The case of Francis Smith - Condemned to Death on 13th of January 1804 for the ’Murder of the Hammersmith Ghost’.
While much of the below story has been fictionalized by the author under ‘artistic license’, the names, dates and places mentioned remain true as presented in a copy of the Old Bailey trail records from the period. This is a true-life story.
During the latter part of 1803 in the dark and foggy streets of Hammersmith, London, strange and mysterious happenings began to occur. Rumours of a spectral white figure haunting the local graveyard where reported. Such was the superstitious nature of people in those times that the “Ghost” was thought to be that of a local man who a year earlier had committed suicide by cutting his own throat and was buried in the same local graveyard. One incident in particular sent such fear and apprehension spreading through the area, it would later lead to the death of an innocent man.
At approximately 10.00 pm on a dark and frosty evening before Christmas, a lady of the neighborhood intent on reaching home and the warmth of a hearth-side fire, took a short cut crossing near to the graveyard. When much to her surprise she saw raising amongst the tombstones the spectral figure of a man, she would later describe the figure as “very tall and very white”. Remembering the stories circulating about the suicide victim, terror and fear gripped the woman and she attempted to run away. However, the ghost proved to be much quicker, it soon overtook her then turned, reached out, and rapped his spectral arms around her, at which point the woman fainted.
Some hours later neighbours worried because she had not returned home and concerned for her welfare, sent out a search party to look for her. They found her in a state of shock wondering aimlessly near to the graveyard. Kindly the neighbours lead her home, whereupon she took to her bed and never again rose. While other sightings of the ghost were still being reported, hers was the only fatality attributed to what was now being called ‘the Hammersmith Ghost’.
The death of a local resident angered many in the community, but what was still to be determined was if the apparition was a real ghost, or whether it was some misguided prankster intent on terrorizing the neighborhood. A watch committee was set up in an effort to find the answer, and several of the men-folk lay in wait on different nights hoping to catch the nuisance. But this was not an easy task for there were many paths and lanes leading to the graveyard and the ghost always seemed to be on one left unguarded. His tricks continued unabated much to the terror of those necessarily passing by.
Francis Smith was a young excise officer living in loggings near to the area of the hunting’s; he was also one of those who volunteered his services to the neighborhood watch committee. However, Smith was growing increasingly irritated with the committee’s inability to catch the elusive prankster. On the night of the 3 January 1804 while returning home from work, as was his want Smith stopped off for his usual tipple at the White Hart, a local boozer in the neighborhood. While he was there the general conversation turned to the subject of the Hammersmith Ghost, a topical subject never far from the lips of those who lived in the area. Smith was normally a mild and placid man, but on this evening perhaps emboldened by liquid spirit, he determined that he himself would be the one to catch the perpetrator.
Smith left the White Hart for his lodgings nearby where he loaded up his fowling piece with gunpowder and shot. He had decided not to lay in wait with the others members of the committee that evening, but instead to go out and stalk the stalker on his own. With that he set off gun in hand for Black Lion Lane, a known favourite haunting ground of the so-called ghost. It was a dark, dark night and particularly so on Black Lion Lane, which was always dark at the best of times. The lane runs between two high hedges and that evening the weather being fowl, it was so obscure that a person on the other side of the road could not be properly distinguish.
The time was just approaching eleven o’clock as Smith cautiously made his way up Black Lion Lane. Along the way much of the ‘Dutch courage’ that had motivated him earlier, dissipated as the natural noises of the night stretched his nerves. Then as he was about to cross Limekiln Lane he suddenly encountered an indistinct ‘white clad’ figure approaching him.
“Stop, who goes there” he called out, albeit rather timorously. He perceived no response, just an eerie silence.
Again he called out, this time more strongly “Stop, who goes there”, adding, “Speak out or I shall shoot”, but still the figure made no reply and continued to advance upon him.
Fear now gripped Smith and assuming it the ghost, he shouldered his gun, leveled it at the apparition’s head and fired. The ball of shot entered through the mouth of the apparition and exited through the back of the neck, at the same time the figure flipped over backwards and crumpled to the ground twitching spasmodically for a moment or two before lying still. As Smith approached the fallen figure, to his horror he realized and discovered that the ghost was indeed a real man. The man on the ground was Thomas Millwood, a local bricklayer dressed in a bricklayer’s usual apparel of white trousers, white apron and a white linen jacket. Fearful of his mistake, Smith then turned away and headed off down Limekiln Lane in search for help.
He hadn’t gone far when a Mr John Locke accompanied by Mr Stowe and a local watchman Mr William Girdle met him, they had all come out together to investigate the noise of the shot. Smith though babbling almost incoherently tried to confess his mistake and immediately led them back to the fallen body; he then surrendered himself into their custody. The high constable was then called and Smith was arrested and taken to Bow Street Police Station, there to await the results of the Coroner’s inquest. During the following inquest, the Coroner judged the incident to have been ‘a rash act of willful murder’ and so Smith was charged. He was then sent to Newgate Prison to await his trial at the Old Bailey.
The trial was fated to be set during the next sessions at the Old Bailey, which just happened to land on Friday the 13th of January 1804 (un-lucky for some, as it ‘would be’ for Francis Smith). The presiding judge for the trail was Lord Chief Justice Baron before whom the prosecution proceeded to make their case of murder.
The prosecution called their first witness Mr John Locke, a wine-merchant who lived in the area and one of the first to arrive on the scene of the murder. Locke stated that: “On the 3rd of January at about eleven in the evening he had heard the noise of a shot being fired, on investigating with two others Mr Stowe and Mr William Girdle, he had met the prisoner who confessed he had shot a man he believed to be the Ghost of Hammersmith. He went with the prisoner in company with the two others, back up Limekiln Lane to Black Lion Lane where they found the deceased lying on the ground and apparently dead. He then consulted with Mr Stowe upon what was proper to be done and they directly sent for the high constable”.
Locke further stated that the body had no appearance of life and that there was a shot in the left jaw. The prisoner he said: “was very much agitated and became more so when he told him the consequences likely to result from his misconduct”. The prisoner replied, said Locke: “that he had fired, but that he did not know the person whom he had shot. He also said that before he fired, he had spoken twice to the deceased but received no answer”.
Mr Const the defence counsel for the prisoner then cross-examined the witness Locke. From him he determined that for some five weeks previous to the murder, the ghost had been the subject of general conversation in Hammersmith, though Locke confessed he had never actually seen it. Of the conversation Locke told the court, that the dress in which the ghost was said to appear corresponded with that worn by the deceased, it being white. The deceased said Locke had on white trousers down to his shoes, a white apron around him and a white flannel jacket on his body. According to the conversations said Locke, the ghost sometimes appeared in white and frequently in a calf's skin.
The defence than asked Locke about the prisoner’s state of mind when they met, to which Locke responded: “The prisoner was so agitated when we met him that he could scarcely speak and was rambling on about how the deceased after he had called out to him had continued to advance towards him. This he surmised augmented the fear of the prisoner so much that he fired”. Locke then described how the evening had been very dark and visibility very poor. He also told the court how the prisoner, when he first mentioned the accident had expressed his desire that he take him into custody, or send for some other person to do so. The prisoner said Locke was a man mild and humane, and had a generous temper.
Next the prosecution called William Girdle, the watchman who also lived in the area. After stating that he had accompanied Mr Locke to the place of the murder, he described in detail the posture and position in which they had found the deceased. “He was lying on his back stretched out and quite dead” he said, “with a gaping wound in his left jaw”.
On his cross-examination by the defence, Girdle then told the court that: “He had seen the supposed ghost himself on the Thursday before, that being the 29th of December. He had encountered it opposite the fourth milestone where it seemed to be covered with a sheet or large tablecloth. He had tried to pursue it but without success, for the spirit pulled off the sheet and ran. The alarm had been very great for some six weeks or so, and many people had been terribly frightened”. He also stated that he knew the prisoner and that he was nothing like a cruel man.
Next to take the stand was Anne Millwood, the sister of the deceased. She told the court how on the night of the murder she had had a dreadful premonition that something bad was about to happen to her brother. She had heard all the gossip and talk of a ghost stalking up and down the neighborhood dressed all in white, with horns and a glass eye, but she had not known that anybody was watching in order to discover and detect the impostor. She then explained how she had left her house in order to look for and warn him. The night she said was very poor and she could see scarce to nothing, but as she walked down Limekiln Lane she heard a voice call out: “Stop, who goes there”, and after a pause “Speak out or I shall shoot”, it was followed moments later by the loud report of a gun.
The prosecution then called upon Dr Flowers, a medical surgeon to give evidence as to the cause of death. He stated to the court that: “Thomas Millwood had died from a single gunshot wound to the lower left jaw, the shot of which had penetrated the vertebra of the neck and consequently injured the spinal marrow of the brain. He further observed that the deceased’s face had been blackened by gunshot powder, thus indicating that he had been shot at close range”.
The defence then called in Mrs. Fullbrook, the mother-in-law of the deceased who stated that: “On the Saturday evening before his death, Thomas (the deceased) had told her how two ladies and a gentleman had taken fright at him as he was coming down the terrace, them thinking he was the ghost. He said he told them he was no more a ghost than any of them and asked the gentleman if he wished for a punch in the head. She had then advised Thomas (the deceased) to in future put on a greatcoat in order that he might not be mistaken and encounter danger.
Another witness was called in for the defence, a Mr Thomas Groom to prove that some supernatural being had actually visited the town of Hammersmith. Groom stated that he was servant to Mr Burgess, a brewer and that as he and a fellow servant were walking through the churchyard one night, something which he did not see had caught hold of him by the throat. He had been terribly frightened by the attack.
Finally in conclusion for the defence, a number of witnesses were then called as to the prisoner's character, which they described as mild and gentle in the extreme.
Lord Chief Justice Baron in his address to the jury said that: “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.
The jury then retired to consider the case, after more than an hour they returned with a verdict of ‘Guilty of Manslaughter’.
On hearing this verdict, it was stated by the Bench that such a judgment could not be received in this case, for it ought to be either a verdict of murder or of acquittal. If the jury believed the facts, there was no extenuation that could be admitted for supposing that the unfortunate man was not the individual really meant to have been shot; the prisoner would still have been guilty of murder. Even with respect to civil processes, if an officer of justice used a deadly weapon it was murder if he occasioned death by it, even although he had a right to apprehend the person he had so killed.
Mr Justice Rooke from the Bench said: "The Court has no hesitation whatever with regard to the law and therefore the verdict must be 'guilty of murder’ or 'a total acquittal from want of evidence’.
Mr Justice Lawrence from the Bench then said: "You have heard the opinion that the whole Court is settled as to the law on this point, it is therefore unnecessary for me to state mine in particular. Upon every point of view this case is in the eye of the law is a ‘murder case’ if it be proved by the facts. Whether it has or not is for you to determine and return your verdict accordingly. The law has been thus stated by Justice Foster and all the other most eminent judges".
Lord Chief Justice Baron as the presiding judge then stated: "I perfectly agree with the learned judges who have spoken” and turning back to the jury said, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury consider your verdict again".
The jury again retired and after a short consultation returned with a verdict of "Guilty of Murder".
Lord Chief Baron then said: "This case ladies and gentlemen shall be reported to his Majesty immediately”. He then passed sentence of death on the prisoner in the usual form, he was to be executed on Monday next and his body given to the surgeons to be dissected.
The prisoner dressed in a suit of black clothes was then just twenty-nine years of age. He was a short but well-made man with dark hair and eyebrows. The pallid hue of his countenance during the trial together with the telling signs of contrition which he had exhibited throughout, commanded the sympathy of every spectator. When the dreadful words of "Guilty of Murder" were pronounced, he had sunken down into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair. He was at last retired supported by the servants of the court.
And so it was that the man who shot and killed a ghost, was himself sentenced to die.
But 'Hey-Up! - ‘Wait!’ There’s a happy end to
the story for fate stepped in to save him :-)
Lord Chief Justice Baron having told the jury after they had given their verdict, that he would immediately report the case to his Majesty, was so speedy in this humane office that a "respite during pleasure" arrived at the Old Bailey before seven o'clock that same evening. Then on the 25th January 1804 Francis Smith received a full pardon on condition of being imprisoned for one year.
The Encyclopedia of Occult and Supernatural Murder - By Brian Lane.
The Newgate Calendar - http://www.exclassics.org/newgate/ng470.htm.
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