Okay, I’ve been looking forward to telling you about this for ages. It’s another hoax story, but it went on for quite a long time and it’s been hard to choose a suitable date to hang it all on. It involves usury, a ghost and accusations of murder. It’s a story worthy of Charles Dickens. But what is really brilliant about it is not so much the details as the name. Today I give you… Scratching Fanny, the Cock Lane Ghost.
It all begins with a man called William Kent from Norfolk. His wife died in childbirth and he began a relationship with her sister Fanny. Church law forbade the couple to marry, so they moved to London, hoping to pass for man and wife. William took up a new career in usury (which means he was a loan shark) and managed to secure them a place to live in Cock Lane, near Smithfield Market. As part of the deal, he lent twelve guineas to his new landlord, Richard Parsons. They shared the house with Parsons, his wife and their two daughters.
The first sign of anything untoward was when William was away from home, some time in 1759. Fanny was several months pregnant and it was thought to be a good idea if the Parson’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, a girl of eleven, stayed with her while he was away. The two heard scratching and knocking noises in the night. At first it was thought to be a cobbler at work next door. But when they heard the noises on a Sunday, it was clear that it was not. Then the landlord of a nearby tavern visited the house. He caught a glimpse of a ghostly figure on the stairs and ran home terrified.
In 1760, William and Fanny moved away from the house. But then, just before their child was born, Fanny caught smallpox and died. Fanny’s family didn’t approve very much of William and, when they found out she had left all her money to him, they liked him even less. When William and Fanny left Cock Lane, he was still owed money by Parsons, their landlord. In 1761, William sued Parsons and got back the three guineas he was owed. That was when the noises started again at Cock Lane. Richard Parsons’ new tenant, Catherine Friend, was driven from the house by them. They sounded like a cat scratching at furniture and seemed to emanate from Elizabeth Parsons, who also suffered from fits. Her father Richard enlisted the help of a local preacher, John Moore, to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. All the wainscotting was removed from around Elizabeth’s bed, but nothing was found. It had been generally decided that the first ghostly manifestations had been down to Williams first wife, coming to warn her sister of her imminent death. Now they believed Fanny was haunting them as well.
It was not uncommon, in the eighteenth century, to believe that, if a ghost appeared, it was because it had some message for the living. The two men devised a way of communicating with the ghost. One knock for ‘yes’ two for ‘no’. The ghost told them that Fanny had not died of smallpox, but had been murdered by William with a dose of arsenic. Now, Fanny’s sister Anne had complained that she had not been able to see her sister’s body because the lid of the coffin was screwed down. This was seen as more evidence against William. If they had seen her body, they would have been able to easily tell whether or not she had died of smallpox.
The story of the ghost soon spread all through London and William Kent was suspected of murder. Determined to clear his name, William attended a séance on January 12th 1762 at Cock Lane. The ghost of Fanny was again asked if William had poisoned her, and the reply was yes. When asked if Kent should be hanged, it also answered in the affirmative. William leapt up saying: “Thou art a lying spirit, thou are not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said any such thing.”
More seances followed throughout January, sometimes at Cock Lane and sometimes elsewhere. Public interest in the story grew, especially when everyone found out that the manifestations were centred around Elizabeth Parsons. During the seances, Elizabeth would be put to bed and everyone would sit around her waiting for the noises to start. Not all the seances were successful. If someone sat too close to the bed, the ghost would not communicate. When someone looked under the bed with a candle, the ghost would make no noise. Yet, when the street outside the house in Cock Lane was thronged with people all intent, after paying a small fee to Mr Parsons, on gaining an audience with the ghost, they were not disappointed. In retrospect, it was all very suspicious, but people still weren’t sure.
On February 1st, 1762, a very eminent crowd indeed were gathered together to observe Elizabeth and her ghost, at the house of Rev. Aldrich of Clerkenwell. Among the company was Dr Samuel Johnson, who is famous for writing a dictionary and was not at all prone to flights of fancy. It is from him that we have the following account:
For an hour all was quiet. They left the room for a while. At a previous séance the ghost had promised that it would accompany a person into the vaults of the church at Clerkenwell where Fanny’s body lay buried. It further promised that it would reveal it’s presence by knocking on the coffin. They thought they would test this out. While they were debating this, they were called back to the séance by a group of women who had remained with the girl. Elizabeth told them that she could feel Fanny’s spirit “like a mouse upon her back”. They asked her to keep her hand above the covers, where they could see them, then entreated the spirit to touch them, to make a noise, anything to indicate its presence. Nothing was heard. Then, they told the spirit that someone was, at that moment, entering the crypt and would expect its presence there. The people dispatched to the church returned at one in the morning, having heard nothing. They tried questioning the girl, but she would admit nothing. A couple of hours later, she asked to go home. Dr Johnson’s conclusion, and that of everyone else present was that: “the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise”.
After that Elizabeth was tested several more times and it was found, as you might expect, every time her hands were visible the noises stopped. Eventually, she was told that if the ghost did not manifest, her father would be sent to Newgate Prison. That was when a couple of the women who were attending her saw her hide a small piece of wood inside her bodice. After that the noises were clearly heard. It was obvious that Elizabeth was making the noises herself and also clear exactly how she was doing it. William Kent was at last free of suspicion. A pamphlet was written (naturally) possibly by the poet Oliver Goldsmith called ‘The Mystery Revealed’. He probably also did the rather splendid drawing below, mocking the whole affair. If you look closely, you can see on the wall, pictures of the Bottle Conjurer and Elizabeth Canning who I have also mentioned recently.
It isn’t clear what became of Elizabeth Parsons, but her father was put on trial, along with several others, and sentenced to be put in the stocks. But people felt quite sorry for him and rather than throw things they left him money.
I said at the beginning of this post that it was the sort of thing Dickens would like. In fact, he did know this story. He probably had it from his childhood nurse, Mary Weller. He mentions the Cock Lane Ghost more than once in his novels, especially Nicholas Nickelby.