The April air kisses my neck as I walk with my mother towards my fate. The bruises are barely even visible on my pale skin by now, if even there, but mother wanted them to be in “perfect viewing condition”. In order for this to happen, she had me do my hair in a dark bun, tighter than usual. It is quite impressive that only a few lonely strands fall around my plump face due to the breeze. I haven’t spoken to anyone in almost forty-eight hours; I cannot let myself over analyze any of my decisions or statements that I’ve made during this case. God knows that is why I am still coming to this old, haunted place. My stomach churns and my hands clasp one another even tighter as we get closer to the people, all waiting, eager to watch. There are reporters everywhere, feeding on the commotion. I loathe those reporters and their judgmental views on every word I speak or look I give. Every last one of their accusations affect me, but I keep a blank expression, face kept forward.
“Excuse me madam, is it true that you have been lying this whole time or did the Gypsy woman truly steal your belongings?”
No… I have not been lying. All I’ve said is all I remember.
“Miss Canning, are you nervous for this trial?”
Yes. Yes… my Lord, I am terrified.
I walked into the courtroom, feeling alone and abandoned. This time, my mother is not allowed to be beside me but only to sit among the swarm of people who have taken interest in my story. I am not even sure my own family knows what to believe anymore. The old man whom I assume is going to be deciding my fate speaks a few monotone words to everyone in the room and to the horrid three person jury, all of whom despise of me. However instead of his speaking, all I hear is this sort of ringing and the inconsistent thumping of my heart. It is almost as if the world, the people, the life around me is nonexistent. That time itself has sped up and slowed down all the same. The only thing that is flooding my mind is the chilling fact of today; it all comes down to my testimony. Every last trial, every last piece of evidence, everything that we have worked for, it is all for nothing. Today is all about my words. Words that will dictate whether we live or die, whether our reputations will withstand, grow, or disintegrate in the slight lifetime of a moment. Yes, today my fate depends on my words and the time I have to speak them. I will never have enough time.
There is a slight shift in the room as I stand to share my side. I look back finding my mother who is sitting there staring, her harsh but worrisome and encouraging eyes beating upon me as if to say, “You muddle this up and my life is over just as much as yours.”. I position myself back forward and take a deep breath, trying to organize my thoughts in the matter of a split second. I glance back up to the Judge. He clears his throat and glares my way, expressing that he is clearly unamused by the short amount of time I am taking to gather myself. Reminding myself not to leave any small detail out, I take one last breath and begin to tell my story once more.
“About three months ago, the night of the new year, I was abducted while I was on my way home to London. I still remember the icy-soft snow on my shoes, and the chilling wind ruffling my new dress I had been wearing for the get-together at my Aunt and Uncle’s. Originally, I had planned to go shopping in town with my mother, but as the day had drawn on I had decided it would be a much better use of my time to be in the pleasant company of my Aunt and Uncle rather than be consumed in the midst of the people and traffic in town. Soon, however, the night had begun to fall and we expressed our goodbyes in the manner of hugging and kissing. On my way back I remember feeling the temperature drop rapidly. I had made the trek home multiple times before, but that night felt different. As I walked along the road in the light of my lamp, I had felt as though there were eyes upon me. I continued to tell myself this was of course just my imagination and that I was being childish. I continued to walk, feeling more and more uneasy until I heard the quick shuffle of feet behind me. By this point, night had almost completely fallen and I could no longer see clearly of what was around me.
“Hello?” I had asked quite quietly as I was afraid. In return, I received no response. So I repeated myself exactly two more times. Still, I heard nothing but my own rattling of the lamp. So I started to trek on forward, feeling even more anxious to be in the safety and warmth of my own home. Just as quickly as I started to move, I felt a firm grasp on my arm. My reaction to this action was a bloody scream, as I had been already terrified. Another hand reached for my mouth and clasped it tightly shut as I had begun to feel my clothing being ripped and searched. There were two of them, and their strength was too much for me. I tried to muffle out some words, but every time I would try to get away, the grasp on me would get tighter and the searching would get rougher. After some time, the commotion of it all had become too much and I had begun to feel quite faint. All I could see then was the darkness of my unconscious mind.
I had awoken to an old woman whom I did not particularly recognize. I was on the ground in a smaller room of what I assumed to be a farm house of some sort. I looked at her, fear in my eyes. She was not young, but she held herself high above me.
“Why am I here? What do you want?” I managed to push the words out from my throat, each question getting caught on the way. As I demand this, I am also trying to reposition myself viewing my condition. My dress was torn, its once beautiful, green, silky material now ripped and dirtied. However my eyes watered not from this, but from the horrid pain in my legs and arms. I could see through the shreds that my porcelain skin was already damaged by the cuts and purpling imperfections. She looked at me, pity on her face and cooed the answers out.
“A pretty young lady like you shouldn’t be in this sort of condition. It is such a shame that you were handled so roughly. I can take care of you, but you need to agree to go my way first.”
“Go your way?” I had asked, already knowing what she had meant.
“Yes. Is that something you can manage to do?” A questioning tone was in her voice, threatening almost.
“Absolutely not! How dare you ask this of me?!” Heat had rushed to my face as I was completely offended that she would even ask of this! My family’s reputation was in my mind at all times. My shy personality had vanished by this point as I try to get up and look her in the eyes. As I struggled she crouched down to my level and grabbed me by my sleeves.
“Such a shame. But, I will be kind Just because you are pretty. I will give you another chance tomorrow morning.” She pushed me back down and spit. The woman then looked behind her and demanded, “Mary, tell your men what to do with this wretched girl.”
“Yes, Ms. Wells.” An even older gypsy woman emerges from behind whom I now knew to be Ms. Wells. The two men who had taken me earlier were instructed by the Gypsy, whom I now know to be Ms. Mary Squires, who had been watching the events to take me to “my room”. Each one gripped me once more and lifted me enough off the ground so I could shuffle my feet as we walked. They had taken me down to the end of a narrow hallway to a door. When opened, it revealed a tattered staircase made of wood. They had shoved me up it until we reached an eerie, stuffy room at the top. That’s when they had pushed me hard enough where I fell and hit my leg on the top stair so hard I could no longer find the strength to carry myself. One dragged me while the other went to the far edge of the room, preparing something. My eyes had briefly scanned my surroundings; There was a haystack against the right wall and one window at the far side of the small, dusty, wooden room. This was the only light source. By this window was a small portion of bread, about an eighth of a loaf, on a small, cheap china plate. And then, my darting eyes locked onto a rope that was tied tightly onto a beam in the ceiling, long enough that even with being tied so high it made a small pile when it hit the dirty floor.
“Oh no, please no!” I had looked at one of the men and started to sob, “Please no, please spare my life! Please sir, I beg of you!” over and over again.
“Oh shut your puny mouth!” The man by the window then growled. He had stomped over and looked down at me in disgust. He was the stronger of the two, taller as well; He stood at least a foot above my five foot stature. In the light of the rising sun I could make out that he was strong, full of filth, and had a wide frame. “We aren’t going to kill you, at least not with this rope.”
They had tied me up tight around the left wrist, facing the window. A way of cheaply chaining me there I suppose. After this action I-” At this time the judge clears his throat and interrupts my speech for the first time. I am a little taken back by how he chooses to interrupt now out of all times, but try not to let this jumble up my thoughts.
“Miss Canning, why do you believe they faced you towards the window. If they were as terrible as you say, why would your kidnappers let you have the pleasure of seeing the outside world?” His tone is suspicious and I can tell already he isn’t buying my story. But, I knew when I walked into this room that my odds of escaping this time were slim. My answer is honest, for what I believe is the only thing I have to hold onto.
“I have absolutely no idea why they faced me toward the window. However I must admit your honor, if it hadn’t been for that window, I would have lost hope in ever escaping. But, that tiny window was my motivation of escape. It had reminded me that there was a world that I belong to, a life I was missing.” My voice is confident and steady. He looks at me for a moment to study my body language, then raises his eyebrows and motions me to proceed. I clear my throat and take a deep breath, rebuilding my confidence.
“As I was saying, after they tied me to the rope by the window I was left to my lonesome with the bread. There was writing on the plate, clever they were, that said “This is all your food. Make it last.” At the time I had no idea why they would write it on the plate and not a note, but now I understand that they didn’t want me to take it as evidence.
After a few hours the old Gypsy- Ms. Squires, came up to my company. She had looked at me with pity in her eyes, this I will admit, but that still did not stop her. Without saying any more than enough to shush me, she took the rest of my belongings; the remains of my green dress and the money I was carrying that had survived the rough search of the men. I was then left to my lonesome once more.
For three dreadful weeks I sat and starved on only the little bread they would give me at the beginning of each week. I received brutal beatings each time I refused to “go their way”. It was nearly a month after I was taken when the house was empty for the first time. I realized then that if I didn’t try to escape I might never get the chance. Thinking quickly, I grabbed my now empty plate and smashed it on the ground with the little strength I had left. I had already been picking at the rope, it was a cheap material and frayed easily. I used the sharp edges of the shattered plate to saw away the remaining strands that were still clinging to one another. Soon, I was free. Free. My moves were swift, as I had been planning this escape for a while. I ran to the window, for the first time seeing just how far off the ground I was. I was a little over a story off the ground, but I needed to jump. It was a matter of life or death. The window was tiny, but without my extra layers of clothing I fit my waist through the small opening. The landing hurt my bruised legs, but I was free. Before I could even begin to enjoy the relief of my freedom, I made the mad dash for home. I knew the way once I reached the main road.
This is my story. I am here today so that justice is served and the people who stole from me and held me captive pay for what they did.”
I stand there for a moment as the judge contemplates what I have said. He looks over a few documents that I have not seen, and then repositions himself.
“Miss Canning, you are aware that lying in court is against the law, yes?”
I swallow hard. “Yes.”
“Then please explain to me why you have lied to everyone here, including myself.” His voice is saturated with anger and the disgust he feels towards me lingers in his eyes. He speaks to the jury for a few moments then returns and glares my way.
“I am afraid that I do not understand. I-”
“I have proof, Miss Canning. Claims from three eye witnesses that Ms. Mary Squires was in fact not at the Wells’ residence the time that you say she stole your belongings. Her “men” could not have been there. One of the witnesses is even a Clergy, Miss Canning. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” He looks at me, knowing I have been defeated. I just stare back at him, a blank expression on my face.
“I have already told you all I know.” I try to conceal the shakiness in my voice caused by my knowledge in what will happen next. That minuscule, solitary strand of hope I once had has now vanished. For once I cannot seem to think of the correct phrase; I am at a loss for the words that might save me.
“Well then, I believe we are done here. Miss Elizabeth Canning, I sentence you seven years in America for lying in court.”
And just like that, everything is over. My whole world stops, freezes in time as I realize this case is done. I can hear my mother cry out, but I cannot turn to face her. As I am arrested reporters swarm around me like the starving mosquitoes that they are, always hungry for blood. I do not let them see my fear and my lips stay sealed for I have already said all I have to say. I need not explain that I am protecting my family’s, and my own, reputation in doing this.
I served my time, and died in doing it. Even though I managed to convince many that I was honest, I couldn’t convince the most important man. I had the chance to win back my pride, and I lost because my words simply were not enough.
Elizabeth Canning (1734-1773)