Everyone loves a good ghost story. People of virtually every society over the entire course of human history have told and believed ghost stories. The years surrounding and including the Regency era were no different. However, one particular story resulted in a series of fantastic twists that played out over the course of 180 years.
This particular ghost story began with apparent hysteria in the Hammersmith area of London in 1803. A man who took his own life had been buried in the Hammersmith churchyard, a move opposed by many who said that suicide victims could not be interned on consecrated ground. They feared his restless soul would haunt the cemetery. Not long after, two women, one elderly and one pregnant, reported being seized by a tall white ghost near the churchyard. Rumors spread that the women later died of shock (though this appears to be untrue). A brewer’s servant, Thomas Groom, reported that a spectral figure rose from behind a tombstone and grabbed his throat. Night-watchman William Girdler reported pursuing the ghost near Beaver Lane. Public hysteria mounted. Because London did not have an organized police force, local citizens formed armed patrols to find and perhaps exorcise the ghost.
Late in the evening of January 3, 1804, Girdler encountered a citizen patrolman, Francis Smith, who was armed with a shotgun and expressed his intent to find the ghost. Girdler joined him briefly before they parted ways. Shortly after, Girdler and another man heard a gunshot and hurried toward the sound. There they found an agitated Smith and a ghostly figure lying prone on the ground.
Twist #1: On closer examination, the ghost proved to be Thomas Millwood, a local bricklayer. He was clad in the clothing of his trade: white linen pants, a white waistcoat, and a white apron that covered most of his midsection. He had just left from a visit with his parents and sister when Smith challenged him: “Damn you. Who are you and what are you? Damn you, I will shoot you!” Smith fired his weapon and the shot to the jaw killed Millwood instantly.
Francis Smith was arrested and put on trial for willful murder. At stake was the question of self-defense. If a man feared for his life and took action, was he innocent, even if his life was never in danger? Substantial evidence was offered from both viewpoints. Millwood’s widow admitted that she had told her husband not to wear white, fearing he would be mistaken for a ghost. Many spoke of Smith’s good character. However, Millwood’s sister overheard the exchange, and reported that Smith shot her brother immediately after issuing the challenge, leaving no time for Millwood to reply.
Twist #2: After one hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. The judge rejected the verdict, telling the jury that they must find the defendant guilty of murder or acquit him. The jury eventually returned a second time with a verdict of murder, with a mandatory sentence of hanging and dissection. However, owing to the odd circumstances, the chief judge referred the case to the King. King George commuted Smith’s death sentence to one year of hard labor.
Twist #3: Due to the publicity of the case, the actual culprit stepped forward. Alas, it was not a ghost, but a shoemaker called John Graham. The shoemaker’s apprentice had been frightening Graham’s children with ghost stories. To exact revenge, Graham had dressed in a white sheet to frighten the apprentice and then others. The attacks near the churchyard were his doing. There is no record of Graham ever being punished.
Twist #4: In 1984, 180 years later, the courts heard a case where a man saw two men dragging another man down a street. He intervened to help the victim, where he injured one of those dragging the man. It turns out that the “victim” was a thief and the two men were dragging him to the police. The attacker was charged with assault. However, the court eventually ruled that the attacker was innocent of assault because he believed he was acting in good faith for the sake of the community. The ruling was written into law in 2008, and referenced the Hammersmith Ghost case as prior precedent. Ironically, the ruling would have saved Francis Smith from a guilty verdict – because he acted in good faith for the sake of the community.
Ghosts, murder, twists, and turns. The Hammersmith Ghost case featured them all, and took 200 years to resolve. A good ghost story, indeed!