As the year 1803 came to a close, a number of people came forward to claim that they had seen – and in some instances, been attacked – by a ghost in the area around Hammersmith churchyard, in West London. Some claimed it was the unhappy spirit of a local man who had committed suicide by slicing open his own throat the previous year, but had been buried in the churchyard’s concentrated land regardless of church law and contemporary belief.
With more and more sightings, the hysteria grew. Two brewer’s servants claimed that they were caught round the throat by invisible hands whilst walking through the churchyard. A few nights before Christmas, a lady took a short-cut home only to be chased by a “very tall and very white” figure that rose from between the gravestones. When it grabbed her in its arms she fainted, and remained insensible for some time after. Later, her friends and neighbours found her wondering aimlessly through the graveyard and led her home and took her to bed, where they coaxed her story out of her. Unfortunately, she never rose from that bed and the ‘Hammersmith Ghost’ had claimed its first fatality.
The community was in a state of heightened tension. Many local men banded together to form a armed force who would patrol the area around the churchyard, often camping out all night. 29 year old Francis Smith was one of these men, but was growing frustrated at the lack of results. On the night of January 3rd 1804, Francis took his loaded blunderbuss to prowl the graveyard’s pathways alone.
Before too long, on Black Lion Lane, running to one side of the graveyard, a tall whiteness loomed ahead in the foggy darkness. Francis called out in alarm, once, twice: “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” The figure continued to advance in silence and Francis discharged his gun. His aim was eerily true – the shot entered through the figure’s mouth and exited through the back of its head, causing the figure to instantly collapse to the graveyard floor, twitching for a moment, before falling still.
Francis hesitantly approached the prone figure, before realising that it was no spectre, but a man. It was a local plasterer, Thomas Millwood, dressed in the normal bleached white linens and apron of his trade, further whitened by the layer of plaster dust that coated him from a hard day’s work. Francis was horrified, immediately running to the nearby Black Lion pub to raise the alarm and fetch help, before surrendering himself to the police.
Francis was brought to trial for the charge of murder at the Old Bailey on (Friday the!) 13th January, 1804. Thomas Millwood’s mother-in-law and sister both testified that he had already been mistaken for the ghost in his whites, and he had been advised to wear his dark greatcoat when out at night, but clearly had not taken this on board.
By all accounts Francis Smith was a fine and upstanding man, but in the eyes of the law malice or evil-temperament was not required to prove murder; the only thing that mattered was that there had been an attempt to kill. The jury first came back with a verdict of manslaughter, which the judge threw out as being inapplicable, being as there was no violent provocation from the victim or need for self-defence. The jury had no choice but amend their decision to murder.
The judge passed down the sentence that was customary for murder, with his body then to be given over to surgeons for dissection. In light of the strangeness of the case, the sentence as immediately referred to the King, who had the power to commute sentences. Francis Smith ‘got off’ with just a year’s hard labour.
Perhaps down to the huge amount of publicity given to the case, or maybe due to guilt that an innocent man had lost his life, the real ‘Hammersmith Ghost’ stepped forwards. All this time it had been John Graham, a well-respected, elderly man, the local shoemaker. His delinquent apprentice had been telling ghost stories to the children of the Graham household and so, in revenge, John Graham had been dressing up in a sheet and lying in wait in the churchyard to scare the apprentice as he walked through of an evening.
So not a real ghost after all. However, if you go for a drink at the old Black Lion pub – where poor Thomas Millwood’s body was taken – you’ll find a plaque recounting the story of the ‘Hammersmith Ghost’. If you’re unlucky, you’ll also encounter the ghost of Thomas, who is said to turn computers on and off, whisper into patrons’ ears and walk across the upstairs floorboards, setting them a-creaking.