Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Curious Case of the Executed Elizabeth

               On April 5th 1815 the jury at the Old Bailey found Elizabeth Fenning guilty of breaking the peace and wounding and she was sentenced to death by hanging. When the verdict was read out, she gave out a scream and fainted, and was carried insensible from the courtroom. The trial, such as it was, was flawed throughout; Mr Gurney, prosecuting, was allowed to use leading questions at will, in effect putting words into the mouths of the witnesses. There were many inconsistencies in the testimonies of these witnesses that were left unexamined; not least how long the dumpling dough was left unattended in the kitchen, when anyone could have introduced the arsenic into it. 

Elizabeth Fenning

Mrs Turner took an extraordinary interest in the dough before the dumplings were made, examining it on numerous occasions and commenting on its heaviness and blackness. If she was so concerned about it, why did she allow sub-standard dumplings to be served at her table? And if they were so black and heavy, why did the Turners eat them? And why did the heavily-pregnant Mrs Turner go upstairs to her room, alone and unaided, and remain there retching and vomiting for half an hour before her husband went to attend to her? 

If the arsenic had been mixed into the dough, it would surely have been distributed evenly throughout the dumplings, yet Mrs Turner gave evidence that she only ate one quarter of a dumpling before she became ill and her husband ate one and a half dumplings (six times more) and did not become ill until thirty minutes later. Mrs Turner and Sarah Peer, the maidservant, gave evidence, on oath, that no coals had been delivered to the house on the day of the poisonings, yet the order book of Mr Wood, the coal merchant, showed clearly that he had delivered twelve sacks to the Turner household on March 25th and these twelve sacks were also metered and recorded by Westminster Land Coal-Meter’s Office on that same date; why did the women lie about this? And why are the questions put to Mrs Turner and Sarah Peel regarding the coal delivery omitted from the Session’s Paper Report of the trial? 

Extract from Mr Wood's Coal Delivery Day Book

When Mr Orlibar Turner is sworn in, the first question put to him is, “You are the father of Mr Robert Gregson?” to which, oddly, he replies, “I believe I am.” Why? Why not, “Yes, I am,”? Is it levity? In a trial for attempted murder at the Old Bailey? Is his paternity a sore point? There is something strange going on here. And this answer is changed to a blank “Yes” in the Session’s Paper Report; again, why? Why was one apprentice, Roger Gadsden, called to give evidence when the other apprentice, Thomas King, was not also called? Importantly, if Elizabeth Fenning had poisoned the dumplings, why did she also eat them? It beggars belief to say that she did so to draw attention away from her action – who would risk arsenic poisoning to provide themself with an alibi? 

Session's Report Paper - Old Bailey Proceedings

Another strange thing is the Session’s Report Paper’s difference to the shorthand account taken at the trial; in the list of jurors, there is a difference in the names of eight of them and one, Edward Beesley, a bottle-dealer from Charles Street, is recorded as being deaf and had to have the evidence he could not hear related to him by the other jurymen. A deaf man, in a jury at a trial for attempted murder? Why? The case immediately drew the attention of people who questioned the differences between the shorthand account taken at the time of the trial and the ‘official’ version printed in the Session’s Report Paper. Why were there so many omissions? 

Circumstantial Evidence in the Extraordinary Case of Elizabeth Fenning - 1815

Questions were asked about the effects of arsenic on yeast and how if arsenic was added to it, the dough would not lose its ability to rise nor would it turn black. The Recorder’s remarks to the jury were called into question; he had particularly brought to their attention Dr Marshall’s evidence that he had experimented on the residue left in serving dish and found it to be arsenic when it turned knife blades black. Experts, in controlled conditions, made chemical experiments and this was proved to be impossible – arsenic did not cause knives to turn black under any circumstances. 

Report in the case of Elizabeth Fenning

A petition was sent to the Prince Regent and another to the Lord High Chancellor, assuring them of Fenning’s innocence and begging for mercy and a royal pardon. Fenning herself wrote to Lord Sidmouth, Secretary of State for the Home Department, asking him to intervene on her behalf. Most telling of all was the evidence that emerged from Mr Gibson, of the house of Corbyn and Co, Chemists and Druggists of No 300 Holborn, who gave a written statement that in September or October of 1814, Robert Turner had called at his house,  
“… in a wild and deranged state, I invited him into a back room, or counting house, where I detained him, whilst Mr. Crockford, another gentleman in Messrs. Corbyn's house, went to his father's. In this interval, Mr. Turner, junior, used the most violent and incoherent expressions such as, ‘My dear Gibson, do, for God's sake, get me secured or confined, for, if I am at liberty, I shall do some mischief, I shall destroy myself and my wife: I must and shall do it, unless all means, of destruction are removed out of my way; therefore do, my good friend, have me put under some restraint: something from above tells me I must do it and unless I am prevented I certainly shall do it.’” 
It was all to no avail for twelve hours later Elizabeth Fenning was executed. 

Newgate Prison

On Wednesday July 26th 1815, she was brought to the scaffold before the Debtors’ Door of Newgate prison. She was dressed in a white muslin gown, an embroidered cap and pale lilac laced boots and mounted the steps with a firm, calm step. Throughout the trial and up to the moment of her death, she had maintained that she was innocent, and now she said, 
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.” 
The hangman took a cotton cap from his pocket and tried to put it over Fenning’s head but it was too small, so he tried another two, which were also too small, so he took a white muslin handkerchief and fastened it over her face. Considering his to be insufficient, he took out a pocket-handkerchief, evidently used, and tried to tie it about her eyes. She objected strongly, asking the Ordinary, Rev Mr Cotton, to act, 
Mr Cotton, do not let him put it on, - pray let him take it off,  - pray do, Mr Cotton,” 
but Cotton told her that she must be blindfolded. The rope was placed around her neck, her elbows were tied by her sides and her hands bound in front of her and she was lead up to the scaffold. The hangman threw the rope over the beam and tied it firmly with several knots. Fenning was not very tall and Rev Cotton had to stoop to hear her speak – the crowd assembled in the rain expected that she was making a last-minute confession to him but actually she was asking him to indicate when the drop was about to happen. 

Broadsheet of the Execution of Elizabeth Fenning, Abraham Adams and William Oldfield - 1815

Two other prisoners were executed at the same time, Abraham Adams, guilty of sodomy, and William Oldfield, guilty of raping a nine-year-old girl, and these were brought out next and the ropes put about their necks too. The executioner pulled his lever, the platform opened, Fenning dropped and died without a struggle. Cotton, when asked later why he had not given a signal to Fenning, replied that he had not done so because  
“… it saved a great deal of pain to the convict.” 
Turner’s house had to be protected from the fury of the crowds who were convinced that Fenning had been wrongly hanged. 

In a curious turn of events, a report was published in The Times, on or about Christmas Day 1833, that Turner’s brother, in a death bed confession, had admitted to the poisoning of the family (this was also printed in John Timbs Curiosities of London (1855) although a letter to Notes and Queries (July 24th 1909) states that Turner’s nephew, annoyed at his uncle and aunt’s refusal to give him money, had administered the arsenic and had confessed on his death bed in Chelmsford. Another letter to Notes and Queries (August 14th 1909) claimed that a death-bed confession had not been made by any relative of the Turners and that Elizabeth Fenning’s execution had been used for political purposes by opponents of the Government, as a woman had been hanged for a crime less than murder.) 

To my mind, there was doubt in the case and Elizabeth Fenning should have been allowed the benefit of it (personally, I think Thomas King, the apprentice, was responsible).

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