Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
By Bill James
Hardcover, 496 pages
List Price: $30
Ordinarily, crime stories sink gradually beneath the waves of history, as proper stiff-upper-lip historians are generally above re-telling them, but street riots are one of the things that sometimes cause them to float. On January 1, 1753, an 18-year-old girl disappeared from a country lane in an area which is now part of London, but which at that time linked London to the village of Whitechapel. Employed as a maid in London, Elizabeth Canning had spent New Year's Day with her aunt and uncle in Whitechapel. As the holiday drew toward evening she headed back to London, and the aunt and uncle walked with her part of the way. With less than a mile to go along the thinly populated lane her relatives turned back, assuming that she would be safe making the last leg of the trek alone in the gathering dusk. In 1753, of course, the streets were unlit, and also, London had no regular police service. She had with her a little bit of money, what was left of her Christmas money, which was called a "Christmas Box," and a mince pie that she was carrying as a treat for one of her younger brothers.
She failed to arrive back in London. What happened then is oddly familiar to us. Her mother immediately raised the alarm, and her friends, relatives and her employers immediately organized a volunteer search. Within hours of her disappearance they were knocking on doors throughout the area, and within two days they had covered much of London with advertisements and fliers asking for information and offering a small reward. Her disappearance attracted the attention of the city. Someone along the lane thought that he remembered hearing a woman scream about the time she disappeared.
The search, however, went nowhere for several weeks. On January 29, late in the evening, Miss Canning suddenly reappeared at her mother's house, looking so bedraggled that her mother, when first Elizabeth came through the door, had not the slightest idea who she was. She had bruises on her face and body, a bad cut near one ear, she was dirty and emaciated and the nice dress she had been wearing at the time she disappeared had been replaced by rags. Her mother screamed, and, in the crowded part of London where they lived, the house filled quickly with friends and curious neighbors.
At this point the system of justice, such as it was, flew into action with unfortunate speed. Her neighbors began peppering her with questions about her disappearance — an obvious lapse of judgment, but what do you expect from eighteenth century peasants? We're lucky they weren't carrying pitchforks. Where have you been? Who took you? Where were you held? When you escaped, where did you find yourself?
Elizabeth, I believe, tried to answer these questions as best she could in her desperate condition. The story that she told, confused and disjointed and somewhat incoherent, is that, walking along the lane on the fateful holiday, she had been accosted by two thugs, who robbed her of her coins and her nice dress, and then pushed and dragged her several miles to a large house. There they turned her over to a group of women who made some half-hearted efforts to force her into a life of immoral trade. Resisting these efforts, she was locked in the hayloft — the attic, we would call it now — and apparently forgotten until she finally managed to escape, injuring her ear in the process. She had lived for four weeks on a loaf of bread, a pitcher of water and the mince pie.
Within minutes, the finger of suspicion had been pointed at the residents of a particular house, a large house filled with gypsies, tramps and thieves. There were some loose women who lived there, and some other oddballs and eccentrics. Yes, said Elizabeth; that sounds like that must be the house.
She was given a day to rest and recover, and then taken before an Alderman, who interrogated her and expressed some doubts about her account, but ultimately issued a warrant for a search of the property in question. A posse of Elizabeth's over-eager friends descended on the house, accompanied by a representative of the Lord Mayor of London and by other officials. All of the residents of the house were arrested. They were arraigned days later before a Justice of the Peace, who happened to be the novelist Henry Fielding. Fielding issued warrants for the detention of two women.
This story, very much like the story of the Duke Lacrosse team, would soon explode into a divisive national controversy with political overtones, occupying the attention of the British people to an extent that is ultimately inexplicable. Elizabeth Canning was destined to become, for a few months at least, perhaps the most famous person in the world. Crime stories of this magnitude make entire cast and crew into celebrities. In this cast we have an old gypsy woman named Mary Squires, with a face like a child's drawing of a witch, and a mistress of the house called Mother Wells, and in the crew we have a man bearing the moniker (I am not making this up) Fortune Natus, and a young prostitute named Virtue Hall.
Mary Squires smoked a pipe and would tell your fortune for a penny. She was the ugliest woman in the history of the world, a skinny old crone with a face full of warts, a nose the size of a pear and a lower lip, said the writers, the size of an infant's arm. Ms. Canning accused Squires and Susannah Wells, who owned the house, of stealing her corsets or, as they were called at the time, her "stays." (They were probably called "stays" because they helped the woman's body stay where it was put.) The underwear was worth perhaps less than Ms. Virtue's virtue, but at that time one could be hanged for theft in England, and while that was not the usual punishment this was not the usual case. In the early days of the story, due to the great public sympathy for Ms. Canning, her accusations were accepted at face value, and by late February the old gypsy stood in the shadow of the gallows.
The mayor of London at that time was Sir Crispe Gascoyne. Gascoyne became concerned that an injustice was occurring on his watch, and took it upon himself to prevent this. The story told by Elizabeth Canning had serious problems. She had given a description of the house which did not match the suspect dwelling in one particular after another, and she had failed to mention things about the hayloft which, having been locked in there for 28 days, she could hardly have failed to notice. It seemed to many observers inexplicable that, in describing the events before the court, she had failed to give a hint about her assailant's quite remarkable face. Further, Mrs. Squires stated immediately upon being accused that on the first of January she had been a hundred and twenty miles away, and, on investigation, this appeared to be true; once somebody finally bothered to check, she had witnesses.
The trumpet of justice had sounded, however, and Ms. Canning refused to recant. All of England now began to choose sides, the Canningites against the Egyptians (the gypsies being commonly believed to have originated in Egypt). Which side you were on tended to match up with which pub you socialized in. There was a class division, somewhat inaccessible to us now, between domestic servants and lower-class people who lacked a position.
So one pub would decide that Mrs. Squires was guilty and the one across the street would decide that Miss Canning was lying, and occasionally they would meet in the middle of the street and try to settle the matter with fists and stones. Canning's supporters raised large amounts of money to prosecute those she had accused; Squires' defenders raised essentially equal amounts for the other side. A legal battle raged back and forth for a year, bills of indictment being sought and obtained on all sides. Henry Fielding authored a pamphlet, A Clear Statement of the Case of Elizabeth Canning, supporting the Canningites; Tobias Smollett was among many publishing on the other side of the issue. Voltaire published a history of the affair (Histoire d'Elisabeth Canning, et de Jean Calas). At one point the Lord Mayor — the head of the Egyptians, who opposed Canning — was dragged from his coach and roughed up by a mob of Canningites.
Mother Wells, immediately upon being convicted as a thief, was branded with a red-hot iron, the letter "T" being seared into her skin near her thumb.
This was done in open court in full view of the spectators to the trial. Mary Squires, sentenced to be hanged, was pardoned by the King, outraging Canning's supporters, some of whom lobbed stones at the King's carriage. In April of 1754, a little more than a year after the first event, Elizabeth stood trial at the Old Bailey on a charge of perjury, accused of giving false testimony against Mary Squires. The trial lasted for seven days, making it perhaps the longest trial of a commoner in English history up to that point, and certainly the most avidly followed. She was convicted on a close vote, a unanimous verdict not being required, and was ordered to be transported to America for seven years as punishment.
Elizabeth's opponents insisted that she had made up the whole story as an excuse for some adventure that had gone awry. This is unlikely. Her supporters insisted to the end that she was right about everything except a few details of her account, that Mary Squires' gypsy friends had created a false alibi. This is unlikely. Miss Canning may have suffered exactly what she said she had suffered, but mixed up the details in her confusion, and wound up innocently participating in the prosecution of innocent people. She may have run off to meet a man she knew or thought she knew, and found herself in a horrible situation, which she never came clean about. She may have lied to avoid admitting that she had been raped. Ultimately, we just do not know.
Elizabeth Canning's supporters raised money for her to travel to America in comfort and with a little bit of a purse, to which the British judicial system made no objections. On the ship across the Atlantic she was befriended by a Philadelphia minister and his wife. She met and married a well-off young man named John Treat, the grandson of a former Connecticut governor, bore three sons and a daughter, died before the revolution, and is believed to be buried in Wethersfield, Connecticut.
Excerpted from Popular Crime by Bill James. Copyright 2011 by Bill James. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.