“When I’m asked ‘Are you afraid of the dark?’, my answer is ‘No, I’m afraid of what is in the dark” – Barry Fitzgerald
When there’s something strange in your neighborhood, think twice before you call the ghostbusters. They have an itchy trigger finger, tending to shoot first and ask questions later. Secondarily, should you find yourself leading a phantasmic lifestyle, and having discovered that the afterlife exists and is excruciatingly boring, try not to get anybody else killed. That’s just rude. Third, if you happen to be wearing white while taking a shortcut through a cemetery, and gung-ho ghost hunters ask if you are a ghost, the appropriate answer is “no, most assuredly not”. Or, more likely, if it’s the 19th Century and you reside in the London Borough of Hammersmith, you would probably say, “Sod off, you balloon-juice lowerer”, followed by a few choice phrases about their dubious parentage. Sadly, down Hammersmith way in 1804, none of these common-sense protocols were adhered to, resulting in two deaths, a series of arrests, the escape of the ghost, and a precedent-setting murder trial. Now that’s some Olympic-level haunting.
In the year 1804, the inhabitants of Hammersmith were much alarmed by a nocturnal appearance; which, for a considerable time, eluded detection or discovery. In the course of this unfortunate affair, two innocent persons met with an untimely death; and as this transaction engaged the attention of the public in a high degree, we shall fully relate the particulars of it. An unknown person made it his diversion to alarm the inhabitants, in January 1804, by assuming the figure of a spectre. This sham ghost has certainly much to answer for. One poor woman, who was far advanced in her pregnancy of a second child, was so much shocked, that she took to her bed, and survived only two days. She had been crossing near the church-yard about ten o’clock at night, when she beheld something, as she described, rise from the tomb-stones. The figure was very tall, and very white! She attempted to run, but the supposed ghost soon overtook her, and, pressing her in his arms, she fainted; in which situation she remained some hours, till discovered by the neighbours, who kindly led her home, when she took to her bed, from which, alas! she never rose. A wagoner belonging to Mr. Russell was also so alarmed, while driving a team of eight horses, which had sixteen passengers at the time, that he took to his heels, and left the wagon, horses, and passengers, in the greatest danger. Neither man, woman, or child, would pass that way for some time; and the report was, that it was the apparition of a man who cut his throat in that neighborhood above a year before. Several lay in wait different nights for the ghost; but there were so many bye-lanes, and paths leading to Hammersmith, that he was always sure of being in that which was unguarded, and every night played off his tricks, to the terror of the passengers (Taylor, 1814, p156-157).
Numerous witnesses encountered the apparition, and some even reported physical contact and bizarre interactions. Several attempts were made to capture or kill the ghost (the local Church offered a bounty), but for several weeks the spectral sightings continued and if the author of said mischief was a mere mortal, he managed to elude his pursuers quite effectively.
For some ﬁve weeks previous to January, 1804, the inhabitants of Hammersmith, (then a suburban village of scattered houses, connected by dark unfrequented lanes, bounded in places by high hedges), had been alarmed by the frequent appearances of “a Ghost,” described as dressed sometimes entirely in white, sometimes in the skin of a cow or other wild beast. One witness at the trial of Smith said he and a fellow servant had met the Ghost one night in the churchyard, that he touched it and felt something soft, but whatever it was, it disappeared. Another witness had met and given chase to the Ghost, who only escaped by throwing away the sheet in which he was enveloped, and so outrunning his pursuer, who however got near enough to say that this Ghost was a tall man wearing a dark coat with shiny metal buttons. It also appeared that two clergymen had each offered a reward of ﬁve guineas for the capture of the Ghost, and that several persons had gone ghost hunting armed with guns, etc., but without success (SPR, 1904, p217-218).
Enter excise officer and amateur ghost hunter Francis Smith. One might question the qualifications of a customs tax collector when it comes to identifying and apprehending disembodied spirits, but in 19th Century London, the average excise officer was a little more edgy than say your typical modern IRS agent. Less accounting acumen and more muscle. Smuggling was a popular way to supplement income, and it was not uncommon to find some unfortunate treasury man with his throat cut, buried in a shallow grave in Mersea. Smith treated himself to a few drinks at the local pub, and opinion at the time was that he “was rather ‘warm over his liquor’—that is about half drunk; and in this state he was allowed at the ‘White Hart’ public house to load a gun with shot, and go out for the purpose of discovering the ghost” (Cruikshank, 1864, p37-38), ultimately giving new meaning to “arrive alive” as applied to the notion that one should not drink and ghost hunt. Maybe you shouldn’t text either, just in case. Shit got real near the cemetery on Black-Lion Lane.
On the 3rd January, 1804, a certain Mr. Francis Smith, an excise officer, went out for the declared purpose of looking for the Ghost, carrying a fowling piece loaded with shot, and having taken the precaution to arrange with “a watchman,” who carried a pistol, that if they two met in the dark, they should challenge each other. Smith did meet a ﬁgure in white, in a dark lane with high hedges, and was heard by a witness who gave evidence at his trial to say, “Damn you, who are you? speak or I’ll shoot!” Smith’s own account as given to the jury at his trial was that the ﬁgure gave no answer but “came on.” Smith thereupon ﬁred, and at such close quarters that he practically nearly blew the Ghost’s head off, blackening its face with gunpowder. The Ghost fell to the ground, and Smith immediately went for assistance, and was no doubt terribly distressed, and insisted on giving himself up to the Police. The Ghost (on this occasion) turned out to be one Millwood, a respectable bricklayer, with whom Smith was slightly acquainted, but there was no suggestion of any ill-will between them. Millwood on the night in question was wearing a white jacket with white trousers down to his heels; he had previously been mistaken for the Ghost and had been warned about his dress. It is not clear whether he was on this particular night masquerading as the Ghost, and from the evidence of his relatives, and the description of the Ghost as seen by another witness, he certainly was not the only Ghost, for he was not the tall man with dark coat and shiny buttons enveloped in a sheet, and it is not clear whether there were more Hammersmith Ghosts than one, besides the original genuine Ghost, if he ever existed (SPR, 1904, p217-218).
Thomas Millwood, dressed in the fashionable foot-length white cloak that was all the rage among Victorian bricklayers not only made a poor sartorial choice in a place where armed men were stalking specters, but also opted for a dubious shortcut home through a cemetery, given his appearance. Poor judgement does not generally merit summary execution, but Francis Smith no doubt felt it was his duty as a public servant, not only to collect the King’s taxes, but to rid the world of phantoms, or those who dared impersonate them.
Francis Smith, doubtless incensed at the unknown person who was in the habit of assuming this supernatural character, and thus frightening the superstitious inhabitants of the village, rashly determined on watching for, and shooting the ghost; when, unfortunately, in Black-Lion Lane, he shot a poor innocent man, Thomas Millwood, a bricklayer, who was in a white dress, the usual habiliment of his occupation. This rash act having been judged willful murder by the coroner’s inquest, Smith was accordingly committed to gaol, and took his trial at the ensuing sessions at the Old Bailey, January 13th, 1804. The jury at first found him guilty of manslaughter, but the crime being deemed murder in the eye of the law, the judge could only receive a verdict of Guilty, or acquittal. He was then found guilty, and received sentence of death, but was afterwards pardoned on condition of being imprisoned one year (Taylor, 1814, p157-158).
Smith’s murder trial brought up some serious legal issues surrounding self-defense, that is, can a person be held liable for the consequences of a mistaken belief e.g. if you think someone is trying to kill you, but they are just trying to give you a hug and you render them irretrievably dead, are you guilty of manslaughter or murder? The jury in Smith’s case tried to return a guilty verdict for manslaughter, but the court would not accept it. The judge explained.
The Lord Chief Baron then proceeded to address the jury. His lordship observed, that nothing which had been stated, or had appeared in this case, could possibly change the nature of the offence from murder. Although malice was necessary to make out the crime of murder, yet it was not necessary, according to law, to prove that the prisoner had known the deceased, or had cherished any malice, or, as was vulgarly called, spite against him. If a man should fire into the hall where he was now sitting, and kill anybody at random, such a deed was murder. On the same principle, if a person was killed by design, without any authority, but from a supposition that the person ought to be killed, such an act was also murder, unless the killing was accidental. If a man went out armed on the highway, intending to shoot robbers, and should decide in his own mind that an individual whom he might see was a robber, and should kill the man who actually was not a robber, such an act would be held as murder. However disgusted the jury might feel in their own minds with the abominable person guilty of the misdemeanour of terrifying the neighbourhood, still the prisoner had no right to construe such misdemeanour into a capital offence, or to conclude that a man dressed in white was a ghost. It was his own opinion, and was confirmed by those of his learned brethren on the bench, that if the facts stated in evidence were credible, the prisoner had committed murder. In this case there was a deliberate carrying out a loaded gun, which the prisoner concluded he was entitled to fire, but which he really was not; and he did fire it with a rashness which the law does not excuse. In all the circumstances of the case, no man is allowed to kill another rashly (Mitchell, 1926, p243-244).
An elderly Hammersmith shoemaker named John Graham, hearing about the death sentence handed to Smith (but not the commutation to one-years hard labor), took credit for posing as the ghost to scare an annoying apprentice, but was largely ignored. The legal issues raised by the Hammersmith ghost case were debated for the next 180 years, until a 1984 England and Wales Court of Appeals decision in Regina v. Gladstone Williams clarified the point that a “a mistake of fact can be a successful defense regardless of whether the belief is reasonable or not”. This was of little use to Thomas Millwood or Francis Smith, who one can only surmise were by this time ghosts themselves. Take this to heart if you’re set on becoming a ghost hunter for though you may have some legal protections, as John Philpot Curran said, “I have never yet heard of a murderer who was not afraid of a ghost.”
Cruikshank, George, 1792-1878. A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap At the “spirit-rappers.” 2nd ed. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1864.
Mitchell, Edwin Valentine, 1890-1960. The Newgate Calendar: Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages On the Laws of England / Edited by Edwin Valentine Mitchell ; Introduction by Henry Savage. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Pub. Co., 1926.
Taylor, Joseph, 1761 or 2-1844. Apparitions; Or, The Mystery of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, & Haunted Houses Developed … London: Lackington, 1814.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. London And Westminster: City And Suburb: Strange Events, Characteristics, And Changes, of Metropolitan Life. London: R. Bentley, 1868.
Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). “Ghost Stories of 100 Years Ago”. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research v1 (April). London: Society for Psychical Research, 1904.