Monday, January 19, 2015

The Tale of the Hammersmith Ghost

Toward the end of the year 1803 residents of Hammersmith, a West London neighborhood situated just north of the Thames River, had become jittery as reports of ghost sightings in the vicinity of the local church yard and cemetery filtered through the community. Most of the locals believed the ghost in question to likely be the spirit of a former resident who committed suicide by cutting his own throat. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of suicide victims buried on consecrated grounds, such as a church cemetery, would not be at rest. This assumption, coupled with reports of sightings and even attacks, did little to assuage the neighborhood's growing sense of trepidation. 

One night a young lady on a late return home from work decided to take a shorter route to her house by cutting through the churchyard and burial ground. According to her own description, she suddenly saw something rising up from the grave markers. The lady attempted to flee but the ghost, being too fast for her, quickly caught up and pressed her into its arms. Some neighbors found her lying unconscious several hours later and brought her home. As the tale goes, the frightened young woman retired to her bed on that night and never arose. She apparently, had died of shock. After this turn of events a sense of terror engulfed the entire community. 

Francis Smith, a local excise officer, didn't believe in ghosts and took it upon himself to look into the entire matter. On the night of January 3, 1804 Smith set out for the churchyard with blunderbuss in hand. Upon reaching Black Lion Lane, he was startled by what appeared to be a white figure heading in his direction. Smith opened fire and the ghostly figure fell to the ground. It was only when the gunman ran to the fallen figure that he realized his fatal mistake; for that which lay before him was no ghost but instead, was the body of a local bricklayer named Thomas Milward. The dead bricklayer had not been impersonating a ghost but instead, had been wearing the clothing of his trade. 

Thomas Milward's body was taken to a nearby pub and inn known as The Black Lion. Francis Smith was found guilty of willful murder and sentenced to death. Due to the unusual circumstances surrounding the case however, Smith's sentence was commuted to one year at hard labor. Still, the ramifications of Smith's actions, the mistaken killing of an innocent man, plagued the British legal system until it was finally settled by another court case in 1984. 

Eventually the truth about the Hammersmith Ghost came into the light. All the fear and confusion had been caused by another local man, who had been disguising himself as a ghost in order to scare another individual; this, in revenge for frightening his children with ghost stories. 

Although there had been no real ghost in the Hammersmith community during those opening years of the nineteenth century it is said that several ghosts now haunt The Black Lion. Not surprisingly, the spirit of Thomas Milward, whose dead body had been brought there so many years ago, is believed to be one of them.

For further reading: 
Wikipedia: Hammersmith Ghost Murder Case

Proceedings of the Old Baily: London's Criminal Court 1674-1913: Francis Smith Killing

The above photo is in the public domain. Author unknown.