In March 1815, in London, Elizabeth Fenning served a plate of dumplings to the family that employed her as a cook. Almost all members of the household, including Eliza herself, became violently ill, apparently poisoned. Barely four months later Eliza was dead, hanged for attempted murder after a drumhead trial tainted with misogyny, class prejudice and official corruption. An angry newspaper reporter who witnessed her execution, William Hone, took up her cause and began to expose the web of lies that led to Eliza’s wrongful conviction—but Hone would soon find himself on trial for daring to speak truth to power. This was a major event in the birth of investigative journalism as we now know it, but it didn’t exist before the Second Decade. This is the story of the case that brought it into being.
In this episode, Dr. Sean Munger connects the disparate threads of the Eliza Fenning case and how it affected media and legal history. You’ll hear the likely real story of what happened in the troubled Turner household the day Eliza baked the dumplings, including her own words—ignored by legal authorities and historians alike—suggesting that the genesis of the whole thing was Eliza’s act of resistance against an attempted assault. You’ll meet a parade of corrupt officials and incompetent bureaucrats who tried to railroad her, from a feckless doctor who made a supposed murder weapon out of a sniff of garlic to the odious John Silvester, London’s chief criminal judge who demanded sexual favors in exchange for legal ones. And you’ll learn about the life of William Hone, briefly the most famous man in England, whose own trials in 1817 proved as much of a sensation as Elizabeth Fenning’s. There’s a lot more to this episode of Second Decade than the title suggests!
Content Warning: this episode contains a brief discussion of sexual assault.
Additional Materials About This Episode
[Above] Eliza Fenning, in a contemporary illustration from a book or newspaper. Her grave, originally laid in 1815 at St. George the Martyr in Southwark, was presumably moved with the rest of the interments there to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey in 1899. It is not known whether her grave is still visible there at the present time.
[Above] William Hone as he appeared around the time of the Second Decade (painting by William Patten). He died in November 1842; Charles Dickens was among the mourners at his funeral. Hone was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in London. His grave is very much still visible; here is a view of it at Findagrave.com.
[Above] John Silvester, the “Recorder” of London from 1803 until his death in 1822. Silvester was named the First Baronet of Yardley in 1814, the year before the Eliza Fenning trial. Although supporters tried to pump up his reputation after his death, historians generally have not had very much good to say about him.
[Above] George Cruikshank, the illustrator who was Hone’s professional collaborator beginning in the year immediately following the Eliza Fenning case. Younger than Hone, the collaboration with him was the first major event in Cruikshank’s career. He too became a friend of Charles Dickens, but later the two had a falling-out when Cruikshank became a fanatical member of the temperance movement. Cruikshank died in 1878 and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
[Above] An example of one of Cruikshank’s cartoons. Though noted for his satirical prowess, Cruikshank was quite racist and often depicted people of color in crude and demeaning ways, as in this illustration mocking the lower class for imitating their aristocratic employers.