Joanna here. Ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night are my topic today. That line would be a wonderful old survival from the past if only it were genuine instead of a Victorian fake. But it is fakes I’m going to talk about so this sets the mood pleasantly.
What did our Regency and Georgian predecessors dread when they huddled under the bedclothes and brisk winds blew their midnight candle out? What did they fear? What haunted their nightmares?
Superstition was pretty rife in the elegant Beau Brummel days, as we know by looking at all those ‘horrid novels’ they shiveringly adored. Before I let myself go all smug and superior, I’ll remind myself superstition is pretty rife nowadays too. Grossmom was born at the end of the nineteenth Century not far from Kiev. She not only believed in werewolves, there’d been one killed in her village in her father’s time. They tracked a killer wolf into the deep woods and shot it. When they came up to find the body, it was a naked man they found dead.
Hmmm … (goes jo skeptically.) Was this some hunting accident quickly hushed up? Or just somebody who'd made himself unpopular in the village? Grossmom believed it though.
My father’s mother who came from Ireland was utterly convinced of the existence of fairies. Frankly, since that doesn’t involve chasing
somebody through the snowy woods with a long gun, it is a belief I can get behind. A bowl of milk on the doorstep is a small price to pay for having magic in your life.
Since I’m looking at Regency London, I’m going to pass the werewolves by and take Ghosts for 300.
What it is, I had occasion not long ago to do fifteen minutes research on the procedure for arresting somebody who’d committed murder in London in the teens of the Nineteenth Century and I came across an unfortunate killing in Hammersmith in 1804.
You see, a fellow killed a ghost.
Let me go back to the beginning.
In 1804 the inhabitants of a neighborhood in Hammersmith, near London, were troubled by a haunting. A tall figure, all clothed in white, showed himself in the dead of night such that neither man, woman, nor child could pass that way. One description said it was covered by a “sheet or large tablecloth.” This ghost was held to be the apparition of a neighborhood man who’d cut his throat a year before. “Several lay in wait different nights for the ghost; but there were so many bye-lanes and paths leading to Hammersmith, that he was always sure of being on that which was unguarded, and every night played off his tricks” to the terror of all passersby.
A certain Francis Smith determined to watch for and confront the ghost.
He waited in hiding in Blacklion Lane. It “was very dark at all times, being between hedges; and on that evening it was so very obscure, that a person on one side of the road could not distinguish an object on the other.” He saw a figure all in white approach. He called out “Damn you, who are you, and what are you? I'll shoot you, if you don't speak.” But the figure continued to advance towards him. This “augmented his fear so much that he fired.”
Unfortunately this was not a safely deceased ghost but one Thomas Millwood, a bricklayer. He was dressed in “the usual habiliment of his occupation … linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him, and a flannel jacket on his body”. He was not haunting the streets but innocently coming home from his sister’s house.
Smith ran to get help and found a man nearby. That one had actually heard the shot, but “he took no notice of that circumstance, as he frequently heard firing in the night.”
Before I go on I’m going to just say this is giving me a whole new view of nighttime London in the Regency.
In any case, Smith returned with the other fellow and they found the unfortunate bricklayer “lying on his back, stretched out, and quite dead.” Smith asked that the other man would take him into custody, or send for some person to do so. So now you know what to do if you inadvertently shoot somebody in 1804.
They set off together and found the watchman who agreed to go back to look at the body “after crying the hour.” It argues a certain sang-froid in dealing with corpses does it not? It came out at the trial that the watchman was “armed with a pistol, as other watchmen are.”
I revise my opinion of nighttime London a bit more.
Francis Smith was convicted of murder, not because the jury wanted to, but because the whole ‘lurking in the dark with a loaded gun to shoot somebody’ demanded it. British law debated this whole what -if-you-shot-somebody-else question hotly for a century or so.
Smith was sentenced to death.
The judge immediately reported the case to the crown and Smith received a pardon “on condition of being imprisoned one year.”
So this particular ghost hunter got off lightly.
I pulled this out of The New Newgate Calendar, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, Vol. 4, 1804.
And the two-page account is here and very interesting it is
That’s my Regency ghost story.
What’s your ghost story?
Or, y'know, I'm good with werewolves and fairies.