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Elizabeth FENNING

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Attempted murder?
Characteristics: Controversial conviction for attempted murder
Number of victims: 0
Date of murder: March 21, 1815
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1792
Victim profile: Orlibar Turner, his wife Charlotte, and his son Robert (all survived)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging on July 26, 1815
 
 

The extraordinary case of Eliza Fenning, who was executed in 1815, for attempting to poison the family of Orlibar Turner, by mixing arsenic in yeast dumplings

Circumstantial evidence (1.5 Mb)

 
 

In London in 1815, Elizabeth Fenning, a 20-year-old maid, was arrested for intent to commit murder. Charlotte Turner, her mistress, had discovered Fenning in a state of partial undress in the apprentices’ room and reprimanded her; Fenning resented the reprimand. Sometime after that, Fenning made strange-looking dumplings for the Turner family and apprentices. All who ate them became ill, including Fenning. Upon examination, it was found that the dumplings contained arsenic.

At trial, Fenning was found guilty and sentenced to die, despite her assertions of innocence. Many Londoners considered the verdict to be unjust. After the execution, some 10,000 people escorted the body to the church grounds.


Elizabeth Fenning (1792–1815) was an domestic servant whose controversial conviction for attempted murder became a cause célèbre.

Background

Fenning was the daughter of poor parents, was from the age of fourteen employed in various situations as a domestic servant. Towards the end of January 1815 she entered the service of Orlibar Turner of 68 Chancery Lane, London, a tradesman, in the capacity of cook. On 21 March following, Turner, his wife Charlotte, and his son Robert, while at dinner, all ate of some yeast dumplings prepared by Fenning and immediately became very sick, though the ill effect was not lasting. It was discovered that arsenic had been mixed with the materials of the dumplings, and suspicion fell on Fenning.

Criminal proceedings

Fenning was summoned to Hatton Garden police-court, and was committed for trial. The case came on at the Old Bailey on 11 April 1815, when Fenning was charged with feloniously administering arsenic to the three Turners with intent to murder them.

Evidence was brought against the prisoner. Fenning had asked and received leave to make the dumplings, and that she was alone in the kitchen during the whole time of their preparation; that the poison was neither in the flour nor in the milk; and that Fenning was acquainted with and had access to a drawer in her employer's office where arsenic was kept. Roger Gadsden, an apprentice of Turner, had eaten a piece of dumpling after dinner, though strongly advised by Fenning not to touch it, and was also taken ill.

Fenning pleaded not guilty, and urged that she had herself eaten of the dumplings, a piece of testimony which was corroborated by Turner's mother, who said that she had been sent for, and on arrival had found the prisoner very sick. The prisoner, protesting her innocence, tried to show that Mrs. Turner had a spite against her. Five witnesses were called, who gave Fenning a character of respectability and good nature. The recorder's summing-up was strongly against the prisoner, and the jury finding her guilty she was sentenced to death. On hearing sentence pronounced she fell in a fit, and was moved insensible from the dock.

Execution

Popular opinion was largely in favour of Fenning's innocence, and every effort was made by her friends and others to procure a remission of the sentence. On the day preceding that fixed for the execution a meeting was held at the home office to consider the case.

Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, was out of town, but the Lord Chancellor Lord Eldon, the recorder, and Mr. Becket were present, and concluded that there was no reason for interfering. Lord Eldon summoned another meeting in the evening, with the same result. On the following morning, 26 June, Fenning was hanged, in company with two other malefactors, Oldfield and Adams.

Aftermath

Intense public interest was excited, it being generally believed that Fenning was innocent, a belief which was strengthened by her declaration on the scaffold: ‘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.’ At her funeral, which took place five days later at St George the Martyr, Bloomsbury, the pall was carried by six girls dressed in white, and as many as ten thousand persons took part in the procession which was formed to the grave.

Samuel Parr and Charles Dickens believed in her innocence.


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 employed a housemaid, Sarah Peer, and two male apprentices all of whom “lived in”.

On the 21st March of 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 eaten some of the dumplings. They were all attended by the doctor 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. He asked the doctor to examine the contents of the pan in which Eliza had cooked the dumplings. As he thought, it 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. 

Trial

She was tried before the Recorder of London on the 5th of April 1815. 

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 up stairs.  Other members of the family recounted similar stories in evidence.

The Turners kept a packet of arsenic in an unlocked drawer in the office, to control the mice that infested it, 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 written on the packet. 

William Thisselton, who had arrested Eliza, told the court that he had asked her whether she suspected there was any thing 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. 

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.

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 swore 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 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 cell. 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.

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 26th July 1815 was set for her execution. In 1815 William Hone had started the “Traveller” newspaper, in which he campaigned to save Eliza.

Execution

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. Long before eight o'clock hoards of people were thronging the streets and jostling for the best positions from which to witness the executions.

Eliza was led from the condemned cell into the Press Yard around 8.00 a.m. where her hands were pinioned. 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.

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, the hangman, drew the traditional white cotton night-cap 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 24 year old William Oldfield, who was "guilty of an odious crime" – the rape of a nine year old girl. Oldfield had apparently asked permission to hang beside her. As the noose was placed around his neck Oldfield continued to rave and chant prayers. Just before the drop fell she said told Dr. Cotton once again that she was innocent. 

At around 8.30 a.m., when the preparations were complete, Langley withdrew the pin releasing the trap and giving the prisoners a drop of about 12 - 18 inches. It was reported that Eliza died easily, "almost without writhing". 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 church yard 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.

CapitalPunismentUK.org


The Complete Newgate Calendar
Volume V

ELIZA FENNING

A Cook, who was convicted of placing Arsenic in
Dumplings, and executed, 26th of June, 1815, after
Solemn Protestations of Innocence

ELIZA FENNING was indicted at the Old Bailey for that she, on the 21st day of March, 1815, feloniously and unlawfully did administer to, and cause to be administered to, Orlibar Turner, Robert Gregson Turner and Charlotte Turner, his wife, certain deadly poison -- to wit, arsenic -- with intent to kill and murder the said persons.

From the age of about fourteen Elizabeth Fenning had been out in servitude; and at twenty-two, in the latter end of January, 1815, was hired as cook into the family of Mr Orlibar Turner, at No. 68 Chancery Lane. About seven weeks from that time the circumstances unhappily arose which led to the unfortunate creature being charged with an attempt to murder Mr Turner's family.

It was stated in evidence that Fenning cooked some yeast dumplings, which with beef-steak were served to Mrs Turner, her husband and his father, all of whom were afterwards seized with illness and excruciating pain. The prisoner herself, said Mrs Turner, was also taken ill. The prisoner had cooked the dumplings, and the allegation was that she had put arsenic in the dough with which she made them. Arsenic was kept in a drawer in two wrappers, with the words " Arsenic, deadly poison," written upon them. Any person might have access to the drawer.

Margaret Turner said when she arrived at the house she found her husband, son and daughter extremely ill. The prisoner was also ill and vomiting.

Q. Did you say anything to her while you were there that day respecting the dumplings ? A. I exclaimed to her : " Oh, these devilish dumplings ! "- supposing they had done the mischief. She said: " Not the dumplings, but the milk, madam." I asked her: "What milk?" She said: "The halfpennyworth of milk that Sally fetched to make the sauce." Q. Did she say who had made the sauce? A. My daughter. I said: "That cannot be, it could not be the sauce." She said : " Yes, Gadsden ate a very little bit of dumpling, not bigger than a nut, but licked up three parts of a boat of sauce with a bit of bread." Q. (To Mrs Turner, jun.): Was any sauce made with the milk that Sarah Peer fetched?  A. It was. I mixed it, and left it for her to make.

Robert Gregson Turner was here sworn. Q. Did you partake of the dumplings at dinner? A. Yes, I did. Q. Did you eat any of the sauce? A. Not any portion of that whatever. Q. Were you taken ill, sir? A Soon after dinner I was, sir. I first felt an inclination to be sick : I then felt a strong heat across my chest. I was extremely sick. Q. Did it produce any swelling in you?  A. I was exactly as my father and wife were, except stronger symptoms. I had eaten a dumpling and a half. I suffered more than any person. Q. Were your symptoms, and those of the others, such as could be produced by poison ?  A. I should presume so : all taken in the same way, and pretty near the same time.

Mr John Marshall, sworn, said: " I am a surgeon. On the evening of  Tuesday, the 21st of March, I was sent for to Mr Turner's family. I got there about a quarter before nine o'clock. All the afflictions of the family were produced by arsenic. I have no doubt of it, by the symptoms. The prisoner was also ill, by the same I have no doubt." Q. Did Mr Orlibar Turner show you a dish the next morning? A. He did. I examined it. I washed it with a tea-kettle of warm water. I first stirred it and let it subside. I decanted it off. I found half-a-teaspoonful of white powder. I washed it a second time. I found it to be decidedly arsenic. Q. Will arsenic, cut with a knife, produce the appearance of blackness upon the knife? A. 1 have no doubt of it. Q. Did you examine the remains of the yeast? A. Yes : there was not a grain of arsenic there; and I examined the flour-tub : there was no arsenic there.

The prisoner said she was truly innocent of the whole charge, and the recorder, in addressing the jury, said

"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, Orlibar 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 the charge, the jury in a few minutes brought in a verdict of guilty, and the recorder passed sentence of death upon the prisoner.  The miserable girl was carried from the bar convulsed with agony, and uttering frightful screams.

On the 26th of June (says The Annual Register), the day appointed for the execution of Elizabeth Fenning, William Oldfield and Abraham Adams, the public curiosity was strongly excited, perhaps to a greater degree than on any similar event since the memorable execution of Haggerty, Holloway, etc. In the case of Fenning many had taken up an opinion that her guilt was not clearly established, for she had uniformly protested her innocence. The last interview between her and her parents took place about half-past one o'clock on Tuesday. To them, and to the last moment, she persisted in her innocence. About eight o'clock the sheriffs proceeded from justice Hall along the subterraneous passage to the press-yard.

Fenning was dressed in white, with laced boots, and a cap. Oldfield went up to her in the press-yard and enjoined her to prayer, and assured her that they should all be happy.

The sheriffs preceded the cavalcade to the steps of the scaffold, to which the unfortunate girl was first introduced. Just as the door was opened the Reverend Mr Cotton stopped her for a moment, to ask her if, in her last moments, she had anything to communicate. She paused a moment, and 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." This she spoke with much firmness of emphasis, and followed it by saying what all around her understood to be: " My innocence will be manifested in the course of the day." The last part of this sentence was spoken, however, so inaudibly that it was not rightly understood, and the Reverend Mr Cotton, being anxious to hear it again, put a question to get from her positive words: to which she answered: " I hope God will forgive me, and make manifest the transaction in the course of the day." She then mounted the platform with the same uniform firmness she had maintained throughout. A handkerchief was tied over her face, and she prayed fervently, but, to the last moment, declared her innocence. Oldfield came up next, with a firm step, and addressed a few words in prayer to the unhappy girl. About half-past eight o'clock the fatal signal was given. One movement only was perceptible in Fenning. After hanging the usual hour, the bodies were cut down, and given over to their friends for interment.

The following paragraph relative to Elizabeth Fenning appeared in an 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 (his lordship is out of town), 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 funeral took place on the 31st. It began to move from the house of her father, in Eagle Street, Red Lion Square, about half-past three o'clock; preceded by about a dozen peace officers, and these were followed by nearly thirty more; next came the undertaker, immediately followed by the body of the deceased, The pall was supported by six young females, attired in white; then followed eight persons, male and female, as chief mourners, led by the parents. These were succeeded by several hundreds of persons, two and two, and the whole was closed by a posse of peaceofficers. Many thousands accompanied the procession, and the windows, and even the tops of the houses, as it passed were thronged with spectators. The whole proceeded in a regular manner until it reached the burying-ground of St George the Martyr. The number of persons assembled in and about the churchyard was estimated at ten thousand.



Fenning, wearing her wedding dress, awaits execution in Newgate prison, London, for the poisoning of the Turner family.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
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