The first was convicted of robbery, and pardoned; the second was convicted of, and transported for, Perjury, in swearing to that robbery.
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.
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 great-coat; 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.
On her recovery from the fit, and about half an hour before she reached Wells's house, she found herself by the road side, the two men dragging her forward. She observed water near the road, and arrived at the house where she said she was confined about three hours before day-light. When she came into the house, she did not see the mistress of it, Susannah Wells; but saw Mary Squires, a gipsey, and two girls.
Squires taking Canning by the hand, asked her if she chose to go their way, and, if she would, she should have fine cloaths. Canning, understanding that her meaning was to commence prostitute, replied in the negative; on which Squires took a knife from a drawer, cut the lace from her stays, and took them from her. Then Squires pushed her up a few stairs out of the kitchen, to a place called the Hayloft, and shut the door on her. On the approach of daylight, she found that the room had neither bed nor bedstead, and only hay to sleep on; that there was a black pitcher nearly full of water, and about twenty-four pieces of bread, in the whole about the quantity of a quartern-loaf; and that she had in her pocket a penny minced-pie, which she had bought to carry to her brother.
She said, that she covered herself with a bedgown and handkerchief, which she found in the grate; and that, for the space of twenty-eight days within a few hours, which she remained there, she had no food nor liquor except what is abovementioned, nor had the common evacuation of nature.
About four in the afternoon of Monday the 29th of January, she pulled down a board that was nailed on the inside of the window, and getting her head first out, she kept fast hold by the wall, and then dropped into a narrow place by a lane, behind which was a field.
Having got into the highway, she enquired her way to London, but did not stop. When she came into Moorfields the clock struck ten; and she thence prpceeded to her mother's near Aldermanbury, where she told the above story to two gentlemen with whom she had lived as a servant: to which she added, that the place where she had been confined was near the Hertfordshire road, which was evident from her having seen a coachman drive by, who had frequently carried her mistress into Hertfordshire.
A number of circumstances giving reason to suspect that the house in which she had been confined was that of Susannah Wells, a warrant was issued to apprehend her and Squires, and such other people as might be found in the house.
Mr Lion, with whom she had lived servant, and several other persons, went with her to execute the warrant. When she came to the place, she fixed on Mary Squires as the person who bad robbed her; and she said that Virtue Hall stood by while her stays were cut off.
On this, all the parties were carried before Justice Tysh maker; when Hall so solemnly denied all knowledge of any such transaction having happened since she had been in the house, that she was discharged; but Squires was committed to New-prison for the robbery, and Wells for aiding and abetting her.
Soon afterwards, justice Fielding was applied to for a warrant for the apprehension of Hall, and she was examined before the magistrate for six hours, during which she continued in her former declaration. At length the justice said, that 'he would examine her no longer, but would commit 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.
Hereupon she begged to be heard, and said she would tell the whole truth: and the substance of her declaration was, that Canning had been at Mrs Wells's, and was robbed in the manner that she herself had declared.
On this, Squires and Wells were brought to trial at the Old Bailey, and convicted, principally on the evidence of Virtue Hall, the first for assaulting and robbing Elizabeth Canning, and the latter for harbouring, concealing, and comforting her, well knowing her to have committed the robbery: and John Gibson, William Clark, and Thomas Grevil, having positively sworn that Squires was in Dorsetshire at the time when the robbery was said to have been perpetrated, they were committed to be tried for perjury.
Some gentlemen who had heard the trial, being dissatisfied with the evidence, made such application, that a free pardon was granted to Squires.
In the mean time, numbers of people were of opinion that the countrymen had sworn to the truth; and measures were accordingly taken to indict Canning for perjury: but, at the next sessions, her friends preferred bills of indictment against the men. Bills of indictment against the opposite parties being brought at the same time, the grand jury threw them all out; being resolved not to give any countenance to such a scene of perjury as must arise on one side or the other.
This happened at the sessions in April; but, at the next sessions, in June, bills of indictment were found against the countrymen: these, however, were intended to be removed into the court of King's Bench, by writ of certiorari; but the court refused to grant the writ, alledging, that the indictments ought to be tried at the Old Bailey, because the king's commission of gaol-delivery was directed to that court. Hereupon the countrymen were bailed; and, at the sessions held in the month of September following, they were arraigned, but were honourably acquitted, no person appearing to give evidence against them.
Squires being pardoned, and these men thus acquitted, the public opinion of this singular case became still more divided. Every one saw that there must have been perjury in the affair; but it was impossible to determine on which side it lay.
The lord mayor of London, at that time, was Sir Crisp Gascoyne, who exerted himself in the most vigilant manner to come at the truth of this mysterious affair; for which, as is but too common, he was abused with a degree of virulence that reflected the highest infamy on his calum niators; for, whatever might be their private opinion, or whatever his own, it was certainly the duty of a good magistrate to endeavour to investigate the truth.
In the month of May, 1754, Elizabeth Canning was indicted at the Old Bailey for wilful and corrupt perjury, in swearing, that she had been robbed by Mary Squires. A great number of witnesses swore that Squires was near Abbotsbury at the time that the robbery was said to have been committed: and, on the dontrary, more than thirty persons of reputation declared on oath, that Canning's character stood so fair, that they could not conceive her capable of being guilty of suchan atrociods crime as wilful perjury.
Ingenious arguments were used by the council on each side; and the jury, after mature deliberation, brought in a verdict, that she was guilty; in consequence of which, she received sentence to be transported for seven years.
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 newspapers and magazines were for a long time filled with little else than accounts of Canning and Squires: prints of both parties were published, and bought up with great avidity. Canning was remarkable for what is called the plainness, and Squires for the ugliness, of person; and perhaps there never was a human face more disagreeable than that of the latter.
We should hardly be thought to exceed the truth, if we were to say that ten thousand quarrels arose from, and fifty thousand wagers were laid on, this business. All Great Britain and Ireland seemed to be interested in the event: and the person who did not espouse either one party or the other was thought to have no feeling. The first question in the morning was, 'What news of Canning?' and the last squabble at night was, whether she was honest or perjured; but this, however, could never be determined; and it will probably remain a mystery as long as the world endures.
Elizabeth Canning was transported to New England on the 31st of July, 1754, having first received some hundred pounds collected by the bounty of her friends and partizans.
She was afterwards reputably married in America; and the newspapers gave notice, that she died some years ago in that country.
From this story we may learn two useful lessons, on the fallibility of human testimony, and the horrid crime of perjury. If Canning was guilty, her crime was of the most enormous magnitude, that of endeavouring to swear away a life, in order to cover, perhaps, her own disgrace; for some persons thought that she had been debauched in her absence, and that the whole was a concerted scheme to conceal the truth. If she was innocent, what a variety of perjuries must have been committed by the opposite parties!
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. In the mean time, it is our duty to admire and adore those inscrutable decrees of Providence, which can bring good out of evil, and answer its own wise and gracious purposes, by means least apparent to finite comprehension!