William Hunter’s Library: Cases of Conspiracy

Blog post by Jennifer Young, Project Assistant, William Hunter’s Library: A Transcription of the Early Catalogues

Hunter’s Other Interests

Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of Dr William Hunter’s books are dedicated to medicine. However, that is not all that interested him. A wide range of books found their way into his vast library. From the care of horses, to ancient English cookery, to the history of the French civil wars, Hunter collected it all.

Whilst working on transcribing section C of the catalogue, I was struck by the numerous entries regarding a woman named Elizabeth Canning and what seemed to be a scandal (there are 25 in total in two volumes of pamphlets: Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.2.3 and Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.2.4). The Canning case was briefly mentioned in a previous update about the transcription project (William Hunter’s Library: the Cs). Intrigued, I did some research and learned more about a young woman who was infamous in her time.

Elizabeth Canning was an 18 year-old servant in London when she was supposedly abducted in 1753. After going missing for a month, she returned home to tell the story that she had been taken from the city to a brothel in Enfield, where the madam, Susannah Wells, tried to force her into prostitution. When Canning refused, she claimed that a gypsy woman named Mary Squires had then locked her in an attic, where she was imprisoned for a month, living only on bread and water. Eventually, she managed to escape through an attic window and walked back to London.

Susannah Wells and Mary Squires were both arrested for their parts in the abduction and stood trial at the Old Bailey later in the year. Wells had her thumb branded for running a brothel, whilst Squires was sentenced to be hanged – she had allegedly stolen Canning’s corset stays.

However, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, did not believe Canning’s story and instead believed Squire’s alibi that she had not even been in London – she had ‘respectable persons’ confirm that she had been in Dorset. Upon appeal to the king, George II eventually granted a full pardon to Mary Squires. As a result, Elizabeth was tried and convicted of perjury, and sentenced to be transported to America. The tabloids of the day chose sides and the public followed the case with fervour. Everyone had their opinion on who was guilty and many made them publicly known. The publications relating to the case in the collection include arguments made by lawyers and clergymen for both sides of the case and proceedings of the trials, as well as a tract on Canning’s life in America.

To this day, historians are still not convinced that the truth has been uncovered and continue to search the records for details that would solve the mystery. If she was not abducted in 1753, there has been no satisfactory answer given for what actually caused her disappearance.

The Canning case reminded me of the Gowrie conspiracy, involving King James VI of Scotland. Different versions of the story were told by the different men involved. During a hunting party, King James was asked by Alexander Ruthven to visit Gowrie House on account of a foreigner with a pot of gold. At Gowrie House, the king followed Ruthven to a tower room alone where they met a servant of Ruthven. A fight ensued, when Ruthven allegedly attacked the king. Ultimately, Ruthven was killed by James’s page and Ruthven’s brother, the Earl of Gowrie, was also killed in the following fight between the king’s and Gowrie’s retainers.

The king claimed that the two brothers had plotted treasonously against him and the Ruthven lands were forfeited but not everyone believed his story – many of the points did not add up. This is another mystery that is still hotly debated by historians and a single version of events has not been proven. Publications discussing this incident also found their way into Hunter’s library. (e. g. Sp Coll Hunterian Co.3.3)  He certainly had an interesting and varied collection, with a desire to keep abreast of intriguing stories of the past and of the day.


Bevis Hiller, ‘The Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Canning’, History Today 53/3 (2003)<http://www.historytoday.com/bevis-hiller/mysterious-case-elizabeth-canning> [Accessed 26/06/2017]

‘History of the Stewarts: Battles and Historic Events – Murders’, The Stewart Society <http://www.stewartsociety.org/history-of-the-stewarts.cfm?section=battles-and-historical-events&subcatid=2&histid=15> [Accessed 26/06/2017]

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3 replies

  1. I suspect that William Hunter’s interest was professional. William Hunter was the leading gynaecologist of the time. It was noted in the earlier post (the Hunter “Cs”) that William Hunter was bedridden at the time of the scandal (1752), so relied on others for information. Who would provide that information? John Hunter is the most likely source, as both brothers worked closely together in the Hunter Anatomy School. John Hunter’s relentless curiosity and interest in the science of reproduction was insatiable; he was also the leading expert on sexual diseases in London. He was also called upon to testify on medical issues in major criminal trials of the time. Notoriously, it has even been claimed that he infected himself with syphilis deliberately, to cure it and study the effects. The strange case of Elizabeth Canning seems to me an unsurprising interest for the Hunters.

    John Hunter was an ‘evolutionist’ whose monumental research efforts and collection had an extraordinary influence on those who followed; not least on Charles Darwin.

  2. that’s so interesting, i wonder if the truth will ever be known-


  1. William Hunter’s Library: the Hs – University of Glasgow Library

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