Guest author : Naomi Clifford – The Story of Rebecca Hodges

Today we return from our summer break and are delighted to welcome back to ‘All Things Georgian’ one of our previous guest authors, Naomi Clifford, author of the true life Regency mystery, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn.

616ASr+2WoL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Naomi is presently researching women who went to the gallows in the late Georgian period for her next book. During her research she came across the story of Rebecca Hodges, so we will have you over to Naomi to tell more.

The Georgian justice system, inconsistent, brutal and stacked against the defendant as it was, still had room to accommodate those whose actions were beyond their own control. During my research into the women who were hanged in England and Wales in the late Georgian era, I came across a case which would now probably be prosecuted as stalking.

In 1818 Rebecca Hodges was indicted for setting fire to hayricks at Ward End near Aston and appeared before Judge Garrow at the Warwick Shire Hall. It was a notable case, not because rural arson was especially unusual but because of the long and disturbing history between the accused, Rebecca Hodges, a servant, and Samuel Birch, her former employer.

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A Farmhouse, by William Henry Hunt, courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

One Saturday in 1802, Rebecca left Birch’s farmhouse to fetch water. On her return on Monday, Birch dismissed her for being absent without permission. She decided that she would exact revenge. Over the next seven years, unrecognised because she dressed in men’s clothes, she followed him. On 27 February 1809, having bought a horse pistol and moulded her own bullets (she pressed lead with her fingers), again dressed as a man, she travelled to Ward End, on the way encountering a young lad at the turnpike house of whom she asked several questions about Birch, including whether he had gone to market and what horse he rode. Then she stalked Birch around his farm, hiding in an outbuilding until the moment was right. At around ten o’clock in the evening, she, peered through the kitchen window to check that Birch’s housekeeper and niece Sarah Bradbury had gone up to bed, lifted the latch of his farmhouse, crept up behind him as he slept in a chair and shot him twice, one of the bullets lodging in his head.

Birch did not at first realise that he had been wounded, but his niece and housekeeper Sarah Bradbury, alerted by the gunshot, came downstairs and saw that his head was ‘all over blood’. Mr Vickers, a surgeon in Birmingham, was fetched. He trepanned Birch’s skull and retrieved the bullet. The patient survived but suffered lifelong effects.

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Courtesy of the National Army Museum

Still dressed in male attire and carrying the loaded pistol, Rebecca was arrested in Birmingham, probably for showing some sort of erratic behaviour, and taken to Birmingham Gaol: William Payn, the gaoler, said later that he thought she had ‘broken out of a place of confinement’. He offered to send for her relatives in order to get her properly cared for, but she said it would be no use as she would just be arrested again.

‘For what?’ asked Payn.

‘For shooting a man,’ she replied.

In the courtyard she walked obsessively in a figure of eight and hung her head.

Later, once the connection between her confession and Mr Birch was known, she was brought to the Birmingham police office where she encountered Mr Vickers, the surgeon who had treated Birch. She said, ‘He [Samuel Birch] is not dead, I hope?,’ and when asked whether Birch had ever ill-treated her, replied, ‘No, never.’ She claimed that they had had a romantic relationship and, although she liked Birch very much.

Sir John Bayley, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery by William Holl Sr, after William Russell, stipple engraving, (circa 1808)

Rebecca was tried in front of Judge Bayley. It was clear that she had committed the deed and that there had been a large degree of planning, but the question was whether she was in her right mind. Francis Woodcock, a magistrate living in Worcestershire, told the court that she had lived in his household for three years and had shown symptoms of insanity, talking to herself, going missing, dancing alone in barns and fields and picking up sticks in one place and laying them down in another. He said she was ‘virtuous but harmless’. Her sister also gave evidence, describing her walking without shoes or wearing only one of them, going out with few clothes on and on one occasion trying to hang herself. Justice Bayley thought that she was not in her right mind and told the jury that if they had any doubt they should acquit her, which they did. She was ordered to be incarcerated in Warwick Gaol as a criminal lunatic. In 1816 she was transferred to Bethlehem Hospital in London, where after fourteen months she was discharged, the doctors there declaring her perfectly healthy.

Bethlem Hosptial at St George's Fields 1828

After Rebecca returned to Birmingham in early 1818 she lived a hand-to-mouth existence of casual employment, possibly combined with part-time prostitution. She often got drunk and was locked out of her lodgings. One constant was her resentment of Birch and after writing letters to him, pleading and threatening by turn, she once more travelled to the farm at Ward End intent on revenge. This time she fire to his haystacks, another capital offence.

Tennant, John F.; Loading the Hay Wagon; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/loading-the-hay-wagon-18819
Tennant, John F.; Loading the Hay Wagon; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

She was soon arrested and the circumstantial evidence against her was overwhelming. Witnesses spoke of a woman wearing a long dark cloak and bonnet; similar clothes were found in her lodgings. A linen draper, called as an expert witness, confirmed that a section of purple spotted scarf found near the fire matched one in her possession. A tinder box that had been discarded on the road contained small pieces of cotton resembling the material of one of her gowns.

Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library

During the trial Rebecca loudly and repeatedly berated and insulted the witnesses, each time Garrow patiently exhorting her to wait until it was her turn to question them. But despite his instruction to the jury to ‘keep in mind… the dreadful punishment that must necessarily follow a conviction’ they did not even pretend to discuss her possible innocence and within three minutes delivered a guilty verdict. While Rebecca screamed for mercy (‘My Lord, have mercy upon me! … Oh spare my life! Only spare my life, my Lord! I’m innocent! I’m innocent!’) the judge sentenced her to death and warned her not to entertain hopes of a respite.

In law there were four kinds of insanity: perpetual infirmity of mind from birth; the result of sickness, grief or other accident; intermittent (classed as insanity when it manifested and at times of lucidity not so); and a state arising from ‘vicious acts’ such as drunkenness. Rebecca Hodges’ gun attack on Mr Birch may have had been planned well in advance but her erratic behaviour before this  showed that she was not in her right mind and was enough to persuade the judge.

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Courtesy of the Library and Archives, Canada

Rebecca did not go to the gallows. She was respited and her sentence commuted. In 1819 she was transported for life on board the Lord Wellington in the company of two other Warwickshire women, Elizabeth and Rebecca Bamford, who had themselves narrowly avoided execution. They had been deeply involved in the family business of forgery and uttering and their sixty-year-old mother, Ann Bamford, had been hanged the previous year.

Rebecca Hodges Transportation record
Rebecca’s transportation record

In Australia, Rebecca continued to cause concern. She was first placed in the factory at Parmatta, later sent out to work as a domestic servant. Her propensity to go missing landed her in trouble in 1824 and she was punished with another spell at Parmatta. She was described in 1827 as ‘incompetent to any kind of work’. In 1838 she was granted a conditional pardon. Her date of death is unknown.

Sources:

Bury and Norfolk Post, 8 March 180; Northampton Mercury, 25 April 1818.

Willis, W., An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence (1838). London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans.

On Insanity: Mr Amos’s Lecture on Medical Jurisprudence. London Medical Gazette, 2 July 1831.

Unknown (1818). Trial of Rebecca Hodges. Warwick: S. Sharp.

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The miser, his daughter and her lover: Elizabeth Cardinall, 1776-1803

Clarkson Cardinall of Tendring in Essex was a miser. He lived in a large manor house, set in a good estate and had £60,000 in the bank, but he had let it fall into disrepair (to be honest, he reminds us of Sir Pitt Crawley, owner of Queen’s Crawley, in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). The front entrance to the house was shut up and the front court overgrown with weeds; guests had to enter by a narrow dark passage, conducted by the one and only servant, a decrepit old woman. Most of the windows were blockaded, to prevent the payment of window tax, but through the dim light available, guests could see the worn out old chairs they were expected to seat themselves on amidst the dust, cobwebs and detritus collected in the once stately rooms. Hanging proudly in the hallway was a military sash and sword, the remnants of Clarkson Cardinall’s military career as a junior officer with the Essex Militia. The family dressed in tattered clothing, Clarkson Cardinall often to be seen in a rusty drab coat with his grey hair straggling from beneath a faded brown wig.

Two children had been born to Cardinall, John, his son and heir, in 1770 and a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1776. His wife Elizabeth (known as Bessy) was the only child of the Reverend Talbot Lloyd; she had married Clarkson Cardinall in 1769.

Once a year father and son travelled (frugally of course!) to London to receive the dividends on their fortune held safely with the bank; the dividends amounted to more than £3,000 per year, but a visitor to their home would see scant evidence of the Cardinall’s wealth.

Manor House, Tendring. © Roger W Haworth
Manor House, Tendring. © Roger W Haworth

Elizabeth, when in her early 20s, attracted the attention of the son of a wealthy neighbouring landowner and William Leeds (for that was his name) began to pay court to her, leading to a marriage being arranged between the two fathers. Negotiations continued after William’s father had died and William moved in to live with the Cardinall’s in their manor house; terms were eventually agreed for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, and the parties travelled to London to draw up the marriage settlement and to procure the marriage licence, staying at an Inn in Whitechapel.

Clarkson Cardinall reluctantly settled £4,000 on his daughter, but stipulated that the marriage should not take place until after midsummer; the half year dividend was due then and he wanted to be the recipient of it, not his new son-in-law. William Leeds was eager to marry though, he also settled £4,000 upon the marriage and promised that he would allow his father-in-law the full dividend on his own money if he would consent to the marriage taking place before then. Cardinall agreed, and on the 15th April 1802, a Faculty Office Marriage Licence in the names of Elizabeth Cardinall and William Leeds was obtained. Elizabeth and her father returned to Essex to prepare for the marriage and William remained in London where the marriage was to take place (either the bride or the groom had to have resided for four weeks in the parish where the marriage was to be held) and the marriage was scheduled for mid-May.

And then, on the 9th May, just days before the nuptials, Elizabeth ran away with a sailor who was newly landed on shore.

Sailors arrival on shore from a cruise, 1808. © Royal Museums Greenwich
Sailors arrival on shore from a cruise, 1808. © Royal Museums Greenwich

William Leeds, seeking damages against his inconstant lady, instructed his lawyers to prepare a ‘Breach of Promise’ case which was heard on the 1st March 1803 at the Court of the King’s Bench in the Guildhall.

Mr Erskine, acting for William Leeds, addressed the court.

Gentlemen, I do not mean to contend that when a man is thus deceived and disappointed, he suffers the like disparagement as when it happens to a female; nor do I affect to say that my client is ready to hang himself; but his Lordship will tell you, that if a man suffers mortification, in having his marriage settlements overturned by a woman’s playing the jilt, he is also entitled to compensation for his mortified feelings.

Guildhall, Court of the King's Bench, from The Microcosm of London, 1809
Guildhall, Court of the King’s Bench, from The Microcosm of London, 1809

Elizabeth, now the wife of Charles John Cooke, the handsome sailor who had so swiftly obtained her hand in marriage and who, as Elizabeth was penniless, would be liable to pay any damages awarded to William Leeds, was represented by the well-known Mr Garrow. And here her story began to take on a different character.

For William Leeds was not the bereft lover he presented himself as. In fact, he was a cad of the highest order and Elizabeth had made a lucky escape.

Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library
Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held at the Harvard Law Library

As soon as the marriage settlement had been signed, and the marriage licence procured, William Leeds had shown himself in his true colours, confident that Elizabeth, or rather her fortune in the three percents, was his and that the marriage was now a mere formality. When Elizabeth expressed a wish to walk rather than to ride in a carriage when they went to take the air, William threatened her, promising to break her bones and flay her alive if she did not always instantly conform to his wishes when they were married. Mr Garrow continued:

It had once been a matter of merriment, to consider whether a man might not use a stick as thick as his thumb to correct his wife; but, to prevent all future discussion, Mr. Leeds before hand gave his intended wife a taste of the horsewhip he meant to use as his instrument of correction.

And, rather than stay by Elizabeth’s side, just hours after the marriage deeds had been drawn up he had, with the full knowledge of his future father-in-law, proceeded to enjoy the favours of two whores he met in Fleet Street; they took him back to their lodgings in Milk Street.

If Elizabeth had been shocked and frightened by William’s treatment of her in London she was aghast when, back in their mouldy Essex mansion, her father informed her that her intended spouse had been consorting with the Milk Street whores. Even though he knew of this, and of William’s treatment of his daughter, he still pressed for the marriage. It was against this backdrop that she ran into the path of the handsome sailor, and he presented an escape route from both her father and her fiancée; is it little wonder that she took to her heels and eloped with him, with scarcely a backwards glance?

It was claimed that the pair, Charles James Cooke, a purser on an East Indiaman, and Elizabeth Cardinall married at Gretna Green in Scotland, but if they did so they solemnised their vows a second time close to Elizabeth’s home for on the 9th July 1802 they presented themselves at the parish church in Ardleigh to recite their vows to one another. The three witnesses who signed the register were William and Elizabeth Cook and Louisa Kelly and the Ipswich Journal, on the 12th June 1802, carried the following notice.

COLCHESTER, June 11.

Lately was married, Mr. Chas. John Cook, of the Hon. East India Company’s service, to Miss Eliz. Cardinall, only daughter of Clarkson Cardinall, Esq. of Tendring.

Charles took Elizabeth without any fortune, for her enraged father cruelly refused to have anything to do with her (and was probably most satisfied with the prospect of keeping his fortune intact). Charles had been left under the care of a Trustee as a child when his father died, and the unscrupulous trustee had converted the money his young charge possessed to his own use, and so Charles had sought his own fortune at sea but had little besides his wages.

Ships at Spithead 1797. Sceptre. King George, Hudson's BayCompany. Rodney, East Indiaman. Ganges. Perseverence. General Goddard, East Indiaman. Watercolour by Nicholas Pocock. © Royal Museums Greenwich
Ships at Spithead 1797. Sceptre. King George, Hudson’s Bay Company. Rodney, East Indiaman. Ganges. Perseverence. General Goddard, East Indiaman. Watercolour by Nicholas Pocock. © Royal Museums Greenwich

A daughter was soon born to Elizabeth, named Eliza Cardinall Cooke, and Elizabeth and her child found themselves in desperate want. On top of this, William Leeds brought the Breach of Promise case to try to win the money he had hoped to gain when Elizabeth was his wife, despite the fact that he had since asked for the hand in marriage of another lady, a Miss Turpin (it was suggested in court that this had been within a day or two of Elizabeth eloping).

Mr Garrow roundly denounced both William Leeds and Clarkson Cardinall, and various witnesses, including Elizabeth’s brother John, testified to William’s cruel treatment of her and the jury agreed with them; they awarded William Leeds a derisory one shilling for damages.

Being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1807.
More Miseries; being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1807.

And, with that matter sorted, one could have hoped that Elizabeth might now have a chance of future happiness, having escaped both William Leeds and her father. Sadly it was not to be and, however much we would like to, we cannot give Elizabeth the happy ending that fate cruelly denied her. Just weeks later, beset by poverty and misery and with her new-born daughter in distress she approached her father’s house, only to be rebuffed by him. Just a few yards from his door she fell to the ground and breathed her last. She was buried on the 25th March 1803 in Tendring churchyard.

Maybe Charles John Cooke had returned to his ship, for he was not mentioned further. Their infant daughter was placed by her grandfather with a poor woman who lived near to his house, but his charity to this helpless infant, his own flesh and blood, extended little beyond that. He paid as small a sum for her sustenance that he could manage to get away with, and she lived a miserable existence.

The Sailor's Farewell by George Morland, c.1790. Winnipeg Art Gallery
The Sailor’s Farewell by George Morland, c.1790. Winnipeg Art Gallery

Clarkson Cardinall died in 1825 at the grand old age of 95 years, and probably his passing was mourned by very few (his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1818). His son John inherited his father’s fortune and his estate, although little Eliza Cardinall Cooke was mentioned in her grandfather’s will. She was to receive the interest and dividends on a sum of £5,000 for the term of her natural life, and after her death the lump sum of £5,000 was to be shared by any lawful children she left behind. At the end of his life, had Cardinall regretted the cruel treatment he had meted out to his only daughter and her child? For Elizabeth’s only crime was to marry without his consent, an act she rashly undertook to try to save herself from a lifetime of misery as the wife of William Leeds.

Eliza Cardinall Cooke lived until 1839. She was buried, on the 9th May 1839, in the churchyard at Tendring, next to her mother; her abode was given as Wrabness.

Notes:

Between 1798 and 1801 Charles John Cooke was the Purser on board the Tellicherry which sailed to St Helena and Bengal and arrived at the Downs on the 25th September 1801, but he had left the ship by the time of his marriage to Elizabeth (it sailed from the Downs on the 13th April 1802 with a new Purser).

Sources Used:

Life at Weeley Camp and Barracks, 1803 to 1804, from Mary Ann Grant’s Sketches of Life and Manners (contains a link to an excellent transcript of Mary Ann’s letters, including one written after a visit to Clarkson Cardinall’s home in July 1803, just months after the death of Elizabeth).

The Ipswich Journal, 12th June 1802.

The Morning Post, 2nd March 1803.

The Morning Chronicle, 2nd March 1803.

A Register of Ships, Employed in the Service of the Honorable the United East India Company, from the year 1760 to 1810 by Charles and Horatio Charles Hardy, 1811.

Branded for Bigamy

Proceedings of the Old Bailey always make for interesting reading, so here are some statistics about the crime of bigamy.

Did you know that between 1750 and 1800 there were over one hundred cases for bigamy, of which 86 cases were against males, 55 of whom were found guilty, 31 not guilty or case dismissed? Interestingly, of the 55 men who were found guilty their sentences were as follows:

15 Branded

30 Sentenced to various periods in prison

7 were transported

2 were fined

and one had no sentence recorded.

There were 19 cases against women who had allegedly married a second time twice whilst still married to their first husband, we had no idea is was such a common occurrence.

However, looking at these 19 cases we have only found 5 that were found guilty, if not found guilty then their case was simply dismissed. Those who were found guilty were given the following punishment –

Sarah Baker (branded)

Catherine Martin (prison),

Jane Allen (branded),

Maria Edkins (sent to House of Correction)

and Lucy Ahier (prison).

So with that we thought we would take a quick look at one of the five women that were found guilty – Jane Allen.

This case took place on 29th June 1785 with William Garrow, who had only been called the the Bar just over a year before, acting for the defendant.

Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library
Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library

On the 1st December 1782 Robert Allen, a butcher, married Jane Watson at Wapping church, Tower Hamlets, nothing exciting or unusual about that you would think, a perfectly normal marriage.

Jane Watson first marriage 1782 - bigamy

The problem arose when only two years later Jane, at St. Martin’s in the Fields, Middlesex, on the 1st September 1784, claimed to be a spinster when she married for a second time, her second husband being one Charles Burton. The problem with her second marriage being that her husband Robert Allen was still very much alive, thereby making her a bigamist.

Jane Watson 2nd marriage 1784

The court heard that Jane had lived with Robert as his legal spouse and Robert produced witnesses who were able to corroborate this.

Jane’s defense was that during the time she was married to Robert that he treated her in a most brutal manner, and forced her to submit to prostitution to maintain him before he abandoned her. Unfortunately the court found Jane guilty of bigamy and her sentence was to be branded.

Anyone convicted of a crime and sentenced to branding would be branded on the thumb with the letter ‘M’ to denote a ‘malefactor’ or ‘evil-doer‘, also,  slightly confusingly, ‘M’ for murder, ‘T’ for theft, ‘F for felon. Branding took place in the courtroom at the end of the sessions in front of spectators with a hot iron. It is alleged that sometimes criminals convicted of petty theft, or who were able to bribe the goaler, had the branding iron applied when it was cold.

Normal practice was that the gaoler raised the person’s hand and showed it to the judge to denote that the mark had been made.  It became the rule that before a prisoner was tried he was required to raise his hand so that it could be seen whether he bore the brand mark and was therefore a previous offender.

Being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1807.
Being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1807 (British Museum)

Sources used:

Old Bailey Online

London Lives April 1793

London Lives  October 1793 – September 1794

London Lives June 1785

The Old Bailey. Microcosm of London.

Eliza Fenning: innocent but proven guilty

We are delighted to welcome our guest, Naomi Clifford, host of the blog Glimpses of life, love and death in the Georgian era to recount the tragic tale of Eliza Fenning, so have your tissues handy, you’ll need them!

Eliza Fenning

In the afternoon of 11 April 1815 two men came into the Pitt’s Head public house opposite the Old Bailey and seated themselves at a table. Their clothes marked them out as working men but they were clean and neat. One of them, an old man, was trying to write on a scrap of paper, but was so distressed, his hand shaking so much, that he could not manage it. His friend tried to take over, but he too could not form the letters. Eventually, the old man appealed to a stranger to help. “I want to tell the court that my daughter Eliza told me she was happy in her situation,” he said.

This simple and innocuous statement was crucial to his daughter’s fate, he said. The stranger obliged and the men left the pub and crossed over to the Old Bailey where Eliza Fenning was on trial for her life, accused of attempting to murder her employer and members of his family by putting arsenic in their dinner.

William Fenning, Eliza’s 63-year-old father, was deluded: his daughter’s short road through life had already been mapped, its course decided by a combination of personal animosity, class prejudice, conspiracy and official incompetence.

Eliza, aged 20, worked as a cook for Orlibar Turner, a law stationer living at 68 Chancery Lane, London with his wife Margaret, son Robert and daughter-in-law Charlotte. Turner also employed a maid, Sarah Peer, and two apprentices. Eliza was generally well thought-of; she was lively, amusing, amiable and hard-working. However, a few weeks before the poisoning Charlotte had threatened her with dismissal for going, inappropriately dressed, into the apprentices’ room to borrow a candle. Eliza had been upset by this and had declared to Sarah Peer that she no longer liked her mistress but seemed to put the incident behind her. In reality, it was Charlotte and Sarah who disliked Eliza.

Eliza liked cooking and wanted to show off her skill at making dumplings but Charlotte put her off. However, on 21 March, on her own initiative, Eliza asked the brewer to deliver some yeast. At this, Charlotte relented and agreed that Eliza could serve the family steak, potatoes and dumplings for dinner, and that she should also make a steak pie for the apprentices. Eliza got busy. She made the pie and prepared the dumplings. The apprentices ate at 2pm and the family at 3 so she set the dumplings by the fire to rise while she took the pie to be cooked at the bakers. When she returned she could see that the dumplings were not a success. They had failed to rise.

She must have taken remedial measures, which also failed because when she brought six dumplings to the table they were small, black and heavy. Nevertheless, the Turners ate them, as did Eliza herself. The effects were immediate. Charlotte was soon in excruciating pain and vomiting. Her husband and father-in-law – and Eliza – were also stricken. One of the apprentices, Roger Gadsden, who had picked at the dumplings in the kitchen, and later claimed in court that Eliza warned him not to do so, was also ill. Henry Ogilvy, a surgeon, was sent for, and soon there was another, John Marshall, in attendance.

Eliza asked her fellow servant Sarah Peer, who had not eaten any dumplings, to fetch her father who worked for his brother, a potato dealer, in Red Lion Street, Holborn. Sarah did not tell Mr Fenning it was urgent and said nothing about the sickness in the house, and her message slipped his mind until he was back at home. Between 9 and 10 that evening, he turned up at the Turners’ house in Chancery Lane and knocked. Now Sarah told him a barefaced lie. On the orders of her mistress, she said that Eliza was out on an errand. He went away entirely unaware that five people inside the house, including his daughter, had been poisoned. The family recovered. Whatever they had eaten had been insufficient to kill them.

Orlibar Turner seems to have immediately suspected the dumplings. Once he had recovered sufficiently he showed Mr Marshall the remains of the basin they had been prepared in. Marshall added water, stirred and decanted it and examined the sediment. He found half a teaspoon of white powder, which tarnished a knife. “I decidedly found it to be arsenic,” he later told the court. He did not detect arsenic in the remains of the yeast or in the flour.

Eliza Fenning

Eliza was the only suspect, as she had made the dumplings and, still suffering the effects of the poisoning, she was taken before a magistrate and sent to Clerkenwell Prison. When her parents were finally made aware of her plight, they raised £5 for her defence. Two guineas went to Mr Alley, a defence attorney, and the remainder to a jobbing solicitor who drew up the brief. This was the sum total of her legal resources: against her were ranged the Turners and their armoury of legal contacts, favours and knowledge. The prosecution was riddled with conflict of interest: their personal friend and solicitor worked as the clerk to the magistrate who had committed Eliza.

The case came to trial at the Old Bailey on 11th April 1815 and was heard by the Recorder, John Silvester.The case against Eliza was entirely circumstantial and focused on her general behaviour and attitude, and her potential access to the poison. Simmering with resentment at her dressing-down by Charlotte, she had stolen the arsenic and planned her murderous attack.

John Silvester c.1815
John Silvester c.1815

Orlibar Turner kept two wrappers of arsenic, tied up tight and labelled “Arsenick, Deadly Poison”, in an unlocked drawer in the office where the apprentices worked. It was used on the mice and rats who liked to eat the vellum and parchment. Two weeks before the poisoning, he noticed that it was missing. The drawer also contained scraps of paper, which the servants used for lighting the fire. During the trial, Roger Gadsden, one of the apprentices, said he had seen Eliza take paper from the drawer where the arsenic was kept. The implication was that she had seen it there and stolen it. In court Eliza said that when she needed paper for the fire she asked for it and pleaded for Thomas King, the other apprentice, to come to court to back her up. He was denied to her. Mr Ogilvy, who would have told the court that she herself had been very ill, was not called.

Eliza’s defence was feeble, to say the least. Her defence attorney Mr Alley barely spoke and was not even in court to hear the Recorder’s summing up. One of the jurymen was deaf. She was permitted to speak in her defence, but not for long. “I am truly innocent of the whole charge. I am innocent; indeed I am! I liked my place. I was very comfortable,” she said. She called five character witnesses.

William Fenning’s desperate attempt to submit sworn evidence of his daughter’s happiness with the Turners was in vain. The court would not accept his statement.

The guilty verdict and the death sentence, both predictable, were nevertheless a terrible shock, and not only to Eliza and her family. Many of the great and the good immediately started petitions: to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth; to the Prince Regent. Letters were written to The Times (but not published).

Basil Montagu, a prominent Quaker, uncovered evidence that Robert Turner had had a previous episode of mental instability, appearing “wild” and “deranged”, threatening to kill his wife and himself. He sent his evidence to Silvester, who dismissed it as “wholly useless.”

An anonymous chemist decided to recreate elements of the crime himself. He made dumplings with arsenic – it had no effect on whether they rose or not. He asked his cook to make dumplings and then secretly contaminated them when she was not looking; no one noticed any change in their consistency. He even tried to convince the Turners, whose support was Eliza’s best hope of reprieve, by visiting them at home but, just as he was making headway with Orlibar Turner, John Silvester, the Recorder, entered the house and, backed by Robert Turner, convinced him not to sign the petition in support of Eliza.

The efforts of Eliza’s middle-class supporters failed. John Silvester’s hold over the case prevailed and Eliza’s execution was scheduled. She protested her innocence to the last. “The parting scene with her mother was heart-rending. They were separated from each other in a state of dreadful agony,” wrote William Hone.2

On the morning of 26 July 1815, Eliza rose at 4 am, washed and gave a lock of her hair to each of her attendants. She prayed until 7 and dressed.

“I wish to leave the world – it is all vanity and vexation of spirit. But it is a cruel thing to die innocently; yet I freely forgive every one, and die in charity with all the world, but cannot forget my injured innocence.”

She looked through the window at the other prisoners, who had been locked in their cells but who had climbed up to the windows to see her. “Good bye! good bye! to all of you,” she cried.

Dressed in white muslin gown and a muslin cap and pale lilac boots laced in front, with her arms bound, she mounted the scaffold. Before she dropped, her last words were “I am innocent!” She was followed by two others: a child rapist and a homosexual.

Amongst the 50,000-strong crowd was the writer and journalist William Hone, defender of press freedom and friend of the oppressed.

William Hone by William Patten
William Hone by William Patten

“I got into an immense crowd that carried me along with them against my will; at length, I found myself under the gallows where Eliza Fenning was to be hanged. I had the greatest horror of witnessing an execution, and of this particular execution, a young girl of whose guilt I had grave doubts. But I could not help myself; I was closely wedged in; she was brought out. I saw nothing but I heard all. I heard her protesting her innocence – I heard the prayer – I could hear no more. I stopped my ears, and knew nothing else till I found myself in the dispersing crowd, and far from that dreadful spot.”

Eliza’s parents were charged 14 shillings and sixpence for her body. They had to borrow the money. Her only possession, a Bible, was bequeathed to her mother. On 31 April she was buried at St George the Martyr, near Brunswick Square. There were a hundred mourners but many others tried to get in.

Fenning’s case continued to trouble and intrigue lawyers and scientists. Did arsenic really blacken knives? Was Marshall’s evidence true and believable? How much had collusion between the judge, the prosecutor and the witnesses been responsible for the guilty verdict and the failure of appeals for remission?

To the crowds of poor and angry Londoners, who knew that a defenceless working woman had been judicially murdered, these things were irrelevant. A thousand angry people gathered outside the Turners’ house. Some were arrested for behaving in a “riotous and tumultuous manner”. Police from Bow Street were stationed outside for days.

Commissioned by John Watkins, William Hone, who had reluctantly witnessed Eliza’s death, started gathering evidence. The Sessions Report of the trial was flawed; large sections were missing. The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Fenning proved Eliza’s innocence and detailed the efforts that the establishment had taken to ensure that she was executed. Silvester’s extraordinary intervention with Orlibar Turner, Basil Montagu’s doomed investigation into Robert Turner’s mental ill-health were detailed.

Hone’s publication itself became the story as Silvester, and the legal establishment tried to defend their conduct. Silvester had a reputation as a hanging judge and was biased against female defendants. There were rumours that he solicited sexual favours in return for mercy.

The Observer took the lead and its lies were repeated in newspapers across the country. The Fennings were said to be Roman Catholics, to be Irish, to have shown Eliza’s body in return for money; her father, they said, had urged her to protest her innocence only to preserve his own reputation. These allegations were printed up as handbills and pushed through letterboxes and pasted up in shop windows. John Marshall and Henry Ogilvy claimed that Eliza had refused medical treatment because she knew her plan had failed. “She would much rather die than live, as life was as no consequence to her” they said.

Even if you accept that many trials at this time were ramshackle affairs, the injustice of Eliza’s execution was a brutal shock but not a surprise. For middle-class families at a time of political change, with ideas of equality wafting across Europe, Eliza represented their greatest fear: the resentful servant with revenge on her mind.

Postscript

Orlibar Turner was declared bankrupt in 1825 (Sussex Advertiser, 7 February 1825).

In 1828, John Gordon Smith, the University of London’s first Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, noted a claim in the Morning Journal that a son of Orlibar Turner had died in Ipswich workhouse confessing that he had put arsenic in the dumplings. I can find no evidence of this but Robert Greyson Turner was certainly living in Ipswich in 1820 (his wife Charlotte was from Suffolk) – he and his brother are listed in The Poll for Members of Parliament for the Borough of Ipswich.

On 21 June 1829, The Examiner noted that William Fenning, Eliza’s heart-broken father, was still living in London. “The unfortunate girl was his favourite child.” A William Fenning died in Holborn in 1842. If this is “our” William Fenning, he would have been 91.

Endnotes

Fans of the BBC’s Garrow’s Law will recall Silvester as the somewhat fictionalized “baddie”. He was sometimes known as “Black Jack”.

The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Fenning.

Recommended

The Old Bailey online

Ben Wilson, The Laughter of Triumph. London, Faber and Faber, 2005 http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Laughter-Triumph-William-Fight/dp/0571224709

William Hone, The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Fenning , London 1815

The Poll for the Members of Parliament of Ipswich

 

Header image: An Old Bailey trial in the early 19th century. From Rudolph Ackermann, The Microcosm of London (London, [1808-1810]) British Library C.194.b.305-307