Because Bet felt the need to hide her sexuality due to the oppression of women during this time, she would have to devise a story for living in Wells’ house. She was clever enough to know that blaming gypsies for threatening and trapping a helpless, servant girl would keep her from having her possible double life exposed.
Don’t buy that theory? Okay, well it leads into my next point.
There are many examples of discrimination in my objective report of this trial. Whether Bet actually was the victim of this story, it is clear she tried to accuse gypsies of her maltreatment because she knew society would be quick to incriminate these people along with her. Again, Gypsies were considered ugly and unwanted, there was even anti-gypsie laws and an attempt to get rid of them altogether in the 18th century. Gypsies were even rejected from the churches,
“The priest shall not concern himself with the Gypsies. He shall neither bury their corpses nor christen their children.”
Ouch… With this abundance of cruelty towards people like Squires during this time it is not hard to see how Bet would have thought she could be a way out of this tricky situation if she did indeed have something to hide. However, no matter what actually went on with Bet in Well’s house, Squires produced many legitimate alibis and should not have been found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. What the heck is up with the judicial system at this time? Even with Squires clearly not having anything to do with this alleged abduction, Bet still would accuse her immediately after seeing her (Squires clearly represented a gypsie, so appearances did matter at this time!). And, don’t forget, Bet also accused the gypsie’s son George, upon seeing him as one of the men who kidnapped her.
Okay… this all seems suspicious, considering George was with his mother and sister traveling and not anywhere near Enfield Wash during the alleged abduction. Lastly, Canning insisted through her recount of the story to put emphasis on the cruelty she endured all because of the gypsie, rather than explaining why there were some inconsistencies to her story. Also other people who testified for Canning added supplementary details of cruelty such as the gypsie swearing “ d – n you, you b – h, I’ll give it to you” and slapping Canning across the face. These points that were not brought up earlier in the trial are important to note because we can see the faults in this society. They were accustomed to despising the gypsies, so this story of their wrongdoing would be so much more well-received than one of a middle class servant hiding a life of prostitution. Society just believed what they wanted to believe, rather than the truth laid before their eyes.
Lastly, we have to look at how the court proceedings were handled.
The 18th Century Courtroom
Along with those additional details blaming Squires for such abuse, when she apparently wasn’t even present at Enfield Wash during these accusations, consider how Bet’s friend and investigator let go of case evidence. How is this fair? Even though he admitted to believing Canning gave false evidence he still backed out of the case. Was it because he cowardly did not want to challenge society and support the hated gypsies? He chose not to go against the girl that society clearly favored, probably for fear that he would deal with that hate and discrimination that Gascoyne had to deal with for sticking up for the gyspie. Also, remember the probable bullying another gypsie, Virtue Hall, had to endure after her testimony to change her story and confess. Having to go back on her word, possibly lie for Canning, and work against her gypsie family is a horrifying reality of the law system at this time. The corruption we can assume that was going n behind the scenes is notable through the text of the Old Bailey court proceedings. Where is the justice when there is bias and possible threatening in the only place gypsies would expect to receive honesty and fairness?
Thankfully With Lord Gascoyne’s work he was able to free Squires, but that is also confusing. How can a Lord just override a ordered hanging so easily? While I agree Squires alibi was powerful and convincing, The 18th century legal system was clearly a unfair mess if a Lord can just appeal to the king and have someone with a death sentence pardoned!
So what do you think of it all? Do you agree with my criticisms of repressed sexuality of women, discrimination agaisnt gypsies and the unfairness of the 18th century courtroom? Leave me a comment if you think Bet is innocent, leave a comment if you think Bet was hiding something OR if you have your own theories, I’d love to hear them.
Also, please check out these great sources, I found all of my information for this blog post with the abundance of research posted online. With some investigation you may discover something new.