Cock Lane Ghost

Cock Lane Ghost An 18th-century, London-area Poltergeist that fascinated eyewitnesses and investigators because it was tainted with accusations of trickery and fraud. Sensational publicity caused curiosity-seekers to crowd Cock Lane, the street from which the ghost took its name. The veracity of the ghost was hotly debated by believers and detractors.

The excitement lasted for two years, from 1762 to 1764, culminating in a trial which found several persons guilty of fraud. The trial, however, did nothing to clarify how the deception was carried out, if indeed it was a deception. The full story was told in Cock Lane & Common Sense, a book written by Andrew Lang and published in 1894.

In 1760, a stockbroker named Kent rented a house on Cock Lane, in the London suburb of West Smithfield, from Mr. Parsons, a parish clerk in a nearby church. Kent’s sister-in-law, Miss Fanny, was keeping house for him since his wife’s death in childbirth the previous year. Fanny and Kent grew fond of one another and decided to make out a will, naming each other as beneficiary.

One day, Parsons borrowed money from Kent, but shortly thereafter, the two men argued. Not only did Kent move out of the house, but he began legal proceedings against Parsons for the return of his money. The suit was not contended for two years, and in the meantime, Fanny contracted smallpox. She died a few days later and was buried in a vault under St. John’s Church.

This sad event gave the vengeful Parsons a chance to concoct a story that Fanny had not died of an illness, but instead was the victim of murder, most probably at the hands of Kent, who would benefit from the inheritance.

It wasn’t until 1762, however, that Parsons began in earnest to blacken Kent’s name. Parsons claimed that the house was now haunted by Fanny’s ghost. Furthermore, his 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, had seen and spoken to the ghost, which asserted that she had been poisoned by Kent. Parsons added that the night following Fanny’s demise, loud knockings could be heard in the house.

Not content with merely arousing suspicions among his neighbours, Parsons sought corroboration from a gentleman of high rank by inviting him to the house to witness the ghost. The gentleman saw the shaking, terrified Elizabeth shortly after she had been visited by the ghost, and he bore witness to the knockings and rappings that could be heard in the child’s room. He promised to return the next evening with the local clergyman and others to further investigate the strange happenings.

The next night more than 20 people returned to the house, determined to stay up all night if necessary to wait for the ghost to appear. Parsons maintained that the ghost appeared only to Elizabeth, but that it would be willing to answer questions with a certain number of knocks signifying affirmative or negative answers.

Hours later, this committee of men was rewarded for its patience. Elizabeth saw the ghost, and the questions began. Once again, Fanny’s ghost claimed that Fanny had been poisoned. And in response to a specific question, the ghost said that Fanny’s soul would be at rest if Kent were hanged for his deed.

It did not take long for the news to spread in the neighbourhood, and soon Cock Lane was full of the curious. Always with an eye toward commerce, Parsons even charged people a small fee to enter the house to listen to the ghost’s knockings.

But the ghost was soon to cast a shadow upon itself when it made some promises it could not fulfil. The ghost asserted that it would follow Elizabeth everywhere, as well as anyone who entered Fanny’s burial vault. The committee decided to take the ghost up on its suggestions and Elizabeth was taken to a clergyman’s house where she underwent a search of her bedclothes by several ladies before being put to bed. In this unfamiliar house, the ghost would make only knockings and no appearance, fueling the committee’s suspicions that some chicanery was afoot.

These suspicions were confirmed when the committee visited Fanny’s vault, and the ghost failed to either make an appearance or produce rappings. Some committee members suggested that Kent should be brought to the vault and have the ghost confront him. Kent complied, and while standing by the coffin, he was disappointed along with everyone else when there was no sight or sound from the ghost.

To quell these doubts, Parsons started a rumour that the ghost did not appear because Kent had removed Fanny’s coffin. Kent finally fought back by taking several witnesses into the vault where he had the coffin opened to reveal Fanny. All present made depositions and when they were published, Kent indicted Parsons, along with his wife, daughter and several others whom he believed were conspirators.

The trial finally took place; all were found guilty and had to make monetary retribution to Kent for defamation. Parsons also was sentenced to stand in the pillory before being imprisoned for two years.

SEE ALSO:

FURTHER READING:

  • Grant, Douglas. The Cock Lane Ghost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.
  • Lang, Andrew. Cock Lane & Common Sense. London: Longmans, 1894.
  • Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1932. First published 1841.

SOURCE:

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

The scandalous affair of the Cock Lane poltergeist in 1760–2 aroused much interest, and was eventually proved to be a fake. At the centre of events were two men, William Parsons, a landlord, and his lodger William Kent. The latter was a widower, but he had with him as his mistress his late wife’s sister Fanny. Kent had lent money to Parsons, who was so unwilling to repay it that they quarrelled, and Kent sued Parsons. At about this time Kent went off on business, and in his absence Fanny became very alarmed at scratching noises in her bedroom, which she believed were made by her sister’s ghost, and were a warning that she herself would soon die too. In view of what happened later, it is significant that during Kent’s absence Fanny was sharing her room with Liz Parsons, the landlord’s eleven-year-old daughter. When Kent returned, he and Fanny changed their lodgings to Bartlett Court, where Fanny caught smallpox and died.

The manifestations then began in earnest in Cock Lane. Scratching and rapping were constantly heard in Liz’s room, and the ‘spirit’ announced, through the child, that she was Fanny’s ghost, and that William Kent had poisoned her. Crowds flocked to the house, for which Parsons charged them an entrance fee, and crammed themselves into a small, dark, and airless room where the ghost might, or might not, be willing to answer questions by rapping once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’. The prevailing mood, according to contemporary reports, was somewhat frivolous, and all the taverns of the area were making a fortune by supplying food and drink to the visitors.

However, a local clergyman, seeing how serious was the accusation made against Kent, called upon various gentlemen ‘eminent for their rank and character’ to investigate; one of them was Dr Johnson. They visited the crypt where Fanny was buried, and found that, contrary to what Parsons had promised, the ghost did not communicate with them by rapping on the coffin lid. When Liz was caught with a wooden clapper hidden in her clothing, the fraud was exposed. Parsons was found guilty of conspiracy, pilloried, and imprisoned for two years.

There are many references to the affair in contemporary newspapers, and in the letters of sophisticated Londoners such as Horace Walpole and William Hogarth. An indignant pamphlet attributed to the writer Oliver Goldsmith gives a detailed account, protesting that a man of good character, such as Kent, should never have had his reputation destroyed by an accusation of murder made upon such flimsy evidence.

SEE ALSO:

SOURCE:

Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008

Related Articles