Elizabeth "Eliza" Fenning (1792–1815) was an domestic servant whose controversial conviction for attempted murder became a cause célèbre.
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 son Robert Gregson Turner, and his daughter-in-law Charlotte, 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.
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.
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.
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, as did John Gordon Smith. In an 1829 publication, Smith highlighted an article in the Morning Journal from March that year which details the death of Robert Gregson Turner in Ipswich Workhouse after confessing his guilt for the crime for which Fenning was hanged.
The author Sandra Hempel, who specialises in topics of health, has highlighted the Fenning case as one which led to the development and advancement of forensic evidence as a means of determining guilt in murder trials. Hempel contends that contemporary experts analysed the forensic evidence available to them and resultantly cast serious doubt on Fenning's alleged guilt, only for the evidence to be ignored, largely as a result of the failings of the courtroom. The case received much public and academic attention and probably helped catalysed further scientific developments in the field of forensics.
- Smith, John Gordon. Hints for the Examination of Medical Witnesses. p. 135-6
- Telegraph article relating to Eliza Fenning
- Hempel, Sandra. The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science. p. 133-4