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What Really Happened to Elizabeth Canning?

As the investigation into her New Year's Day kidnapping unfolded, some details just didn’t add up…

elizabeth canning

On New Year’s Day 1753, 18-year-old Elizabeth Canning vanished while walking home in London, England. One month later, she returned—emaciated and filthy—to her family, and recounted the terrifying tale of being robbed and subsequently kidnapped and held hostage after refusing to enter into prostitution. 

Based on Elizabeth's assertion that she had escaped and walked 10 miles—a grueling five-hour journey in her weakened state from where she claimed to have been held—and that she remembered the name “Wells” or “Wills” being spoken during her confinement, police soon identified Susannah Wells and Mary Squires as her captors. The court, and surrounding community, stood by Canning's account; Wells and Squires were convicted of kidnapping and sentenced in February of 1753. In a shocking twist, however, another judge later found Canning guilty of perjury—releasing Wells and Squires and sentencing Canning in 1754 to one month imprisonment and another seven years in exile. 

But what’s the real story? Author Lillian de la Torre takes a crack at solving the age-old mystery in Elizabeth is Missing: One of the Eighteenth Century’s Greatest Mysteries—Solved! 

Read on for an excerpt of Elizabeth is Missing, and decide for yourself.  




Elizabeth Is Missing

By Lillian de la Torre

January 29–31, 1753

Mrs. Canning, on her knees by the bedside, heard the latch lift.

“Here is somebody at the door,” said Lord as it creaked slowly open.

“Who is it?” cried Mrs. Canning.

The boy thought it was another neighbour come to inquire tidings of the missing girl. He lifted the candle and looked into her face, and all the blood in his body rushed to his head.

“’Tis Betty,” he gasped.

“What Betty?”

“Our Betty!”

The dreadful figure groped her way into the room. The little girl ran screaming up to the chimney. Mrs. Canning thought surely her prayers had been answered and her daughter’s ghost stood before her.

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“Feel her, feel her!” she gasped out, and fainted dead away.

James Lord had a leveller head. He took the swaying girl by the arms and set her down in a chair by the fire.

Elizabeth Canning was indeed a dreadful sight. James Lord never forgot how she looked: “She was e’en almost dead, as black as the chimney-stock, black and blue: she was dressed up with an old bit of an handkerchief round her head, and an old dirty ragged bedgown, what they properly call a jacket. She had no cap, nor hat, nor stays on; her ear was cut, and all bloody. Her face and hands would compare, for blackness, to a hat almost; the colour of her flesh was next akin to the colour of beating.”

The bedgown was an old quilted thing, of linen with faint traces of faded red flowers. The wool padding was coming through in places. The black quilted petticoat was torn about the knees, and the hem was draggled in the red mud of a country road.

The wearer was as draggled as her garments. Her hair was matted, her countenance changed, her limbs contracted. Her face was swelled, bloated, and black, and sodden, as if it had lain in water. Her nails were as black as a bonnet, and her fingers stood crooked. The children gaped at her, tongue-tied with awe.

Mrs. Canning sighed back to consciousness and sat up. This thing was beyond her wisdom; she sent the apprentice running to fetch the trusty gossips of Aldermanbury.

In the meantime she dealt with the most obvious need. Elizabeth had come home garbed only in her shift, the torn petticoat, and the scanty, ragged jacket. She was numb with cold, and her shoes and stockings were sodden, for it was a very wet night. There was only one pair of stockings in the house, and Mrs. Canning had them on. She pulled them off at once, and put them on the cold, clammy feet.

What she said to Elizabeth, or what Elizabeth said to her, is not recorded. I think I know one topic that they touched on, but it is not yet time for conjecture.

One other transaction passed during this short interlude. It was with the little brother. At long last Betty gave him his Christmas box. Not the penny that she put back in her pocket when he huffed her, nor the silver shillings nor the golden half-guinea. All she had left in her petticoat pocket was a single farthing; she gave it to him that night.

At half past ten arrived the reliable goods-broker from over the way. She found Mrs. Canning in a great taking, striking her hand upon her knee and crying out with great concern and uneasiness: “My child! My child!”

“What’s the matter?” asked Mrs. Woodward.

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Before Mrs. Canning could answer, there was a voice from the stool by the fire:

“Oh, Mrs. Woodward!”

The good woman turned about and with an indescribable shock beheld Elizabeth Canning. She was all huddled and stooped in the chimney-corner, looking so dirty and deplorable that had she lain on a dunghill it could not have been worse. Mrs. Woodward was shocked by the injured ear. The handkerchief was all bloody; the ear bled so that she could not look at it. The blood seemed to have congealed in the cold weather; it was thick upon the injured ear. Mrs. Woodward thought that sitting by the fire had started it bleeding afresh.

“Oh, Mrs. Woodward,” said the girl, raising her heavy head and putting her trembling hands together, “you don’t know how I have suffered, for I have been almost starved to death. I have had nothing but bread and water since New Year’s Day at night, and I have had no bread ever since Friday.”

Mrs. Woodward asked her gently where she had been so mistreated.

“In a room,” said Elizabeth weakly, “in a house on the Hertfordshire road.”

This was of no interest to Mrs. Woodward, she knowing nothing of the Hertfordshire road. There was another question on the tip of her tongue. She took the drooping girl by the hand, and asked:

“What have you done with your clothes?”

elizabeth canning
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  • The trial of Elizabeth Canning.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Then the story began to come out, in the weak voice of a person exhausted.

“On New Year’s night,” whispered Elizabeth painfully, “when I came away for home, my uncle and aunt came with me as far as Houndsditch. From thence I came alone over Moorfields. At Bedlam gate I was met by two men who stopped me, they took my money out of my pocket—”

“How much money?”

“Half a guinea in gold, in a little box, and three shillings in silver. They dragged me up the fields facing Bedlam. One of the men held me, and the other took away my hat, apron, and gown, all which he put into his greatcoat pocket. Then they tied my hands behind me, and he that held me said: ‘Damn you, you bitch, we’ll do for you—’”

The weak voice died into a sob, then went on.

“Then he struck me on the head, which threw me into a fit directly.”

Mrs. Woodward shook her head sympathetically.

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“When I came out of my fit,” continued Elizabeth, “I found myself between the two men who had robbed me, in a roadway. Soon afterwards we were met by a man, who said: ‘What luck tonight, brother?’ to which they answered: ‘I’ll tell you better in the morning.’

“About half an hour after, as near as I could judge, we came to a house. There I saw an old woman and two young ones. The old woman took me by the hand and asked if I would I should have fine clothes.”

Mrs. Woodward looked at the tattered bedgown.

“I answered no,” said Elizabeth Canning, lifting her head proudly.

Mrs. Woodward and Mrs. Canning silently applauded the virtuous girl’s resolution.

“Then,” continued Elizabeth, drooping again, “the old woman went to a dresser and fetched a knife, and cut the lace of my stays and took them from me. The young wenches did nothing but laugh.”

“Then the old woman took up my petticoats, and gave me a slap on the face, and said: ‘Damn you, you bitch, they are good for nothing, I’ll give you them.’ Then she turned me upstairs, saying, if I cried out, she would come and cut my throat.”

“What sort of woman was she?” asked Mrs. Woodward, appalled at the outrage.

“A tall, black, swarthy woman,” said Elizabeth. It made Mrs. Woodward’s flesh creep.

“At daylight,” went on the low voice, “I looked about me, and the first thing I took notice of was a black jug; it was broke at the neck, and in it was near a gallon of water. Near to it was some pieces of bread, in quantity about a quartern loaf. There was also a basin. On looking further about the room, I saw a grate in the chimney, and therein an old bedgown. I put it on to keep me warm.”

“Have you never been in bed?” asked Mrs. Woodward.

“I have never been in bed,” said Elizabeth pathetically, “since I lay at my master Lyon’s.”

While Elizabeth was whispering out her story to Mrs. Woodward, James Lord was spreading the news.

“My mistress desires to speak with you,” he told Polly Lyon at Roberts’s entry. Something in his manner alarmed Polly.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“My mistress,” repeated Lord with importance and mystery, “desires to speak to you.”

“What’s the matter? Has your mistress heard anything of Betty?”

“She is come home,” Lord had to admit. “Pray come to my mistress’s.”

“O lud!” said Polly. She started to huddle on her clothes, a long process in those days.

Lord hurried off to Fore Street to fetch the widow Myers.

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When the apprentice returned to his mistress’s house, there was a new errand for him.

“Now who shall I send for?” asked Mrs. Canning.

“Send for her best friends,” said the wise Mrs. Woodward, “send for Mr. Lyon and his wife—” and she named one or two others.

So off went Lord a second time.

“And fetch the apothecary by the way,” the women instructed him.

Polly Lyon found Bet Canning sitting all of a heap, in a deplorable condition, and crying.

“How do you, Bet?” asked Polly.

Elizabeth never raised her head nor answered, only continued her weak sobbing.

Mary Myers was right behind Polly Lyon. Mrs. Canning met her at the door, still in tears, and sobbed out:

“See, Mrs. Myers, here is my child, see what a condition she is in!”

Mrs. Myers looked towards the chimney-corner and was shocked by the sight of the unhappy girl, sitting all on a heap by the fireside in a very black, dirty, bad condition; her face, arms, and hands, were black with what Mrs. Myers took to be exposure and cold. She was very low in her spirits. Mrs. Myers went to her and said:

“Pray, Betty, tell me what’s the cause of your being in this condition?”

elizabeth canning
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  • Sir Crisp Gascoyne was convinced that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“On New Year’s Day—” began Elizabeth; her voice was almost inaudible. Mrs. Myers knelt down by her and put her ear close to the wretched girl’s mouth. Into it Elizabeth whispered the tale she had just told Mrs. Woodward, how she was imprisoned for twenty-eight days, and how she finally escaped:

“I pulled down a couple of boards,” she said, “that were fastened against the window. I put out my head and shoulders, took hold of the window and drew out my legs, and so dropped down; and that is how I tore my ear.”

Mrs. Myers looked at the ear. It appeared to have a great scratch.

“I escaped about four in the afternoon,” said Elizabeth, “and asked my way to London. While I was in the room, there was a staircase lay close to the room, and I heard people run up and down in the nights, and I heard the name mentioned of Wills or Wells.”

She was so low Mrs. Myers could hardly hear what she said; but the elder woman bent close and didn’t miss a word.

Elizabeth’s voice had died in her throat. She turned painfully to Mrs. Woodward.

“I’m thirsty,” she articulated; “please give me something to drink.”

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“So I shall, child,” replied the good woman, “I’ll fetch some beer; for I apprehend, ma’am,” turning to Mrs. Canning, “that you have nothing in the house.”

“Stay,” said Polly Lyon, “I will fetch something.”

Mrs. Canning went to the cupboard for the jug. Mary Myers rose from her knees and found that a newcomer had added himself to the company uninvited: Robert Scarrat, the hartshorn-rasping man-about-town.

Scarrat had never met either Canning socially, but that could not keep him away. He had been at supper with his flame, the potter’s daughter, when the apothecary’s maid burst into the house crying: “Betty Canning is come home, Betty Canning is come home!” and that was enough for him. He made a bee-line to the centre of excitement.

Now he stood in the doorway, his long nose twitching for something to happen.

Before Polly Lyon could push past him with the jug, it happened. In rushed John Wintlebury.

The publican had not been sent for either, but by this time the news was all over Aldermanbury. He went straight to Elizabeth and took her by the hand.

“Bet!” he cried anxiously, “how do you?”

Betty Canning lifted her heavy eyes.

“Oh sir,” she whispered, “you don’t know what I have gone through.”

“You are at home now,” said Wintlebury soothingly, “and, it is to be hoped, you have friends to assist you if you have been used ill. But, pray, where have you been?”

“Sir,” said Bet Canning, “in the Hertfordshire road.”

“How do you know that?”

“I remember seeing the Hertford coach,” said Elizabeth, “when I looked through the chinks in the window; it was the coach that used to carry my mistress into Hertfordshire.”

“How far were you from London?” pursued Mr. Wintlebury. Unlike Mrs. Woodward, he was acquainted with the Hertford road.

“About ten or eleven miles,” whispered Elizabeth.

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Robert Scarrat had been listening to this exchange all agog. He knew Wintlebury, for since coming to Aldermanbury he had taken an occasional glass at the Weavers Arms. He also knew the Hertford road. He could wait no longer to put in his oar.

“Do you know the name,” Wintlebury was asking Elizabeth, “of the person who kept the house?”

Scarrat got an answer in first:

“I’ll lay a guinea to a farthing,” he cried, “she has been at Mother Wells’s, for that is as noted a house as any is.”

Elizabeth’s whispered answer was lost. Wintlebury understood her to say:

“I cannot tell; but as I was walking about the room, I heard persons below calling for Wills or Wells.’

Want to keep reading? Download Elizabeth is Missing.

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