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The Hammersmith Ghost Murder

Ghosts can be very scary. Imagine going to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning, and being confronted by a Victorian lady. As if that isn't unsettling enough, imagine that same ghost laying into you.

Ghost assault is thankfully very rare. Largely because it seems that ghosts may not really exist. Whether you believe in ghosts or not makes a big difference in how you'll experience an encounter with the unexplainable.

Belief was exactly what Francis Smith's legal team built their case on. You see, Francis shot and killed a ghost.

The Hammersmith Ghost Mania

Hammersmith, London, was the site of a rash of encounters with, and attacks by a ghost. The apparition began appearing in November 1803. Several people reported run-ins with what the locals assumed was the spirit of a local man who committed suicide in 1802.

Suicide has always been a sore subject in Christian countries. Not that it is viewed in a particularly rosy light in other cultures. Christians are just known for their belief that a fear of punishment is enough to counter suicidal tendencies.

The belief in turn of the century England, was that the remains of the suicidal should not be buried in the Churchyard (that's a graveyard, or cemetery). Catholic burial laws sought to avoid Grave Scandals. Burying the remains of a person who committed suicide might encourage others to do the same thing.

The public made up their own reasons for the Catholic laws. They reasoned that the spirit of a person that died by suicide, would be unable to find rest in a Churchyard. Largely because suicide is a one-way ticket to hell, according to Catholicism.

So, when the body of a man who died by suicide was buried in the Hammersmith Churchyard, he naturally rose as a ghost. His spirit was described as tall, and dressed in a white gown.

As silly as the image of a person draped in a white sheet may be, it had some basis in reality. Back then, people were buried in a burial shroud. This was usually a white cloth wrapped around the deceased.

The phantom of Hammersmith wasn't just walking around spooking people. He actually scared 3 people to death. One elderly woman died from shock after being grabbed by the ghoul while out for a stroll. Another victim died similarly, but she was pregnant at the time.

Thomas Groom, a Brewer's servant, was walking through the Churchyard at night. He reports seeing a figure rise up from behind a tombstone, before grabbing him by the throat. The apparition twisted and disappeared. At the same time, Groom punched out weakly and felt his fist hit something like a soft coat.

Events took a turn when on December 29, a night watchman, William Girdler, was confronted by the ghost. Girdler was strolling down Beaver Lane when the Hammersmith Ghost appeared in its classic white sheet. William chased the devious spirit, but soon enough the 'ghost' threw off the shroud and fled into the night.

Hammersmith's locals took matters into their own hands and formed militias. There weren't police back in those days. Street justice was the only justice, and the Hammersmith Ghost had it coming.

The Hammersmith Ghost Murder

Several days after William Girdler's encounter, he ran into a young excise officer named Francis Smith. After recounting his harrowing tale of chasing a man in a sheet, Girdler set off to search for the ghost.

Francis vowed to capture the ghost and end the mania. He shouldered his trusty shotgun, and ventured out into the night. It was roughly 11 pm when the two left Beaver Lane behind on January 3rd, 1804.

Minutes later, Francis Smith saw a man dressed all in white on Black Lion Lane. He challenged the apparent apparition:

“Damn you; who are you and what are you? Damn you, I'll shoot you.”

Francis Smith fired his shotgun, blowing off half of the man's face and ending his life. Girdler ran to the scene with George Stowe and John Locke in tow. They found an agitated Francis Smith, practically foaming at the mouth, and a very dead bricklayer at his feet.

The victim was named Thomas Milkwood, who was dressed in the typical all-white uniform of a bricklayer. You might be wondering what he was doing out so late. Thomas was on his way home from visiting his parents, dressed in his best uniform to impress his family.

Francis Smith – Murder, or Mistaken Manslaughter

Ghost belief as a reason for murder Hammersmith Ghost Murder trial
"I swear he was a ghost before I killed him!"

Francis Smith was arrested and put on trial for murder. His defense consisted of claims that he acted in self-defense, believing himself face-to-face with a ghost. He faced an uphill battle.

Remarkably, Thomas Milkwood's widow, Mrs. Fulbrooke, testified in Francis Smith's defense. She claimed that she had warned Thomas several times to cover his uniform at night. January 3rd wasn't the first time that he was mistaken for the ghost.

“On Saturday evening, he and I were at home, for he lived with me; he said he had frightened two ladies and a gentleman who were coming along the terrace in a carriage, for that the man said, he dared to say there goes the ghost; that he said he was no more a ghost than he was, and asked him, using a bad word, did he want a punch of the head; I begged of him to change his dress; Thomas, says I, as there is a piece of work about the ghost, and your cloaths [sic] look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger;”

Thomas Milkwood's sister was the only witness to the murder. She testified that Francis Smith had fired his gun as soon as his warning left his mouth. Thus, her brother had no time to react, or explain his appearance to the trigger-happy 23-year-old.

The judge, Sir Archibald Macdonald, urged the jury to find Smith Guilty of willful murder. After they returned to verdict of manslaughter, he forced them to change it. He stated that malice wasn't necessary for a murder conviction, only an intent to kill.

Francis Smith was sentenced to death by hanging and dissection. Which was commuted by King George III, to a year of hard labor.

Following the murder, an elderly shoemaker came forward as the real Hammersmith Ghost. John Graham confessed to donning a white sheet and running around at night. He received no punishment for his mischief.

Whether mistaken belief could be an acceptable defense remained a hot-button issue in the UK for 180 years. Finally, being resolved in 1988 following a case where a man intervened in what he thought was an assault. The defense is now seen as valid.

This case is likely also why modern ghost-hunters don't use firearms in their pursuit of ghosts.



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