The Mystery of Elizabeth Canning

The Mystery of Elizabeth Canning

Elizabeth Canning was an eighteen-year-old maidservant who disappeared on January 1, 1753, returning to her mother’s house, emaciated and in a deplorable state, one month later.  She told authorities of being kidnapped.  Several arrests were made and Henry Fielding took her side.  The accused were convicted, but the trial judge not being satisfied with the verdict began his own investigation.  Canning was convicted of perjury and transported to North America, where she lived the rest of her life.  The case continued to arouse controversy and the mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved.

            There is so much of mystery in the following case, that it seems beyond the bounds of human sagacity to determine on which side the merit lies.  The story, with all its particulars, must be within the memory of many of our readers, who have already formed their opinion of it; and it has been of such public notoriety, that few persons can be wholly unacquainted with it:  we shall, therefore, only give an abridged account, fairly stated from the evidence as it arose, without favour or affection to either party.  (Malefactor’s Register, 1774)

Thus does The Malefactor’s Register or Newgate and Tyburn Calendar introduce a case that has intrigued both professional criminologist and amateur for two hundred and fifty years.  Most of my life I admit to taking more than a casual interest in crime, having worked professionally in the field, taught criminology at university and written on various aspects of crime for the past many years.

My interest in British crime led me to this fascinating case:  an English maidservant named Elizabeth Canning claimed to have been kidnapped and held against her will in a hayloft of a notorious brothel for nearly a month.  She disappeared on 1 January 1752, returning to her mother’s house in Aldermanbury in the City of London, “emaciated and in a deplorable condition.”   (de la Torre, 1945)

Concerned friends and neighbors having cross-questioned her, determined that she had been held captive by Mother Susannah Wells in a brothel on the Hertford Road at Enfield Wash, where, preserving her virtue, finally made her escape following a month existing on bread and water (and a one-penny mince pie she had hidden in her clothing—a belated Christmas gift for her brother).

Elizabeth was born in London, the eldest of five surviving children, on 17 September 1734.  After her father’s death in 1751, she shared a two room dwelling in Aldermanbury Posern with her mother and four siblings.  The front of the property was shared with James Lord, an apprentice.  She only spent a few months at school and by age 15 was working as a maidservant in the nearby home of John Wintlebury, a publican.  In October, 1752 she moved into the home of Edward Lyon, a carpenter.

            If Elizabeth Canning’s own story may be credited, she quitted the house of her mother, near Aldermanbury, on the first of January 1753,; and, having visited her uncle and aunt, who lived near Saltpetre-bank, was, on her return, assaulted in Moorfields by two men, who robbed her of half a guinea, which was in a small box in her pocket, and three shillings that were loose.  They also took her gown, apron, and hat, which one of them put into the pocket of his greatcoat; on which she screamed out; but he bound a handkerchief round her mouth, and tied her hands behind her, after which, she received a violent blow on the head, which added to her former terror, occasioned her falling into a fit, a disorder to which she had been subject about four years.  (The Malefactor’s Register, 1774)

When she failed to return to her lodgings, her employer (Edward Lyon) went looking for her at her mother’s house.  James Lord went to her uncle and aunt’s house to look, but they told him that they had left her at 9:30 near Aldgate church in Houndsditch.  Weeks passed as Mrs. Canning search for her daughter, scouring the city and placing advertisements in the newspapers:

“ELIZABETH CANNING went from her friends between nine and ten on Monday Night, being Janry 1st, 1753 (by ye New Style): betwixt Houndsditch & Bishopsgate, fresh-colour’d, pitted with ye Small-pox, high forehead, light eyebrows, about five foot high, well-set, had on a purple masquerade-stuff Gown, black stuff Petticoat, a white Chip Hat bound round with green, white Apron and Handkerchief, blue Stockings, and leather Shoes.

Any Coachman, who remembers taking up such a Person, and can give any Account where she is, shall have Two Guineas Reward, to be paid by Mrs. Canning, in Aldermanbury Postern, Sawyer, which will greatly satisfy her mother.”  (de la Torre, 1945)

Elizabeth reappeared on 29 January at 10 pm at her mother’s house.  She was in deployable condition:  her face and hands were black with dirt, she wore a shift, petticoat and bedgown.  A blood-soaked rag was around her head.  She told them she was attacked by two men near Bedlam Hospital.  She was forced to walk to a house (which she later identified as being owned by a woman named “Wills” or “Wells”) where an old woman asked her if she would “go their way,” that is, become a prostitute.

Elizabeth refused, whereupon, the woman cut off her stays and pushed her into an upstairs loft.  She stayed there for nearly a month, finally succeeding in pulling off some boards covering a window, making her escape and walking the five miles to her mother’s house.  John Wintlebury and others identified the house where she had been held captive as belonging to “Mother” Susannah Wells at Enfield Wash.  Elizabeth was taken by friends to the Guildhall where Alderman Thomas Chitty issued a warrant for Wells’ arrest.

Searching the house, the officers arrested Wells and a gypsy, Mary Squires, who Elizabeth identified as the woman who cut off her stays.  She identified the loft in which she was imprisoned, but noted that it contained more hay than she recalled.  Virtue Hall, who had been present, had “stood by why her [Elizabeth’s] stays had been cut off.”  Later, before Justice Tyshmaker, Hall denied “all knowledge of any such transaction having happened in the house.  (Battestin, 1993).

Having thus changed her story, her apprehension was ordered and after six hours of questioning, committed her to prison “and leave her to stand or fall by the evidence that should be produced against her; and he advised an attorney to prosecute her as a felon.”

The onus was on Elizabeth to take legal action for assault, since in Eighteenth Century England, assault was viewed not as a breach of the peace, but as a civil action.  She was advised to consult the Magistrate and author, Henry Fielding, a justice of the peace for Middlesex and Westminster.  (Battestin, 1993)

Squires, charged with assault and theft, and Wells with “well-knowing” what her accomplice had done, were tried at the Session House of Old Bailey on 21 February.  Sir Crisp Gascoyne, Lord Mayor of London, along with a panel of judges, presided at the trial.  The serious charge was the theft of Elizabeth’s stays (valued at ten shillings) which carried the death penalty—hanging at the Tyburn Tree.  Despite conflicting evidence, Squires and Wells were convicted, but not everyone was satisfied with the verdict.

Sir Crisp and some other of his bench colleagues thought Elizabeth’s story difficult to believe.  He began a private inquiry and soon Elizabeth’s supporters had second thoughts.  Elizabeth’s friend, Hall, was sent for and when questioned in the presence of her contingent of Canningites, was noncommittal.  Once isolated, however, she admitted that she had perjured herself.  When Gascoyne asked her why she had lied to the court, she answered, “when I was at Mr. Fielding’s I at first spoke the truth, but was told it was not the truth.  I was terrified to be sent to Newgate, and prosecuted as a felon, unless I should speak the truth.”

Following further questioning of the other witnesses, Gascoyne was certain that Elizabeth had not told the truth.  On 13 March, he therefore ordered her arrest for perjury.  A newspaper frenzy broke out with various writers and publishers taking sides.  The London Daily Advertiser severely rebuked Fielding’s handling of the case and Elizabeth’s apparent dishonesty.  Fielding himself in his A Clear Statement of the Case of Elizabeth Canning, critiqued Squires’ supporters and espoused the virtuous nature of the young maid.  On 10 April 1753, King George II granted a stay of execution of six weeks to allow new evidence to be submitted to the Lord Chancellor Lord Hardwicke and the Attorney and Solicitor General.

The result was that Squires received a pardon on 30 May but Wells served her sentence and was not released from Newgate until 21 August.  Elizabeth was indicted in May at the Old Bailey “for wilful and corrupt perjury, in swearing, that she had been robbed by Mary Squires.”  As The Malefactor’s Register put it:

“No affair that was ever determined in a judicial way did, perhaps, so much excite the curiosity, or divide the opinion of the public, as that in question.  The news-papers and magazines were for a long time filled with little else than accounts of Canning and Squires:  prints of both parties were published, and brought up with great avidity.”  (Malefactor’s Register, 1774)

While mobs surged outside, 60 prosecution witnesses were examined.  Discrepancies arose as to how she survived a month in captivity essentially without food (no more than a quarten-loaf and a pitcher of water); whether she had actually been in the house at all; her unlikely story of her escape and return home.

After two hours, the jury found Elizabeth “guilty of perjury, but not wilful and corrupt.”  The recorder refused to accept this verdict; the jury then deliberated a further twenty minutes and found her guilty of “wilful and corrupt perjury.”  Held at Newgate Prison, Elizabeth Canning was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment to be followed by seven years’ transportation.  She was transported to New England on 31 July 1754, “having first received four hundred pounds collected by the bounty of her friends and partisans.”

She later married John Treat on 24 November 1756, had a son in June 1756 and a daughter in June 1758.  After having two more sons, she died suddenly in June 1773.

The mystery remains after some 200 years and still fascinates.  The prosecution was unable to find credible evidence that she had been anywhere near the Wells’ home and where she was for the month that she was missing remains unknown.  While theories abound and many books have been written about her, Elizabeth remains an elusive figure in the annals of historical crimes.

Lillian de la Torre in her 1945 book, Elizabeth is Missing, provides an answer which seems reasonable:  Elizabeth Canning was an amnesiac.  “It was inherent in her personality.  Elizabeth Canning was an hysterical subject, and this period of amnesia was but one, and by no means the first, of many neurotic manifestations.”  (de la Torre, 1945).

Rebutting a dozen theories, she elaborated:  “Elizabeth’s amnesia was not the result of the time-honoured ‘blow on the head.’  It was inherent in her personality.  Elizabeth Canning was a hysterical subject, and this period of amnesia was but one, and by no means the first, of many neurotic manifestations.”

She quotes psychiatrist Arthur Percy Noyes: “Hysterical amnesias obliterate recollections for a definitely circumscribed period of time.  Such amnesias . . . cover periods and experiences with which shame or other intense feeling tone is connected.”  (Noyes, 1934).  Elizabeth became convinced of the truth of her story and could no longer be said to be lying.

Thus concludes Lillian de la Torre’s formulation of one of the most notorious criminal mysteries in 18th-century English law.  “Elizabeth Canning died an exile in a strange land, convinced she had told the truth about the missing twenty-eight days.  She never told her secret; she never knew what it was.” (de la Torre, 1945).

The Malefactor’s Register concludes:

            “Upon the whole, we must end as we began:  this story is enveloped in mystery; and the truth of it must be left to the discoveries of that important day, when all mists shall be wiped from our eyes, and the most hidden things shall be made plain.”  (Malefactor’s Register, 1774)


Battestin, M.C. and Battestin, R.R.  (1993).   Henry Fielding:  a life.  London:  Rutledge.

Bowen-Rowlands, C.  (1924).   Seventy-two years at the bar.  London:  Macmillan.

Clarkson, C.T. and Richardson, J.H.  (1889).   Police!  London:  Field and Tuer.

Cross, W.  (1919).   History of Henry Fielding.  New Haven:  Yale.

de la Torre, L.  (1945).   Elizabeth is missing.  New York:  Knopf.

Griffiths, A.  (1898).   Mysteries of police and crime.  London:  Cassell.

Heppenstall, R.  (1975).   Reflections on the Newgate calendar.  London:  W.H. Allen.

Machen, A.  (1925).   The Canning wonder.  London:  Chatto & Windus.

New York Times.  (September 19, 1993).  “Lillian de la Torre, 91, an author of mysteries from British history.”

Noyes, Arthur Percy (1934).  Modern clinical psychiatry. Philadelphia:  W.B. Saunders.

Pollock, F. and Maitland, F.W.  (1899).   The history of English law.  Cambridge:  University Press.

The malefactor’s register or Newgate and Tyburn calendar.  (1774).   London:  A. Hogg.

Wingate, Edmund.  (1708).   An exact abridgment of all the statutes in force and use.  London:  R. Atkins.


Bibliographic Notes:  Elizabeth is Missing

Elizabeth is Missing or, Truth Triumphant:  An Eighteenth Century Mystery Being a true and complete Relation of her mysterious disappearance with her low and distressed state upon returning to her Friends, her fixing upon Enfield Wash as the Place of her Confinement, with her Accusation against Mother Wells, a notorious Bawd, and Mary Squires, an hideous Gipsy; on whose Behalf the Lord Mayor of London made a Counter-Accusation, and what came of it – to give the full title – was first published in 1945 by Alfred Knopf  in New York.

8vo (5 5/8” x 8 ½”); 266 + iv pp; 11 black and white contemporary illustrations on coated stock; 2 fold-out maps; tan cloth boards with maroon and gilt cover art; multi-color dust jacket designed by E. McKnight Kauffer.

Four-page bibliography (pp. i-iv):

  • Thirteen pamphlets published in London between March and July 1753;
  • Twenty-one pamphlets and broadsheets published in London between May and September 1754;
  • Twenty-one contemporary articles and extracts of letters;
  • Twenty later accounts published between 1852 and 1940;
  • Manuscript of Elizabeth is Missing with complete notes and full annotated bibliography was deposited in the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. The annotated bibliography, published separately, will be found in University of Colorado Studies, series B, Vol. ii, no. 4.

[De la Torres’s nephew, Jose Torre-Bueno, donated a number of her manuscripts and professional materials to the Harold B. Lee Collection at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; the papers in his possession were donated to the Charles L. Tutt Library at Colorado College, Colorado Springs.]

The British edition was published in London by Michael Joseph in 1947;  8vo (5 ¾” x 6”); green cloth boards; reprinted (?) by Chivers, Bath, 1947.

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