The Strange Story Of Elizabeth Canning

: 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


'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


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


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


'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


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


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


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?