Medical Evidence Versus "Common Capacity"
in the Framing of the Elizabeth Canning Case
THE MATTER OF ELIZABETH CANNING, TRIED FOR PERJURY IN 1754 IN A case in which her original declaration that she had been kidnaped and starved, which had at first been legally sustained, was eventually rejected, might seem to be one in which evidence, and particularly medical evidence, must be crucial. It was, after all, Canning's shocking physical condition on her return to her mother's house on 29 January 1753, after a month's unexplained absence, that first brought her to public attention, her initial disappearance having created no public notice at all. As a very poor family, the Cannings had also received little or no medical attention previously, but when the eighteen-year-old Elizabeth, formerly red-faced and pudgy, stumbled in at shortly after ten o'clock at night half-dressed, emaciated, one ear bloodied, unable to stand erect, her skin livid and her fingernails quite black, a crowd of neighbors gathered, soon including the local apothecary, Sutherton Backler.
Some features of Canning's return closely resemble those cited by Mark Jackson as common indicators that triggered suspicion of child-murder, a troublingly omnipresent mid-eighteenth-century social problem: Canning was an unmarried servant who had visibly lost weight on her return from an unexpected absence. "In order to avoid being betrayed by the pain and blood of child-birth," he writes, "some women left their jobs and lodgings for a few days to be delivered elsewhere. Even this subterfuge failed. Their absence was itself regarded as suspicious, and when a woman returned, the neighbourhood were quick to notice that she had lost weight."1 And indeed, among the negative representations of Canning that were to sell so extraordinarily well in the media event that followed her return was the surmise that she had sold her missing gown and stays to cover the costs of "a christening, a wet nurse, or a coffin," accusa