Poltergeist On Trial / The Cock Lane 'Ghost'
When investigators were called in to examine the 'ghost' of Cock Lane, they devised a test to establish once and for all who or what lay behind it. The revelations pointed to murder
Richard Parsons was becoming seriously alarmed by the mysterious noises at his home in Cock Lane. The strange rappings had continued for several months and no natural explanation could be found for them. Then, almost at his wits' end, Parsons asked the Reverend John Moore to investigate, to see if some paranormal agency were the cause.
Moore was a follower of John Wesley, who was himself no stranger to the super natural. In 1715 Wesley's family home had been troubled by a 'knocking spirit', and his father, the Reverend Samuel Wesley, had 'communicated' with it by knocking back. Moore, told of Parsons's theories as to the origin of the phenomena, he now believed that the ghost of the newly dead Fanny Kent was responsible, began holding seances, using one knock for yes, and two for no, in order to find out the 'spirit's' wishes. The Wesley ghost had centered itself upon Hetty Wesley, John's younger sister, and the Cock Lane ghost now orientated itself upon the person of 11-year-old Elizabeth Parsons.
Moore's most productive sessions were held in Elizabeth's bedroom, after the girl had been put to bed. Sometimes the knocks came from the floorboards, sometimes from the bedstead or the walls. On the rare occasions when the 'spirit' appeared to be pleased, it made a noise like the fluttering of wings; when displeased it made a noise like 'a cat's claws scratching over a cane chair' and it became known as 'Scratching Fanny'.
A Demand For Justice
Its message was brutally blunt. It was the ghost of Fanny Kent, murdered by William, who had poisoned her purl - a concoction of bitter herbs in ale popularly used as a restorative - about two hours before she died. Fanny wanted justice.
William Kent, slowly recovering from his bereavement, had set himself up as a stock- broker and busied himself in the City, and it was not until almost a year after Fanny's death, in January 176i, that he heard of the continuing saga of Cock Lane through a series of articles in the Public Ledger news sheet. Terrified by the 'ghost's' accusations - which were now, of course, public knowledge - he called on the Reverend Moore. Moore was impressed by Kent's manner and bearing, but assured him that 'there were very strange noises of knockings and scratchings every night, and that there was something behind darker than all the rest.'
As a result of their meeting, Kent went to Cock Lane to sit in on a seance himself. To his horror the knocks accused him personally of having killed Fanny with arsenic, and when he asked, at Moore's instigation, 'Whether he would be hanged, the answer was a single knock.
'Thou art a lying spirit,' he shouted. 'Thou art not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said any such thing.'
By this time the ghost of 'Scratching
Fanny' had become a matter of enormous public interest, and crowds on foot and in carriages flocked to watch the comings and goings at the house. Horace Walpole wrote: 'Provisions are sent in like forage, and all the taverns and ale houses in the neighbourhood make fortunes.' To the credit of the Parsons family, however, none of them seems to have made any money from the phenomena.
As the year went on, so the seances continued. On one occasion, one of the sitters, William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth and himself a Methodist, decided to have Elizabeth Parsons moved to the house of a gentleman named Bray, just to see what would happen. The knockings accompanied her, seeming to show that she, and not the actual Cock Lane premises, was the catalyst. But the girl was watched closely, women attendants holding her hands and feet to rule out fraud, and still the noises went on.
The proceedings had taken on the atmosphere of a kangaroo court, with the doctor and apothecary who had attended Fanny Kent in her last illness denying that Kent could have poisoned her, she had drunk only their preparation in the 50 hours before her death and the knocking contradicting them. The maid servant 'Carrots' Carlisle was implicated also, and indignantly shouted at the 'spirit': 'Then I am sure, Madam, you may be ashamed of yourself, for I never hurt you in my life.'
Elizabeth Parsons herself had begun to have epileptic fits. She claimed to have actually seen the ghost, 'in a shroud and without hands', but claimed that the only aspect of the matter that frightened her was 'what would become of her Daddy, if their matter should be supposed to be an imposture.'
William Kent was naturally anxious to clear up the matter; Moore, convinced that the ghost was telling the truth, was also eager for the authorities to act, but the only person in the City of London with the power to order a full investigation was the Lord Mayor, Sir Samuel Fludyer. He 'did not choose to stir much, for it was somewhat like Canning's affair', which had caused a great for his predecessor (see page 5o), and he refused to order the arrest of either Kent, for suspected murder or Parsons for fraud. Instead, he insisted that an independent investigation should be held at the house of the Reverend Stephen Aldrich, vicar of St John's, Clerkenwell.
Aldrich, to make sure that the investigation would be impartial, formed a committee with Lord Dartmouth. They chose Dr John Douglas, an amateur investigator who had exposed a number of frauds, Mrs Oakes, a hospital matron, Dr George Macaulay, a society physician, two or three gentlemen and Dr Samuel Johnson.
Johnson had long been fascinated by ghosts. The idea of total oblivion after death horrified him. He summed up his attitude to his biographer James Boswell: '. .still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.'
But he undertook to assist in the investigation of 'Scratching Fanny' for a typically humanitarian reason. If the affair was a fraud, it was seriously damaging the reputation of William Kent, who seemed an honest and decent man.
The 'Committee of Gentlemen', as the newspapers termed it, decided on a new course of action. They arranged to test Elizabeth Parsons at Aldrich's house, and then, leaving her behind, they would descend to the vault of St John's, where the ghost would knock on Fanny Kent's coffin to 'prove' its objective existence. A preliminary seance was held, and the ghost agreed to these conditions.
The Test Begins
On the evening of 1 February I762, Elizabeth was put to bed at Aldrich's house, attended by the matron, Mrs Oakes, and other women. According to Dr Johnson's report, the child said that she could feel the spirit 'like a mouse upon her back [but] no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited'.
The committee then made its way to St John's, entered the vault, and called upon the spirit to keep its promise by knocking on the coffin. 'But nothing more than silence ensued. . . . It is therefore the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting particular noises, and that there is no agency of a higher cause.'
One or two more seances followed, but the affair was nearing its end. On 3 February, a large gathering saw a curtain rod spin violently of its own volition, and heard a knocking of such violence, high up in the chimney, 'that they thought it would have broke it all to pieces'. Finally, Elizabeth was told that she had only one more night, 21 February, to prove her innocence, 'otherwise she and her father and mother would all be sent to Newgate.'
This final session was held at the house of a gentleman named Missiter in Covent Garden and this time, perhaps not unexpectedly, there were positive results. The child was seen creeping from her bed to pick up a piece of wood with which she subsequently made knocking sounds. But Missiter and his companions agreed that this blatant piece of fraud produced sounds nothing like the ones heard previously: Elizabeth was, naturally, terrified for her freedom.
The tide had turned in Kent's favour. On 5 March a pamphlet entitled 'The mystery revealed', usually attributed to Oliver Goldsmith, put the case for his innocence with force. Later, Charles Churchill published a long poem, The ghost, which laughed at the affair, particularly Dr Johnson's part in it and David Garrick turned the saga of 'Scratching Fanny' to good use by making it the centrepiece of a comic recitation, 'The Farmer's Return', at Drury Lane theatre.
On 9 February a new knocking ghost was advertised as 'likely to perform' in Broad Court, Covent Garden. The magistrate at nearby Bow Street was John Fielding, the half brother of Henry Fielding, and he sent the 'ghost' his compliments 'with an intimation that it would not meet with the lenity the Cock Lane spirit did, but that it should knock hemp in Bridewell. On which the ghost, very discreetly, omitted the intended exhibition.'
On 10 July, the 'conspirators' were brought for trial at the Court of King's Bench, Guildhall, before Lord Mansfield. The charge was that the Reverend John Moore, Richard Parsons, Mrs Parsons and others had conspired to 'take away the life of William Kent by charging him with the murder of Frances Lynes by giving her poison whereof she died'. James Franzen the landlord, 'Carrots' the servant, the doctor and the apothecary all gave evidence, while several people spoke up for Parsons.
After a trial lasting a day, the accused were found guilty. The Rev. Moore was heavily fined, Parsons was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and three sessions in the pillory, and his wife to one year's jail. Elizabeth Parsons did not stand trial, but was not, apparently, troubled by her 'ghost' again.
Even after leaving prison, Parsons protested his innocence, and his protests have a convincing ring to them. He had gained nothing from the Cock Lane affair but notoriety and punishment. He had had differences with Kent, it was true, but he was, drunkenness apart, a well-liked man of previous good character, with no wish to put another's life at stake. Furthermore hundreds of people, the Duke of York, Horace Walpole, and Lord Hertford included, had heard the knockings from the wainscot, a good distance from Elizabeth's bed.
Twist In The Tale
And the manifestations themselves, centering on a young, prepubescent girl who had epileptic, tendencies, closely echo modern cases held by parapsychologists to be 'genuine'. Perhaps the 'interpretation' of the Cock Lane rappings was the only fault of Parsons and Moore.
Or perhaps the 'ghost' had a point after all. The coffins were cleared from the vaults of St John's Church in 1860, but 10 years previously an illustrator, J. W. Archer, had visited them to produce illustrations for a book by Charles Mackay entitled Memoirs of extraordinary popular delusions, which featured the Cock Lane ghost. By the light of a lantern, the sexton's boy who accompanied Archer had opened the coffin said to be that of 'Scratching Fanny' and shown him the body within. The face was that of a once handsome woman, with a pronounced aquiline nose: 'an uncommon case,' wrote Archer, 'for the cartilage mostly gives way. The remains had become adipocere, and were perfectly preserved.'
There was no sign, as far as he could see, of the smallpox from which Fanny was said to have died. But the preservation of the features, the nose in particular, would unfailingly set a modern forensic scientist looking for traces of arsenic poisoning.
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