Dickens refers to Eliza Fenning in a letter in 1863 to his friend John Forster. Dickens is editing an article by a writer George Thornbury who had submitted the article for his magazine All The Year Round about the case of Eliza Fenning who was hanged for the attempted murder of her employer, his wife and his father and an apprentice in 1815.
Dickens writes: I have an impression that it was not Sylvester who tried Eliza Fenning, but Knowles … I have added a final paragraph about the unfairness of the judge … I distinctly recollect to have read of his ‘putting down’ of Eliza Fenning’s father when the old man made some miserable suggestion on his daughter’s behalf, and he also stopped some suggestion that a knife thrust into a loaf adulterated with alum would present the appearance that these knives presented.
Dickens was wrong about the judge. It was Sylvester, but he was right about the unfairness. It was true that Eliza’s employer Mr Turner, his wife and father, and the apprentice were poisoned by arsenic. But, so was Eliza and the judge would not admit this evidence nor would he allow Eliza’s father to put forward his evidence about the severity of his daughter’s illness.
The judge decided that the dumplings Eliza had made were the source of the poison because the knife she had used was black, but as Dickens says the black could have had some other cause. Eliza was found guilty and hanged on July 26th, 1815. She protested her innocence to the end. 10,000 people attended her funeral. The people of London wept for her. Dickens did write the last paragraph of the article for All the Year Round as follows:
We reserve for our concluding paragraph that the judge who tried this case was an advocate against the girl and was unfeeling and unfair.
A journalist, William Hone, who attended the trial set out to prove her innocence, and uncovered the more likely perpetrator in Mr Turner’s son, Robert, who was subject to fits of madness. William Hone published a book which convinced everyone but Sylvester that Eliza was innocent.
The arsenic, by the way, was in a kitchen drawer, and grains of it had spilled out of the packet – they were very careless about poisons in those days. It had been there for ages – the whole family knew about it, including mad Robert.