On New Year’s Day, 1753, Elizabeth Canning disappeared. An eighteen-year-old girl, she was unremarkable in every respect, from her appearance to her disposition, but she was about to become the most famous person in London. When she reappeared one month later, starving and ill, she claimed she had been abducted and held captive by a woman named Susannah Wells, who wanted Elizabeth to work for her as a prostitute. Based on Elizabeth’s testimony, Wells was arrested, tried, and convicted—but the case was just getting started.
Convinced the young woman was lying, the Lord Mayor of London set out to uncover the truth. What followed was one of the most celebrated criminal cases of the era. The controversy, which threatened to tear London apart, revolved around one frightened, mysterious girl.
Meticulously researched and irresistibly readable, Elizabeth Is Missing is the definitive account of one of the most unusual cases of the eighteenth century, a must-read for fans of historical true crime.
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"Lost: A Girl"
Elizabeth Canning said good-night to her Aunt Alice Colley at the foot of Houndsditch and started on her way. She was bound for the house of Edward Lyon, where she was a servant. Her Aunt Colley leaned across a post and watched her disappear into the darkness. This was on the night of January 1, 1753.
Elizabeth Canning did not emerge from that darkness again until the evening of January 29, when she stumbled, starving, ragged, and blue, into her mother's house in Aldermanbury Postern, and told a story that set London by the ears.
Elizabeth Canning was eighteen years old, and she had never had much fun. In the eighteenth century girls like Elizabeth had a pretty thin time.
In the first place, half the population was constantly scheming to seduce them; and the other half (the female half) was just waiting to kick them finally into the gutter if they succumbed. To this obsession of both sexes everything they said and wrote bears witness. The most popular book of Elizabeth Canning's day was Richardson's Pamela. A best-seller received with moral ecstasies, it is no more than the monotonous record of the attempts of a man of fashion to seduce his fourteen-year-old servant-maid. He had her abducted by his coachman, and he hid in her closet, and he would have accomplished his fell design if the girl had not conveniently gone off into fits. Nobody thought this behaviour at all odd of him. Casual whoring was universal, but seducing virgins was generally considered finer sport. What reduced the public to a pulp of sentimental admiration was the virtuous resistance of the serving-wench, and all rejoiced to see it suitably rewarded with the unsuccessful seducer's hand in marriage.
Not that Elizabeth Canning could hope for any such happy ending, for she was universally admitted to be plain. In this she differed not only from Pamela, but also from later-day heroines of sensational cases, who are always promoted to beauties by the yellow press. Far different the pamphleteers of 1753, who with brutal frankness described Bet Canning as a dowdy, a coarse piece of stuff with an ugly phiz.
This was harsh of them. Betty Canning was a pink-and-white blonde with a trim little figure, worth a second look from any man. True, the second look would reveal that her brows and lashes were a rabbity yellow, and that smallpox had marred the rosy complexion, while her small nose had a foolish droop at the tip. When she sat for her portrait later, her little mouth was set and her big eyes were sad; but perhaps there was reason enough for that.
Elizabeth Canning was brought up in Aldermanbury Postern. In 1753 most of the old gates in London Wall were still standing. They had accumulated, in the course of centuries, huddles of old buildings clustered against them like barnacles. They were an impediment to traffic, but tearing them down meant taking with them many such old houses as that in which Elizabeth lived. Ten years later they all went; but by that time it was nothing to Elizabeth Canning.
Aldermanbury Postern was a mere cleft in the ruins of London Wall, just west of Moorfields. About it clustered a congestion of dark old warrens. It was so narrow and inconvenient that the men of Aldermanbury petitioned the Common Council to have it pulled down, but it stood for another ten years in their despite.
In one of the tall narrow houses Elizabeth Canning grew up. Her father was a journeyman carpenter by trade. He was married to a hard-working, rather stupid, rather flighty woman, given to dreams and fortune-telling and Methodism. By her he had Elizabeth, a boy six years younger, and two still younger children — not counting those that died in babyhood, or were carried off by the smallpox that spoiled Elizabeth's face.
With babies, and smallpox, and all, the Cannings barely managed to keep their heads above water. Canning was employed by Edward Lyon, master carpenter, of Aldermanbury. Mrs. Canning attempted to supplement his scanty earnings by plying the related calling of sawyer, picking up a bit on the side by selling the materials of their trade to her husband's associates. To help in this venture she took an apprentice, one James Lord. But all her efforts and her husband's were not quite enough, and she had to look around for another source of income.
This she found in the house they lived in. The men of Aldermanbury wished it torn down; it was old and narrow, being only one room wide and two rooms deep, like many ancient houses in the city; but it could be put to use. Mrs. Canning, pressed for cash, found a tenant for most of the house. Mr. Francis Roberts, blue-maker, engaged the two garrets, the chamber, and for his counting-house a little room below, at seven pounds a year. The Cannings had very little space left. Not counting the kitchen and wash-house, which were separate at the rear, they had only two rooms to house them all. In one of these rooms slept the apprentice and the little boy. In the other, husband and wife and growing daughter and the rest of the youngsters all lay together, not improbably in one bed and the truckle underneath. Sleeping was amazingly communal in the eighteenth century. It was a saving in bedding and bed-curtains, and besides, it was warmer that way.
In this narrow life her eldest daughter was a comfort to Mrs. Canning. She was good and industrious and fond of the youngsters, and had no flighty notions. Unfortunately, she was also a source of care to the good woman. She pulled through the smallpox all right, though it marked her. But she was so costive that Mrs. Canning had to call in Dr. Catridge, and the old man's purges were a little drastic for the child. Then when she was fourteen, the old house showed its instability by letting down a garret ceiling upon her head — this must have been before the blue-maker's tenancy. The accident threw the girl into a fit, and from that time she was liable to fits.
You would think that Elizabeth's mother had it hard enough. But alas, when the newest baby was on the way, the hard-working husband died. His widow was put to shifts. She had Mr. Roberts's seven pounds, and James Lord could carry on the slim trade of sawyer, but things with her were harder than ever. There were days when all Elizabeth had to eat was half a roll. She was just sixteen, and all the education she had was a quarter-year at charity school.
There was only one thing to do, and Elizabeth did it. She went out to service. She found a place with a family friend, John Wintlebury, keeper of a respectable alehouse in Aldermanbury, the Weavers Arms. Not as a barmaid — she was temperamentally unfitted for that extravert's occupation, as Mr. Wintlebury soon saw. So far from being forward and gay, she was shy and had no interest in the customers, or indeed in any man. She kept out of the public part of the house almost entirely; she would hardly, Mr. Wintlebury noticed, go to the door to speak to anybody.
Mr. Wintlebury thought very highly of her. There was no hope in this, however, that she might do a Pamela, in a small way. There was a Mrs. Wintlebury, a travelled dame who hailed from Hertford and was always going back there. When she wasn't going there, she was sending letters and parcels. One of Elizabeth's duties was to carry the letters and parcels to the coaching-house in Bishopsgate Street. She became well acquainted with the great high lumbering coach with its spans of horses, and the honest driver on the box.
The interludes of the Hertford coach must have been pleasant ones for Betty Canning. For the most part, all the drudgery of the house fell to her share, and she performed it conscientiously. Those were days when the only water in the house was what the servant lugged in by hand; the only fire was on the open hearth; plumbing was unknown, the piss-pot only too well known to the serving-wench who had to cope with it.
Laundry was done in a stone outbuilding, by main force. Bet Canning was short, but she was sturdy. She never complained about carrying the water and handling the voluminous wet garments. She was intent on doing her best. She worried so for fear that the watchman would not call her in time to do her washing — before dawn, for the whole household would be stirring by daylight — that she was known to spend the night in the damp stone wash-house.
Such working conditions seem to us like a pretty good reason for looking for a better place, but they did not seem so to the eighteenth century. Such was the lot of the servant-girl. Nevertheless, Elizabeth left the Weavers Arms, some time in mid-October 1752. Elizabeth's friends gave a reason for it afterwards. As she advanced towards maturity, they said, she could not avoid some freedoms from the multitude of company who resorted to her master's house, which were offensive to her modesty, and which she feared might be injurious to her reputation.
Betty was so well liked in the neighbourhood that many of the neighbours offered her a place. She elected to go to her father's former employer, Edward Lyon.
Mr. Lyon was a deaf old gentleman in a prosperous way of life. For sixteen years he had been carpenter to the Goldsmiths' Company. Now growing old, he lived a jolly life with his fellow artisans of Goldsmiths' Hall. They had a club, and met convivially together every couple of weeks at Gawen Nash's coffee-house in Gutter Lane. There Lyon consorted with the plumbers and bricklayers on the company rolls, as well as with Edward Aldridge, silversmith, and John Hague, goldsmith.
While Betty was living servant with the Lyons, Mrs. Canning continued in the narrow old house in Aldermanbury Postern. James Lord was in the fifth year of his indentures, and attended to the business. He was a good sawyer, if rather too much like Hogarth's Industrious Apprentice.
In Aldermanbury Mrs. Canning had no need to be lonely, for she had her knot of cronies there. There was Mrs. Woodward from over the way, in the goods-broking line; she was a grave woman, to be called first in any emergency. The widow Myers was more volatile; and there were Mrs. Garret, and Mrs. Maynard the turner's wife of London Wall, and Mary Northan, she was only a young chit, but she could read and write a little; and by a kind of reciprocity, Lyon's daughter Polly was living in Mrs. Canning's house as servant to Mr. Roberts.
Nor did Mrs. Canning lack for protectors among her husband's friends. Besides Mr. Lyon and Mr. Roberts, she could look to Edward Rossiter, the near-by baker, Thomas Miles, distiller, or John Marshall, cheesemonger of Fore Street. How well she knew her next-door-neighbour-but-one, Mr. Carlton, the potter, does not appear; but Mr. Carlton's lodger had already caught her eye as he passed and repassed. This lodger was Mr. Robert Scarrat, something of a smalltime sport among the turners and bakers and cheesemongers of Aldermanbury. He was acquainted with the great world, for he had been servant in Mr. Snee's country house near Enfield, out Hertford way, where he knew his way about among the hedge-bawdy-houses and alehouses of the suburbs. He had left Mr. Snee to become his own master in the capacity of a hartshorn-rasper. Rasping, or grating, hartshorn must have been a noisome occupation; the horn of the hart was the natural source of the ammonia so much in demand for the smelling-bottle which no eighteenth-century beauty could be without. Mr. Scarrat rasped hartshorn on a piece basis for Mr. Roberts's mother-in-law, Mrs. Waller of Old 'Change; but he made it as little irksome as he could by not working very much, and varying the monotony by a rich social life and a warm interest in other people's affairs. He liked to go to the play; he took a few days off visiting in the suburbs; he went dancing at the Bell at Edmonton. His chosen partner these days was Sarah Carlton, his landlord the potter's daughter.
Elizabeth Canning got no chance to see much of her mother's neighbours. She worked for the Lyons for ten weeks without so much as an hour off. The Lyons liked her for that. She wasn't always gadding out.
Mrs. Lyon cherished this treasure. Come Christmas, she gave her half a guinea in gold and three shillings in silver for a Christmas box.
"Thank you, madam," said Elizabeth.
"And," added good Mrs. Lyon, "Betty, you shall have a holiday this Christmas; and, as the shop will be shut up," she added shrewdly, "I think you shall have it on Monday."
Monday was New Year's Day.
"Very well, madam," replied the model serving-wench, "whenever you please."
Elizabeth dressed herself very cheerfully for her holiday, in a purple gown shot with yellow, a black quilted petticoat, a green undercoat, blue stockings with red clocks, and a white shaving hat with green ribbons. Under all she wore a sad little shift, of coarse linen patched in places; but the stays that cinched in her sturdy waist under the loose gown were worth ten shillings.
In spite of the sharp January weather, she had neither cloak nor mittens; but in her petticoat pocket she had the golden half-guinea, the three silver shillings, and some small change.
It was going on noon when she walked sedately down to her mother's house at the foot of Aldermanbury. There she showed her mother her Christmas present and told her how she meant to spend it — for a cloak and a pair of mittens. She asked her mother to join her in a shopping expedition that afternoon. Her mother agreed, and gave her a little box to put the half-guinea in. A half-guinea is not a very big piece of gold and could easily get lost.
Out of her small wages Betty had a Christmas box for the children — in each small hand a penny. But the little boy was saucy and provoked her, and she put his penny back in her pocket to teach him manners.
Then she took leave of her mother till afternoon, and set out to dine with her Aunt and Uncle Colley in Saltpetre Bank. Aunt Alice Colley was her father's sister. She had married a glass-blower named Thomas Colley, and lived comfortably with him in their house near Wellclose Square, close by the glass-house.
Elizabeth's way led through Moorfields, just back of Bedlam Hospital, through the neatly laid-out park under the exactly spaced trees; and so along Houndsditch into Rosemary Lane, and then it was just a step to Uncle Colley's.
At the Colleys' Bet Canning met with something less than holiday fare. Her aunt set before her the remains of yesterday's shoulder of mutton and potatoes. If there is anything less festive than cold left-over mutton it is cold left-over potatoes. The only concession to the festive nature of the day was a draught of ten-shilling beer.
By all accounts Betty ate of this repulsive repast willingly enough. Nevertheless, it was on the Colleys' conscience, as well it might be. They declared firmly that their niece must stay and make up for her cold dinner by eating a hot supper with them; to which Elizabeth made no demur.
In the afternoon Thomas Colley went back to the glasshouse, leaving aunt and niece together. Elizabeth suggested that they might while away the afternoon in Rosemary Lane, shopping for the cloak and mittens; but Aunt Alice couldn't be bothered. So Elizabeth amused herself, off and on, by watching the glass- blower at work. There was buttered toast for tea, but she only nibbled at it. Towards evening Aunt Alice sent her niece to fetch the glass-blower to his supper. Elizabeth knew where to find him: not at the glass-house, but seven or eight doors down at the Black Boy, taking a friendly glass. They came back to supper together.
Supper was a roast sirloin of beef. Again Bet only nibbled. Aunt Alice paid her little attention, but Uncle Colley noticed.
After supper it was time to go. Mr. Lyon expected the serving-maid to be home by nine. But Elizabeth lingered. It was nine o'clock already when she set out to walk back to Aldermanbury. Her aunt and uncle walked with her as far as the corner of Houndsditch, past the pastry-cook's and almost to the Blue Ball, to set her on her way.
Aunt Alice leaned across a post and watched her go; she went directly on her way down Houndsditch and disappeared into the darkness.
"Lost, a girl about eighteen years of age dressed in a purple masquerade stuff gown, a white handkerchief and apron, a black quilted petticoat, a green under coat, black shoes, blue stockings, a white shaving hat with green ribbons, and had a very fresh colour. She was left on Monday last near Houndsditch, and has not been heard of since: whoever informs Mrs. Canning a sawyer, at Aldermanbury Postern, concerning her, shall be handsomely rewarded for their trouble."
The old gentleman under the clock chewed irritably on the long stem of his churchwarden pipe. When he took his favourite seat in Batson's coffee-house and called for his dish of coffee and the gazettes, he wanted value for his twopence. He expected his London Daily Advertiser for this day of January 4, 1753 to provide him with better food for reflection than the disappearance of an absconding wench, though adorned like the rainbow. Here was no matter for pointing with pride or viewing with alarm. The old gentleman under the clock had no notion how soon and how passionately London would be doing both to the sawyer's daughter.
Excerpted from "Elizabeth Is Missing"
Copyright © 1945 Lillian de la Torre.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- List of Illustrations
- I “Lost: A Girl”
- II “A Guinea to a Farthing, She Has Been at Mother Wells’s”
- III “An Odd Sort of an Empty Room”
- IV “To the Carrying On the Prosecution”
- V “Culprit, How Wilt Thou Be Tried?”
- VI “To Alarm the Publick with Some Further Discoveries”
- VII “Great Care Hath Been Taken, on Either Side, to Search This Matter to the Bottom”
- VIII Conversation Piece at Batson’s: “A Ridiculous, Idle, Absurd Story!”
- Interlude for Connoisseurs in Mystery
- IX “We Shall Call Our Witnesses, and If We Prove Her Guilty, You Will Find Her So”
- X “And So I Rest It in Your Hands”
- XI Exeunt Omnes
- Conclusion for Connoisseurs in Mystery
- Books Consulted
- About the Author