Ghost of Cock Lane. London

Scratching Fanny - The Cock Lane Ghost

The couple who took up lodgings at the home of Richard Parsons seemed ordinary enough, but with their arrival came a series of events that left Parsons fearing for his sanity – and his life

Cock Lane is a short, curving thorough-fare in the city of London on the fringes of Smithfield. In the mid 18th century it was a slightly run down, though respectable, area containing private houses, a tavern called the Wheat Sheaf, tradesmen’s shops and a charity school. At what is now No 20 lived Richard Parsons, who drew a stipend as officiating clerk at the nearby church of St. Sepulchre, Snow Hill, and had a wife and two young daughters, the eldest, Elizabeth, being about 11 years old when the Cock Lane mystery began.

Today, Parsons would probably be considered a scandal to the church, for he was a heavy drinker with a tendency to run into debt, particularly with his accommodating friend James Franzen, landlord of the Wheat Sheaf. In 1759, however, his drinking habits were no better and no worse than those of many a minor cleric, and he kept himself solvent by taking in lodgers.

A Guinea from the reign of George the 2ndIn October of that year, Parsons met a genteel looking couple Mr and Mrs William Kent, newly up from Norfolk and looking for lodgings until their house in Clerkenwell was ready for them. Parsons was happy to take them in, particularly because William Kent, after paying for his rent in advance, lent Parsons 12 guineas, to be paid back at a guinea a month.

Soon landlord and lodger were on sufficiently terms for William to let Parsons in on his secret: he and his ‘wife’ Frances, known as Fanny, where not married. Two years previously, William had kept an inn and post office in the village of Stoke Ferry Norfolk, and had married Elizabeth Lynes, the daughter of a well-to-do grocer. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was not strong and had a difficult pregnancy, during which her sister Fanny moved in with the Kents to help to look after her.

Elizabeth died in childbirth, and her offspring died a month later. After going through this double tragedy together, William and Fanny had grown close but the law at that time forbade marriage between bereaved brothers and sisters-in-law, so the pair had decided to live in sin. Coming up to London in the summer of 1759 they decided to prove their mutual love by making will in each other’s favour. Fanny had the advantage here, for though, according to her testimony, she had ‘a bare hundred pounds’ William had ‘a considerable fortune’. Apart from half a crown to each of her two brothers and four surviving sisters, Fanny left everything she ‘ha or might expect’ to William ‘at his absolute disposal’

A Disturbed Relationship.

Sketch of an house on Cock Lane 1760 The first intimation that something was odd about the house in Cock Lane came that autumn. Kent was out of town on business and Fanny maid, Esther Carlisle, a redhead nicknamed ‘Carrots’, had been given leave. Fanny was nervous about sleeping alone and ask Richard Parsons elder daughter Elizabeth to share her four poster bed. During the few nights the pair slept together, both were awakened by a rapping noise, seemingly coming from wainscot of the bedroom. Elizabeth asked her mother about the noise and was told it was probably being made by the shoemaker next door, who was in the habit working late. When the noise began on a Sunday night, however, the family became seriously alarmed, for the cobble was absent; Parsons, the two women and Elizabeth all heard it.

The noise like ‘knuckles rapping’ went on night after night, and as the comfort of the household was disturbed, so was the relationship between William Kent and Richard Parsons. Parsons had failed to keep his agreement to repay a guinea a month to his lodger, and Kent,  who was by now ready to move into his own house in Clerkenwell, put the matter into the hand of his attorney. The Drunken Parsons, rather spitefully reacted by broadcasting the news about the Kent’s marital status, or the lack of it, to all and sundry.

In January the Kents moved to Clerkenwell, but the pleasure of setting up home together was marred by the fact that Fanny, six months pregnant, had become seriously ill. William hired a doctor and an apothecary to attend to her,and the doctor diagnosed ‘a confluent smallpox of a very virulent nature’.

To the sanctimonious Parsons, Fanny’s illness had been sent to ‘punish her for her sins’. The knocking on his wainscot had not abated, and he was beginning to form a theory about that too: it was made by the ghost of Fanny’s dead sister Elizabeth. His suspicions seemed confirmed when both he and James Franzen had a frightening experience toward the end of January.

Franzen had called at the house to see Parsons and, finding him out, had sat for a while, with Mrs Parsons and her two daughters. The persistent knocking frightened him, however, he got up to leave. As he reached for the kitchen door ‘he saw pass by him something in white seemingly in a sheet, which shot by him and up stairs.’ the vision gave off a radiance strong enough to illuminate the face of the clock in the charity school across the street.

Frazen, thoroughly, alarmed, ran back to fortify himself with brandy at the Wheat Sheaf and no sooner had he raised his glass when he heard a thunderous knocking at his front door. When he steeled himself to open it he found Parsons, white faced and stammering on the door step.

‘Give me the largest glass of brandy that you have’  demanded the cleric. ‘Oh Frazen! As I was going into my house just now I have seen the ghost.’

‘And so did I!’ replied the landlord. ‘And have been greatly frightened ever since. Bless me! What can be the meaning of it? its very unaccountable.’

Meanwhile there was alarm of of a different kind in Clerkenwell, for Fanny Kent was dying. An Acquaintance of William’s the Reverend Stephen Aldrich of St. Johns Clerkenwell, and the doctor and apothecary sat with her night and day. In the last 50 hours of her life she could take nothing more than a little liquid, prepared by the apothecary and administered by the doctor. On the evening of 2nd February 1760 Fanny died.

William Kent was distraught with grief and ordered a decent coffin ‘both lined and covered’ but for fear of prosecution he asked the undertaker not to put a name plate on the lid; the risk was minimal, but never-less it was an offence to live to together falsely as man and wife. Fanny was laid to rest in the 12th Century vaults of St. John’s, as her family fumed over the provisions in her will.

The rappings at Cock Lane continued; indeed, two new lodgers there, Catherine Friend and Joyce Weatheral, later testified that they had left the house rather than suffer them further. Frustrated and frightened, Parsons called in a carpenter, Bateman Griffiths, to strip away the wainscot to seek the cause of the trouble; nothing was found and the panelling was replaced. Then Parsons called in the Reverend John Moore, rector of St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield to investigate the supernatural possibilities.

Poltergeist On Trial

Richard Parsons was becoming seriously alarmed by the mysterious noises at his home in Cock Lane. The strange rapping’s had continued for several months an no natural explanation could be found for them. Moore was a follower of John Wesley, who himself was no stranger to the paranormal. In 1715 Wesley’s family home had been troubled by a ‘knocking spirit’  and his farther, the Reverend Samuel Wesley, had ‘communicated’ with it by knocking back.John Wesley, who himself was no stranger to the paranormal.

Moore, told of Parson’s theories as to the origin of the phenomena – he know believed that the ghost to be that 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 ‘spirits’ wishes. The Wesley ghost had centred itself upon Hetty Wesley, Johns younger sister, and the Cock Lane ghost now orientated itself upon the person of the 11 year old Elizabeth Parsons.

Moore’s most productive sessions where 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 cats’s claws scratching over a cane chair’ – and it became know 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 nearly a year later that he heard of the continuing saga at Cock Lane through a series of articles in the Public Ledger news sheet. Terrified by ‘ghost’s’ accusations – which were now, of course, public knowledge – he called upon the Reverend Moore. Reverend 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 asked, at Moore’s instigation, whether or not 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 have never said such a thing.’

By this time the Ghost of ‘Scratching Fanny’ had become a matter of enormous public interest, and the crowds on foot and 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 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 new 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, to see what would happen. The knockings accompanied her, seeming to show she, and not the 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.

Get the Offical Ghost of Cock Lane Book HereBy this time 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 suffer from 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 the 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 an official 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 trouble for his predecessor 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. Johns  Clerkenwell.

Aldrich, to make sure 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 Oaks, a Hospital matron, Dr. George Macaulay, a society physician, two or three gentlemen and Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Dr.Samuel Johnson helped investigate the Ghost of Cock LaneJohnson 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 Kent’s coffin to ‘prove’ its objective of William Kent, who seemed an honest and decent man.

The ‘Committee of Gentleman’, 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’s coffin to prove its objective existence. A preliminary seance was held, and the ghost agreed to these conditions.

The Test

On the evening of 1st February 1762 Elizabeth was put to bed at Aldrich’s house, attended by the matron, Mrs Oakes, and another woman. 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 keeps its promise  by knocking on the coffin ‘but nothing more than silence ensued… its 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 an higher cause.’ One or two more seances followed, but the affair was nearing its end. On the 3rd of February, a large gathering saw a curtain rod spin violently of its own violation, and heard a knocking of such violence, high up in the chimley ‘that they thought it would have broke it all to pieces’ Finally, Elizabeth’s was told she had only one more night, 21st February, to prove her innocence, ‘otherwise she and her father and mother would be sent to Newgate.’

This final session was held at the house of a gentleman names Missiter in Convert Garden and this time, perhaps unexpectedly there were positive results. The child was seen creeping from her bed to pick up a piece of wood which she subsequently made knocking sounds. But Missiter and his companions agreed that this blatant piece of fraud produced sounds nothing like those produced and previously heard: Elizabeth was naturally, terrified for her freedom.

The tide had turned in Kent’s favour on the 5th of 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 – particular 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 Farmers Return’, at Drury Lane theatre.’

The Trial Begins

On the 10th July the ‘Conspirators’ were brough to 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 servent, the doctor and the apothercary all gave evidence, while several people spoke up for Parsons.

After a trial lasting only a day, the accused were found guilty. The Revered Moore was heavily fined, Parsons was sentenced to to two years imprisonment and three sessions in the pillory, and his wife to one years jail. Elizabeth Parsons did not stand trial, and was apparently not 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, that much 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 knockings from the wainscot, a good distance from Elizabeths bed.

A Twist In The Tale

And the manifestation them selves entering on a young, pubescent girl who had epileptic tendencies, closely echo modern cases held by parapsychologists to be ‘genuine’. Perhaps the ‘interpretation’ of the Cock Lane rapping’s was only the fault of Parsons and Moore, or the ‘ghost’ had a point after all. The coffins were cleared from the vaults of the St. Johns 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 the lantern the sextons boy who had accompanied  Archer had opened the coffin said to be that of ‘Scratching Fanny’ and shown to him the body within. The face was that was once of a handsome woman, with a pronounced aquiline nose: ‘an uncommon case,’ wrote Archer, ‘for the cartilage mostly gives way. The remains 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.

Loves a good ghost story, especially whilst sat in front of an open log fire on a cold and dark winters night.

2 Comments on "Ghost of Cock Lane. London"

  1. trudy says:

    Great post makes for an interesting read 🙂

    • Thanks Trudy,
      Glad you enjoyed the read, don’t forget you can buy the book and read the full historic account, just look for the book image in the post or from the left hand menu.

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