I first read about the Eliza Fenning case back around 2009, and since then the story has kind of stuck with me over the years, it’s difficult to forget the tragic stories of those wrongfully accused who die pleading their innocence- especially when those accused are very young.
On a recent trip to London, with my memory a bit hazy on the details, I wondered if the events of this unfortunate Georgian tale may have taken place in London, a quick google search confirmed this true. Eliza Fenning resided, was tried, and then executed in London, at the age of 22 years, for the ‘attempted murder’ of a family she worked as a servant for, after they became violently ill when eating dumplings she’d prepared. (Which Eliza herself also consumed and fell ill from).
Believed by many at the time to be innocent, Eliza’s guilt was largely determined by circumstantial and ‘scientific’ evidence that was later disputed. Her unfortunate case is believed to have contributed to setting a higher standard for future forensic science, after the ‘scientific evidence’ put forth at her trial was later proven incorrect. (Hempel, 2013)
So what events led to this seemingly innocent young lady, to be sentenced to death and hanged between two other alleged criminals. One of the men, Abraham Adams, had been found guilty of sodomy (spare a thought for him, as back in that day this charge included consensual anal intercourse). The other criminal, William Oldfields, a much less sympathetic figure (who reportedly requested to be hanged beside Eliza, a ‘clever’ move placing his name down for posterity), had been convicted of raping a nine year old girl.
In early 1815, Eliza Fenning was employed to work as a servant in the household of Robert and Charlotte Turner, who resided at 68 Chancery Lane in London, along with another servant Sarah Peer and two young male apprentices. Robert was a law stationer who came from a reasonably well to do family, his young bride Charlotte was a few months pregnant.
A visit to Chancery Lane today, with Georgian influence still evident in some of the buildings design and the narrowish, windy road, as with many streets in London, you can still get a good sense of what the area would have looked like many years ago. Wandering around the road, looking up at the old buildings, I tried to get a feel of what it would have felt like navigating the lane back in the 1800’s in the bustling Georgian era.
Before coming to work in the Turners residence, Eliza had worked as a servant for a number of years at other places of employment. In descriptions of Eliza’s personality, she seemed to have been an intelligent, headstrong and confident girl, quite capable of giving her opinion, traits which in that period of time could be frowned on in people of lower social standing, especially in younger females.
In the weeks before the alleged poisoning, Eliza was reported by her Mistress Charlotte to have been ‘sullen’ after an incident in which Eliza was seen in the young male apprentices room in a state of half undress. Eliza claimed to have said she was just fetching a candle. The young Mrs Turner however suspected inappropriate behavior and gave Eliza a a firm dressing down. Eliza seemed to have a bit of difficulty taking orders from the young Mrs Charlotte Turner, who was only a year older than her. However there’s no evidence she showed any serious animosity towards Charlotte Turner. Did Eliza’s reported ‘sullenness’ towards Mrs Turner after the incident, bring about her downfall, an olden day equivalent of resting bitch face contributing to her later criminal charges and hanging?
It is easy to assume Eliza, an innocent young maiden, sweet, agreeable, targeted unfairly by her employers. But tragic outcome outside, Mrs Turner could initially have had genuine reasons to dislike Eliza. Sarah Peer, the other servant, reported Eliza once took one of her personal items without asking and used this as a duster, and Eliza had also confided she did not like the Turners much anymore (Hone, 1815), an unwise remark to express at any new job, even today. One thing is for certain, regardless if Eliza may have ruffled certain people around her the wrong way, she most certainly did not deserve to die for this.
Could Eliza have poisoned the Turners, perhaps to make them sick, without any intention to kill them? The fact Eliza ate part of a dumpling herself almost undeniably proves she had never meant to kill anyone. Yet little evidence supports even a charge of lesser mischief. As William Hone points out in his 1815 report, if Eliza disliked her employers so much why wait an entire month after the rebuking from Mrs Turner to seek revenge, when she could have just left the job. One of the most telling factors of her innocence is just before she was to be hanged, Eliza leaned over to her Reverend supporter and proclaimed her innocence to God. In a God fearing time, it is unlikely someone would dare do such a thing if truly guilty.
Another important fact is that the dumplings may never have been poisoned with arsenic in the first place. According to Medical News Today the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can be stomach cramps, vomiting, and drowsiness. According to Healthline, the symptoms of food poisoning can be stomach cramps, vomiting and weakness. Sound similar? Anyone whose lain by the toilet bowl in sweating agony can attest to how powerful the affects of food poisoning can feel.
The first doctor on the scene Henry Ogilvey, attended to all the household members who were ill that night, including Eliza. It was Mr Orlibar Turner, Robert Turner’s Father, who first became suspicious the family may have been poisoned, showing the surgeon who arrived later, Mr John Marshall, the dishes that were used to prepare the dumplings. Mr John Marshall claimed he found arsenic residue in the bowl used to make the dumpling dough, by washing the bowl with a kettle of warm water, then letting the liquid stand he decanted and dried the sediment at the bottom of the bowl producing a teaspoon of white sediment, which upon burning gave off a garlic odor. In court after Robert Turner presented the Juror with utensils that had become blackened and tarnished that night, John Marshall also claimed arsenic could turn knives black.
But these theories were later disproven. John Watkins wrote that if the sediment produced by John Marshall had in fact been arsenic and mixed into the dumpling dough, the amount in the dumplings that Mrs Turner ate would have killed ten people and what her husband ate, 120 people, therefore if arsenic was added it must have been sprinkled over the top of the dumplings after the dough was mixed. John Gordan Smith an early professor in Medical Jurisprudence (forensic science), later showed during an experiment that arsenic did not blacken knives. (Hempel, 2013)
Despite Charlotte Turner’s claims Eliza was alone with the dumplings the entire time and never left the kitchen, as William Hone wrote in his report after the trial and execution, with the kitchen two stories below the main floor, her ability to have monitored the stairs and doorway for this entire time seems doubtful. The theory someone else may have poisoned the dumpling mix, is supported by a claim the day before Eliza was hanged, when a chemist named Mr Gibson reported that a Mr Robert Turner had come into his pharmacy the year earlier and threatened to kill himself and his wife unless he was restrained. (Hone 1815) Unfortunately the prosecution was not halted and the public execution of Eliza by hanging took place the next day on the scaffold outside Newgate Prison.
The Old Bailey Courthouse, 2016. Built on the site of the former Newgate Prison
Arriving at the corner of Newgate and Old Bailey Road, a short journey from Chancery Lane, the Old Bailey courthouse building loomered ahead impressively, it’s inscription ‘Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrong doer’ seeming ironic due to this particular case. The Old Bailey sits on the site of the former Newgate prison and associated courtrooms. A lady smiled at me as I snapped away pictures. Something in her eyes made me feel as if she knew I was there for more than a tourist checklist, but rather to gain a deeper historical understanding of the place. I smiled back and continued on my journey to Eagle Place, where Eliza’s parents had resided and her body was taken after the hanging.
With the old Red Lion pub still round the corner, a small lane off the Lion Red passageway, Eagle Street today is quiet and nondescript. As with many of London’s lesser known streets it’s not until you dig deeper you discover the rich history weaving through these dingy grey back passageways. I walked back to High Holborn, contemplating stopping at the Red Lion for a drink, but with strange looks from the waitresses over my earlier picture taking, I stood on the street side instead and ate a couple of figs, bought from a street fruit vendor, whose boxes of fruit on the open street and vintage style green cart had reminded me of the era.
Encouraged by an arrogant and over confident surgeon, did the Turners genuinely believe Eliza had meant to kill them? Was it genuine fear and paranoia why they took steps to ensure she was prosecuted rather than just being ‘heartless’ people. Mr Turner reportedly refused to sign any petitions for mercy for Eliza, knowing she had been sentenced to death, and refused to pay her owed wages to her grieving Father. (Hone, 1815). Did the ‘forensic evidence’ sway their opinion to her supposed guilt or could it have been arrogance and a refusal to admit they may have been wrong.
After the execution of Eliza Fenning, the Turners and John Marshall became hated by many in London, with angry mobs accumulating outside the Turners property. One hopes the Turners may have felt at least some regret or shame over their key role in this tragic tale.
Sources of information:
Hempel, Sandra. (2013) The inheritors powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder and the New Forensic Science. New York. W.W Norton and Company.
John Watkins and William Hone (1815) The Important Results Into an Elaborate Investigation Into the Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Fenning, Being a Detail of Extraordinary Facts Discovered Since her Execution, Including the Official Report of Her Singular Trial, Now First Published, and Copious Notes Thereon. London.
Marissa Selner, Winnie Yu and Kathryn Watson. 2015 October 27th. Food poisoning. Retrieved from http://www.healthline.com/health/food-poisoning#Overview1
Paddock, Mike. 2014 September 9th. What is Arsenic Poisoning? What is arsenicosis? Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/241860.php
Stratman, Linda. (2016) The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder. New Haven. Yale University Press.