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The Strange Story Of Elizabeth Canning

from The Strange Story Book





Are you fond of puzzles? I am. And here is a mystery which all sorts of
people have been seeking to explain for a hundred and fifty years, and
nobody, not even the lawyers who have studied it, can make up their
minds. So now it is your turn to try.

In the year 1752 Elizabeth Canning was a girl of seventeen, the eldest
of a family of five children. Her mother was a widow and very poor, so
she was glad when Elizabeth or Betty, as her friends called her, was old
enough to go out to service. Betty was a steady, hard-working young
woman, and the neighbours who had known her from a baby were all ready
to help her and to get her a suitable place.

Her first master was a respectable man who kept a tavern, and in his
house she lived for eighteen months. But she did not serve the
customers, or come into the rooms where they drank. She then left to go
as servant to a carpenter and his wife named Lyon, in Aldermanbury in
the City of London, not very far from her own home. The Lyons were also
old acquaintances of Mrs. Canning, and had known Elizabeth since she was
two. Now she was grown up; a rather short, pleasant-looking girl with a
fresh complexion marked with small-pox, but not pretty.

Elizabeth had been with the Lyons for three months, and had pleased them
so well that they promised her a holiday on New Year's Day 1753, to go
to see her uncle and aunt, living behind the London Docks. So on New
Year's Day, the girl got up earlier than usual, in order to get her work
over as soon as possible. When everything was done, she went up to her
attic and took her best clothes out of a chest. She was a long time
dressing, but when she stepped out into the street, she felt herself as
smart as any maid in London in her purple gown, black petticoat, white
apron, a muslin handkerchief folded across her chest, blue stockings,
and neat leather shoes. On her head she wore a small, flat, white chip
hat bound with green.

On her way to the Docks she stopped at her mother's, and said that as
she had in her pocket thirteen shillings given her that morning by her
mistress--probably they were her wages--she would ask her aunt Mrs.
Colley to come out with her and buy a cloak. Mrs. Canning made her put
the half-guinea in a box, as so small a thing might easily get lost, and
then, after presenting each of the children with a penny a piece, except
a naughty little brother who had 'huffed her,' she gaily bade them all
good-bye and went her way, arriving at her uncle's house about twelve
o'clock. Here she had dinner, tea, and supper at seven when her uncle
returned from work--for Colley, poor man, had no holiday--and at last,
without the cloak which for some reason was never bought, Elizabeth
started back to Aldermanbury, the Colleys walking with her as far as
Houndsditch. There they said good-night to her soon after nine, and
returned home.

As far as we can tell, the Lyons must have expected her back quite early
in the evening, for when nine o'clock struck from the church tower close
by, the carpenter grew uneasy, and went round to Mrs. Canning to see if
Betty was there. No; her mother had not seen her since the morning, but
was sure she would be in directly, and Mr. Lyon would most likely find
her at home when he got back. But at ten he paid the good woman another
visit, saying he could not imagine what had kept the girl; and at last
Mrs. Canning, 'frightened out of her wits' as she herself says, sent
three of the children out into the fields to look for Elizabeth, and the
apprentice went down to the Docks to inquire if she was still at her
uncle's. It was now midnight, and the Colleys were so fast asleep that
the apprentice had some difficulty in rousing them to listen to his
errand.

'Betty here?' they asked. 'Why, we left her in Houndsditch hours ago.'

But they do not seem to have felt any alarm till the following morning
when the young man knocked again, and informed them that they could gain
no news of the missing girl.

Inquiries were made and advertisements were placed in the paper; all in
vain. To be sure, a 'gentlewoman in an oil-shop' in Bishopsgate declared
that she had heard a 'young voice scream out of a coach' on the night of
January 1; but as she 'did not know whether it was a man's or a woman's
voice,' her information was not of much use. However, vague though it
was, Mrs. Canning caught at it eagerly and put it into the
advertisement. As to what had become of her daughter, she guessed
something different every day. Perhaps she had been kidnapped, or she
might have been murdered, or have had an attack of illness.

Some years before, part of the ceiling of a garret had fallen on
Elizabeth's head and hurt her, so that if anything frightened her she
was apt to lose her sense of what was going on for a while. Naturally
when the girl was lost her mother remembered this and dreaded lest she
should have fallen down in some strange place unconscious. Every idea
that could come into a person's mind--every accident likely or unlikely
that had ever befallen anybody--was, we may feel certain, discussed in
the month of January 1753 by Mrs. Canning and her neighbours.

She had almost given up hope, and was even in the act of praying to see
her daughter's ghost, when Elizabeth at last came. But what an
Elizabeth! The apprentice, when he hastened to the door on hearing the
latch lifted, did not recognise the girl, and thought it was a woman who
had called to ask her way. Then the truth suddenly dawned on him and he
cried out, 'Betty has come home'; but as she entered, nearly bent double
and walking sideways holding her hands before her, her mother took her
to be indeed the ghost she had prayed for, and, shrieking 'Feel her!
Feel her!' sank down in a fit.

It was the apprentice and not Mrs. Canning who attended to Elizabeth and
placed her in the chimney-corner, where she sat exhausted and to all
appearance nearly dead. Her mother's first act on recovering from her
fit was to send, not for the doctor but for the neighbours, and so many
flocked to see the lost girl, that in two minutes the room was full, and
the apprentice had to stand at the door to keep fresh people out. Of
course it was long before anyone thought of putting Elizabeth to bed,
and giving her something to eat or drink; instead they plied her with
questions as to where she had been and what she had been doing, and how
she had got in that dreadful condition. To these she replied, telling
the same tale which she repeated to Alderman Chitty upon oath two days
later.

On the following morning an apothecary was summoned, and attended her
for a week till a doctor was called in, and he for some days thought
very badly of her chance of living.

But weak and ill as she might be, two days after her return home she
'was brought' before Alderman Chitty to tell her story. And this was
what she said:

After her uncle and aunt had left her in Houndsditch, she was passing
along the wall which surrounded the lunatic asylum of Bedlam, into
Moorfields, when she was suddenly attacked by two men who took all her
money from her pocket, and then stripped off her gown and hat. She
struggled and tried to scream, but a handkerchief was quickly thrust
into her mouth, and she was told that if she made any noise they would
kill her. To show that they spoke the truth, one of them did indeed give
a blow on the head, and then they took her under the arms and dragged
her along Bishopsgate till she lost her senses, as she was apt to do
when frightened. She knew no more till she found herself in a strange
place which she had since learned was a house at Enfield Wash, about
eleven miles from Aldermanbury. By this time it was about four in the
morning of January 2.

In the kitchen in which she recovered consciousness were several people,
among them an old woman who asked her if she would stay with her instead
of returning home. To this Elizabeth replied No; she would not, as she
wanted to go back to her mother at once. The old woman looked very angry
at her answer, and pushed her upstairs into a room, where she cut her
stay-laces, and took the stays themselves away. She then told her there
was bread and water for her if she was hungry, but that was all she
would get; adding that the girl had better be quiet, for if she
attempted to scream out, she herself would come in and cut her throat.

Having said this, the old woman went away locking the door behind her,
and that was the last the girl saw of any human creature for four weeks,
except the eye of a person who peeped through the keyhole.

Left alone, Elizabeth looked about for the food which was provided for
her, and found there were some pieces of bread about as much as a
'quartern loaf'--and three-quarters of a gallon of water or a little
more, in a pitcher. She had besides a penny mince-pie that she had
bought while she was at her uncle's the day before, and intended as a
present for her little brother; for, as she said to her mother, the boy
had 'huffed her,' and she had not given him a penny like his sisters, so
the mince-pie was to make up.

At this point Chitty seems to have stopped her, and asked her to
describe the room in which she was imprisoned and to tell him what it
contained. There was but little furniture of any sort in it, she
answered. An old stool or two, an old chair and an old picture over the
chimney. The room itself had two windows, facing north and east, one of
which was entirely boarded up; but the other, though there were some
boards on it, was mostly glass. It was through the window at the end of
the room that she escaped about half-past three on the afternoon of
Monday January 29, dropping on to the roof of a shed built against the
house, and so to the ground.

She knew, it appears, that the road which ran past the house was the one
leading from London into Hertfordshire, because she recognised the
coachman who had carried parcels for her mistress many a time. Thus,
when she escaped, tearing her ear as she did so on a nail outside the
window, she had no difficulty in starting in the right direction for
London, though after a short distance she became confused, and had to
ask the way of several people. She ended by saying that she arrived at
home about ten o'clock very weak and faint, and that her mother gave
her some wine, which however she was unable to swallow.

Now in those times both lawyers and judges were apt to be very careless,
and according to our ideas, very dishonest, and Chitty seems to have
been no better than the rest. He took, he says, a few notes of the
interview with Elizabeth for his own memorandum, but 'not thinking it
would have been the subject of so much inquiry later, did not take it so
distinct as he could wish.' Even this paper which he did show was not
what he had written down at the time when the girl was telling her
story, but something that he had pieced together from her own account
and that of various other people who had been present at her mother's
two nights before, and had gone with her to the Alderman. So that no
court of law in these days would have thought that Alderman Chitty's
account given more than a year later, of what Elizabeth told him, was to
be trusted. In the end, however, Chitty, who declares he had examined
her for an hour and asked her 'many questions not set down' in his
paper, granted a warrant for the arrest of one Mother Wells at Enfield
Wash, for assaulting and robbing her. Elizabeth herself expressly says
she 'could tell nothing of the woman's name,' though 'she believed she
should know her;' but one of Mrs. Canning's visitors on the night of the
girl's arrival, who was acquainted with Enfield, was certain that the
house described could only be that in which Mother Wells lived, and on
his information Chitty allowed the warrant for her arrest to be made
out.

This man, Robert Scarrat, seems to have put to Elizabeth a great many
questions which never occurred to the Alderman. He asked her, for
instance, to describe the woman who had cut off her stays, and she
replied that she was 'tall, black and swarthy, and that two girls, one
fair and one dark, were with her.' This answer surprised him; it was not
what he expected. Mother Wells was not a tall, swarthy woman, and he
said at once that it could not have been Mother Wells at all, as the
description was not in the least like her.

On Thursday February 1, Elizabeth was put into a coach and drove with
her mother and two other women to Mother Wells' house in Enfield Wash,
where they were met by the girl's two masters and several friends. The
object of the visit was to prove if the description given by her of the
room, in which she was confined, was correct, and if she could pick out
from a number of persons the woman who had cut off her stays and locked
her up. As to how far the room, as seen by Elizabeth's friends, at all
resembled what she had told them, it is impossible to be certain. It
assuredly was very different from the place which Alderman Chitty swore
she had described, containing a quantity of hay, old saddles, and other
things that the girl had apparently not noticed, even though she had
been there a month; while there was no old picture above the
mantelpiece--nothing, indeed, but cobwebs--and there was no grate,
though she had sworn she had taken out of it the bedgown or jacket she
had come home in. Besides,--and this was more serious--there was not a
sign of the pent-house on which, she said, she had jumped after tearing
away the boards at the north window; and one of the witnesses declared
that you had only to push open the east window to get out of it with
perfect ease, and that he himself had leaned out and shaken hands with
his wife, who was standing on the ground which rose on that side of the
house. But then the witnesses were not at all agreed among themselves
what Elizabeth had really said, so again we are unable to make up our
minds what to believe.

After she had seen the room, she was taken into the parlour where eight
or ten people were sitting, and it is curious that now everyone tells
the same tale. On one side of the fireplace sat Mother Wells, and on the
other Mary Squires.

Mary Squires was a gipsy, tall and swarthy, very ill made and
extraordinarily ugly, and altogether a person whom it would be
impossible to forget. At the time of Elizabeth's entrance she was
sitting crouched up, with a white handkerchief on her head such as women
often wore, and over it a hat, while a short pipe was in her hand.
Several more persons were on the same side of the room, in a sort of
circle round the fire.

Elizabeth glanced towards them. Her eyes rested first on Mother Wells
and then looked past her.

'That is the woman who cut off my stays,' she said, pointing to the
gipsy. At these words Mary Squires rose and came up to the girl,
throwing aside her hat and handkerchief as she did so.

'Me rob you?' she cried. 'I hope you will not swear my life away, for I
never saw you. Pray, madam, look at this face; if you have once seen it
you must remember it, for God Almighty I think never made such another.'

'I know you very well,' answered Elizabeth; 'I know you too well, to my
sorrow.'

'Pray, madam, when do you say I robbed you?'

'It was on the first day of this New Year,' replied Elizabeth.

'The first day of the New Year?' cried the gipsy. 'Lord bless me! I was
an hundred and twenty miles away from this place then, at Abbotsbury in
Dorsetshire, and there are a hundred people I can bring to prove it.'

But no one at that time paid any attention to her words, or thought of
allowing her to prove her innocence. Elizabeth, with two girls found in
Mother Wells' house, were examined before Henry Fielding, the novelist,
author of 'Tom Jones,' then a magistrate of London, who showed,
according to his own account, gross unfairness in dealing with the
matter, and by him the case was sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Elizabeth repeated the story she had told from the first, with the
result that the gipsy was condemned to be hanged, and Mother Wells to be
branded on the hand and to go to prison for six months. Luckily,
however, for them, the president of the court that tried them was the
Lord Mayor Sir Crispe Gascoigne, a man who had more sense of justice and
fair play than many of his fellows. He did not feel sure of the truth of
Elizabeth's tale, and never rested till both the old women were set at
liberty.

This made the mob very angry. They were entirely on Elizabeth's side,
and more than once attacked the Lord Mayor's coach. Other people were
just as strong on behalf of the gipsy, and things even went so far that
often the members of the same family declined to speak to each other.

Then came Elizabeth's turn. In April 1754 she was arrested on a charge
of perjury or false swearing, and sent to stand her trial at the Old
Bailey. Now was Mary Squires' opportunity for calling the 'hundred
people' to prove that she, with her son George and daughter Lucy, was
down at Abbotsbury in Dorsetshire, on January 1, 1753, at the moment
that she was supposed to be cutting off the stays of Elizabeth Canning
at Enfield Wash! And if she did not quite fulfil her promise, she
actually did summon thirty-six witnesses who swore to her movements
day by day from December 29, 1752, when all three Squires stopped at an
inn at South Parret in Dorsetshire, to January 23, 1753, when Mary
begged for a lodging at Page Green. Now Page Green was within two or
three miles of Enfield Wash, where the gipsy admitted she had stayed at
Mother Wells' house for ten days before Elizabeth Canning had charged
her with robbery. Her denial of the accusation was further borne out by
a man and his wife, who appear in the reports as 'Fortune and Judith
Natus' (he was quite plainly called 'Fortunatus' after the young man
with the fairy purse), both of whom declared upon oath that they had
occupied the room in which Elizabeth stated she had been confined, for
ten or eleven weeks at that very time, and that it was used as a
hayloft.

Mary Squires had called thirty-six witnesses to 'prove an alibi'--in
other words, to prove that she had been present somewhere else; but
Elizabeth's lawyers produced twenty-six, stating that they had seen her
about Enfield during the month when Elizabeth was lost. This was enough
to confuse anybody, and many of the witnesses on both sides were
exceedingly stupid. To make matters worse and more puzzling, not long
before a law had been passed to alter the numbering of the days of the
year. For instance, May 5 would suddenly be reckoned the 16th, a fact it
was almost impossible to make uneducated people understand. Indeed, it
is not easy always to remember it oneself, but it all helps to render
the truth of Elizabeth's tale more difficult to get at, for you never
could be sure whether, when the witnesses said they had seen the gipsy
at Christmas or New Year's Day, they meant Old Christmas or New
Christmas, old New Year's Day or new New Year's Day. Yet certain
facts there are in the story which nobody attempts to contradict. It is
undisputed that a young woman, weak and with very few clothes on, was
met by four or five persons on the night of January 29, 1753, on the
road near Enfield Wash, inquiring her way to London, or that on the very
same night Elizabeth Canning arrived at home in Aldermanbury, in such a
state that next morning an apothecary was sent for. Nor does anyone, as
we have said, deny that she picked out the gipsy from a number of
people, as the person who assaulted her. All this is in favour of her
tale. Yet we must ask ourselves what possible motive Mary Squires could
have had in keeping a girl shut up in a loft for four weeks, apparently
with a view of starving her to death? Elizabeth was a total stranger to
her; she was very poor, so there was no hope of getting a large ransom
for her; and if she had died and her kidnapping had been traced to Mary
Squires, the gipsy would have speedily ended her days on the gallows.

On the other hand, if Mary Squires did not know Elizabeth Canning,
Elizabeth equally did not know Mary Squires, and we cannot imagine what
reason Elizabeth could have had in accusing her falsely. Only one thing
stands out clear from the report of the trial, and that is, that
Elizabeth was absent during the whole of January 1753, and that she very
nearly died of starvation.

'Guilty of perjury, but not wilful and corrupt,' was the verdict of the
jury, which the judge told them was nonsense. They then declared her
guilty, and Elizabeth was condemned to be transported to one of his
Majesty's American colonies for seven years.

We soon hear of her as a servant in the house of the Principal of Yale
University, a much better place than any she had at home. At the end of
the seven years she came back to England, where she seems to have been
received as something of a heroine, and took possession of L500 which
had been left her by an old lady living in Newington Green. She then
sailed for America once more, and married a well-to-do farmer called
Treat, and passed the rest of her life with her husband and children in
the State of Connecticut.

Up to her death, which occurred in 1773, she always maintained the truth
of her tale.

Was it true?

The lawyers who were against Elizabeth said, at her trial, that as soon
as she was found guilty, the secret of where she had been would be
revealed.

It never was revealed. Now several persons must have known where
Elizabeth was; all the world heard her story, yet nobody told where she
had been. If the persons who knew had not detained and ill-used the
girl, there was nothing to prevent them from speaking.

Yet to the end we shall ask, why did Mary Squires keep her at Enfield
Wash--if she did keep her?





Next: Mrs Veal's Ghost

Previous: The Adventures Of Fire-drill's Son



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