Caroline: Late on the evening of the 29th January 1753, a young maidservant walked back into her family home in east London. She had no shoes or luggage with her, and her hands and feet were filthy, as was the underdress and petticoat she was wearing. A dirty, blood-soaked rag was tied around her head. She had been missing for almost a month. Her family, employer and neighbours had searched for her thoroughly, even advertising in the newspapers for information about her whereabouts, but no clues had emerged. Elizabeth Canning had disappeared as suddenly and completely as she reappeared that cold winter’s night.
She was weak, wounded and overwhelmed. Gradually, a story emerged: she had been attacked on her way home from her aunt’s house, she said, and then held captive in an attic by two women who cut off her corset, fed her only bread and water, and refused to let her leave. She eventually escaped by pulling boards off a window, climbing out and walking for five hours until she reached home. A neighbour thought her description of the attic sounded like a house he knew about ten miles away, and thus a chain of events was set in motion that resulted in one of 18th century England’s most notorious trials, an old-fashioned media sensation, and, eventually, a brilliant and creepy 20th century crime novel.
Today, we’re looking at the kidnap of Elizabeth Canning, and everything that came after.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
When Elizabeth Canning first returned from her mysterious month-long absence, she was quickly enveloped by her community, with family members and neighbours anxious to find out where she had been and what had happened to her. Elizabeth explained about the kidnap and her period of detention in this attic that she didn’t recognise, and that’s when this extraordinary series of events was really set in motion.
Tana: This is the point in her story where all the neighbours had gathered around in her mother’s house to ask her, What happened? Where were you for the whole month? One of those neighbours said: that sounds like Mother Wells’s house.
And Elizabeth hadn’t mentioned that name before, but when it was brought up, she instantly went, Oh, yeah, I totally heard the name Mother Wells while I was in the house. And everybody concerned, everybody we’re talking aldermen, family, neighbours, officials, complete randomers. They all headed off to Susannah Wells’ house, which was about 10 miles from Elizabeth to see what they could find.
Caroline: This is Tana French, a crime writer herself and a particular aficionado of the Elizabeth Canning case, because she has written the introduction to the new edition of Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. But for now, let’s keep following Elizabeth. The Wells house was in Enfield Wash, to the north of London, on one of the roads heading out of the capital. As soon as Elizabeth and her band of supporters arrive, her story starts to change in some subtle ways.
Tana: And the first thing was that none of the rooms in the house exactly matched Elizabeth’s description. There was an old loft full of kind of hay and junk. Now, Elizabeth hadn’t mentioned any hay. So when her supporters had gone in and seen this loft and were going, Well, maybe this is a room, they meant they went out to her waiting outside and said, Was there by any chance hay in the room where you were held?
And she would say, ah, yeah, there was totally loads of hay. So her story was shaping itself. It’s got a response pattern that doesn’t quite fit with somebody remembering things. It fits more with somebody adding in the details she’s fed to create a story.
Caroline: The house at Enfield Wash belonged to one Susannah Wells. Twice widowed, the second time because her husband had been hanged for theft, she made ends meet by renting out her rooms and outbuildings to anybody who wanted them. With Susannah at the house when the authorities arrived with Elizabeth and her followers were various lodgers and other people connected to the house: a woman named Mary Squires, another named Virtue Hall, a married couple called Fortune, and a Judith Natus. Their testimony also complicated Elizabeth’s version of events.
Tana: There were a few issues with that. There were witnesses who said they had seen Mary Squires endorse it far from Enfield Wash at the time when Elizabeth went missing.
Now Elizabeth is saying this is a woman who had cut off her stays and locked her in that room to begin with. So if she was in Dorset at the time, she couldn’t have been doing that. There were also witnesses who said that during the month Elizabeth had been gone, they’d gone into that hay loft, they’d been looking for poll for the pigs.
They’d been looking for a bit of an old ensign. They’d never seen any missing girl. And there was a married couple Fortune and Judith Natus, or Na- I don’t know how you pronounce it, who said they had slept in that loft for most of January and they’d never seen any missing girl. So there were a lot of inconsistencies in her story.
There were things that didn’t quite hold up. She said she’d found the bed gown in the grate of the room, but there wasn’t any grate there. She never mentioned there was a hole in the loft for a jackline and pulley, some kind of pulley system going through to the kitchen. So she would’ve been able to hear everything that went on in the kitchen, and yet she never mentioned this.
Caroline: Despite these glaring discrepancies in her story, Elizabeth was deemed to have accurately identified Susannah Wells’s attic as the place where she had been held captive, and to have positively identified Mary Squires as the other woman who had cut off her stays and forcibly imprisoned her. In addition, Elizabeth’s supporters — or the “Canningites” as they would soon come to be called — noticed that the attic window had very recently been covered by wooden boards. This was also felt to corroborate Elizabeth’s story, since the window would have have to be covered for the attic to serve as her prison. There was no sign of her escape through this same window, by the way, but that fact was not considered relevant.
Susannah Wells and Mary Squires were taken to a local justice of the peace, who, after interviewing Elizabeth alone about her story, decided that there was sufficient cause to keep the two women in custody pending further investigation and an eventual trial. Wells was held on the charge of keeping a disorderly house, and Squires for having removed and probably stolen Elizabeth’s stays. The English legal system did not, at this time, have an easy route for the state rather than an individual to pursue charges of assault, and so oddly it was these two matters that became the centre of the court case, rather than the attacks and kidnap. The theft of the stays was especially relevant, since their value of around ten shillings was sufficiently high that the theft was considered a capital offence, and if found guilty, Squires could be hanged. An investigation into the particulars of the case was carried out, and Elizabeth was very lucky with that.
Tana: The examining magistrate who was Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones and the founder of the Bow Street Runners, the kind of proto police force that would become the, the British police force. He was completely smitten by her. He absolutely believed her story, thought she was, had been terribly used.
Caroline: Fielding, who would die the following year, had in 1751 published a novel, Amelia, that centred on a virtuous young woman being dragged down by her irresponsible husband into vice and poverty. Three years after his wife Charlotte died in 1744, he married her former maid, who was then pregnant, and weathered a major public scandal for his actions. His work as a magistrate had given him an intimate acquaintance with London’s criminal sphere, and the combination of this experience with his romantic notions about respectable and modest young women being sucked into this underworld made him very inclined to look favourably upon Elizabeth Canning’s story. He interrogated the other inhabitants of Susannah Wells’s house, and, eventually satisfied that their versions of events matched Elizabeth’s, he sent Susannah Wells and Mary Squires to trial. The whole affair quickly became a national obsession.
Tana: This was probably the first case that was a real media sensation and that means that not only do we get a good view of how it, it was presented in the media, but we get to analyse exactly how that interaction shaped the case in many ways.
A lot of people ended up putting out pamphlets about the case. There was huge news coverage. Everybody in the country had an opinion about this case one way or the other.
The public were so deeply engaged in it that there were riots on the steps of the courthouse. Defence witnesses were prevented from getting in at the trials of Susannah Wells and Mary Squires. The public were so deeply engaged in this that they actually played a role in the case. And so there’s an interplay between the people putting out pamphlets, the media shaping the case, the media shaping the presentation of the alleged victim, the public and the justice system. All these factors play a role in how the case played out.
Caroline: Elizabeth Canning also made a great impression as a witness.
Tana: A quote from the time says that on the stand she answered questions without hesitation, confusion, trembling, change of counters, or other apparent emotion. So she showed absolutely no emotion. She’s telling a story that she knows can perhaps Susannah Wells imprisoned and branded and can have Mary Squires put to death, but she’s got no change of countenance and no apparent emotion.
Caroline: The contrast between Elizabeth and the women she is accusing was influential, too. Susannah Wells was poor and associated with criminal activity via her second husband. There was also an unsubstantiated suggestion that she had been running her house as a low-class brothel. And Mary Squires was said to be a “gypsy” and described as “swarthy” in appearance. This had a major impact on the public and the jury.
Tana: Now it’s unclear what that means. It could have meant she was Romany, It could have meant she was a traveler, but it could also be used as a lifestyle descriptor rather than an ethnic one. It could just have meant that she and her family traveled around a lot. But either way, that term was used a lot in the coverage of the trial in order to trigger prejudices against gypsies by whatever definition in order to other her and say, “Look, she cannot possibly be a victim of perjury here. She must be the villain because she is other, she is outside.” She was described, you know, her accounts of the time, described her ugliness and her swarthiness as well. So again, she’s being positioned as other. She’s being positioned as someone who naturally falls into the category of villain, not victim.
Caroline: Thanks to Elizabeth’s impeccably modest performance on the stand, the demonisation of the defendants in the press, and the fact that some of their witnesses were intimidated by the mob outside the Old Bailey, the jury found Susannah Wells and Mary Squires guilty of the charges against them. Wells was sentenced to six months in prison and having her hand branded, and Squires was condemned to be hanged. But the trial judge, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, was not completely satisfied with the case — in particular, he found the behaviour of the Canningites in the press and outside the court unsavoury.
And so after the verdict, he instigated his own investigation. He eventually found that one of the prosecution witnesses, Virtue Hall, who had given Henry Fielding a statement saying that she had witnessed Canning’s arrival at the Enfield Wash house and seen Squires assault and imprison her, was not speaking the truth. Under further examination, Hall eventually broke down and admitted that she had perjured herself, fearing that if she had not confirmed Elizabeth’s story, she would herself have been thrown in prison. A new trial was ordered, this time of Elizabeth Canning herself, for perjury.
Fielding vigorously defended his version of events in the press, and if anything the new development only inflamed the public further. Gascoyne had to leave the court before Elizabeth’s verdict was handed down, as it was considered too dangerous for him to be present at the moment when she was found guilty of perjury, new witnesses having confirmed that Mary Squires was indeed in Dorset at the time of the kidnap. Elizabeth was found guilty and Susannah Wells and Mary Squires were acquitted. The kidnap of Elizabeth Canning was proved to be a fictional tale, invented by that young woman for an unknown purpose. The legal proceedings concluded with Elizabeth being sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and seven years transportation to the British colonies in America, but the fascination with this whole affair was only just beginning.
As we’ll learn, after the break.
In the two and a half centuries since Elizabeth Canning was found guilty of perjury, we have been unable to let this case lie. Numerous legal experts and writers have revisited it down the years, producing their own commentaries and theories as to what truly happened and who was really at fault.
Josephine Tey was one such writer. The Scottish playwright and detective novelist was probably inspired by two popular re-examinations of the case that came out during her lifetime: Arthur Machen’s 1925 non-fiction book The Canning Wonder, and the 1945 novel Elizabeth is Missing by Lillian de la Torre. Tey’s own version of the Canning case is her 1948 novel The Franchise Affair. And I’m going to give a minor spoiler warning here, because we are going to discuss The Franchise Affair in some detail, and if you’d like to read it without any idea of what happens, it would be best to come back after you’ve done so.
In The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey does make some changes to the facts of the case. Elizabeth Canning becomes Betty Kane, a schoolgirl who lost both her parents in the Blitz and who was adopted by the family who had taken her in as an evacuee. The action is moved from the 1750s to the time when Tey is writing, the years immediately after the Second World War. And the investigation is conducted by Scotland Yard, with Tey’s regular detective Inspector Alan Grant having a small cameo in this book.
But much of the rest of the story follows the same lines. Like Elizabeth Canning, Betty Kane disappears for almost a month and then returns, black and blue, with a story about having been assaulted and kept in an attic by two women. Elizabeth, or Betty, is really what lies at the heart of this story’s fascination, Tana says, and this is probably why Tey wanted to create her own take on this case.
Tana: It’s the duality of the character. The way Elizabeth Canning was presented and also the way Josephine Tey presents Betty Kane in her book. It’s very polarised. It’s very black and white. And I think this actually is a product of that kind of thinking, where a victim must fit certain parameters in order to qualify as a victim. We end up polarising. So, Elizabeth Canning at the time was presented as- either she was this poor, horribly used girl who had been kidnapped by evil gypsy villains and was a martyr to the- there was a lot of othering going on, you know, as, as is quite common. She was a martyr to these others, these outsiders who do, the nightmare of every mother taking their child away, or else she was a cunning, scheming little manipulator who had deliberately told a story that would in fact bring down a death sentence on Mary Squires because she was trying to cover up her own misdeeds.
And it’s very much the same in The Franchise Affair. Betty Kane starts out being this poor, innocent school girl who’s been kidnapped to be used as a maid by these evil, crazy hermit women, and then she turns around and becomes psychopathic, really, scheming slut who is ruining the lives of these poor, innocent women, women to cover up her own peccadillos.
There’s no grey area. That’s a very black and white characterisation, and you can only see one side at the time. There’s no room for overlap.
Caroline: Tey also alters the position of the women Betty Kane is accusing: rather than being from the fringes of society, they become the impoverished gentlewomen, Mrs Sharpe and her daughter Marion Sharpe, who have inherited a big old house called The Franchise on the outskirts of a small country town, which is described at one point as “the perfect mystery house”. Nonetheless, they are still outsiders — not wealthy enough really to maintain the house they live in, and not the kind of people that the county set would welcome in.
Tana: There are references to Marion Sharpe, the daughter, being swarthy and looking gypsy like. So she picked up on that tone that she looks… there’s a difference in how she looks. She doesn’t quite fit in, in this market town, and neither does her mother, who’s a great character and very, very vivid and very intolerant of any kind of foolishness or hypocrisy.
So they are a little bit on the fringes of society, but it’s portrayed as being a little bit by their choice. But then when the Betty Kane thing kicks in Robert mentions the the pecking to death instinct. In the people of the town who see them instantly as outsiders when this case comes up. So they are positioned as outsiders, but it’s in a very different way.
Caroline: The Robert who Tana mentioned there is Robert Blair, the solicitor who represents the Sharpes and who Tey uses as the primary point of view throughout the story. On instinct, he decides from the very outset that Betty Kane is not telling the truth, and sets out to investigate her story so he can prove that the Sharpes are not abductors or abusers. He is even made aware part way through of the similarities with the Canning case, which is a knowing nod by Tey to her source material. Robert represents the reader as he struggles towards some kind of certainty, and in Tey’s version of the original case, unlike some other retellings, we are lead to believe that there is definitely a good side and a bad side.
Tey leaves us in little doubt that Betty Kane is in the wrong in this story. In fact, Tana says, Tey turns this apparently innocent schoolgirl into one of the most terrifying villains in all of crime fiction.
Tana: Robert at one point wonders whether Betty Kane’s face is capable of showing any other emotion than fear and triumph, and we actually never see anything else out of her. The only two emotions she’s capable of showing, and I think this is in fact one of the things that makes that kind of person so absolutely terrifying. Whatever they do, there doesn’t seem to be emotional involvement. Betty Kane isn’t destroying the Sharpes out of anger or out of hatred or out of any other deep passion. She’s just doing it because it’s convenient. She needs something to get herself out of trouble.
They happen to be there. They’re not really people to her, they’re just objects that come in useful. So she uses them. The fact of what she’s doing to them carries absolutely no emotional weight because they’re not real. Nobody’s real except her. And for most of us, that viewpoint is utterly alien.
That’s terrifying. And it’s what I think. It’s what makes Betty Kane such a great villain. She’s genuinely terrifying, and she never does anything violent. She never commits any crime more serious than perjury, and we only see her for a few pages outta the whole book. All she ever does is peacefully and quietly, calmly answer questions. That’s it. That’s all she does. And yet she’s terrifying.
Caroline: Aside from a few very minor scuffles, The Franchise Affair is not a book that depicts physical violence. And yet Betty Kane is a figure we fear, because we know that she can and will, without compunction, ruin lives. Although crime writers like Anthony Berkeley had begun to experiment with more psychological takes on the classic whodunnit during the golden age period before the second world war, it was still rare in the 1940s for such an intense and dark novel as The Franchise Affair not to actually contain a murder. Murder-less mystery novels at the time tended to be more lighthearted, and this book is anything but.
With the character of Betty Kane, Tey explores one of the major themes of the Elizabeth Canning case: who gets to be a victim? But the way that she does it isn’t without issues, Tana says.
Tana: Yeah. It’s a problematic book in a couple of ways. It’s got some serious problems with classism, and it’s got basically the view that’s presented is that working class people, they’re the salt of the earth as long as they stay in their place and they cheerfully and willingly do whatever the upper classes need regardless of personal sacrifice.
If they overstep the class boundaries, they become grotesque, and figures of ridicule and disgust. And Betty Kane. Her, her villainy, her evil is presented as being quite tightly linked to her overstepping class boundaries. This is a girl from a definitely very lower working class family, I’d say. Her parents were not well off, were bare, you know, her mother in particular is portrayed as having been not, not well bred, darling.
Not quite the thing. And she has made herself a cuckoo in the nest of this nice middle class family, her foster family. And then she has tried to take down two upper middle class women in order to cover up for her own sins. And this is this class gap and her transgression is shown as very closely linked to moral transgression.
Caroline: By flipping the class dynamics from the original case and making the women accused of a higher class than the girl accusing them, Tey is reflecting more of the societal prejudices of her own time than that of Elizabeth Canning’s day. The same is true of the book’s attitudes to women and sexuality.
Tana: And the other one is it’s got some serious problems with sexism as well. And the idea of Betty Kane over and over again when they’re talking about her being this poor, innocent school girl victim, the alternative that crops up, if she’s not a poor, innocent victim, then the obvious alternative is that she must have been with a man.
In other words, the opposite of innocent is sexual. And her evil is also presented as linked to her sexuality and if she was off of the man, then clearly she is evil and scheming and lying, and that’s the moment when the case turns in public opinion.
And I think it says a lot about how a society defines innocence and what it wants to see in a victim. If you look at the Elizabeth Canning case, the definition of victimhood is quite different. There are a lot of mentions from Elizabeth’s supporters about how retiring and modest she is, and a previous employer who ran a pub mentioned in her favour that she wouldn’t even come out of the back room to talk to customers.
In other words, being quiet, being retiring, being modest. Those were the things that people wanted to see in a victim of her class and gender. This retiring quality, this is in 1753, what defines a good victim? And it’s quite different when Josephine Tey’s writing in the 1950s, over and over, she comes back to images of purity, from Betty Kane supporters. She looks like St. Bernadette. She looks like a child. She looks like she’s, quote, never kissed anything but the book.
It’s sexual purity and innocence that constitute the good victim, and those are the opposite of those. Sexual awareness and activity are what constitute not a victim. So it’s very interesting what it says about the society where these things take place. What do we look for in a victim? How do you need to view someone in order to be able to assess them as a potential victim?
Caroline: And unlike in the original case, Josephine Tey gives her version of the story a definitive solution — Robert is able to discover how and why Betty Kane fabricated her own abduction. Whereas we still don’t know, and likely never will, where Elizabeth Canning was for that month during which she claimed to be kidnapped.
At her perjury trial, she said that she quote “had no intent of swearing the gypsies’ life away and that what had been done was only defending herself and desired to be considered unfortunate”. Perhaps she ran away with a lover, or maybe she was in hiding after an illegal abortion. She may well be a figure to be pitied alongside the woman she almost sent to the gallows: eighteenth century England was hardly a kind place for a girl who found herself in trouble.
Regardless, her story still has power over us. And that’s because its central horror is so recognisable. How can we really ever know that someone is telling the truth? This is what makes Josephine Tey’s version so compelling, Tana says.
Tana: We have all met the Betty Canes. We have all met these people who, without seeming to make any effort, create this trail of drama and destruction in their wake. They destroy relationships, they destroy workplaces. They, you know, create this, miasma of lies until nobody know, knows what they can believe or who they can trust.
And then usually they just walk away completely unharmed. And Tey, I think is, as far as I know, the first author to really delve into that and the kind of damage it can do. That kind of personality who’s doing it… just because.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Tana French. The new Penguin edition of The Franchise Affair, which includes her introduction, is available now. And Tana’s own latest novel is The Searcher, now available in paperback.
Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thekidnapofelizabethcanning. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.