In June of 1773, news reached England from Connecticut that Elizabeth Canning Treat had died. The announcement, carried in the newspapers of the time, put the final exclamation point on one of the most sensational trials England witnessed in the 1750s.
Treat’s life, and how she came to Connecticut, were well known to most people in England as her trials had dominated the news of 1753 and 1754. Huge crowds, of both supporters and detractors, crowded the Old Bailey courthouse to hear her story. And to this day, no one has ever definitively established the truth behind it all.
In England, before her marriage, Elizabeth Treat was Elizabeth Canning. At 18, she was a maidservant in a middling neighborhood. She was described as plump, pockmarked and shy.
On New Year’s Day in 1753 she disappeared. The story she would later tell was that she was robbed and taken to house of prostitution, where she was first asked to become a prostitute and, when she refused, was locked in a loft, a prisoner.
The 18-year-old returned to her home and her astonished mother 29 days later, skinny, dirty and bloodied from an injury to her ear.
After being taken to the house where she was held, Canning identified two women – Mary Squires and Susannah Wells – as her captors. Wells was charged with running a house of prostitution, Squires faced the more serious charge of theft, having stolen Canning’s corset.
Canning was required to pay for the prosecution of the case herself, as was the custom in England at the time. To raise funds, her supporters published details of the case to generate sympathy and donations.
Soon, her supporters had built the case against Wells and Squires. Another woman living in the house corroborated Elizabeth’s story and filled in details, that it was Squires’ son who had robbed her and delivered her to the house. Squires was called a “gypsy” in the press accounts, and the story took on racial overtones: a Gypsy kidnapped an innocent 18-year-old and tried to force her into prostitution.
The trial was brief and raucous and by the end of February, justice had been meted out at the Old Bailey. Wells was to be branded on her hand for running the house of prostitution. Squires was to be hanged for theft.
Sir Crisp Gascoyne, a judge at the Old Bailey, had been watching the case with interest. He found Canning’s story unlikely, and upon seeing the verdict he opened his own investigation. He discovered that one witness for Canning said she had been bullied into testifying falsely. Another witness had been prevented from testifying by the mobs of Canning supporters outside the court throwing mud and stones at anyone who did not support the girl.
Gascoyne investigated further and came up with witnesses who had said Squires was not at home the day Canning said she arrived at the gypsy’s house. He began his own public relations crusade to gain clemency for Squires.
In late April and early May of 1754, Canning was called back to court to answer charges of perjury. Days of back and forth ensued, with Squires’ supporters saying she was not at home in January of 1753 when the crimes occurred, and Canning’s supporters shooting down her arguments. In the end, it was Canning who was convicted of perjury.
She would decline to discuss the issue further. Her critics had begun questioning her loyalty to the Church of England, accusing her of consorting with Methodists. And when the final sentence on her was carried out — exile to America — her Methodist supporters arranged for her to stay with Congregational minister Elisha Williams to be taken in to his family in Wethersfield, Conn.
And there the controversy ends over Elizabeth Canning and the mystery begins. In Wethersfield she was well-received and married John Treat, a member of a prominent Wethersfield family that included former governor Robert Treat. Together they had three sons and a daughter. Elizabeth died in June of 1773, and the question of what happened to her in that first month of 1753 has never been settled.
Conspiracy theorists abound. Was she giving birth to a child, perhaps given to a member of the nobility that could not produce an heir? Was she somehow involved in a plot to acquire the fortune of Sir Hans Sloane? Was she simply kidnapped as she said? Or is there some other explanation?