The Hammersmith Ghost had first been spotted in November 1803. This spectre wasn’t content with merely floating around the West London neighbourhood: it was supposedly attacking people, with several claiming to have been physically grabbed in and around Hammersmith churchyard. Some thought it was the spirit of a man who had killed himself and whose spirit could not lie at rest. Descriptions of its appearance varied, but most stated that it was tall and wore white.
Roaming the maze of streets, the Hammersmith Ghost petrified residents. A pregnant woman reportedly died after the ghost chased her and caught her. She fainted and died two days later. On another occasion, a wagon driver ran in terror after seeing the ghost, leaving behind his horses, wagon, and passengers. Thomas Groom, a brewer’s assistant, described how: ‘Some person came 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; I gave a bit of a push out with my fist, and felt something soft, like a great coat.’
Soon, armed townspeople wandered the streets, hoping to catch the ghost.
After a month of ghostly terrors, Francis Smith decided to deal with the ghost himself. Armed with a shotgun, he began his vigilante patrol in Black Lion Lane, Hammersmith, after hearing reports of the phantom in the churchyard. On the way, Smith saw a white figure approaching him out of the darkness. The hedges lining the lane made it impossible to see over 4 yards. Smith called out for the figure to stop, to tell him who they were. But the figure continued to advance on Smith without speaking. Smith called out again, but still the figure did not answer. Fear overwhelmed Smith, and he opened fire.
Thomas Milwood, a bricklayer, fell dead to the ground in the lane. He was dressed in white, the traditional dress of a bricklayer. After hearing the shot, Girdler and Smith’s neighbour, one John Locke, together with a George Stowe, met Smith, who appeared very much agitated. Upon seeing Millwood’s body, the others advised Smith to return home. Meanwhile, a constable arrived at the scene. Millwood’s corpse was carried to an inn where a surgeon, Mr Flower, examined the body and pronounced death as the result of a gunshot wound on the left side of the lower jaw. Smith, realising that he had shot a man, turned himself in.
Before the Court at Old Bailey, Smith stated, ‘I did not know what I did; I solemnly declare my innocence, and that I had no intention to take away the life of the unfortunate deceased, or any other man whatever.’
At the trial, the jury first returned a verdict of manslaughter, but the judges refused to accept it. According to the Old Bailey trial records, one judge stated, ‘that they [the jury] must either find the prisoner guilty, or not guilty’ of murder and that ‘the prerogative of shewing mercy lay in the Crown.’
The jury convicted Smith of murder, and sentenced to death, but the Crown reduced the sentence to a year of imprisonment.
Legal debate about the self-defence issues raised by the Hammersmith Ghost case continued for decades. The trial and conviction of Francis Smith for murdering a man he mistook for a ghost illustrates a legal problem not settled for 180 years and one which still generates argument. It’s also played a part in shaping the modern law of self-defence.
The pub displays a plaque marking the ghostly incident and a report from The Times newspaper in January 1804. Locals say the ghost still returns to Hammersmith churchyard every 50 years.
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