It was late on the evening of 15th December 1803 and three men were walking along a country lane just outside the town of Hammersmith in Middlesex. Although Hammersmith was destined to be swallowed up by the westward march of London that was to occur later in the nineteenth-century, it was still very much a quiet little town surrounded by a patchwork of fields and scattered farms. The unprepossessing nature of the place was reflected in the relative simplicity of the townsfolk, many of whom were farm labourers or tradesmen, whose beliefs and attitudes were more at home in the seventeenth-century than the industrial era which was to follow.
The men were draymen who had just finished work in a nearby brewery and were walking back to their lodgings in town. The journey was not a particularly long one but it was made more difficult by the absence of moonlight and the deep shadows cast by the large overgrown hedgerows that loomed over either side of the lane. Suddenly the sound of footsteps could be heard ahead and without warning a figure flew at them out of the darkness. It’s body was white and spectral in nature, but it possessed the cloven legs of a goat and a large pair of horns on its head. The men screamed and fled back down the road in terror but one of their number, who was perhaps a little older or a little heavier than his companions began to lag behind and in an instant felt the creature’s hands closing around his throat, pulling him backwards. He was flung to the ground and apparition was upon him, grasping desperately at his neck before vanishing, or so it seemed, into thin air to leave him whimpering by the roadside.
A week later a coachman was driving his empty stage coach from Hammersmith to London when he spotted someone slowly advancing towards him across a nearby field. Ordinarily one could expect to see any number of men working in the fields around the town, but it was well after ten o’clock on a bitterly cold winter’s night and there was absolutely no cause for anyone to be wandering around out there at that hour. The coachman reigned in his horses and squinted to try and catch a glimpse of the figure in the waning moonlight. Fear slowly took hold of him as he realised that the thing which was approaching him was dressed in a white burial shroud. He sat and stared in mute terror for a few seconds, before vaulting down from his seat and sprinting down the lane in the direction of Hammersmith. When he eventually reached the safety of the town his cries had the effect of summoning up a posse of local men who armed themselves and marched back up the road to confront whatever it was that had terrified the coachman. However when they arrived at the spot they could find nothing strange, save for the fact that the reigns of the abandoned coach had been cut and the horses allowed to wander off a short distance to graze by the roadside.
More sightings of the ghost were reported in the weeks that followed as fear and superstition began to engulf the residents of Hammersmith. Several people reported that they had seen a spectre walking through the town’s churchyard at night and local gossips immediately began speculating whether it was the spirit of a suicide who had been denied burial in consecrated ground. Others claimed that it was a poltergeist and was responsible for numerous acts of petty vandalism that had occurred around town in the preceding weeks. Rumours also spread about a pregnant woman who had nearly miscarried after being chased by the ghost as she was walking home from London one evening. By Christmas 1803 the residents of Hammersmith were utterly convinced that their town was besieged by evil forces and many of them were refusing to set foot across their front doorways after dark.
The next significant sighting of the spectre took place on the evening of 29th December 1803, when William Girdler, the night-watchman and town crier, was out doing his usual rounds of the streets. Girdler turned into Beavers Lane on the edge of Hammersmith and saw a white figure drifting down the road ahead of him towards the open countryside. The watchman, who was evidently endowed with more pluck than many of his fellow townsfolk, shouted after the ghost and was surprised to see it suddenly take flight into the deepening darkness. Girdler gave chase but after a few hundred yards the flapping white form in front of him suddenly collapsed and disappeared. It was as if, he later recalled, someone had taken a white sheet off their head and stuffed it into a bag as they ran off into the night.
A few days later, on the evening of 3rd January 1804, Girdler was once again walking down Beaver Lane when he saw another figure standing in the street ahead of him. This time it was the altogether more earthly form of Francis Smith, a 29 year old customs officer who lived nearby. Girdler saw that Smith was carrying a shotgun and asked him was business brought him out at this time of night. Smith replied that he was going to search for the ghost and asked if Girdler would be able to help him? The watchman replied that he was willing to help but was required to call the hour around town first and would therefore meet Smith in the lane shortly after 11 o’clock. He told Smith that he would announce his approach a by responding “Friend” to the challenge of “Who comes there?” and with that he continued on his patrol.
Smith pressed on, walking along the edge of town and eventually turning into Black Lion Lane. The evening was moonless and the lane that lay ahead of him was not lit; everything was bathed in an inky blanket of near total darkness. It was then that Smith saw something moving. A white form, about the size of a man, had materialised in the doorway of a small cottage which stood on one side of the lane and was had begun to move towards him. Terrified, he gripped the barrel of his gun and leveled it at the apparition. “Damn you”, he cried, trying not to sound scared, “who are you and what are you? Damn you, I’ll shoot you!” and without further ado he pressed the trigger and unleashed a volley into the menacing form that appeared to be bearing down upon him.
The ghost collapsed to the ground with a surprisingly solid thud. As Smith advanced towards the figure through the slowly thinning cloud of gunpowder smoke he began to notice that the spirit looked rather more human than he had first thought. The whiteness had originally mistaken for some kind of ethereal glow was in fact a pair of white trousers and a white work-apron, a large portion of which was now being stained a deep red by the copious quantities of blood that were flowing from the gaping gunshot wound to the figure’s head. To Smith’s horror the realisation slowly began to creep over him that this wasn’t a ghost but an ordinarily man whom he had just killed in cold blood.
He turned and ran back towards the centre of town to find help. As he reached the top of Black Lion Lane when he saw three men running towards him. One was Girdler, the other was John Locke, a neighbour of Smith’s and a local wine merchant and the third was a Mr George Stowe who also lived in the area. Each of them had been out that evening when they heard the sound of gunfire and had all converged on the lane as they ran to see what was the matter. Smith, who was now gripped by a state of extreme agitation, led the three men back towards the body that was lying in the street. Locke took one look at the gunshot wound, which had passed through the victim’s head, and concluded that nothing further could be done. He asked Smith why he had fired but in his distress the customs officer could only babble that he had thought the ghost was coming for him and that he’d asked the man to identify himself. The four of them carried the body to the backroom of the nearby Black Lion Inn where it was immediately identified as being that of Thomas Millwood, a plasterer and bricklayer who lived in a cottage on Black Lion Lane. Millwood was wearing the white clothes of his trade and, in a rather cruel twist of fate, was said to have been unusually fastidious about ensuring they were always kept as bright and clean as possible. A magistrate was summoned and Smith, who sobbingly confessed to the crime, was led away under arrest.
Smith’s trial took place at London’s Old Bailey just over a week later. His lawyer based his defence on the rather novel argument that his client had believed he was being attacked by a ghost and had therefore used reasonable force to defend the perceived threat to his life. Girdler and Locke both appeared to give their version of the night’s events, as did Millwood’s younger sister, who painfully recalled that she had said goodnight to her brother just seconds before he had left the house and unwittingly blundered into Smith’s gunsights. The jury had some sympathy for the defendant and after withdrawing to deliberate, returned to the courtroom and said that they were willing to find him guilty but only to the lesser charge of accidental manslaughter. The judge refused to accept the verdict, pointing out that the charge was murder and the jury’s role was to decide whether the man before them was guilty or not guilty. After further deliberation a guilty verdict was eventually returned and the unfortunate Smith was sentenced to hang before having his remains sent for dissection. However the judge, recognising the extremely unusual circumstances of the case, agreed that he would refer the sentence to the Home Secretary for review. In the end the death penalty was commuted to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour of which Smith would serve approximately six months before receiving a full pardon.
Whilst Smith may have killed an innocent plasterer that night, he had also unwittingly succeeded in finally ridding Hammersmith of its ghost. The tragedy of the incident was such that it prompted a shoemaker named John Graham to come forward and shamefully confess to being the spectre. Graham explained that he grown sick and tired of his apprentices scaring his three young children with ghost stories and had hit upon the idea of dressing up as a ghost and leaping out on them from a hedgerow as they walked home one evening. The trick had worked marvelously and Graham enjoyed himself so much that he began regularly venturing out at night, disguising himself with a white sheet and scaring people he happened upon in the dark. Although Graham was arrested to the general acclamation of the people of Hammersmith, many of whom said that he should be decked out in his ghost costume and placed in the pillory, the historical record is silent on what, if any, punishment was eventually meted out to him.
The records of Francis Smith’s trial at the Old Bailey can be found here.
Caledonian Mercury, 9 & 14 January 1804
The Bury and Norwich Post: Or, Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, and Cambridge Advertiser, 18 January 1804
Morning Post, 6 January & 18 July 1804