The Hammersmith Ghost Murder Trial

Is it legal to commit murder in self-defense?   How about if you genuinely believed that the person you killed was a ghost?

London's Hammersmith district is known for its many small shops, ethnic restaurants, streets teeming with bustling commuters trying to get to work on time, and numerous office buildings serving as headquarters to some of Europe's largest companies.   But the mood was very different in Hammersmith at the dawn of the 19th century.   Great Britain was locked into a deadly war with France that Napoleon Bonaparte seemed poised to win.   The prospect of a massive invasion across the English Channel seemed very real and the great victory at Trafalgar still lay in the future.   It was hardly surprising that people were afraid and this fear  made all sorts of wild stories seem perfectly plausible.   Which may be how the legend of the Hammersmith Ghost got started.   

Beginning in the autumn of 1803,  sightings of a mysterious ghost, complete with a white shroud, began to be reported in Hammersmith.     This ghost apparently confronted lone travelers and, in some cases, attacked them.    One story had it that the ghost was of a man who had cut his throat a year earlier and had been buried in the local churchyard.    The hysteria over the "Hammersmith Ghost" grew after reports that a woman had been attacked by the ghost on the day before Christmas.   The woman had reportedly seen the ghost which she described as "very tall and very white."   When she attempted to run away, the ghost grabbed her and the shock caused her to faint.    After being found and taken home, she died of shock two days later.   It hardly seemed to matter that nobody knew the name of this supposed victim and that all of the stories about her were being spread by word of mouth,  the locals were outraged over what was happening.   Whether it was a real ghost or just someone playing a prank seemed irrelevant by then.

Since the city of London had no city-wide police force at the time, locals decided to set up a neighbourhood watch with men patrolling the area around the churchyard and waiting for the "ghost" to appear.   Considering the size of the churchyard and the lanes surrounding it, this was likely a hopeless task for the few men willing to wait all night and new "ghost" sightings were still being reported.  One of the men standing guard, Francis Smith, was an exciseman who had become extremely frustrated by the continuing failure of the neighbourhood watch committee to catch whoever was responsible for the ghost panic.   His anger was likely weighing on him when he was  came out of a local pub, The White Hart, on January 3, 1804.

Having decided to pursue the Hammersmith Ghost on his own rather than waiting for the other watch members,  Smith armed himself and began patrolling Black Lion Lane where the ghost had been spotted several times before.    The weather was particularly gloomy that night so Smith had trouble seeing who else was out there with him.   Finally, as he crossed another lane, he spotted what he later described as a "white clad" figure coming toward him.

Though Smith called out several times, he got no answer as the figure kept getting closer.  Finally, he took out his gun and opened fire, striking the other person in the head.  Unfortunately, what Smith thought was a ghost turned out to be a very real man, now dead.   The victim, a local bricklayer named Thomas Millwood, was wearing the standard bricklayer's clothing: white shirt, white jacket, and white apron.    Smith's bullet had gone through Millwood's mouth and exited the back of his neck and he was likely killed instantly.

Terrified by what he had done, Smith ran for help and quickly found two watch members who returned with him to the scene.  While he was incoherent by this point, Smith offered no resistance as he was taken into custody.   An inquest was called which concluded that the death was a "rash act of wilful murder" and Francis Smith was remanded to Newgate prison pending a hearing. 

Given the publicity over the killing, the trial itself began just ten days later.   Smith was charged with murder and the case against him seemed solid enough.   Though Smith insisted that he had called Millwood twice and got no answer, it wasn't much of a defense considering that he admitted shooting and killing his victim.   That it was a case of mistaken identity didn't matter at all to the presiding judge and it was made especially clear that the defendant was on trial for his life.  

According to the coroner who had examined the body, Milwood had been killed by a single shot fired from close range.  Family members of the deceased also testified that they had warned Milwood not to go out dressed in white due to the Hammersmith ghost hysteria and the possibility of mistaken identity.  Despite the considerable sympathy many people felt for Francis Smith, there seemed little doubt that he would be eventually convicted. 

The judge himself was adamant in his own instructions to the jury.   As he pointed out, “However disgusted the jury might feel in their own minds with the abominable person guilty of the misdemeanor of terrifying the neighborhood, still the prisoner had no right to construe such misdemeanor into a capital offence, or to conclude that a man dressed in white was a ghost.  It was his own opinion and was confirmed by those of his learned brethren on the bench, that if the facts stated in evidence were credible, the prisoner had committed murder.  In this case there was a deliberate carrying of a loaded gun, which the prisoner concluded he was entitled to fire but which he really was not; and he did fire it with a rashness the law did not excuse."     It only took an hour for the jury to find Smith guilty of manslaughter.

Unfortunately for Smith, the judge refused to accept this verdict and insisted that the jury declare Smith either guilty of murder or not guilty at all.   It wasn't up to the  jury to  declare that there were extenuating circumstances involved.   The other judges presiding over the case agreed and the jury was forced to deliberate again before declaring Smith guilty of murder.   At this point, Smith's fate was left up to Lord Chief Baron who passed a sentence of death on him.   Under the law of the time, this meant that he would be hanged and his body turned over to a medical college to be dissected.   Smith broke down on hearing this and had to be carried out of the courtroom.  Fortunately for Smith though, this wasn't the end.   There was enough public sympathy over his case that the Home Secretary rescinded the death sentence and his punishment was reduced to a year's imprisonment.   

But that didn't end the reign of the Hammersmith Ghost.    The publicity over Francis Smith's trouble led to elderly shoemaker John Graham coming forward and claiming that he had been the Hammersmith Ghost!   According to Graham, he had appeared as the ghost to get back at his apprentices for telling his children scary ghost stories.    Though he didn't seem much like the "very tall and very white" figure described by witnesses, Graham's story seemed plausible enough to settle any lingering fears.   

And it did, for a while.  

By 1824 however, new stories about the Hammersmith Ghost began to surface.   Some of these stories had him breathing fire and attacking the people he met though these stories died down as well.   Eventually stories of white phantoms were overtaken by the Spring-heeled Jack craze that gripped Great Britain in the 1830s and continued for decades afterward.   Even in that pre-Internet era, urban legends still traveled by word-of-mouth and the stories seemed to grow in the telling, much as they do today.    Whether it involves Jersey Devils, Mothmen, chupacabras, or whatever monster or phantasm happens to be popular at the time, the hysteria that surrounds these sightings has a way of flaring up when least expected. 

As for Thomas Millwood, he seemed to have the most ironic fate of all.   Years after his death, stories grew about Millwood's ghost haunting the pub where his body had been taken to await police.  And so, the unfortunate victim of the Hammersmith ghost hysteria of 1804 became a Hammersmith ghost himself.  

Such is life (so to speak).



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