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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 22968

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Cock Lane Ghost

The quaint old London church of St. Sepulchre's could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a fashionable place of worship. It stood in a crowded quarter of the city, and the gentry were content to leave it to the small tradesfolk and humble working people who made up its parish. Now and again a stray antiquarian paid it a fleeting visit; but, speaking generally, the coming of a stranger was so rare as to be accounted an event.

It is easy, then, to understand the sensation occasioned by the appearance at prayers one morning, in the year of grace, 1759, of a young and well dressed couple whose natural habitat was obviously in quite other surroundings. As they waited in the aisle-the man tall, erect, and easy of bearing, the woman fair and graceful-there was an instant craning of necks and vast nudging of one's neighbor; and long after they had seated themselves a subdued whispering bore further, if unnecessary, testimony to the curiosity they had aroused.

Probably no one felt a more lively interest than did the parish clerk, who, in showing them to a pew, had noted the tenderness with which they regarded each other. It needed nothing more to persuade him that they were eloping lovers, and that a snug gratuity was as good as in his pocket. All through the service he fidgeted impatiently in the shadows near the door, and as soon as the congregation was dismissed and he perceived that the visitors were lingering in their places, he hurried forward and accosted them. His name, he volubly explained, was Parsons; he was officiating clerk of the parish; likewise master in the charity school nearby. No doubt they would like to inspect the church, perhaps to visit the school; it might even be they were desirous of meeting the pastor? He would be delighted if he could serve them in any way.

"Possibly you can," said the man, "for you doubtless know the neighborhood like a book. My name is Knight, and this lady is my wife. We-" He stopped short at sight of the changed expression on the other's face, and breesquely demanded, "How now, man? What are you gaping at?"

"No offense, sir, no offense," stammered the disappointed and embarrassed clerk. "I beg your pardon, sir and madam."

There was an awkward pause before the man began again. "As I was saying, my name is Knight and this lady is my wife. We have only recently come to London and are in search of lodgings. If you know of any good place to which you can recommend us, we shall be heartily obliged to you."

Whatever he was, Clerk Parsons was not a fool, and these few words showed him plainly that he was face to face with a mystery. Elopers or no, such a well born couple would not from choice bury themselves in this forbidding section of London. With a cunning fostered by long years of precarious livelihood, he at once resolved to profit if he could from their need.

"I fear, sir," said he, "that I know of no lodgings that would be at all suitable for you. We are poor folk, all of us, and-"

"If you are honest folk," interrupted the lady, with an enchanting smile, "we ask no more."

Her husband checked her with a gesture and a look that was not lost on the now all-observing clerk, though it was long before he understood its significance.

"We are willing to pay a reasonable charge, and shall require only a bed-room and a sitting-room. If possible, we should prefer to be where there are no other lodgers."

"In that case," responded the clerk, with an eagerness he could scarcely veil, "I can accommodate you in my own house. It is simple but commodious, and I can answer that my wife will deal fairly by you."

"What think you, Fanny?" asked the man, turning to his wife.

"We can at least go and see."

This they immediately did, and to Clerk Parsons's joy decided to make their home with him. Nor did their coming gladden the clerk alone. His wife and children, two little girls of nine and ten, from the moment they saw the "beautiful lady" conceived a warm attachment for her. Her geniality, her kindliness, her manifest love for her husband, appealed to their sympathies, as did the sadness which from time to time clouded her face. If, like Parsons himself, they soon became convinced that she and her husband shared some momentous secret, they could not bring themselves to believe that it involved her in wrongdoing. For the husband too they entertained the friendliest feelings. He was of a blunt, outspoken disposition and perhaps a trifle quick tempered, but he was frank and liberal and sincerely devoted to his wife. For all in the household, therefore, the days passed pleasantly; and when Mrs. Parsons one fine spring morning discovered her fair guest in tears she felt that time had established between them relations sufficiently confidential to warrant her motherly intervention.

"Come, my dear," said she, "I have long seen that something is troubling you. Tell me what it is, that I may be able to comfort, perhaps aid you."

"It is nothing, good Mrs. Parsons, nothing. I am very foolish. I was thinking of what would become of me if anything should happen to my husband."

"Dear, dear! and nothing will. But you could then turn to your relatives."

"I have no relatives."

"What, my dear, are they all dead?"

"No," in a solemn tone, "but I am dead to them."

In a voice shaken by sobs, she now unfolded her story, and pitiful enough it was. She was, it appeared, the sister of Knight's first wife, who had died in Norfolk leaving a new born child that survived its mother only a few hours. At Knight's request she then went to keep house for him, and presently they found themselves very much in love with each other. But in the canon law they discovered an insuperable obstacle to marriage. Had the wife died without issue, or had her child not been born alive, the law would have permitted her, even though a "deceased wife's sister," to wed the man of her choice. As things stood, a legitimate union was out of the question. Learning this, they resolved to separate; but separation brought only increased longing. Thence grew a rapid and mutual persuasion that, under the circumstances, it would be no sin to bid defiance to the canon law and live together as man and wife. This view not finding favor with their relatives, and becoming apprehensive of arrest and imprisonment, they had fled to London and had hidden themselves in its depths. Surely, she concluded, with a desperate intensity, surely fair-minded people would not condemn them; surely all who knew what true love was would feel that they could not have acted otherwise?

This confession, though it did not in the least diminish her landlady's regard for her, worked indirectly in a most disastrous way. Whether driven by necessity, or emboldened by the belief that his lodgers were at his mercy, the clerk soon afterward approached Knight for a small loan; and, obtaining it, repeated the request on several other occasions, until he had borrowed in all about twelve pounds. Payment he postponed on one pretext and another, until the lender finally lost all patience and informed him roundly that he must settle or stand suit. Then followed an interchange of words that in an instant terminated the pleasant connection of the preceding months. Parsons was described as "an impudent scoundrel who would be taught what honesty meant." Parsons described himself as "knowing what honesty meant full well, and needing no lessons from a fugitive from justice." White with rage, Knight bundled his belongings together, called a hackney coach, and within the hour had shaken the dust of Cock Lane from his feet, finding new lodgings in Clerkenwell and at once haling his whilom landlord to the debtors' court.

A little time, and all else was forgotten in the serious illness of his beloved Fanny. At first the physician declared that the malady would prove slight; but she herself seemed to feel that she was doomed. "Send for a lawyer," she urged; "I want to make my will. It is little enough I have, God knows; but I wish to be sure you will get it all, dear husband."

To humor her, the will was drawn, and now it developed that the disease which had attacked her was smallpox in its worst form. No need to dwell on the fearful hours that followed, the fond farewells, the lapsing into a merciful unconsciousness, the death. They buried her in the vaults of St. John's Clerkenwell, and from her tomb her husband came forth to give battle to the relatives who, shunning her while alive, did not disdain to seek possession of the small legacy she had left him. In this they failed, but scarcely had the smoke of the legal canonading cleared away, before he was called upon to meet a new issue so unexpected and so mysterious that history affords no stranger sequel to tale of love.

The first intimation of its coming and of its nature was revealed to him, as to the public generally, by a brief paragraph printed in a mid January, 1762, issue of The London Ledger:

"For some time past a great knocking having been heard in the night, at the officiating parish clerk's of St. Sepulchre's, in Cock Lane near Smithfield, to the great terror of the family, and all means used to discover the meaning of it, four gentlemen sat up there last Friday night, among whom was a clergyman standing withinside the door, who asked various questions. On his asking whether any one had been murdered, no answer was made; but on his asking whether any one had been poisoned, it knocked one and thirty times. The report current in the neighborhood is that a woman was some time ago poisoned, and buried at St. John's Clerkenwell, by her brother-in-law."

Instantly the city was agog, and for the next fortnight The Ledger, The Chronicle, and other newspapers gave much of their space to details of the pretended revelations, though they were careful to refer to names by blanks or initials only.[H] These accounts informed their readers that the knocking had first been heard in the life time of the deceased when, during the absence of her supposed husband, she had shared her bed with Clerk Parsons's oldest daughter; that she had then pronounced it an omen of her early death; that it did not occur again until after she had died; that, if the soi-disant spirit could be believed, the earlier knocking had been due to the agency of her dead sister; and that, in her own turn, she had come back to bring to justice the villain who had murdered her for the little she possessed. In commenting on this amazing story, the papers were prompt to point out that the knocking was heard only in the presence of the afore-mentioned daughter, now a girl of twelve; and while one or two, like The Ledger, inclined to credence, the majority followed The Chronicle in denouncing the affair as an "imposture."

The outraged husband, as may be imagined, lost not a moment in demanding admission to the séances which were proceeding merrily under the direction of a servant in the Parsons family and a clergyman of the neighborhood. He found that the method practised was to put the girl to bed, wait until the knocking should begin, and then question the alleged spirit; when answers were received according to a code of one knock for an affirmative and two knocks for a negative. It was in his presence, then, though not at a single sitting, that the following dialogue was in this way carried on:

"Are you Miss Fanny?"-"Yes."


Did you die naturally?"-"No."

"Did you die by poison?"-"Yes."

"Do you know what kind of poison it was?"-"Yes."

"Was it arsenic?"-"Yes."

"Was it given to you by any person other than Mr. Knight?"-"No."

"Do you wish that he be hanged?"-"Yes."

"Was it given to you in gruel?"-"No."

"In beer?"-"Yes."

Here a spectator interrupted with the remark that the deceased was never known to drink beer, but had been fond of purl, and the question was hastily put:

"Was it not in purl?"-"Yes."

"How long did you live after taking it?"-Three knocks, held to mean three hours.

"Did Carrots" (her maid) "know of your being poisoned?"-"Yes."

"Did you tell her?"-"Yes."

"How long was it after you took it before you told her?" One knock, for one hour.

Here was something tangible, and Knight went to work with a will to refute the terrible charge brought by the invisible accuser. As reported in The Daily Gazetteer, which had promised that "the reader may expect to be enlightened from time to time to the utmost of our power in this intricate and dark affair," the maid Carrots was found, and from her was procured a sworn statement that Mrs. Knight had said not a word to her about being poisoned; that, indeed, she had become unconscious twelve hours before her death and remained unconscious to the end. The physician and apothecary who had attended her made affidavit to the same effect, and described the fatal nature of her illness. It was further shown that her death at most benefited Knight by not more than a hundred pounds, of which he had no need, as he was of independent means.

Altogether, he would seem to have cleared himself effectually. Still the knocking continued, and night after night the accusation was repeated. He now resorted, therefore, to a radical step to convince the public that he was the victim of a monstrous fraud.

Asserting that little Miss Parsons herself produced the mysterious sounds, and that she did so at the instigation of her father, he secured an order for her removal to the house of a friend of his, a Clerkenwell clergyman. Here a decisive failure was recorded against the ghost. It had promised that it would knock on the coffin containing Mrs. Knight's remains; and about one o'clock in the morning, after hours of silent watching, during which the spirit gave not a sign of its presence, the entire company adjourned to the church. Only one member was found of sufficient boldness to plunge with Knight into the gloomy depths where the dead lay entombed; and that one bore out his statement that never a knock had been heard. The girl was urged to confess, but persisted in her assertions that the ghost was in nowise of her making.

Afterward, when the knocking had been resumed under more favorable auspices, word came from the unseen world that the fiasco in the church was ascribable to the very good reason that Knight had caused his wife's coffin to be secretly removed. "I will show them!" cried the desperate man. With clergyman, sexton, and undertaker, he visited the vaults once more and not only identified but opened the coffin.

Meanwhile all London was flocking to Cock Lane as to a raree-show, on foot, on horseback, in vehicles of every description. Some, like the celebrated Dr. Johnson who took part in the coffin opening episode in Clerkenwell, were animated by scientific zeal; but idle curiosity inspired the great majority. The gossiping Walpole, in a letter to his friend Montagu, has left a graphic picture of the stir created by the newspaper reports.

"I went to hear it," he writes; "for it is not an apparition but an audition. We set out from the opera, changed our clothes at Northumberland House, the Duke of York, Lady Northumberland, Lady Mary Coke, Lord Hertford, and I, all in one hackney coach, and drove to the spot; it rained in torrents; yet the lane was full of mob, and the house so full we could not get in; at last they discovered it was the Duke of York, and the company squeezed themselves into one another's pockets to make room for us. The house, which is borrowed, and to which the ghost has adjourned, is wretchedly small and miserable; when we opened the chamber, in which were fifty people with no light but one tallow candle at the end, we tumbled over the bed of the child to whom the ghost comes, and whom they are murdering by inches in such insufferable heat and stench. At the top of the room are clothes to dry. I asked if we were to have rope dancing between the acts. We heard nothing; they told us (as they would at a puppet show) that it would not come that night till seven in the morning, that is, when there are only prentices and old women. We stayed, however, till half an hour after one."

The skepticism patent in this letter was shared by all thinking men. Letter after letter of criticism, even of abuse, was poured into the newspapers. No less a personage than Oliver Goldsmith wrote, under the title of "The Mystery Revealed," a long pamphlet which was intended both to explain away the disturbances and to defend the luckless Knight. The actor Garrick dragged into a prologue a riming and sneering reference to the mystery; the artist Hogarth invoked his genius to deride it. Yet there were believers in plenty, and there even seem to have been some who thought of preying on the credulous by opening up a business in "knocking ghosts."

"On Tuesday last," one reads in The Chronicle, "it was given out that a new knocking ghost was to perform that evening at a house in Broad Court near Bow Street, Covent Garden; information of which being given to a certain magistrate in the neighborhood, he sent his compliments with an intimation that it should not meet with that lenity the Cock Lane ghost did, but that it should knock hemp in Bridewell. On which the ghost very discreetly omitted the intended exhibition."

Whether or no he took a hint from this publication, it is certain that, finding all other means failing, Knight now resolved to try to lay by legal process the ghost that had rendered him the most unhappy and the most talked of man in London. Going before a magistrate, he brought a charge of criminal conspiracy against Clerk Parsons, Mrs. Parsons, the Parsons servant, the clergyman who had aided the servant in eliciting the murder story from the talkative ghost, and a Cock Lane tradesman. All of these, he alleged, had banded themselves together to ruin him, their malice arising from the quarrel which had led him to remove to Clerkenwell and enter a lawsuit against Parsons. The girl herself he did not desire punished, because she was too young to understand the evil that she wrought. Warrants were forthwith issued, and, protesting their innocence frantically, the accused were dragged to prison.

Their conviction soon followed, after a trial of which the only obtainable evidence is that it was held at the Guildhall before a special jury and was presided over by Lord Mansfield. Then, "the court desiring that Mr. K--, who had been so much injured on this occasion, should receive some reparation,"[I] sentence was deferred for several months. This enabled the clergyman and the tradesman "to purchase their pardon" by the payment of some five hundred or six hundred pounds to Knight. But the clerk either would not or could not pay a farthing, and on him and his, sentence was now passed. "The father," to quote once more from the meager account in The Annual Register, "was ordered to be set in the pillory three times in one month, once at the end of Cock Lane, and after that to be imprisoned two years; Elizabeth his wife, one year; and Mary Frazer, six months to Bridewell, and to be kept there to hard labor." Thus, in wig and gown, did the law solemnly and severely place the seal of disbelief on the Cock Lane ghost; which, it is worth observing, seems to have vanished forever the moment the arrests were made.

But, looking back at the case from the vantage point of chronological distance and of recent research into kindred affairs, it is difficult to accept as final the verdict reached by the "special jury" and concurred in by the public opinion of the day. It is preposterous to suppose that for so slight a cause as a dispute over twelve pounds Clerk Parsons and his associates would conspire to ruin a man's reputation and if possible to take his life; and still more preposterous to imagine that they would adopt such a means to attain this end. Of course, they may have had stronger reasons for being hostile to Knight than appears from the published facts. Yet it is significant that when the clerk was placed in the pillory he seemed to "be out of his mind," and so evident was his misery that the assembled mob "instead of using him ill, made a handsome collection for him."

The more likely, nay the only defensible solution of the problem, is that he, his fellow sufferers, and Knight himself were one and all the victims of the uncontrollable impulses of a hysterical child. The case bears too strong a resemblance to the Tedworth and Epworth disturbances to admit of any other hypothesis. Not that the Parsons girl is to be placed on exactly the same footing as the Mompesson children and Hetty Wesley, and held to some extent responsible for the mischievous phenomena she produced.

On the contrary, the more one studies the evidence the stronger grows the conviction that in her we have a striking and singular instance of "dissociation." She was, it is very evident, strongly attached to the unfortunate Mrs. Knight, doubtless felt keenly the separation from her, and, whether consciously or subconsciously, would cherish a grudge against Knight as the cause of that separation. The news of Mrs. Knight's death would come as a great shock, and might easily act, so to speak, as the fulcrum of the lever of mental disintegration. Then, dimly enough at first but soon with portentous rapidity, her disordered consciousness would conceive the idea that her friend had been murdered and that it was her duty to bring the slayer to justice. From this it would be an easy step to the development, in the neurotic child, of a full fledged secondary personality, akin to that found in the spiritistic mediums of later times.

Now, for the first time, her faculties would seem to her astonished parents to be in the keeping and under the control of an extraneous being, a departed, discarnate spirit; and in this error she and they would be confirmed by the suggestions and foolish questions of those who came to marvel. It needed another great shock-there being in those days no Janet or Prince or Sidis to take charge of the case-the shock of the arrest and imprisonment of her parents, to effect at least partial reintegration and the consequent disappearance of the secondary self, the much debated, malevolent Cock Lane ghost.


[H] It is proper to observe that the name Knight given to the leading actor in this singular drama rests on inference merely. Doubtless from a fear of libel suits, the contemporary newspapers and magazines speak of him only as Mr. --, or Mr. K--, there being, so far as the present writer has been able to discover, only one publication (The Gentleman's Magazine) so bold as to refer to him as Mr. K--t. Nowhere is his identity made clear. Judging from the prominence of those who rushed to his defense, he would seem to have been a person of considerable importance.

[I] The Annual Register for 1762.

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