Eliza Fenning – a Nineteenth Century Poisoner?

     The case of Eliza (or Elizabeth) Fenning caused much debate in 1815.  Eliza was a domestic servant, aged twenty, who was accused of poisoning her employer, Robert Turner, and two other members of his family, with arsenic laced dumplings.  She vehemently denied this and claimed that she had eaten the meal and was subsequently sick.  She was arrested and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.[1]  The trial was very one-sided; Eliza’s barrister left before the end of the proceedings, and there was no summing up of the defence.  That was not permitted until the Prisoners’ Counsel Act of 1836.[2]   This impacted greatly on Eliza, and her only defence was to stand at the end of the trial and plead her innocence.

     The circumstantial evidence heard against Eliza was weak, for instance, she did not ‘go to the assistance of her mistress, as she would have done, had she been innocent.’  She also ate the meal knowing that it was poisoned, and this was the ‘strongest proof’ that she was guilty; for having poisoned someone she would then attempt suicide.[3]  Furthermore, one of her household duties was to light the office fire.  Arsenic was kept in the same drawer as the waste paper to light the fire, and this again was seen as evidence of her guilt.[4]  In short, Eliza had the opportunity to steal the arsenic, whether she did or not, was open to debate.  Verdicts often relied heavily on circumstantial evidence.  Due to lack of certainty and scientific knowledge, judgements were open to question.  Without effective representation, Eliza was judged guilty and sentenced to death.  The class-biased judiciary accepted testimony from the middle-class witnesses without question, and Eliza’s potato-dealer father, was denied the chance to testify on her behalf.[5]

eliza fenning
Broadside detailing the trial and execution of Eliza Fenning

     A few weeks before her arrest, Eliza’s mistress had witnessed her entering the male apprentices’ bedroom in a ‘partly undressed’ state; Mrs Turner reprimanded her the following morning, which Eliza resented.  Females in the nineteenth century were expected to abide by rules of moral propriety, and Eliza failed to conform to notions of respectability and modesty by entering into an ‘indecent’ situation.  The matter was referred to in court, thereby traducing Eliza’s character and morals, regardless of the innocence, or otherwise, of the visit.  Socially unacceptable behaviour was deemed deviant; in Eliza’s case this included being literate, which was above her station.  Education for the lower-classes, in the early nineteenth century, was ‘feared as a potential threat to social order.’[6]  One complaint about Eliza in The Times stated that she was found to be in the possession of an ‘infamous book’, which included a chapter that explained ways to procure abortion.  This further prejudiced her, as it demonstrated indecent knowledge that someone of her age, and marital status, should be in ignorance of.[7]

     Eliza was charged with ‘breaking peace’, but she was treated as though accused of petty treason; the act of a subservient person, for example, a wife or a servant, killing her husband or master, thereby attacking the patriarchal social order.  Culturally, the role of a cook was similar to the role of a mother; they were expected to nurture the family, and it relied heavily on trust.  Conflict had materialised within the Turner household, Mrs Turner felt that Eliza failed to respect her superior position.[8]  Conflict within set cultural paradigms could trigger social unrest and the control of the lower-classes was an important concern for those of higher status.[9]

     An estimated 45,000 spectators were at Newgate the day of Eliza’s execution, but the atmosphere was unusually subdued, with many, particularly the lower classes, believing that the verdict was unjust.[10]  Approximately 10,000 people attended her funeral.  Moreover, mobs demonstrated outside the house of the Turners, necessitating the authorities to quell riotous behaviour.[11]   Feeding the public appetite for news of Eliza, pamphlets and broadsides were published stating the circumstances for both sides of the case.[12]  Eliza’s culpability polarised opinions, and the debate over Eliza’s verdict continued throughout the nineteenth century;[13] her case used as an example for the anti-capital punishment campaign.[14]

     Spectators who witnessed the Fenning execution departed from the usual ribaldry of such occasions, as it was perceived, particularly by the lower-classes, as a miscarriage of justice.  Furthermore, it is possible that the circumspection of the judiciary later in the century, was in response to the ambiguity of the Fenning case, striving to convict cases of certainty, and not those beyond reasonable doubt.  It could be argued, that this is Eliza Fenning’s legacy.

eliza fenning news



[1] OBSP, Fenning t18150405-18

[2] Flanders, Judith, The Invention of Murder (Great Britain: Harper Press, 2011) p. 186

[3] ‘Eliza Fenning’, The Times, September 24 1815, <http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.kingston.ac.uk/hnpguardianobserver/docview/473805520/13D7C32E09D1C973DD2/1?accountid=14557&gt; [date accessed 16/04/2013]

[4] Marshall, John, ‘Eliza Fenning, The Times, September 27 1815, http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=king&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=&docId=CS67386683&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0 [date accessed 16/04/2013]

[5] Flanders, pp. 189-190

[6] Jane McDermid, ‘Women and Education’. In Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 An Introduction ed. By June Purvis (London: UCL Press, 1995) p. 117

[7] Marshall, John, ‘Eliza Fenning, The Times, September 27 1815, http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=king&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=&docId=CS67386683&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0 [date accessed 16/04/2013]

[8] Flanders, p. 185

[9] Flanders, pp. 192-193

[10] Flanders, pp. 193-194

[11] ‘Yesterday John Leech, Esq. Citizen and Vintner, Deposited a Fine of 400l. and twenty marks into the’, The Times, August 1 1815, http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=king&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=CS51395841&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0 [date accessed 10/04/2013]

[12] Harvard University Library, Executions of Criminals: More Generally Known by the Uninviting Name of “Dying Speeches.” ‘Further Account of Eliz. Fenning, who was Executed on Circumstantial Evidence, of Poisoning Mr. Turner’s Family’ (date unknown/2013) <http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788354&gt; [date accessed 17/04/2013]

[13] Fletcher, Dr, ‘Circumstantial Evidence,’ The Times, July, 21 1857, <http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=king&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=&docId=CS84316405&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [date accessed 18/04/2013]

[14] Flanders, pp. 194-195

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