By Paul Emanuelli, reposted with permission from unpublishedwriterblog.
In the winter of 1803, everyone in Hammersmith had seen the white ghost, or knew someone who had. It haunted the churchyard and the narrow passage that ran into Black Lion Lane. Many believed it was the spirit of a man who had committed suicide the previous year, his soul unable to find rest. Rumours spread, some said that the spectre had “horns on its head, and glass eyes,” while others said, it had no head at all. Thomas Groom told everyone who would listen that he had been walking through the graveyard when the spirit had attacked him,
“from behind a tomb-stone, which there are four square in the yard, behind me, and caught me fast by the throat with both hands, and held me fast; my fellow-servant, who was going on before, hearing me scuffling, asked what was the matter; then, whatever it was, gave me a twist round, and I saw nothing.”
At 10-30p.m. on the 3rd of November Francis Smith set off to hunt down the ghost. It was a cloudy night, with no moon, and the high hedges that lined the lane (that the spirit frequented) made it as dark as any cave. Within minutes Francis saw the white shape approaching. He drew his pistol and called out to it. But the white ghost came nearer. He shouted to it again, but it would not stop. Francis panicked, aimed the gun and fired. The white shape crumpled to the ground. Approaching tentatively, the gun still in his hand, Francis saw the body of the man he had just killed.
It was Thomas Millwood, a brick-layer, his face covered in cement-dust, wearing as a witness later testified,
“linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him; his trowsers came down almost to the edge of his shoes.”
Francis Smith gave himself up and confessed to the killing of Thomas Millwood. At his trial 12 witnesses testified to his “good character.” Others confirmed the darkness of the night, the prevalence of the ghost-sightings and Smith’s good intent. The woman who had lived with the deceased victim, even recounted a conversation they had had on the previous Saturday.
“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 clothes look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger; I don’t know what answer he made; he said he wished the ghost was catched, or something of that sort.”
Francis Smith was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Thankfully the King later commuted the sentence to a year’s hard labour. The publicity surrounding the case also prompted Mr John Graham, an elderly shoemaker. to come forward and admit that he had started all the rumours by pretending to be a ghost. He had dressed in a white sheet to “frighten his apprentice,” who used the lane and churchyard on his way home. The apprentice had apparently been scaring the Graham children with ghost stories.
Researching my historical crime novel “Avon Street,” I came across accounts of many strange crimes, but this was perhaps the strangest.
Trial reference: t18040111-79