Condemned to Death on 13th of January, 1804, for the Murder of the supposed Hammersmith Ghost, but pardoned soon afterwards
SUPERSTITION of old, in the beginning of the enlightened year 1804, was revived in the vicinity of Hammersmith, near London, where the inhabitants were possessed with an opinion that a ghost haunted their neighbourhood; but the fancied spectre was proved to be composed of human flesh and blood, which were unfortunately mangled and shed unto death by the unhappy man whose case is now before us.
The wanton performer of the pretended spirit merited severe punishment, for, with the frogs to the mischievous boys who were pelting them with stones, the victims might truly have said: " It is sport to you, but death to us." Besides the poor man who lost his life, being mistaken for this mimic ghost, Francis Smith, who was an excise officer, was condemned to die for the murder.
One poor woman in particular, when crossing near the churchyard about ten o'clock at night, beheld something, as she described, rise from the tombstones. The figure was very tall and very white. She attempted to run; but the ghost soon overtook her, and pressed her in his arms, when she fainted; in which situation she remained some hours, till discovered by some neighbours, who kindly led her home, when she took to her bed, from which, alas, she never rose.
Neither man, woman nor child could pass that way, and the report was that it was the apparition of a man who had cut his throat in the neighbourhood a year before. Several lay in wait different nights for the ghost; but there were so many by-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 the passengers.
Francis Smith, doubtless incensed at the unknown person who was in the habit of assuming this supernatural character, and thus frightening the superstitious inhabitants of the village, rashly determined on watching for, and shooting, the ghost; when, unfortunately, he shot a poor innocent man, Thomas Millwood, a bricklayer, who was in a white dress, the usual habiliment of his occupation. This rash act was judged as wilful murder by the coroner's inquest, and Smith was accordingly committed to jail. He took his trial at the ensuing sessions at the Old Bailey, 13th of January, when Mr John Locke, wine-merchant, living in Hammersmith, stated that on the 3rd of January, about half-past ten in the evening, he met the prisoner, who told him he had shot a man whom he believed to be the pretended ghost of Hammersmith. A rumour of a ghost walking about at night had prevailed for a considerable time. He went with the prisoner, in company with Mr Stowe and a watchman, up Limekiln Lane to Black Lion Lane, where the deceased was lying, apparently dead.
The witness and Mr Stowe consulted together upon what was proper to be done, and they directly sent for the high constable. The body had no appearance of life; there was a shot in the left jaw. The prisoner was much agitated. The witness told him the consequences likely to result from his misconduct. The prisoner replied that he fired, but did not know the person whom he had shot; he also said that, before he fired, he spoke twice to the deceased, but received no answer.
Mr Const, for the prisoner, cross-examined this witness. For five weeks previous to this melancholy catastrophe the ghost had been the subject of general conversation in Hammersmith. He had never seen it. The dress in which the ghost was said to appear corresponded with that worn by the deceased, being white. The deceased had on white trousers, down to his shoes; a white apron round him, and a flannel jacket on his body. The ghost sometimes appeared in white, and frequently in a calf's skin.
The prisoner was so agitated when the witness met him that he could scarcely speak. The deceased, after the prisoner called out, continued to advance towards him, which augmented his fear so much that he fired. The witness described the evening as very dark. Black Lion Lane 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.
The prisoner, when he first mentioned the accident, expressed to the witness his wish that he would take him into custody, or send for some person to do so. The prisoner was a man mild and humane, and of a generous temper.
William Girdle, the watchman, in Hammersmith, after stating that he went to the spot with Mr Locke, described the posture in which the deceased was found. He was lying on his back, stretched out, and quite dead. On his crossexamination the witness said that he had seen the supposed ghost himself on the Thursday before, being the 29th of December. It was covered with a sheet or large tablecloth. He encountered it opposite the fourth milestone, and pursued it, but without success, as the spirit pulled off the sheet and ran. The alarm had been very great for six weeks or two months, and many people had been terribly frightened. He knew the prisoner, and he was nothing like a cruel man.
Anne Millwood, sister to the deceased, said her brother was in his usual working dress. She had heard great talk of a ghost stalking up and down the neighbourhood, all in white, with horns and glass eyes, but she did not know that anybody had ever watched in order to discover and detect the impostor.
For the defence the prisoner's counsel called Mrs Fullbrook, mother-in-law to the deceased. She said that on the Saturday evening before his death he told her that two ladies and a gentleman had taken fright at him, as he was coming down the terrace, thinking he was the ghost. He told them he was no more a ghost than any of them, and asked the gentleman if he wished for a punch in the head. The witness advised the deceased in future to put on a greatcoat, in order that he might not encounter any danger.
Thomas Groom was called to prove that some supernatural being actually visited the town of Hammersmith. He said he was servant to Mr Burgess, a brewer, and that as he and a fellow-servant were going through the churchyard one night, something, which he did not see, caught hold of him by the throat.
A number of witnesses were then called to the prisoner's character, which they described as mild and gentle in the extreme.
The Lord Chief Baron, in his address to the jury, said that, however disgusted the jury might feel in their own minds with the abominable person guilty of the misdemeanour of terrifying the neighbourhood, still the prisoner had no right to construe such misdemeanour into a capital offence, or to conclude that a man dressed in white was a ghost. It was his own opinion, and was confirmed by those of his learned brethren on the bench, that if the facts stated in evidence were credible, the prisoner had committed murder. In this case there was a deliberate carrying of a loaded gun, which the prisoner concluded he was entitled to fire, but which he really was not; and he did fire it, with a rashness which the law did not excuse.
The jury retired for above an hour, and returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter.
On hearing this verdict, it was stated by the Bench that such a judgment could not be received in this case, for it ought to be either a verdict of murder or of acquittal. If the jury believed the facts, there was no extenuation that could be admitted; for supposing that the unfortunate man was the individual really meant to have been shot, the prisoner would have been guilty of murder. Even with respect to civil processes: if an officer of justice used a deadly weapon it was murder if he occasioned death by it, even although he had a right to apprehend the person he had so killed.
Mr Justice Rooke said "The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law, and therefore the verdict must be 'guilty of murder,' or 'a total acquittal from want of evidence.'"
Mr Justice Lawrence said: "You have heard the opinion of the whole Court is settled as to the law on this point, it is therefore unnecessary for me to state mine in particular. Upon every point of view this case is, in the eye of the law, a murder, if it be proved by the facts. Whether it has or not is for you to determine, and return your verdict accordingly. The law has been thus stated by Justice Foster and all the most eminent judges."
The recorder said: "I perfectly agree with the learned judges who have spoken. Gentlemen, consider your verdict again."
The jury then turned round and, after a short consultation, returned their verdict "guilty."
The Lord Chief Baron said: "The case, gentlemen, shall be reported to his Majesty immediately."
The recorder then passed sentence of death on the prisoner in the usual form; which was, that he should be executed on Monday next, and his body given to the surgeons to be dissected.
The prisoner, who was dressed in a suit of black clothes, was then twenty-nine years of age, a short but well-made man, with dark hair and eyebrows; and the pallid hue of his countenance during the whole trial, together with the signs of contrition which he exhibited, commanded the sympathy of every spectator. When the dreadful word "guilty" was pronounced he sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair. He at last retired, supported by the servants of Mr Kirby.
The Lord Chief Baron having told the jury, after they had given their verdict, that he would immediately report the case to his Majesty, was so speedy in this humane office that a "respite during pleasure" arrived at the Old Bailey before seven o clock, and on the 25th he received a pardon, on condition of being imprisoned one year.