Founder & Managing Director, ARCHIVE TV
On 21 March 1815, a young cook named Eliza Fenning was arrested at her household of law stationers in Chancery Lane, London, England for one of the most feared offences by the upper classes – poisoning her employers. Whilst the alleged poisoning was not fatal for the victims, the soon to be married 21 year old was tried at the Old Bailey, convicted and hanged in a blaze of publicity and recrimination, in her wedding dress on 26 July 1815. Her funeral, in scenes reminiscent of the public outpouring of grief of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, was attended by ten thousand mourners, and six maidens also in white bore the funeral pall.
The case led to the first major piece of investigative journalism with a thorough critical analysis of the forensic evidence that convicted her. William Hone’s, “The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Eliza Fenning” destroyed the prosecution case against her when it was published in November 1815. He discovered there had been a cover up in the case, deals done behind closed doors, falsification of court documents and a determination to smear the character of Fenning. The forensic tests by Dr John Marshall, who continued for decades to defend his work and his theories, were re-examined and recreated with quite stunningly different results. The jury had been presented with a compelling case, and were swayed by the new science that seemed conclusive of guilt, but as with all forensic advances, the state of knowledge and interpretation of results is always moving, and today it is widely believed that Fenning should never have been convicted. London’s National Archives’ files are clearly marked, “Supposed case of execution of an innocent woman”.
The story unfolds with an alleged motive of revenge Fenning was said to have against her mistress, the heavily pregnant Charlotte Turner. Turner gave evidence at the trial suggesting Fenning had been reprimanded for her insolent behaviour and seemingly seducing other male servants in a lewd manner. It was also told that she owned a book about how to procure an abortion and harboured a desire to get her own back on Charlotte Turner in some way. In the weeks before the supposed attempted murder, arsenic, used to destroy kitchen pests of rats and mice, had gone missing and Fenning was believed to be the culprit. On 21 March, after pestering her mistress repeatedly to be allowed to make dumplings for dinner, Fenning was given permission and left alone in the kitchen. The dumplings were served up at dinner. Within a few minutes Charlotte Turner reported feeling faint, with an excruciating violent pain which increased every minute. Her husband also soon became violently sick, suffering heat and pain across his stomach and chest. In all, four who ate the dumplings experienced the symptoms.
Two surgeons were summoned to the house. The dumpling pan was found by Dr Marshall to contain a residue of white powder. He asserted it was arsenic. Why? Because it had corroded his knife and turned it black, and that the dumplings had not risen, indicating in both instances the evidence of arsenic being present. William Hone in his Important Results publication argued this must be wrong as arsenic didn’t turn metal black, nor did it prevent yeast rising. The quantities allegedly found would “have been enough to kill outright an entire village”, and yet all those who had been ill on 21 March recovered within a few days. He also discovered that a second opinion had been sought, although never presented to the jury. An unnamed “chemical expert” reconstructed the scene. He made dumplings, and added arsenic at each stage of the process. The dumplings still rose.
The remaining evidence was circumstantial, much a tissue of lies, and unchallenged in court due to the refusal of the Judge, Sir John Silvester, to allow defence witnesses to be called on Fenning’s behalf. Under English law at the time, a defendant was not permitted to give any testimony herself. All Fenning could do was simply keep protesting her innocence. In summing up the case, Silvester told the all male jury, “Although we have nothing before us but circumstantial evidence, yet it often happens that circumstances are more conclusive than positive testimony”.
Hone’s investigation continued to cause nagging doubts about the conviction for years to come. Charles Dickens even publicly commented on the case stating, “I never was more convinced of anything in my life than the girl’s innocence.”
The CSI Blog would like to extend a warm thank you to Sharon Holloway, Founder & Managing Director of UK crime and punishment television production company ARCHIVE TV, for sharing this piece of forensic history with us. ARCHIVE TV also brought this tragic story to life in The Crime Wave which can be viewed at www.archiveproductions.tv.
Tags: America's Most Wanted, Archive TV, Crime, CSI, Eliza, Evidence, Fenning, Forensic, Forensic Science, Hanging, Museum, National Museum of Crime & Punishment, Poison, Punishment, Science, Tragedy, Wrongful