The Hammersmith Ghost Murder Case

Apr 18, 2022 0 comments

In the winter of 1803, residents of Hammersmith, which at the time was a small village on the outskirts of London, was terrorized by a ghost. Most of who had seen the specter described it as a figure covered in a large white shroud. Others said it sometimes wore a calf skin wrapped around its body and had large glass-like eyes.

The ghost instilled fear among the villagers because the specter was not a mere apparition but appeared to be full of malevolent intent. It attacked and harassed people, often grabbing them as they tried to run. A pregnant woman was reportedly seized by the ghost while walking near the churchyard, which frightened her so much that she died of shock a few days afterwards. A driver of a wagon, pulled by eight horses and carrying 16 people, was so shaken by its appearance that he fled on foot, leaving the horses, wagon, and passengers at the scene. Thomas Groom, a brewer's servant, gave a vivid account of his encounter with the ghost:

I was going through the church yard between eight and nine o'clock, with my jacket under my arm, and my hands in my pocket, when 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.

The Hammersmith Ghost frightening a woman.

It was speculated that the ghost was the spirit of a man who had committed suicide some months previously and was buried in a local churchyard against conventional wisdom that such individuals should not be interred in consecrated ground, for their souls would not be able to rest at peace. But at some point, the villagers figured that ghost was actually a person covered with a white sheet who was deliberately scaring people, and decided to apprehend him. Several villagers armed with pistols began to patrol the streets. On one occasion, a member of the patrol saw the ghost and gave it a chase at which the apparition threw off its shroud and escaped. The white cloth, which was later recovered, evidenced that the ghost was a mischievous mortal being.

On the night of January 3, 1804, 29-year-old excise officer Francis Smith was on patrol armed with a shotgun. Just after 11:00 PM, while walking down Black Lion Lane, Smith saw a white figure moving. Although the night was not quite dark, the hedges lining the lane made it impossible to see more than four yards. Smith called out to the approaching figure asking it to identify itself, but when the figure did not respond, Smith fired his gun.

The figure in white clothing was actually a bricklayer named Thomas Millwood who was heading home after a visit to his parents and sister. Millwood was dressed in the normal white clothing of his trade—white linen trousers, a white flannel waistcoat, a white apron, and white shoes. There was so much whiteness in his outfit that Millwood was already mistaken for a ghost on two previous occasions, and Millwood’s wife had advised him to put on a large coat when going out in public to avoid being mistaken for the ghost again.

Smith, realizing that he had shot dead a man, turned himself in to the police. Later, 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.”

Smith confessed to shooting Millwood but he stated that he genuinely believed it to be the ghost, and pleaded not guilty. But the judge advised the jury that lack of malice was not sufficient enough to acquit someone from murder because a person cannot kill another in the name of rashness and be excused for such a blunder. During the case, the judge Lord Chief Baron Sir Archibald Macdonald was very clear about his views:

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 … 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 which the law does not excuse. In all the circumstances of the case, no man is allowed to kill another rashly.

The jury returned with a verdict of manslaughter, but the judge was not happy. He maintained that under no circumstances of the case that he could reduce the crime from murder to manslaughter, because neither Smith acted in self-defense nor shot Millwood by accident, and that Millwood had not committed any offence to justify being shot. The judge instructed the jury to go back and reconsider their verdict. This time the jury delivered a guilty verdict and Smith was initially condemned to death. Later, taking into consideration the immense public sympathy that Smith garnered, the Crown granted Smith a full pardon and reduced the sentence to one year’s imprisonment with hard labor.

The huge publicity that the case generated persuaded the true culprit to come forward. An elderly shoemaker named John Graham admitted that he had been pretending to be a ghost by using a white sheet to frighten his apprentice, who had been scaring Graham's children with ghost stories. Graham surrendered to the magistrates, who was unsure of the legal position and granted him bail. There is no record of Graham ever being punished.

Although Smith managed to escape the gallows, there was widespread dissent among the public on the outcome of the case and the glaring flaw that it exposed in the legal code. Most people were displeased at the lack of defense available to an individual acting in good faith and believing that an action, including violence, was necessary but having misunderstood the situation. Over time the curious case of the Hammersmith Ghost was forgotten but the questions it raised in law remained open and continued to haunt legal proceedings for decades to come.

This issue was not settled until the case of Regina v Williams came before the Court of Appeal in 1983. The appellant, Gladstone Williams, saw a man dragging a youth violently along the street while the latter shouted for help. Mistakenly believing that an assault was taking place, Williams intervened and injured the supposed attacker, who was actually attempting to apprehend a suspected thief. Williams was subsequently convicted of assault, but he appealed and his conviction was overturned. In the hearing of the case, the judge finally clarified the law in a statement:

In a case of self-defence, where self-defence or the prevention of crime is concerned, if the jury came to the conclusion that the defendant believed, or may have believed, that he was being attacked or that a crime was being committed, and that force was necessary to protect himself or to prevent the crime, then the prosecution have not proved their case. If however the defendant’s alleged belief was mistaken and if the mistake was an unreasonable one, that may be a peaceful reason for coming to the conclusion that the belief was not honestly held and should be rejected. Even if the jury come to the conclusion that the mistake was an unreasonable one, if the defendant may genuinely have been labouring under it, he is entitled to rely upon it.

In simple words, a mistake is defense only when it is reasonable. An unreasonable mistake can never be a defense. In Outlines of Criminal Law, Courtney Stanhope Kenny, gives an example of unreasonable mistake involving homicide and the supernatural. In 1880, at Clonmel in Ireland, a woman had placed a naked child on a hot shovel in the honest belief that it was a deformed fairy sent as a substitute for the real child, who would be restored if the changeling were thus imperilled. She was rightfully convicted and sentenced. Similar examples of unreasonable mistake would be witch burning.

Although the case was apparently put to rest, the legend of Hammersmith ghost continued to linger, with some locals believing that the ghost returns to Hammersmith churchyard every fifty years. The last sighting was made in July 1955.

# The Case of a Ghost Haunted England for Over Two Hundred Years, Library of Congress
# The Hammersmith Ghost and the Strange Death of Thomas Millwood, Crime Magazine
# The case of the murdered ghost, BBC


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