The Elizabeth Canning trial produced one of the most intractable conflicts of evidence in English law. For Henry Fielding, magistrate and novelist, there was no mystery. He believed implicitly in the scullery maid's story: that she had been knocked on the head near Bedlam Wall in the City of London, dragged 10 miles to Enfield Wash, where she was robbed of her stays - a crime punishable by death - and locked up for a month by an old gipsy woman and a bawd. Due largely to Fielding's adversaries, Dr John Hill and Sir Crisp Gascoyne, Lord Mayor of London, it was Canning herself who was to stand in the dock at the Old Bailey in 1754. For they gave support to the gipsy, with Gascoyne's son, Bamber, acting as counsel. London divided into 'Canningites' and 'Egyptians', and there was fighting in the streets. Over forty witnesses claimed the gipsy had been in Dorset (some thought as a smuggler, or as a government double agent) while more than half this number testified, equally positively, that she had been in Enfield. When the verdict came, and Canning was to be taken in chains from Newport Gaol and deported to the American colonies, a fresh storm of controversy was unleashed in newspapers, broadsheets, petitions and ballads. Was she a fraud, a virgin or a slut? To modern eyes, Canning was arguable the first media product, elevated by chance circumstance and the power of the printed word. In two centuries no one has examined the case so thoroughly as does John Treherne in this brilliant expose, or shed as much light on the truth of the matter.
The Canning Enigma
Book (09 Nov 1989)
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