Hammersmith Ghost: An 1803-1804 Haunting

The Hammersmith ghost was first seen the same year that Joseph Chinard, a French Neoclassical style sculptor, created a bust of the French socialite, Madame Récamier. It was 1803 when people in the Hammersmith area claimed to have seen or been attacked by a ghost. Victims described the ghostly apparition in varying ways: as “a spectre [sic] clothed in a winding sheet,”[1] wearing a shroud or blanket, or sometimes wearing “a calf skin with horns.”[2] As the rumors about the Hammersmith ghost circulated, people were gripped by hysteria and terror.

Hammersmith Ghost, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hammersmith Ghost. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

They came to believe the Hammersmith ghost was a man who died a year earlier after committing suicide by cutting his own throat. He was buried in the Hammersmith churchyard, and, at the time, superstitious people believed suicide victims should not be buried in consecrated ground or they would never rest in peace. Therefore, according to the Hammersmith inhabitants, this explained why the ghost was misbehaving and attacking people.

Hammersmith inhabitants soon began to also claim:

“[The] eyes of the ghost appear[ed] like a glow worm; others [maintained] that he breathed fire and smoke; and others again, that he vanished in a moment, and sunk in the earth in their presence!”[3]

People became so scared few were willing to venture out after dusk unless they had urgent business. Nonetheless, after a few weeks of being locked indoors, a few brave souls started to rove together in groups during the nighttime hoping to find and kill the Hammersmith ghost. These brave souls would venture out at dark, use passwords to identify each other, and wait for the ghost by hiding in the shadows. Unfortunately,

“There were so many bye-lanes and paths leading to Hammersmith, that [the ghost] … was always sure of being on that which was unguarded, and every night played off his tricks to the terror of the passengers!”[4]

Among those upset about the Hammersmith ghost was Francis Smith. He was a twenty-nine-year-old excise officer that was “doubtless incensed at the unknown person who was in the habit of assuming the supernatural character, and … rashly determined on watching for, and shooting, the ghost.”[5] To accomplish this he armed himself and began patrolling the area because the ghost was reportedly appearing every night, as the church clock struck twelve, in the field adjoining Black Lion-Lane.

On 3 January 1804, the same year that Madame Tussaud would end a partnership with Paul de Philipstal, Smith hid in the spot where the supposed ghost was likely to make its appearance. He was not hidden for long when a figure dressed in all white — white linen trousers, white flannel jacket, and white apron — approached. Smith was beside himself, fired his gun, and the Hammersmith ghost fell to the ground. However, it did not take long for Smith to discover the victim was no ghost but rather a 22-year-old bricklayer named Thomas Millwood. He had been on his way to fetch his wife from work and having just left work himself was dressed in “the usual [bricklaying] habiliment of his occupation [that was all white].”[6]

Smith Shooting Millwood, Public Domain

Smith shooting Millwood. Public domain.

Smith had fatally shot Millwood with a loaded fowling gun hitting and wounding him in the neck and breaking his left jaw bone. Smith was indicted for murder and charged with “feloniously, and with malice aforethought, shooting … Milwood [sic].”[7] The proceedings were presided over by Lord Chief Baron Macdonald. Of the trial, the Bury and Norwich Post reported:

“Mr. John Locke, a wine-merchant, at Hammersmith was the first witness. He stated that on the 3d of this month, about half-past 10 at night, as he was returning home with Mr. Stowe, he met the prisoner said he had fired his musket, but did not know he had fired at Milwood. He said he had spoken to the deceased twice, and received no answer.”[8]

As to the defendant, he testified:

“I can only declare, that I went out with a perfectly good intention; after calling to the deceased twice, and receiving no answer, I became so agitated that I did not know what I was about: but I solemnly declare that I am innocent of any malicious intention against any person whatsoever.”[9]

The jury deliberated for an hour and returned a verdict, “finding the prisoner Guilty of Manslaughter.”[10] However, Macdonald informed the jury “that this was a verdict which they could not give,”[11] and that they must either find Smith guilty of murder, or acquit him. The jury deliberated for a few more minutes and then returned a guilty verdict.

Smith’s sentence was immediately pronounced: He was to be executed the following Monday “and his body to be dissected, according to the statute,”[12] just like the London Burkers, Elizabeth Ross, and William Burke. Fortunately for Smith, the King took pity on him and pardoned him “on condition of being imprisoned one year.”[13]

In the meantime, the publicity related to Smith killing Millwood encouraged the real Hammersmith ghost — John Graham, a boot and shoemaker — to come forward. It seems that as the Hammersmith ghost, Graham had caused a great deal of trouble for the populace. For example, Graham alarmed a wagoner, who suddenly abandoned his wagon, putting his horses and fifteen passengers in danger. However, Graham caused more mischief than an abandoned wagon.

People reportedly lost “their senses” when the Hammersmith ghost appeared. This included a pregnant woman who described the ghost as being “very tall, and very white!”[14] She related that she tried to run from it but was quickly overtaken and pressed in the ghost’s arms until she fainted. Neighbors discovered her a few hours later, took her home, and learned her story. Unfortunately, the fright was too much for her: “She took to her bed, … never rose [and died two days later.]”[15]

Hammersmith Ghost

The Hammersmith ghost terrifying a pregnant woman. Public domain.

Graham admitted he had pretended to be the Hammersmith ghost all because of revenge. Apparently, Graham’s apprentices had terrified his children by telling them of ghosts. With his children scared and frightened, Graham “expected to check them of this disagreeable bent … by presenting to them, as they passed homewards, a figure of a ghost.”[16]

References:

  • [1] Cruikshank, George, A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, with a Rap at the ‘Spirit-Rappers,’ 1863, p. 37.
  • [2] “Murder. Hammersmith Ghost,” in Bury and Norwich Post, 18 January 1804, p. 4.
  • [3] “The Real Hammersmith Ghost,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 January 1804, p. 3.
  • [5] Faulkner, Thomas, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hammersmith, 1839, p. 341.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 342.
  • [7] “Murder. Hammersmith Ghost,” p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Faulkner, Thomas, p. 342.
  • [14] “The Real Hammersmith Ghost,” p. 3.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “The Real Hammersmith Ghost,” in Kentish Gazette, 13 January 1804, p. 3.

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