Eliza Fenning, an Irish domestic servant, would have fallen into obscurity, never recorded in history books, if not for her misfortune for finding employment on Chancery Lane, London in January 1815 for Robert Turner, a law stationer. She was hired to work in his kitchens as a cook, preparing meals for him and his family. It was one of these meals that led to her infamy.
On March 21, 1815, Robert Turner, his wife, Charlotte Turner, and his father and law partner, Haldebart Turner (called Orlibar Turner in some sources), sat down for lunch. Eliza served steak, potatoes, and dumplings, which within minutes, caused all three Turners to take ill. According to the trial transcript on Old Bailey Proceedings Online, Robert Turner had this to say when questioned about the symptoms:
Q. Did you partake of the dumplings - A. Yes, I did. Q. Did you eat any of the sauce - A. Not a portion of it whatever. I was taken ill soon after dinner, 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, was sick and stronger symptoms; I had eaten a dumpling and a half. Q. Were your symtoms any other but such as would be produced by poison - A. I should presume so. We were all taken in the same way and pretty near the same time.
One of Mr. Turner’s apprentices, Roger Gadsden, was also ill after eating a dumpling in the kitchen, and Eliza herself became sick after partaking in the dumplings. Everyone was looked after by a doctor and recovered. Mr. Turner quickly suspected arsenic, having found a packet of the poison, commonly used as rat poison in those days, went missing from his desk drawer. He requested the doctor inspect the food in the kitchens. The dumplings were found to be the source, their dough blackened. Eliza was arrested two days after for attempted murder.
Eliza was tried in April 1815. The evidence collected against her was circumstantial and flawed.
In her testimony, Mrs. Charlotte Turner had suspected Eliza had poisoned them out of revenge. Mrs. Charlotte Turner had threatened to sack Eliza after finding her half-dressed in an apprentice’s room. Mrs. Turner also said Eliza was alone in the kitchen while baking the dumplings.
The arsenic packet missing from Mr. Turner’s office was labeled. The judge found Eliza was able to read, so she would have known poison was in the packet.
William Thisselton, who had arrested Eliza, had spoken to her when she was first taken into custody. He asked her if she thought the arsenic was in the flour. She said she’d used the same flour that day to make a meat pie earlier in the day, which had not made anyone ill. She suspected the arsenic had been in the yeast, which had red particles at the bottom of the jar.
There was also the testimony of the doctor who’d attended the family, Mr. John Marshall, who had found white particles in the pan used to prepare the dumplings. He’d determined it to be arsenic.
This was the amount of evidence against Eliza. Eliza could read, so she would have been able to identify the arsenic packet found missing from Mr. Turner’s office desk and slipped it into the food. Eliza had been the one to cook the dumplings, alone in the kitchens, according to Mrs. Charlotte Turner, and she had possibly done it out of revenge for Mrs. Turner threatening to dismiss her. It sounds plausible, logical, but a murder plot pieced together with little supporting evidence.
Eliza did not have counsel. This was before defendants had the right to counsel, so Eliza was left to piece together her own defense. She took the stand and gave a statement. According to the transcript on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, she said:
"Prisoner's Defence. 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."
Eliza also called forward four friends, who all swore to her good character and kind nature. It was a weak defense. After a few minutes, unsurprisingly, the jury declared a guilty verdict. She was sentenced to die by hanging.
The verdict caused a public outcry, evidenced by the newspapers of the time. Few people, if any, believed her guilty of the crime. Many believed her innocent because of the lack of evidence and Eliza, too, was poisoned. Pleas for mercy were made on her behalf to the Prince Regent, the Home Secretary, and the Lord Chancellor, but nothing came of it. She was hung on the morning of Wednesday, July 26th, 1815, despite the chance she was likely innocent of the crime. Learning about her case years later, Charles Dickens believed the young cook had been the victim of injustice.
If Eliza was innocent, then who tried to murder the Turner family and why? We might never know. The answers might be lost to history, but there is an interesting note in Hints for the Examination of Medical Witnesses by John Gordon Smith, published in 1829. There is a quote on pg. 136 that reads:
In the "Morning Journal" of Monday, under the signature of John Grant, says, "I am assured that a son of Orlibar Turner (of Chancery- lane) has recently died miserable in Ipswich workhouse, confessing 'THAT HE PUT ARSENIC INTO SOME YEAST DUMPLINGS TO POISON HIS FAMILY, AND FOR WHICH CRIME ELIZA FENNING WAS HANGED INNOCENTLY.'"
It might have been Mr. Robert Turner, Eliza’s employer, who laced the dumplings with arsenic and allowed his servant of seven weeks to hang for his crime.
Eliza Fenning: innocent but proven guilty by Sarah Murden
Hints for the examination of medical witnesses by John Gordon Smith
London’s Victorian murderesses by Kate Clarke
Trial of ELIZA FENNING (t18150405-18) on Old Bailey Proceedings Online