Eliza Fenning was not the first servant in the annals of English legal history to be convicted of attempting to murder the family for which she worked. Nor was she the last. But certainly Eliza Fenning, who in consequence of her alleged crime merits her own entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, was among the most famous servants ever convicted of such an offence. Murdering or even attempting to murder one’s master or mistress was an act of ‘petty treason’, and although it was not an everyday occurrence, it was both common enough and important enough to warrant the state’s attention.1 And pay attention the state did. The government acted decisively in the Fenning case, rejecting all pleas for mercy and ignoring the apparent weakness of the circumstantial evidence brought against the accused. In July 1815, Eliza Fenning died on the gallows for the attempted poisoning of her master and mistress.
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