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True crime. Casually done.

The Hammersmith Ghost Murder

It was a cold,  foggy night in the winter of 1803, as a carriage driver guided his horses by lantern light, through the narrow country lanes of Hammersmith, England. At the time, the London borough was only a village on the city’s outskirts — one which had recently been plagued by some peculiar paranormal problems.

The clock struck one just as the carriage was passing by the tall spire of St Paul’s church, shrouded in fog, and silhouetted against the moonlight. Just then, the driver brought the horses to a sudden halt. The horses took a cautious step backwards; something was in the middle of the road: a tall, ghostly apparition, draped in white stood in their way. The driver’s face turned just as pale as the entity started moving towards them. 

Before it could close the distance, he leapt from his perch, and took off in the other direction, leaving his 16 abandoned passengers thoroughly confused. When the coachman burst through the doors of the Black Lion Inn to report his near death experience, it wouldn’t have come as much surprise to the locals. 

With a pint of ale in his still-shaking hand, he described the exact same otherworldly being which had been terrorizing the village for weeks, known simply as the Hammersmith Ghost…

The Haunting of Hammersmith

How, you might rightly ask, is some 200-year-old ghost story relevant to a show about murder, robbery, and all kinds of stricly earthly crime? Well, stick with me for a while, because what started as a case of paranormal panic would eventually end with a tragedy that would be debated in legal circles for centuries after. 

It began with the sightings of the spirit around St Paul’s church. Typically it would materialise from between the hedgerows lining the lanes and fields surrounding along Black Lion lane; sometimes it would rise up from behind the churchyard tombstones directly.

Descriptions of the spirit itself varied as well: some said he had horns, some said he often manifested draped in calves’ skin, all agreed he was creepy AF. Panic snowballed into full-blown mass hysteria, as the locals tried to make sense of the terrifying encounters, and the number of reported sightings continued to rise. 

The leading theory was that this was the restless spirit of a man who slit his own throat the year prior, and was now interred in the small graveyard at St Paul’s church. At the time it was believed that burying a suicide victim on holy ground was extremely inauspicious, as it meant their soul could never be at rest. 

Now the man was cursed to wander up and down country lanes for eternity. And judging by the reports, he was none too happy about that. It’s a good thing the coach driver had the sense to GTFO that night, because this ghost was known for sprinting after its victims; a brewer’s assistant named Thomas Groom was even caught by the spirit, which grabbed him by the throat and choked him!

Worst of all was the story of an unnamed pregnant woman, who was confronted by the Hammersmith Ghost while walking home alone. It reportedly “wrapped its spectral arms” around her, causing her to faint from shock like a Jane Austin heroine. A neighbour found the poor woman lying out in the cold hours later, and took her home: “whereupon she took to her bed and never again rose”… 

So far, so spooky. But this tale of supernatural terror was about to take a ridiculous turn straight out of a Scooby-Doo script. On December 29th, weeks after the hauntings began, a night-watchman named William Girdler was patrolling Beaver Lane, which ran down one flank of the churchyard, when the spirit’s pale form rose up from behind the tombstones, and started striding towards him.

Now, Girdler wasn’t quite as skittish as the rest of the townsfolk, on account of the fact he was strapped. He rested a hand on the pistol holstered at his hip, and shouted at the entity to identify itself. When he walked forwards to meet it, suddenly the spectre didn’t seem all that keen for a haunting; the Hammersmith Ghost turned on its ethereal heels and bolted.

Girdler gave chase across the churchyard, and noticed that the ghost didn’t have the same graceful, weightless gait you’d expect from a disembodied soul. In fact, it was running a bit clumsily, as if its legs were getting wrapped up in its own ghostly garb.

The watchman was just a few feet from catching up to the spirit as they reached the far wall of the graveyard, when the spirit threw its white shroud up into the air, and hopped over the barrier to safety. Girdler could only watch as the entity (now looking markedly less supernatural) ducked into the fields and disappeared.

All that was left of its presence was the white pile lying in the grass of the church graveyard. The watchman bent down to inspect it. 

It was an ordinary white tablecloth…

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The Ghost Hunt 

What was a restless spirit doing wearing a tablecloth, you ask? Well, if it’s not already apparent, the Hammersmith Ghost was no such thing — he was just some bored local terrorising his neighbours for fun. However, while the Haunting of Hammersmith may well have been a total farce, the danger of some KKK-looking maniac choking random strangers in the night was very real. 

Perhaps the idea of hunting down a flesh-and-blood prankster was more appealing to the men of the town than facing off against an actual ghost, because watchman Girdler was now able to boost the ranks of his neighbourhood watch. A brigade of new volunteers armed themselves, and hit the streets each night, hoping to catch the tablecloth-clad menace in the act. 

But the dirt tracks around St Paul’s church formed a warren of confusing paths which made it easy for the ghost to slip their grasp time and time again. There were never enough men to cover every exit. No matter how many nights they hunted for him, the Hammersmith Ghost remained free. All that the people living along the country lanes of Hammersmith could do was bar their doors, peer through the window shutters, and pray for the nightmare to end.

Which is why, on January 3rd, one would-be vigilante decided to take matters into his own hands. 29-year-old customs officer Francis Smith, apparently unsatisfied with the progress of the official hunt, decided to become the Paranormal Punisher. As the sun set that evening, he grabbed his blunderbuss from the wall, loaded and charged it, and steeled himself for a night of ghost hunting.

First, he would need a couple of pints for courage, as is the British way. So Francis went on down to the Black Lion Inn, and filled himself up with ale. It was around 10pm at night when the merry vigilante began patrolling the pitch-black lanes, waiting for a flash of white. 

The watchman William Girdler stumbled across Smith on his rounds about half an hour later, and promised to come back and join forces later in the night after he had cried the time — apparently people couldn’t afford clocks just yet, so it was his job to walk around shouting on the hour. Until then, Smith was all alone, creeping slowly down the dirt trails and listening for any rustling in the fields over the hedges. 

Black Lion Lane was the narrowest of all the surrounding roads: only around 4 yards wide, and flanked by tall hedges, meaning that it was dimly lit at the best of times. Now, in the depths of a winter’s night, it was pitch black; not even moonlight penetrated it, and Francis Smith struggled to even see the wisps of his own breath in front of him. He heard the distant voice of Girdler cry 11pm, then silence returned to the lane.

After another moment, footsteps. Someone was approaching from the opposite direction.

“Who goes there!?” Francis cried out. 

The footsteps grew closer: “Who are you!? I’ll shoot!” 

Then, the figure drew close enough for him to see: a tall spectre, all in white, heading straight for him. Francis’ heart dropped— he panicked, raised the shotgun to his chest, and pulled the trigger. The figure collapsed to the ground — a motionless heap of white in the middle of the lane. Francis had done it! He’d blasted the spirit right back to the afterlife, and the town of Hammersmith was saved!

Francis Smith shoots Thomas Milwood a bricklayer whose dusty appearance led to the popular belief he was a ghost

Illustration Francis Smith shoots Thomas Milwood a bricklayer whose dusty appearance led to the popular belief he was a ghost

But as the adrenaline subsided, and he looked at the figure on the ground in front of him, it began to sink in that this wasn’t a pile of ectoplasm — it was a very real, very dead human being…

An Unfortunate Encounter

Let’s rewind just a little bit to wrap our heads around exactly what we’ve just witnessed. One house before that fateful encounter on Black Lion Lane, the man lying dead on the floor — Thomas Millwood — had stopped by his family home on that very same street. Millwood had popped in to see his family for a bit, while waiting to collect his wife from a friend’s house nearby.

He came in just in time to wish his mother and father goodnight, then sat down at the kitchen table with his sister for a chat. When they heard the night watchman announcing 11 o’clock, Thomas got up to leave, not wanting to keep the missus waiting. 

At this point, it’s quite important to give a little note on what he was wearing at the time. See, Thomas was a bricklayer, and in those days that came with a very particular kind of uniform. The wine merchant John Locke, one of the first people to come running after the gunshot, described his clothes as:

“Linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him; his trowsers came down almost to the edge of his shoes.”

In other words, he was dressed head to toe in white… kind of like a ghost. Which is why he had actually been mistaken for the ghost on two separate occasions before! Once, after walking home from the pub at night, he told his mother-in-law he had a run in with a group of three young people riding a carriage. He told the guy at the reins that he was “no more a ghost than them”, and — probably in more old-fashioned vernacular — threatened to smash his nut in.

When the hunt gained momentum and armed men were prowling the streets, his mother-in-law begged him to wear a coat over his uniform, to avoid a case of mistaken identity. Millwood ignored her very prescient warning.

Which is why, as he left his family home and stepped out onto Black Lion Lane, he found himself at the mercy of a half-cut customs agent with a blunderbuss full of lead. It’s not known if Millwood was ignoring the vigilante’s hails, or if he just didn’t have time to respond before the latter opened fire.

Either way, he took a shot to the jaw for no other crime than having fantastically laundered linens…

_______________________

The Spooky Ghost Defence

As the famous Ray Parker Jr ballad goes:

When there’s something strange,

In your neighbourhood,

Who ya gonna call?

Definitely not Francis Smith, because he’ll just get smashed on ale and gun down an innocent.

Now began the messy business of deciding what to do with him.

As ridiculous as the whole situation was, Smith was quick to admit he was at fault. When the first onlookers came running down the lane, he was standing over the body, totally distraught. The wine merchant Locke told him to go home and wait to be called by the authorities, but he refused to go. 

Still in shock, he waited at the scene until they could fetch a constable to arrest him. Locke and some other men then lifted the body of Millwood out of the dirt, and carried him over to the Black Lion, where they heaved his body onto a table. A local physician was called to examine him, but nobody was under any delusions that he could be saved; Millwood was dead before he hit the ground. 

The doctor identified the entry wound on the lower left of his jaw. Apparently the bullet had passed right through and out the back of his neck, cutting through the spinal marrow on its way. The coroner would later interpret this as a deliberate, callous act of murder. 

But can you even call it murder? That requires intent, which would mean that Smith either set out with the express purpose of ending a life that night, or at least made the conscious, deliberate decision to kill another human being in the moment. Although, did he even think he was shooting at a human? Can you murder a ghost!?

The climate of fear gripping the town is definitely something we have to take into account. Perhaps the spectral paranoia got the better of him, and he genuinely believed that bullet would do little to no damage to the incorporeal attacker which had seemed to manifest out of thin air. Or maybe he was just terrified of the man beneath the tablecloth, and thought he was about to be strangled to death.

Old Bailey, London, from NW, photo by Nevilley
Old Bailey, London, from NW, photo by Nevilley. By Nevilley, is
licensed under CC-BY-SA

With all of those thoughts potentially passing through his mind within the few short seconds of the altercation, and the split second decision to shoot, it’s difficult to unpack exactly what he was thinking at the time. But nonetheless, that was the job of the jury convened at the Old Bailey on the 11th of January 1804. They were called to answer the question: can someone be fully held accountable for murder if they mistakenly believed their life to be in danger from a spooky ghost (and/or bedsheet-wearing strangler). 

His defence was that he sincerely didn’t intend to harm anyone, and his only motive that night was to lend a hand. Several townsfolk testified that he was a good, mild-mannered man with no grudge against the deceased. But on the other hand, the judge questioned his wisdom in getting smashed on ale and swanning around with a loaded shotgun, hunting for what was essentially a daft prankster:

“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.”

I mean, it’s a fair point. Had the Hammersmith Ghost himself been caught, his charges would have only amounted to minor misdemeanours for mischief. Given the relatively pedestrian nature of his crimes, a vigilante shotgun execution seems just a wee bit disproportionate. And on top of that, some believed that Smith was a little too keen to dish one out. 

The victim’s sister actually overheard the confrontation from the family home — she was the first to run out and find her brother dead at the front gate. She said that, while Smith did shout out twice, it was all within the span of just a few seconds max. Her brother might not have had time to reply, even if he wanted to, before the trigger-happy ghost hunter took his shot. 

Still, these things happen. Maybe it all went so fast because Smith was so near the gate when Millwood emerged from it, and never had time to think straight. He had plenty in court who sympathised with him, especially since the default sentence for murder was death by hanging, and mandatory dissection at a medical school (which all seems a bit much).

So that he might avoid that fate, the jury was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After deliberation, they returned to the courtroom with a verdict of manslaughter. To which the judge replied: “Manslaughter? Nobody said you could choose manslaughter. This is a murder trial. Go back to your chambers and don’t come out until you have a murder verdict for me, you simpletons.”

Because jurors aren’t allowed to just pick and choose charges as they go along. Unfortunately for our blundering ghost slayer, that meant the full weight of a guilty verdict was about to be dropped on his head. When it was announced, he broke down in tears before the court. 

Francis Smith would have an appointment with the hangman before the week was out.

_______________________

The Aftermath

Justice for Smith

But the story doesn’t quite end there. If you think death by hanging sounds like an unfair outcome for a genuine, tragic misunderstanding, you’ll be happy to hear that there was an 11th-hour intervention to rescue Smith from the gallows. As soon as the court was dismissed, Smith’s representatives began working on a plea to the highest power in the land: the Crown. 

Amazingly, they were so on the ball with this appeal that they received a stay of execution before 7pm that evening. The public interest in the case was so huge, that the powers that be were likely mulling over this clemency deal before the verdict was even handed down. 

And so just a few weeks later, Smith received the letter that would save his life: a royal pardon which reduced his sentence to one year of hard labour. Sounds like a pretty fantastic deal for shooting a man dead, whether it was accidental or not…

The Hammersmith Ghost Unmasked

That answers probably the most important question of this case, but a far more intriguing one remains: who the hell was running around terrorising people in bedsheets? It wasn’t until an American stoner and his talking Great Dane turned up in town shortly afterwards that the spectre was unmasked: it was Old Man Graham, a local shoemaker who started the local legend to get back at his apprentices.

I’m not making this up (apart from the talking dog thing) — this real-life murder case really did start off as a cartoon-level caper. The cobbler John Graham was apparently annoyed at his apprentices for telling scary ghost stories to his children, which kept them up all night. So of course, he knew the only reasonable way to get back at them was to throw a sheet over his head and scare the lads while they were on the way home from the pub. That’s the adult way to settle such disputes. 

The cobbler’s vendetta accounts for at least one or two of the sightings. As for the rest, maybe Graham got a kick out of being the ghost, and decided to make a hobby out of it. Or maybe not, seeing as it was actually him who came forward himself to pour water on his own wildfire, after public interest in the case spun out of control.

So once the legend was out of his hands, perhaps he inspired some more violent copycats, or — more likely than not — perhaps the whole thing just spiralled out of control as panic gripped the town, meaning those few limited sightings were blown way out of proportion by a tirade of baseless rumours. 

I mean, it’s pretty strange that the pregnant woman who was literally scared to death is never concretely mentioned in any court documents, and was never named. Had that actually happened, then it would have definitely factored into Smith’s trial, and Graham’s punishment (which is never mentioned in any popular records of the case, so we have to assume it was minimal).

If it really was just a case of senseless mass panic, it wouldn’t be the last to grip this superstitious little London town. From the wreckage of that last local legend, a new one was born — one which has proved to be a bit more persistent.

The Black Lion Inn still stands on that same road in Hammersmith, which was long-ago absorbed into the London metropolitan sprawl. There, you’ll find a plaque commemorating the incident of 200 years ago, and if the legend is to be believed, perhaps a more unsettling reminder of the day still remains there as well.

It’s said that the ghost of Thomas Millwood, the unfortunate bricklayer whose life was cut short on that fateful night back in 1804, is still trapped within the walls. One-time landlord Kevin Sheehy told the BBC back in 2004: 

“We do have some strange goings on in the pub. The chef lives upstairs and has been woken up half a dozen times by someone speaking his name – but there was no-one there.”

If you’re up for a little ghost hunting trip, you can pop in for a pint in the evening and see what happens. But be warned: they have a strict no blunderbuss policy, for obvious reasons…

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Wrap-up: A Ruling 180 Years in the Making 

Whether or not Thomas Millwood’s restless spirit really does haunt the Black Lion, the questions hovering over his death undeniably haunted the legal profession in the UK for a long time — almost two centuries, in fact. That’s because the matter of Smith’s guilt was never really properly resolved, meaning that for the longest time self-defence laws were a bit of a grey area in the UK. 

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the confusion was cleared up once and for all, in the case of a man who was on trial for assault. Very briefly, this defendant thought he was saving a stranger from an unprovoked attack, but in reality the man he beat down was a shop owner, who was actually trying to restrain a thief.

The ruling in that case was said to finally bring a close to that 180-year-old legal question: yes, you can use mistaken beliefs as a mitigating circumstance in your criminal defence. With that, the questions surrounding the Hammersmith Ghost were finally put to rest; lawyers and ghost hunters alike marked the ruling for its shared significance to their very divergent fields.

And most importantly, after all that time, Francis Smith was finally vindicated — I imagine his own ghost must have been pretty chuffed. As a result, we Brits are now free to slaughter each other as we please, just so long as we’re absolutely convinced the victim was actually a spectral menace from beyond the grave. 

All thanks to ludicrous local legend, a bricklayer’s immaculate laundry, and the itchy trigger finger of one of the worst ghost hunters the country has ever seen.

_______________________

Dismembered Appendices

1. One of the reasons we still know so much about this case today is because it was featured in the original true crime publication The Newgate Calendar: The Malefactors’ Bloody Register. Originally this was a simple register of executions, but eventually it spun out into one of the most popular publications of its day, with deep dives into all kinds of weird and shocking crimes that would eventually inspire a whole genre of novels (several Dickens works included). 9/10 top historians call it the ‘Casual Criminalist of its day’.

2. Twenty years after the incident of the Hammersmith Ghost, a new version of the legend started doing the rounds in the superstitious little town. This time the ghost was said to be able to breathe fire! Eventually this new version loosely evolved into Spring-Heeled Jack: an urban legend about a demonic humanoid with a superhuman leap, said to have terrorised the London area in the late 1830s. Unfortunately Francis Smith declined to bring his blunderbuss out of retirement for a showdown with the devil (but there’s a solid fan fiction in that for anyone who wants it).

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