It was one of the most celebrated miscarriages of justice in nineteenth-century British history, based on so-called forensic evidence that makes the appalling convictions of the Birmingham Six in 1975 seem almost benign by comparison. The difference was that the person convicted did not survive to benefit from the subsequent campaign designed to exonerate her.
Eliza Fenning was the daughter of an Irish-born soldier and was twenty-one years of age when she was taken on as a cook in the household of Robert and Charlotte Turner in London’s Chancery Lane. On the evening of 21 March 1815 she cooked a meal for herself, her employers, the father of Robert Turner, and a young apprentice, Robert Gadsdell.
Later that night all five exhibited signs of extreme food poisoning. A doctor—John Marshall—was sent for, but all five recovered. Turner, however, encouraged by his wife, harboured suspicions as to the source of the poisoning. Charlotte Turner expressed misgivings about the insistence on the part of Eliza Fenning that she prepare dumplings on the night of the ill-fated meal. The remains of these were examined in a rather dubious experiment by John Marshall, who proclaimed them contaminated with arsenic. Robert Turner claimed that a quantity arsenic—freely available at the time for the extermination of vermin—had gone missing from his study. Suspicion fell on Eliza Fenning. Although she too had eaten the dumplings, she was arrested and later charged with attempted murder.
At Fenning’s trial, Marshall gave evidence of his so-called ‘findings’—at the time no reliable scientific test existed which might have proved the presence of arsenic. Charlotte Turner offered a possible revenge motive for Fenning’s allegedly homicidal intentions. She told the court that she had scolded Fenning the previous week when she had caught the young cook in the bedroom of their two apprentices, in a ‘state of undress’. Subsequently, Mrs. Turner continued, she had been treated by Fenning with less than the required level of respect and deference.
At her trial, Eliza Fenning had no legal representation. The trial judge, in his summing up, made no secret of his conviction that Fenning was guilty, despite the flimsy and circumstantial nature of the evidence against her. The jury, thus prompted, took only a few minutes to convict her. The following day the judge sentenced her to death for the attempted murder of the Turners and Gadsdell, although he had the option, had he chosen to exercise it, of ordering her transportation to Australia instead. She was hanged on 26 July 1815 outside the walls of Newgate prison before a large crowd, said to have numbered more than forty thousand. Unlike other public hangings, the atmosphere on this occasion was not of a carnival nature. The crowd was reported as behaving in a sullen fashion. Most would have seen the execution of the young working-class servant girl—who had the temerity to have learned to read—as judicial murder of one of their own. Fenning was still protesting her innocence as she went to her death.
There was an immediate adverse reaction to her conviction and execution. The radical newspapers of the day, such as the Examiner and the Traveller, condemned the nature of the evidence, and the use of capital punishment in the case. Establishment newspapers, however, like the Observer, supported the verdict, pointing out to its readers that ‘her father and mother are both from Ireland, and are both Roman Catholics.’
The Turner’s house was attacked by a mob shortly after the execution of Eliza Fenning, and more than ten thousand people are said to have attended her funeral.
A journalist, John Watkins, took up the case of Fenning and published a riposte to the testimony that had convicted her. He eviscerated the prosecution evidence, most notably, that of the doctor/chemist John Marshall. Watkins pointed out that Marshall claimed to have distilled half a teaspoon of arsenic from the dough left behind in the pan used to make the murderous dumplings. Extrapolating from that, Watkins estimated that the dumplings themselves would have contained eighteen hundred grains of arsenic. Five grains of arsenic is enough to kill most human beings, yet the Turners, Fenning, and Gadsdell had survived an amount of three hundred and sixty times that dosage. The palpably unsafe nature of Fenning’s conviction helped accelerate the introduction of proper forensic standards into British crime detection, and expert court testimony over the subsequent half-century.
So, not all public hangings in 19thcentury Britain were carnival occasions, certainly not in the case of Eliza Fenning. That’s fake history.