Eliza Fenning – hanged for attempted murder.

Elizabeth Fenning (always known as Eliza) was an attractive 20 year old girl who worked as the cook in the household of Robert and Charlotte Turner in London's Chancery Lane. Robert Turner was a law stationer and also employed a housemaid, Sarah Peer, and two male apprentices, all of whom “lived in.”  Eliza had worked for the Turner’s for some seven weeks before the incident occurred.
On the 21st of March 1815, Eliza prepared rump steak, potatoes and dumplings for lunch.  Robert Turner's father, Haldebart, had come to dine with his son and daughter-in-law that day and soon after eating the dumplings, the whole family were suffering severe stomach pains and vomiting.  Eliza and Roger Gadsden, one of the apprentices, were in similar condition in the kitchen having also eaten some of the dumplings. They were all attended by the doctor, John Marshall, and made full recoveries.
Mr. Turner senior suspected that they had been poisoned, as a packet of arsenic kept in his desk drawer had recently gone missing. Arsenic and other poisons were freely available in those days and were often bought for killing vermin. The following day he asked the doctor to examine the contents of the pan in which Eliza had cooked the dumplings. As he thought, it allegedly contained arsenic, and Eliza was arrested on the 23rd of March and charged with attempted murder.  She was taken before a magistrate and committed for trial at the Old Bailey at the April Sessions, being remanded in custody to Newgate prison next door in the meantime.

She was tried before Sir John Silvester, the Recorder of London, at the Sessions which opened on the 5th of April 1815 on four counts of administering poison with intent to murder.
Mrs. Charlotte Turner told the court that she suspected that Eliza had been seeking vengeance on the family after she had discovered her in the room of two of the apprentices one night in a partly dressed state and threatened to dismiss her.  Charlotte told the court that Eliza had remained sullen and disrespectful towards her after this.  She also said that Eliza had asked to be allowed to make some yeast dumplings for the family on several occasions. On Monday, the 20th of March, she came into the dining room and said the brewer had brought some yeast, so on the Tuesday morning Charlotte agreed to the dumplings being made and directed that they were to be mixed with milk and water.  Charlotte testified that Eliza was alone in the kitchen while the dumplings were being prepared. About three o'clock, the family sat down to lunch and the dumplings were brought to the table. Charlotte remarked to Sarah Peer that “they were black and heavy, instead of white and light.”  She told the court that after only eating less than a quarter of the dumpling “she felt an extreme burning pain in her stomach, which increased every minute.” It became so bad she was obliged to leave the table and go upstairs.  Other members of the family recounted similar stories in their evidence.
The Turners kept a packet of arsenic in an unlocked drawer in the office, to control the mice that infested that room, which the court was told was clearly labelled as poison.  It was determined by the judge that Eliza could read and write and would, therefore, have been able to know what was in the packet.  Also kept in the same drawer was scrap paper used for fire lighting.  Eliza regularly went to the drawer to get paper for this purpose, according to Sarah Peer.
William Thisselton, who had arrested Eliza, told the court that he had asked her whether she suspected there was anything in the flour. She said she had made a beef steak pie that day with the same flour that she had made the dumplings, and she said she thought it was in the yeast, she saw a red sediment at the bottom of the yeast after she had used it or alternatively in the milk that Sarah Peer had purchased. 
The next person to give evidence was Mr. John Marshall, the surgeon who attended the family on the evening of the 21st of March.  He testified that he arrived at their house at about 8.45 p.m. and found Mr. and Mrs. Turner very ill, with symptoms such as would be produced by arsenic. He also said that he found Eliza ill and showing the same symptoms.  The following morning Mr. Haldebart Turner showed Mr. Marshall the dish the dumplings had been made in which the surgeon washed out with a tea kettle of warm water. He let it stand and then subside and then decanted off the liquid in which he found half a tea spoon of white powder which he determined was arsenic.  This was the extent of the prosecution case against Eliza.  The forensic evidence of arsenic was scant at best, there being no reliable means of detecting arsenic prior to 1836. (see arsenic poisoning)
It should be remembered that there was no defence team in those days and Eliza was not represented by counsel. She simply made a statement to the court herself.  She told the judge, “My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.”  She called four witnesses who testified to her previous good character.

The Newgate Calendar tells us that the Recorder summed up to the jury as follows, "Gentlemen, you have now heard the evidence given on this trial, and the case lies in a very narrow compass.  There are but two questions for your consideration, and these are, whether poison was administered, in all, to four persons, and by what hand such poison was given. That these persons were poisoned appears certain from the evidence of Mrs Charlotte Turner, Haldebart Turner, Roger Gadsden, the apprentice, and Robert Turner; for each of these persons ate of the dumplings, and were all more or less affected - that is, they were every one poisoned. That the poison was in the dough of which these dumplings were composed has been fully proved, I think, by the testimony of the surgeon who examined the remains of the dough left in the dish in which the dumplings had been mixed and divided; and he deposes that the powder which had subsided at the bottom of the dish was arsenic. That the arsenic was not in the flour I think appears plain, from the circumstance that the crust of a pie had been made that very morning with some of the same flour of which the dumplings were made and the persons who dined off the pie felt no inconvenience whatever; that it was not in the yeast nor in the milk has been also proved; neither could it be in the sauce, for two of the persons who were ill never touched a particle of the sauce, and yet were violently affected with retching and sickness. From all these circumstances it must follow that the poisonous ingredient was in the dough alone; for, besides that the persons who partook of the dumplings at dinner were all more or less affected by what they had eaten, it was observed by one of the witnesses that the dough retained the same shape it had when first put into the dish to rise, and that it appeared dark, and was heavy, and in fact never did rise. The other question for your consideration is, by what hand the poison was administered; and although we have nothing before us but circumstantial evidence, yet it often happens that circumstances are more conclusive than the most positive testimony. The prisoner, when taxed with poisoning the dumplings, threw the blame first on the milk, next on the yeast, and then on the sauce ; but it has been proved, most satisfactorily, that none of these contained it, and that it was in the dumplings alone, which no person but the prisoner had made. Gentlemen, if poison had been given even to a dog, one would suppose that common humanity would have prompted us to assist it in its agonies : here is the case of a master and a mistress being both poisoned, and no assistance was offered. Gentlemen, I have now stated all the facts as they have arisen, and I leave the case in your hands, being fully persuaded that, whatever your verdict may be, you will conscientiously discharge your duty both to your God and to your country."  After a few minutes deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

After her conviction, Eliza was returned to the female Felons Side at Newgate where she wrote to her fiancée.  "They have, which is the most cruellest thing in this world, brought me in guilty".  She went on, "I may be confined most likely six months at least". However, on the following day (the last day of the Sessions) the Recorder sentenced her to be hanged by the neck until she was dead. Journalists in court recorded, "She was carried from the dock convulsed with agony and uttering frightful screams." Eliza was taken back to Newgate and put in the condemned hold. At this time many crimes, including attempted murder, still carried the death penalty. However, Eliza could have had her sentence commuted to transportation to the colonies. Attempted murder remained a capital offence up to 1861.
While in Newgate Eliza corresponded with 24 year old William Oldfield (see later) who she had presumably met at the end of the Sessions when the prisoners were sentenced as a group.

There was considerable public disquiet over the verdict and sentence and various appeals were made for clemency to the Prince Regent, the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, but all were rejected and the morning of Wednesday, the 26th of July 1815, was set for her execution. In 1815, William Hone had started the “Traveller” newspaper, in which he campaigned to save Eliza.
On Friday the 18th of July the Recorder made his report to the Prince Regent in which he recommended execution for Eliza.  The newspaper that reported this also made clear its doubts over her guilt and printed in full a letter she had written to them thanking them for their support for her.

During the early hours of the Wednesday morning, the large portable gallows was brought out of Newgate and made ready outside the Debtor's Door. It was normal for prisoners to be hanged in groups for unconnected crimes although this was to be the only triple hanging of 1815, a year in which 12 people were executed at Newgate. (Here are drawings of the scene, before and after the drop) Long before 8 o'clock, hoards of people were thronging the streets and jostling for the best positions from which to witness the executions.  It was estimated that some 40 -50,000 people witnessed the scene.  The execution had to be delayed for half an hour due to the late return of John Langley, the hangman, from his trip to Ipswich for the execution of Elizabeth Wollerton the previous day for the murder of an infant named Robert Sparkes.
Eliza was led from the condemned cell into the Press Yard soon after 8.30 a.m. where she exchanged a few words with William Oldfield who asked her to pray.  Her hands were pinioned in front of her with a cord. She was dressed in a white muslin gown with a high waist, tied with a fashionable ribbon, a white muslin cap, and wearing a pair of high laced lilac boots. This was her wedding outfit and she was to have been married on this day, instead she was to be hanged. From the Press Yard, it was a short walk to the steps of the scaffold which she was the first to ascended at around 8.30. The Reverent Horace Cotton, the Ordinary of Newgate, accompanied her and asked her if she had anything to communicate to him in her final moments. She told him "Before the just and Almighty God, and by the faith of the Holy Sacrament I have taken, I am innocent of the offence with which I am charged." She proceeded up the steps of the gallows and the large crowd who had come to see her die fell silent. She stood calmly while the Reverent Cotton intoned prayers for her. John Langley attempted to draw the white cotton nightcap over her head. Owing to the size of her muslin cap, he was unable to get it on. He then tried to bind a muslin handkerchief over her face but it proved too small. Then he pulled out his own dirty pocket handkerchief to tie over her face. This disgusted her, "Pray do not let him put it on, Mr. Cotton!" she implored. "Pray make him take it off. Pray do, Mr. Cotton!" "My dear, it must be on. He must put it on," Cotton told her. So she now stood silently, with her arms bound, while the dirty handkerchief was tied over her face. Then Langley placed the rope around her neck. She continued to wait stoically, pinioned and noosed, praying with the Ordinary while the other two criminals who were to hang with her, 51 year old Abraham Adams, convicted of sodomy and William Oldfield, who was "guilty of an odious crime" – the rape of a nine year old girl, Eliza Willis, were prepared.  Oldfield had apparently wanted to hang beside this Eliza and preferred death to transportation. As the noose was placed around his neck, Oldfield continued to pray but seemed “perfectly resigned to his fate” and smiled at the crowd.  Again he spoke to Eliza, telling her that “all was well in God” and to keep her spirits up. Just before the drop fell, she told Dr. Cotton once again that she was innocent, saying “I know my situation, and may I never enter the Kingdom of Heaven, to which I feel confident that I am going, if I am not innocent.”
At around 8.40 a.m., the preparations were complete and Langley withdrew the pin releasing the trap and “launching the prisoners into eternity” with a drop of about 12-18 inches. It was reported that Eliza died easily, "almost without writhing".
Click here for an artist's impression of the hanging. In those halcyon days, the sentence of the court meant what it said - not an execution that was all over in 15 seconds and carried out in such a way as to minimise the prisoner's emotional and physical suffering.
After her execution, the following paragraph appeared in a London evening paper :-
"We should deem ourselves wanting in justice, and a due respect for government, if we did not state that, in consequence of the many applications from the friends of this unhappy young woman who this day suffered the sentence of the law, a meeting took place yesterday at Lord Sidmouth's office, at which the Lord Chancellor, the recorder, and Mr Beckett were present. A full and minute investigation of the case, we understand, took place, and of all that had been urged in her favour by private individuals; but the result was a decided conviction that nothing had occurred which could justify an interruption of the due course of justice. So anxious was the Lord Chancellor in particular to satisfy his own mind, and put a stop to all doubts on the part of the people at large, that another meeting was held by the same parties last night, when they came to the same determination, and in consequence the unfortunate culprit suffered the penalty of the law."
Her father had to pay 14s. 6d. (72p) as "executioner's fees" before he could obtain his daughter's dead body for burial. She was buried five days later, on the 31st in the churchyard of St George the Martyr in London, and her funeral was attended by several thousand people, such was the feeling of injustice done to her.  A group of six girls in white dresses, (as Eliza had worn) accompanied the coffin to the graveyard. It was noted that her face had not discoloured and looked peaceful in death.  There was visible just a small rope mark under her chin.

On the 28th of July Samuel Davis, one of the Principal Turnkeys (warders) at Newgate gave a deposition under oath, in which he related a visit to Eliza by her father and how he told his daughter “Oh, my dear child, when you come out on the gallows, tell everyone that you are innocent, and then I can walk the streets, upright as a man, but if you say you are guilty, I shall never be able to hold my head among the public anymore.”  The meeting was also witnessed by Dr. Horace Cotton.  If true, what effect did her father’s entreaties have on Eliza?

Writing 200 years after the event, even with the benefit of the newly released trial transcript, it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not.  What is interesting is that a lot of people at the time had serious doubts about her guilt, including, if the above report is to be believed, the Lord Chancellor.  Eliza was one of six women hanged nationally in 1815 so the execution of a woman was hardly a rare event.  Four of these women were executed for murder and one for arson.  Generally there did not seem to be any great public sympathy for women who had been sentenced to death.  Admittedly Eliza’s looks and youth may have brought forth some, but many of the other women hanged at this time were young.  Newspapers were much more widely available by 1815 and adult literacy levels were also higher, so far more people could read about the case.  The media and the public seemed to be polarised between condemning Eliza and supporting her.  One newspaper article I have does its best to blacken her character and states that she was expelled from school at the age of 12 for “lying and lewd talk”.  It quotes a former employer, a Mr. Hardy in Lincoln’s Inn Fields of suspecting that she tried to poison his drink. 

There was also a huge class distinction at this time.  The upper classes were mostly in favour of the execution of a servant who had, it seemed, tried to poison members of their class and was thus seen as a threat, whereas as the lower classes felt that a member of their class was being unfairly victimised.

On the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, after the execution the Turner’s home was besieged by protestors who had to be dispersed by the police.
The evidence against Eliza was circumstantial (as it usually was at this time) and principally given by people who were at least somewhat hostile to her.
It is unlikely that Eliza was having an affair with one of the apprentices (as alleged by Mrs. Turner) as she was engaged and due to be married. Unless we accept that Eliza had a wish to take revenge on Mrs. Turner for reprimanding her, by poisoning the family, what motive for the crime is left? Eliza risked her own life by eating a dumpling, if she knew it contained arsenic and also became ill, she almost certainly would not have known how much arsenic would be required to kill the family - how many people would?
Was Mrs. Turner jealous of Eliza's good looks and wanted rid of her, for fear of her husband having an affair with her?
It has also been alleged that Robert Turner had become mentally unbalanced and decided to kill the whole family but we have no proof of this.
Obviously at this remove, we will never know who put the arsenic in the dumpling pan or at what stage in the proceedings.  Was it put in there at the cooking stage or afterwards - the pan was not examined until the following day. Neither do we know whether the doctor was brow beaten into finding arsenic by Mr. Turner to protect his son’s reputation. Was Eliza simply a convenient scapegoat?
It is noteworthy that since poisons have been very strictly controlled (from the 1920's onward), the number of murders by poisoning has reduced to virtually nil and it is now a very rare crime.

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