Hundreds of murder trials have been heard at London’s famous Old Bailey and probably the most unusual of them all was that of Francis Smith in the case of the Hammersmith Ghost.
Superstition continued to play a major part in the lives of many in early 19th century England and there was a widespread belief in ghosts and evil spirits. Not surprisingly therefore, a sense of panic spread throughout the London district of Hammersmith in the final two months of 1803, when reports began to emerge of almost nightly sightings of a ghostly apparition intent on frightening passersbys, be they men, women or children.
The spectre was thought by some to be the spirit of a man who 12 months earlier had committed suicide by slashing his throat. He was buried in a local churchyard despite the belief that such individuals should not be interred in consecrated ground, for if they were they would be unable to rest at peace. Most of those who had seen it, described a figure in a large white shroud and others said it sometimes wore a calf skin wrapped around its body and had large glass-like staring eyes.
It was rumoured that two women, one elderly and the other heavily pregnant, had been so terrified on meeting the ghost that they took to their beds and died of fright a few days later. It was also reported that a wagoner, driving a team of eight horses, had been so shaken on seeing it that his 16 passengers had been put in serious danger after he lost control of the carriage. These and other such tales were never substantiated but brewer Thomas Groom provided a vivid account of his encounter. He was walking through a local churchyard at night and was grabbed by the throat from behind. There was a struggle, during which he felt a shroud and as he turned round, the ghost disappeared behind the tombstones.
And then, on December 29, William Girdler, a night-watchman, saw the figure and gave chase. As it ran along the narrow lanes it removed the shroud enabling it to run faster and avoid capture. This encouraged more men to take to the streets at night, but they did not believe in ghosts. They were determined to rid their neighborhood of this menace, responsible for causing so much distress and alarm and among them was 29-year-old excise officer, Francis Smith.
The Shooting of Thomas Millwood
At a few minutes after 10 o’clock on the night of January 3, 1804, 32-year-old plasterer Thomas Millwood called at his parents’ Hammersmith home. He was wearing his work clothes: linen trousers, a waistcoat and an apron, all recently washed and very white. His mother and father retired to their bed and Thomas sat up with his sister Anne until they heard the watch shout out the hour at 11. He decided to go home and Anne watched from the doorway as he set off walking along Black Lion Lane.
Within seconds, she heard a man’s voice shout out “Damn you. Who are you and what do you want? I’ll shoot you if you don’t speak.” This was followed almost immediately by a gunshot. Anne called out to Thomas but he did not reply and deeply worried, she went in search of him. After walking a short distance she found him lying on the ground, his face covered with blood and horribly disfigured. Taking his hand, she urged him to speak, but there was no response and she realized he was dead. Already at the scene was a small group of men which included wine merchant John Locke, William Girdler and Francis Smith. The circumstances which led to her brother’s death were soon revealed.
The Killer Is Arrested and the Ghost Comes Forward
Earlier that evening, the night-watchman had met Smith, who was carrying his gun, a fowling piece. Smith said he was watching out for the impostor ghost and Girdler promised to join him after he had completed his other duties. It was shortly after calling out the hour at 11 p.m. that he heard the gunshot. It was also heard by John Locke, who a few moments later was approached by a greatly distressed Francis Smith. He told him he had shot a man and asked him to return to the scene of the tragedy with him. He did so and discovered the plasterer’s body and they were soon joined by the night-watchman and Anne Millwood. Smith surrendered to the constable and the corpse was carried to the Black Lion Inn,where it was examined by surgeon, Mr. Flower. At the inquest, he confirmed death was due to a gunshot wound to the left lower jaw and damage was caused to the spinal cord, killing him instantly. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder at the hands of Smith, who was committed to Newgate Prison to await his trial.
Two days after the shooting, local boot and shoe maker John Graham admitted that he was the Hammersmith Ghost. He explained that he adopted the disguise to frighten his apprentices, who had been terrifying his three children with ghost stories. Graham surrendered to the magistrates, who were unsure of the legal position and granted him bail so they could seek guidance. There is no record of any further action being taken against him.
Smith’s trial took place one week later and although he admitted firing the fatal shot, he entered a not guilty plea. Nobody had witnessed the actual shooting and reading the trial transcript confirms that essentially, the crown relied on the defendant’s own account of what had occurred. The leading witnesses for the prosecution were John Locke, William Girdler and Anne Millwood. Locke told of meeting Smith shortly after the shot was fired, in a genuinely distressed state and how he willingly surrendered himself to the constable. The night-watchman recalled his agreement to meet with Smith on the night and how after the shooting he had cooperated fully and that he had always regarded him as an honest young man. The bereaved sister told the court of hearing Smith challenge her brother, but insisted that the shot followed so soon afterwards that in her opinion Thomas would not have had sufficient time to surrender or explain who he was.
In his defense, Smith made a brief statement in which he acknowledged that he knew he was not dealing with a ghost. He challenged the man twice to stop and give his name, but he had simply continued to advance towards him. Smith described fearing for his safety and in a state of panic, not knowing what the man he had confronted would do, he shot him. A number of witnesses were called who spoke of his good character. Thomas Groom also appeared and his testimony made it clear that he had been terrified by his experience and that the sense of concern was real throughout Hammersmith.
However, perhaps the most important defense witness was Phoebe Fulbrooke, mother-in-law of Thomas Millwood. He and his wife had lived with her and she told the court of a discussion she had with him on the Saturday before the shooting. He told her that he was wearing his work clothes one night and had frightened two ladies and a gentleman, who passed him in a coach. The man called out that he was a ghost, to which he mockingly replied that he was no more a ghost than the other man was. This caused Mrs. Fulbrooke to urge him to wear a greatcoat when on his way to or when returning home from work. She was aware that groups of armed men were now patrolling the area and she feared he might be mistaken for the ghost by one of them and something bad may happen to him. Events proved her concerns were justified but her son-in-law had scoffed at the suggestion.
The Lord Chief Baron took some time in his summing up to the jury to explain why one of only two verdicts, murder or acquittal, was possible. He emphasised that for a murder to occur, malice must be present, but this did not mean the killer had to know the victim and he gave two examples: An individual might fire a gun into a room full of strangers and kill one of them, or a killer might shoot a gun but miss the intended target and kill another person unintentionally; malice was present in both instances as it was in the Smith case. The judge continued by highlighting significant issues the jury must consider, namely, Smith was not acting in self-defence, nor was the shooting accidental. Furthermore, at the time, Millwood was not committing an offense and even if he had shot John Graham, the supposed ghost, there would have been no acceptable reason for doing so, as he was not committing a serious felony such as a robbery, but a far less serious misdemeanor, which would have resulted in a small fine. The judge closed his remarks by reminding the jury that the accused’s good character meant nothing in this case.
Nevertheless, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty to manslaughter, which the Lord Chief Baron refused to accept. His fellow judges, Justice Rooke and Justice Lawrence, addressed the jury in much the same terms as the Lord Chief Baron and agreed that such a verdict was not possible. The jury members therefore consulted with each other for a short time before declaring Smith guilty of murder. He was sentenced to hang and be dissected on the following Monday. Smith almost fainted and crying loudly had to be carried from the dock by the turnkeys. However, the Lord Chief Baron, who was fully aware of the great public interest in the case and support for the accused, added “The case gentlemen shall be referred to His Majesty immediately.” By seven o’clock that evening the sentence had been respited during His Majesty’s pleasure and was quickly commuted to one year’s imprisonment with hard labour. On July 14, Smith was granted a full pardon.
Despite Smith escaping the gallows and having his good name restored, there was a widespread belief that the outcome was unsatisfactory as the case had exposed a flaw in the legal code. This centred on the lack of a defense available to an individual acting in good faith and believing action, including violence, was necessary, but having misunderstood a situation and the Hammersmith Ghost case was mentioned in a number of trials in the years that followed.
Finally, the Court of Appeal settled the matter in 1984 in the matter of Regina v Williams. Gladstone Williams saw a man dragging a youth, who was screaming out for help, along a street, with what he considered to be excessive violence. Believing the youngster to be the victim of a serious assault, Williams hit and injured the supposed attacker, hoping to prevent further harm being caused. However, Williams had misread the situation, for his victim was attempting to detain the youth, the actual offender, until the police arrived. Williams was arrested and subsequently convicted of assault but appealed.
The appeal was successful and it was established that if an individual believed mistakenly that force was necessary to protect him or herself or to prevent a crime being committed, then so long as that belief was reasonably held and the prosecution could not prove otherwise, no crime could be said to have taken place. This principle was subsequently written into law and after 180 years, the Hammersmith Ghost was finally laid to rest.