Francis Smith and the Tragedy of the Black Lion Lane “Ghost Hunters”

For several years, I’ve been on a quest to find the earliest published use of the term “ghost hunter,” and as of today — September 20, 2019 — the farthest back in time I’ve gone is January, 1804. That term is used in an article about a team of men who went in search of the Hammersmith ghost. Since it turned out to be a hoax, I might have teased about this team being an early nineteenth-century “Scooby Gang.” But it wasn’t much of a laughing matter, since the overzealous “ghost hunt” led to an innocent man being shot.

Here’s the story. In the final months of 1803, something ghostly was seen in the churchyard and surrounding avenues of the Hammersmith district of London, and the residents were upset. According to a report published about a decade after the fact, a pregnant woman was accosted by the ghost in the churchyard, and the trauma was so great that she died two days later. The ghost so frightened a waggoner that he fled his vehicle, endangering the sixteen passengers left behind.*

Rumors grew that the ghost was that of a man “who had cut his throat in the neighbourhood above a year ago.” But some of the residents denied that something supernatural was afoot, and they tried to expose whoever was creating havoc in the guise of a ghost. After this failed to produce results, a reward was offered.

That’s when Francis Smith perhaps got a bit drunk and definitely got his gun. He went out to hold a stake-out in Black Lion Lane, one of the spots where the culprit was known to lurk. One 1804 account, found in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, suggests Smith acted by himself (albeit having told his plans to the town watchman, William Girdler.) However, the January, 1804 issue of the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure reports:

A person of the name of Smith, a Custom-house officer, with a few others, lured by the hope of the reward, determined to watch the phantom, and for that purpose provided themselves with arms, and took post in Black Lion Lane. They were situated there on the night of January 3rd, between the hours of ten and twelve: a man of the name of Mil[l]wood, who was by trade a plaisterer, unhappily had sent his wife out upon some business, and, imagining she staid longer than was necessary, determined to go in search of her, in order to protect her home at that dreary time of night. The ill-fated man was dressed as usual in his white flannel jacket, and, having parted with his sister at his own door, proceeded along Black Lion Lane, where the ghost-hunters were lying in wait. [Bold added.]

Though an article published the same month in The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Miscellany is otherwise different, this passage is virtually identical. I’m not sure who’s plagiarizing whom, but the term “ghost-hunters” was getting, at least, a bit of public exposure. (The discrepancy in reporting whether Smith was acting alone or with others might be explained by an 1805 register of the previous year’s news, which says that “several young men had gone every evening, in order to detect the impostor. . . .” While Smith might have been on his own, a number of “ghost hunters” were lurking along the alleyways. Maybe these other lads can collectively be called the Hammersmith Scooby Gang.)

That’s hardly important, though, given what happened next. Smith spotted Millwood, the man dressed in white. Smith shot his gun. The bullet entered Millwood’s jaw and fatally penetrated his spine. Smith realized what he had done, surrendered to authorities, and was tried for wilful murder. He was found guilty and was committed to Newgate Prison. Originally sentenced to execution, he was later pardoned by the King and served only a one-year sentence.

Hammersmith Ghost
The Hammersmith Ghost as depicted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum (1804), one of the most complete contemporary accounts of the hoax.

The trial revealed that Smith had given Millwood a verbal warning, shouting, “Damn you, who are? and what are you? Speak or I’ll shoot.” This is verified by the court transcript. In fact, both the transcript and the Scots article say that Millwood had admitted to being mistaken for the ghost on a previous occasion. Of course, none of this excuses Smith’s rash action, even if he were driven by a desire to protect his neighbors. The victim was dressed in the garb of his trade, after all, not in anything resembling “a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes,” as Millwood’s sister, under oath, said the ghost had been reported to appear.

Nonetheless, Francis Smith earns a place in the Ghost Hunter’s Hall of Fame, if not for having an indirect role in popularizing the term “ghost hunter,” then for opening the 1800s with a profound example of how not to go about that pursuit.

By the bye, the actual culprit disguising himself as a ghost was revealed shortly after Smith was taken into custody. A shoemaker named John Graham confessed to wanting to punish his apprentices after they had teased and terrified his children with stories of ghosts. But this excuse seems doubtful. At the trial, Thomas Groom, a brewer’s servant, explained that, as he had been passing through the churchyard one time, “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.” Groom escaped thanks to a fellow servant who was nearby. If Graham were the attacker here, the lesson he hoped to teach his apprentices seems wildly misdirected!

That article suggesting Smith acted alone also provides some of the best information about what all preceded his shooting Millwood. The piece ends by saying the reports of a woman dying after being traumatized by the specter and the ghost itself wearing an animal skin and horns “owe their rise to newspaper fabrication.” In other words, as with many ghost stories, it’s hard to know who to believe.

*Curiously, the ill-fated pregnant woman and skittish bus driver aren’t mentioned in the 1804/1805 sources I’ve found or in the court record. Were these creative flourishes intended to sell newspapers as events were unfolding or, perhaps, enhancements added as the history passed into legend? The earliest mention of them that I’ve found online appears in the 1824 edition of The Newgate Calendar. This publication began in the mid-1700s as a monthly report of executions performed at England’s Newgate Prison and evolved into a long-lived series of volumes spotlighting sensational criminal cases. It’s not a good source for accurate history, but the tales are gripping and the illustrations are intriguing. Starting in 1825, the series introduced illustrations of the Hammersmith incident.

Hammersmith Ghost - The Pretended Hammersmith Ghost Frightening a Woman
Captioned “The pretended Hammersmith Ghost frightening a poor Woman to death,” this illustration appears in The Newgate Calendar of 1825.
Hammersmith Ghost - Shooting a Ghost - Phiz
Captioned “Shooting a Ghost,” this illustration by “Phiz” appeared in The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1887).

Go to the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame page.

 

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