J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Elizabeth Canning of Connecticut

Elizabeth Canning was a nineteen-year-old houseservant when she disappeared in London in January 1753. She was gone for a month, returning dirty, bleeding, and missing her stays. On recovering, she described being kidnapped by gypsies while coming home from relatives and held captive under pressure to become a prostitute.

The novelist and playwright Henry Fielding investigated Canning’s case in his capacity as a magistrate. In February he accused several individuals of holding Canning captive and stealing her stays; the latter was actually the more serious crime under British law because theft could bring the death penalty.

Crowds mobbed the courthouse during the ensuing trial, reportedly frightening away witnesses ready to testify the defendants were nowhere near the village where Canning said she’d been held. The verdict came in guilty, with one woman sentenced to hang.

One of the judges, with the delightful name of Sir Crisp Gascoyne, found Canning’s story improbable and her supporters dislikable, so he decided to investigate further. He found more witnesses to exonerate the accused and lots of holes in Canning’s testimony. In March, Gascoyne indicted the young woman for perjury. George II remanded the death penalty (there were many more death sentences in Georgian England than actual executions), though the defendants remained in prison.

Over the next several months, Canning lay low, and the British press and bar divided into two camps. Both Gascoyne and Fielding published pamphlets about the case. Some of Canning’s witnesses recanted, others were indicted for perjury. People’s prejudices about class, ethnicity, religion, and gender all came out, and of course the arguments turned personal. The closest analogue in our time is the Tawana Brawley case of 1987-1988.

In the spring of 1754 Canning presented herself at Old Bailey to be tried for perjury. Dozens of witnesses testified on both sides, though no one answered the question of where the defendant had been in January 1753. The court finally decided Canning had lied under oath and sentenced her to a short imprisonment followed by exile. Canning agreed to emigrate to the Connecticut colony as an indentured servant. She continued to have devoted supporters.

Canning arrived in America in late 1754 and took up residence with Elisha Williams in Wethersfield. Williams’s career had included being a town minister, rector of Yale College, both chaplain and colonel of the colony’s regiment, and a lawyer, judge, and political representative. Theologically Williams appears to have been an early “New Light.” Canning didn’t work for him for long, however, because he died in 1755.

In late 1756 Elizabeth married a local man named John Treat, and their first child arrived seven months later. They had three more children before Elizabeth died unexpectedly in 1773. The Connecticut Courant in nearby Hartford noted the passing of “Mrs. Elizabeth Treat,…formerly the famous Elizabeth Canning.”

The couple’s oldest child, Joseph Canning Treat, joined the Continental Army in 1777 and served until 1783. Later he received a pension. Thus, members of the Sons of the American Revolution and Daughters of the American Revolution could be descended from the notorious convict Elizabeth Canning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic, but neat MA thesis recently posted in Internet Archive: "The Boston Gazette, Sam Adams and the Resistance" (1955).


Really enjoy your blog!