A Shrouded Spectre that Ended up in a Trial at the Old Bailey

When we think of a great city such as London, we invariably imagine a place that never sleeps, where the metropolis revels merrily onward through the dim watches of the night. However, back in the early 19th century, before the age of municipal street lighting and gas lamps, things were very different: when the sun had set, the city became a warren of dark streets and gloomy lanes,with many folks not venturing out farther than necessary. Aside from the numerous criminals who plied their trade after dark, many areas were allegedly home to a ghost or two and it is to one particular haunting that we are turning our attention to now...

It was once a well-known tale, and some folklorists and historians see it as a precedent for later public panics that would strike London, in particular the reigns of terror that the likes of Spring-heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper would bring to the city much later in that century. However while the story of the Hammersmith ghosts are now largely forgotten, the case has had a surprisingly long lasting impact on British society.

In November 1803, stories began to circulate that a ghost was prowling the Hammersmith area after dark. The very first reports had surfaced in October, when several folks had seen a hag-like figure roaming the local churchyard. However this alleged phantom was soon recognised by a Mr Moody of Six Bells as a boy employed by a local butcher, a Mr. Kilberton. It was discovered that the lad had been stealing the dresses of a maid and prancing about the graveyard and thereabouts in order to frighten her. Needless to say these activities were soon put to sudden stop when Mr Moody identified him.

However, as is often the way of these things, stories, even soundly debunked ones, have a tendency to linger in the public imagination. And not longer after other folks were reporting seeing a ghost - however this time it was not a mad old woman but a mysterious figure in white. A Mr Brazier, a chimney sweep, spotted a white shape in the lower end of Church-lane. However when prodding the spectre with his stick he discovered it was actually a courting couple! But other reports were not so easily explained - a local brewer Thomas Groom was walking through the churchyard when he was grabbed around the throat from behind. Groom struggled with his attacker and managed to break free only to see a figure draped in what looked like a white shroud disappear among the tombstones. Groom was severely rattled by the assault and alerted the authorities. Naturally the newspapers seized upon his story, and with usual tabloid relish embellished the tale with the detail that Groom was so shocked that he had taken to his bed and never recovered from the attack.

However despite such lurid accounts appearing in the press, the Hammersmith ghost had seemingly disappeared, with no further reports being made. But in the last few weeks of November, the sightings began again. Once again a menacing shape in white was seen, with witnesses describing a figure wrapped in a white sheet, with great round glassy eyes, and some even claimed the phantom had devilish horns. Several people were badly shocked by the eerie spectre, and no doubt embellished tales sprang up about the sightings - it was claimed a pregnant lady had been startled by the white figure and had died from shock several days later. Allegedly a wagon driver has been spooked by the spectre, and nearly lost control of the horses, placing his sixteen passengers in dire peril. Yet another account ran thus -

One poor woman in particular, when crossing near the churchyard about ten o'clock at night, beheld something, as she described, rise from the tombstones. The figure was very tall and very white. She attempted to run; but the ghost soon overtook her, and pressed her in his arms, when she fainted; in which situation she remained some hours, till discovered by some neighbours, who kindly led her home, when she took to her bed, from which, alas, she never rose

Who or what was this white robed figure? Many speculated that it was the shade of a local man who had committed suicide earlier in the year. Somewhat controversially he had been buried in the churchyard, much to the consternation of the older citizens of Hammersmith who still thought the old tradition that suicides should not be buried in consecrated ground ought to have been observed. The ghost, they said, was the suicide's spirit walking abroad, unable to find rest.

The sightings continued and something of a panic was brewing. Events came to a head at the close of December, when on the night of the 29th, William Girdle, the local nightwatchman spotted the spectre for himself. While on his rounds he was approached by the apprentice of a local shoemaker, a Mr Graham, shouting he had seen the ghost. Girdle hurried up the street and saw a figure in white by the water pump and gave chase. While our plucky nightwatchman lost his quarry in the maze of darkened lanes and houses, he was able to report he had seen the figure take off its white robes and stuff them under its coat. Furthermore the ghost had been seen by several more witnesses, including the Hill family who spotted a mystery man hiding from the nightwatchman behind their house and claimed to have seen a corner of white sheet poking from a corner of his jacket.

Word soon spread, and henceforth several local men began patrolling the streets too, for the white robed figure, be he man or spirit, was apparently corporeal enough to be captured! However things would come to a somewhat disastrous end on the night of January 3rd 1804. A local excise officer, Francis Smith offered to accompany Girdle on his rounds, and the pair even devised code phrases so that they might identify each other while searching for the ghost in the darkened streets and alleys. Around eleven o'clock in the gloom of Black-Lion Lane, while patrolling on his own, Smith spotted a figure in white. And when the white shape did not reply to his challenges, Smith opened fire and the figure collapsed to the floor. But like other instances in the Hammersmith haunting, it was soon discovered that this was another case of mistaken identity, and one with tragic consequences.

The "ghost" turned out to be a local plasterer, a man named Thomas Millwood, and Smith's shot had caught him in the lower jaw and shattered his spinal column. Realising his terrible error, Smith fetched a local man, one John Locke, to return to the scene, and there was joined by Girdle and Millwood's sister Anne. The unfortunate workman was taken to the Black Lion Inn and the local surgeon called. However Millwood was already dead, and the guilt-stricken Smith surrendered himself to the police. A week later his case was heard at the Old Bailey, in one of the most unusual trials in the history of that famous court of justice...

What had transpired was this: on the nights of Tuesday the 3rd of January 1804, Smith had volunteered to accompany the local night watch William Girdle on his nightly rounds. The two had agreed a code phrase to identify each other in the gloom of the streets, and the pair split up, with Girdle undertaking his usual rounds while Smith decamped to Black Lion Lane, which they hazarded was where the alleged phantom would flee if Girdle succeeded in flushing him out.

Elsewhere in Hammersmith, around ten o'clock, a local plasterer, Thomas Millwood left the house where he resided with his family. As he was dressed in white flannel trousers, an apron and a white flannel jacket - his working clothes - his sister was worried he might be mistaken for the ghost and went to the door to call him back. Indeed as the court would hear, her concern was justified for as Millwood's mother-in-law a Mrs Fulbrooke would testify, a short time earlier Millwood while in his plaster's whites had scared some other local folks -

On Saturday evening, he and I were at home, for he lived with me; he said he had frightened two ladies and a gentleman who were coming along the terrace in a carriage, for that the man said, he dared to say there goes the ghost; that he said he was no more a ghost than he was, and asked him, using a bad word, did he want a punch of the head; I begged of him to change his dress; Thomas, says I, as there is a piece of work about the ghost, and your cloaths look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger

However by the time Anne Millwood reached the doors, her brother Thomas was already a good way down Black Lion Lane, and as she stood on the step she heard Smith's shouted challenge and a shot fired…

Now at the trial, it was argued that Smith had acted in self defence, and evidence was heard to substantiate his story that the Hammersmith area was indeed in the grip of a panic about a ghostly attacker. Thomas Groom, the man who the 'ghost' had attempted to strangle was called to the Old Bailey and the court heard his tale, while William Girdle recounted his previous encounter with the phantom. The court also heard that Smith had been instantly struck with remorse and witnesses spoke of his gentle character - this was not a violent, poorly tempered man, but an honest fellow who, being terrified, had made a terrible but honest mistake.

After hearing the facts of the case, the jury found Smith guilty of manslaughter, but the Bench - both the defending and prosecuting lawyers - argued that in this instance only a verdict of murder or a complete acquittal would do. The presiding judge Lord Chief Baron concurred and the jury was asked to consider their verdict again. This time, they voted him guilty of murder and Smith was sentenced to death. However Lord Chief Baron MacDonald was unhappy with the final verdict for Smith's conviction resided in something of legal grey area.

On one hand, the law, as was written then, allowed Smith to use a degree of force to apprehend a suspected wrong-doer. In these days before a proper police service existed, this kind of citizens' arrest was accepted and commonplace. However the law was unclear what degree of force was tolerable and what is more, what degree of force was acceptable for a man in fear of his own safety to deploy in self-defence. In the case of Smith, the court had decided that he was indeed honestly mistaken that he was facing the dreaded Hammersmith phantom, but equally the law as it stood made no allowance for that when he killed the believed assailant - he had deliberately fired upon the man and killed him, hence it was murder.

As it turned out, the legal questions raised by the Hammersmith Ghost would continue to vex English law until the end of the 20th century. Indeed the matter was only settled with a ruling in 1984, some one hundred and eighty years later, on the limits of self defence, and discussion of Smith's case greatly informed the new legal standards. Fortunately for Smith himself however, Lord Chief Baron MacDonald acted on his troubles over the trial and raised the matter with the king himself. Smith received a reprieve while the matter was considered and given the legal questions over his actions, his sentence was commuted to a year's imprisonment and at the end of that time he received a full pardon.

But what of the mysterious ghost? Well, a few days after Smith was taken to prison, another local man, a shoemaker named John Graham came forward and admitted to masquerading as the ghost. Apparently Graham had an apprentice who had been teasing his family with tales of the ghost and even terrifying them by making ghostly scratching sounds on the walls of his house. Graham resolved to give the young fellow a taste of his own medicine, and give the lad a good scare. And it was Graham, dressed in a white sheet, that Girdle had encountered on the 29th of December. There is no record or any legal action brought against him, but it is recorded that Graham deeply regretted his part in escalating the panic, and sang at Millwood's funeral.

So then, who or what the original white shrouded figure that haunted Hammersmith was remains unknown. Was it another prankster? Or perhaps a genuine spectre? We shall never know... However the story doesn't quite end there, for there is another ghost associated with these events. Over the years the Black Lion Inn has had many ghostly manifestations. Over the decades, ghostly footsteps have been heard, patrons have felt unseen hands tap their shoulders, lights have turned themselves on and off, and folks have reported hearing an eerie voice calling their name. Now the Black Lion Inn was where the wounded Millwood was taken, and it is said that the source of the strange hauntings there is the unquiet spirit of the unfortunate Thomas Millwood...

* In fact, the full transcript of the trial may be read here

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