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The Case of a Ghost Haunted England for Over Two Hundred Years

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The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, foreign law specialist for the United Kingdom at the Law Library of Congress. She previously wrote a Halloween-themed blog post for In Custodia Legis on the issue of revealing the presence of ghosts when selling houses.

With Halloween fast approaching, I’ve prepared a ghost story – with legal elements – to help get you in the spirit.

The Hammersmith Ghost frightening a woman (Source: The Newgate Calendar, 1780 edition, Part III,
The Hammersmith Ghost frightening a woman (Source: The Newgate Calendar, Part III (1826),

In the depths of winter during the Napoleonic war, attention was drawn to Hammersmith, which at the time was a small village on the outskirts of London in England, as it was terrorized by a ghost.  In December 1803, villagers claimed a ghost, covered in a white shroud, was confronting travelers and, in some cases, physically attacking them.  The ghost was reported to appear as soon as the church bell struck one o’clock in the morning and the “spectre seemed to flit along the fields adjacent to Blacklion lane.”  The villagers believed that the ghost terrorizing them belonged to a villager who had committed suicide by slitting his throat the year before and that it originated from the graveyard of the local church of St. Paul’s, which at the time was surrounded by fields and dirt tracks.

The ghost was reported to be large and white and it instilled fear in most of the villagers as well as travelers passing through.  It scared a driver of a wagon, pulled by eight horses and carrying 16 people, so much that the driver fled on foot, leaving the horses, wagon, and passengers at the scene.  A pregnant woman, never named in reports, crossed near the churchyard at around ten o’clock in the evening and described a tall white figure rising from the tombstones that grabbed her as she ran away, which caused her to faint.  She was discovered hours later by neighbors who took her home and put her to bed.  The woman later was reported to have died from fright due to the event.

At some point, villagers determined that the ghost was actually a person covered with a sheet who was intentionally scaring people. Groups of men with pistols patrolled the streets in the hopes of catching the perpetrator.  Unfortunately, the village had so many lanes and paths leading in and out of it that it was difficult to cover every possible entrance and exit.  One member of the patrol claimed that he had seen the ghost one evening, and that it was a figure covered in a sheet or large table cloth, which the figure removed during an unsuccessful pursuit.

At this point, Thomas Milwood would become involved in a series of events that would haunt the English courts for almost two hundred years and would form the basis for the legal principles of self-defense. Milwood was a bricklayer who left his home in Hammersmith during the late evening of January 3, 1804.  He was dressed in the clothes of his trade, which were reportedly either new or impeccably laundered, being white linen trousers, a white flannel waistcoat, a white apron, and white shoes.  Milwood’s appearance was so similar to the ghost’s that he had reportedly been mistaken for it on two previous occasions due to his outfit and Milwood’s family had advised him to put a large coat on when out in public to avoid being mistaken as the ghost again.

As he was walking down Black Lion Lane, Milwood was mistaken for the ghost for the third, and this time fatal, time when he was confronted and shot by Francis Smith, a customs officer who mistook him for the “ghost” he was lying in wait for.  Smith, who had grown frustrated at the lack of success of the neighborhood watch groups, went out alone on that dark evening of January 3rd, patrolling Black Lion Lane at the same time the unfortunate Milwood was walking through.  Smith stated that he called twice to the figure but did not get a response and the figure continued to proceed towards him, causing him so much fear that he opened fire.  Once he discovered that he had shot a person, he ran for help and was reportedly upset but compliant with the police when he was arrested.

The coroner ruled that Milwood died from a single gunshot wound that went through his mouth and exited out of the back of his neck.  During the coroner’s inquest witnesses stated that the night was so dark and gloomy and the limited light in the lane was obscured further by hedges on either side so that it was difficult to see a person on the other side of the lane, which was less than four yards wide. Smith had numerous character witnesses who stated that he was gentle and mild mannered and testified in his defense that he went out that evening with good intentions and did not intend to murder any man. He stated that he was so agitated at the time that he did not know what he did.

The coroner judged the act was a “rash act of willful murder” and Smith was sent to trial at the Old Bailey.  Smith was open and admitted to killing Milwood, but insisted that it was a case of mistaken identity and he pleaded not guilty at the trial. During the case the judge was very clear as to his instructions to the jury, with the Newgate Calendar reporting that he stated:

However disgusted the jury might feel in their own minds with the abominable person guilty of the misdemeanor of terrifying the neighborhood, still the prisoner had no right to construe such misdemeanor into a capital offence, or to conclude that a man dressed in white was a ghost … 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 does not excuse. In all the circumstances of the case, no man is allowed to kill another rashly.

The jury returned a verdict that Smith was guilty of manslaughter; however, the three judges that heard the case stated that the law did not permit them to accept that verdict because there were no circumstances of the case that could reduce the crime from murder to manslaughter. The judges instructed the jury to go back and reconsider their verdict and to return one of guilty of murder or “a total acquittal from want of evidence,” and that the “prerogative of showing mercy lay in the Crown.”  The judges reasoned that in the current instance, Milwood was not even attempting to run away and, even if he had been the Hammersmith ghost, the crime committed by the ghost amounted only to the misdemeanor of nuisance that would not have attracted a capital punishment.  The jury then returned a guilty verdict and the judge immediately pronounced the defendant as guilty and sentenced him to death, which at the time meant that he would be hanged and his body would be sent to a medical college to be dissected.

There was a significant amount of public sympathy for the defendant at the time, and when the sentence was passed the Newgate Calendar reported that he “commanded the sympathy of every spectator” in court. The public interest in the case was so great, and sympathy for the defendant so pronounced, that Lord Chief Baron informed the jury after they returned their verdict that he would immediately report the case to the Crown and did this so quickly that the Crown returned a command of “respite during pleasure” before seven o’clock that evening. In a little over three weeks, Smith received a pardon from the Crown, with the condition that he be imprisoned for one year.

The death of Milwood did not kill the Hammersmith ghost and the publicity surrounding Smith’s case caused a local shoemaker, John Graham, to step forward and claim responsibility for being the ghost.  Graham claimed that he became the ghost and scared villagers to get revenge on his apprentices after they told his children scary ghost stories.  This admission appeared to put the Hammersmith ghost to rest, at least temporarily.  In 1824 new reports of the Hammersmith ghost arose, this time it was granted the super power of fire breathing.  The Hammersmith ghost was reportedly sighted until Spring-heeled Jack took its place in the public consciousness in the late 1830s.

The case exposed the issue of there being a lack of an available defense for someone who believes that their action, even violent action, is necessary and acts in good faith but is mistaken about the situation. This issue haunted the courts until 1983, when the case of R v Williams came before the Court of Appeal. The judges finally clarified the law, holding that:

In a case of self-defence, where self-defence or the prevention of crime is concerned, if the jury came to the conclusion that the defendant believed, or may have believed, that he was being attacked or that a crime was being committed, and that force was necessary to protect himself or to prevent the crime, then the prosecution have not proved their case. If however the defendant’s alleged belief was mistaken and if the mistake was an unreasonable one, that may be a peaceful reason for coming to the conclusion that the belief was not honestly held and should be rejected. Even if the jury come to the conclusion that the mistake was an unreasonable one, if the defendant may genuinely have been labouring under it, he is entitled to rely upon it.

It could be said that this finally put the ghost to rest. Unfortunately for poor Milwood, however, there are reports that his spirit still lingers in the Hammersmith pub to which he was carried after he was shot and killed.

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