Who was the mysterious figure lurking in the graveyard?
In late 1803, there were disturbing reports of a sinister ghost haunting a graveyard in Hammersmith, west London.
Locals talked of a figure dressed in white, with horns and a glass eye. They said that a spectre would emerge from the shadows to moan, wail and writhe in of front passers-by.
A pregnant woman reported being physically attacked as she walked by the churchyard. Another appearance caused a wagon driver to abandon his horse and passengers.
Locals thought the ghost was a man who’d committed suicide by cutting his own throat the previous year, and had been buried in Hammersmith churchyard. People believed at the time that suicide victims should not be buried in consecrated ground, as their souls wouldn’t be at rest.
As London didn’t have an organised police force at the time, a group of men formed themselves into armed patrols to try and apprehend the ghost. They included a 29-year-old excise officer called Francis Smith.
On 3 January 1804, at approximately 11pm, Smith was patrolling the area when he spotted what he thought was the ghost, dressed all in white. Challenging the apparition, he demanded to know his identity. No answer came, yet the spook advanced towards Smith. Believing he was to be the ghost’s next victim, he reached for his gun and shot the figure.
At first, Smith must have been relieved. He thought he had stopped the Hammersmith spook in his tracks. But on closer inspection he could see that his victim was not a ghost at all. It was a man and he was dead.
He was later identified as Thomas Millwood, 29, a plastererer who’d been walking home dressed in the white apron and trousers of his trade.
Smith was charged with willful murder.
What followed was one of the most curious legal wrangles in British criminal history. During the trial at the old Bailey, Smith’s defence raised the question of whether a man could be blamed for his actions if he used force as a result of an unreasonable but mistaken belief.
They said Smith was acting in good faith believing he was stopping the Hammersmith ghost.
One witness, a Mrs Fullbrooke, said she had previously warned Thomas Millwood to cover his white clothing on his walk home as he had already been mistaken for a ghost on a previous occasion.
She stated, ‘he said he had frightened two ladies and a gentleman who were coming along the terrace in a carriage.’
Mrs. Fullbrook said she begged Thomas to change his dress or to put on a coat when walking home. Tragically, Thomas did not listen.
Throughout the trial the jury heard many examples of Smith’s good character. However chief judge, Lord Chief Baron MacDonald advised the jury that the state of his character was irrelevant. The law stated malice was not required for murder, merely an intent to kill.
After considering for an hour the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. Judge MacDonald refused to accept this and said they must believe Smith guilty of murder or acquit him.
The jury reconsidered and returned with a verdict of guilty.
After passing an initial sentence of hanging and dissection, MacDonald reported the case to the King, who had the power to commute the sentence. By royal pardon the sentence was changed to a year’s hard labour.
Revenge of the shoemaker
But after the distraction of the court case, one question remained. Was the real Hammersmith Ghost still at large?
Then a shoemaker named John Graham came forward, saying it was he who was donning a white sheet and stalking the graveyard. He was doing it in revenge against his apprentices who had terrified his children by telling them ghost stories.
But the story doesn’t end there. Because it is said the Black Lion pub is haunted to this day by the spirit of Thomas Millwood. His body was taken there after the killing.
He likes to whisper patrons’ names in their ears, tap them on the shoulder and make loud bangings and footsteps in the rooms above the bar. One owner believed he had even felt Thomas Millwood walk right through him one evening – a cold breeze chilling him all the way to his bones.
So it seems that after being mistaken for a ghost, Thomas Millwood may have become one…