E is for Eliza: there are three of them.

The first is Eliza Burgess. In January 1840, twelve jurymen assembled at the Marylebone Workhouse to hear the inquest on a dead baby. The mother, 25 year old Eliza Burgess, was suspected of having killed her new-born child. One of the jurors was the 28 year old Charles Dickens who lived at number 1 Devonshire Terrace, a short walk away from the workhouse.

Eliza Burgess was accused of killing her baby at the house of her employer. No one knew of her pregnancy and the child was actually born under her skirts as she was answering the door. Eliza claimed that it was born dead. The surgeon told Dickens that it was unlikely that the child could have drawn more than a few breaths as there was foreign matter in his windpipe. There were plenty on the jury who wanted to convict her – no doubt simply because she was unmarried and had kept the pregnancy secret.

Mrs Symmons, her employer, was very unsympathetic – the disgrace to her house, no doubt, but Dickens argued so forcibly that he persuaded the jury to bring in a verdict of ‘Found Dead’ – not infanticide. She still had to face a trial at the Old Bailey, but Dickens sent her food and comforts while she was on remand and found a barrister to defend her. The judge granted a lenient sentence although she was convicted for the concealment of the birth. However, she might have been hanged – Dickens saved her life.

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