One of the great miscarriages of justice of the 19th century was the 1815 hanging of 18-year-old Eliza Fenning, cook to Robert Gregson Turner, a law stationer at 68 Chancery Lane. When the entire Turner household, including Eliza, took ill after dinner it was decided that unusually floury dumplings showed that Eliza had poisoned everyone, despite having eaten them herself.
The motive was said to be revenge for Turner’s wife Charlotte threatening to sack her after she had been seen at night partially undressed in the bedroom of the apprentices Robert Gadsden and Tom King.
The poison, if there was any, had come from a locked drawer and was used to kill mice. There was no evidence Eliza knew it was in the drawer or that she knew where the keys to the drawers were. It would be another 20 years before anyone was able to explain the symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
Tried for attempted murder, Eliza was convicted after a hostile summing up by Sir John Silvester, the Recorder of London, who refused permission for Tom King to be called on her behalf saying it was too late. She was not allowed to give evidence and the Recorder refused to hear her father. Her counsel left court before the summing up.
There was considerable controversy over the verdict and death sentence and William Hone, editor of The Traveller, campaigned unsuccessfully to save her. On 18 July, Silvester made his report to the Prince Regent recommending there should be no reprieve and on 26 July Eliza was hanged. On the scaffold she declared her innocence.
After her father paid the executioner’s fee of 14/6d her body was released. Her funeral, with six girls in white as pallbearers, at St George the Martyr, Holborn, was said to have been attended by up to 10,000 people.
The cause of the illnesses remains unknown, but there are stories that Turner’s son and nephew both separately confessed to being the poisoner, while others accused Tom King. And there were rumours that Charlotte Turner was the culprit, as she feared her husband was sleeping with Eliza.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor