It all began in an alley near St Paul’s called Cock Lane (pictured today, right), in a house so narrow that each of its three storeys contained just one room. The house’s owner was Richard Parsons; he was a church clerk with an excessive fondness for drink, and he shared his home with his family and a succession of lodgers from whom he frequently borrowed money which he rarely repaid. Among these were a couple who lived as William and Fanny Kent – though in fact they were not married and the woman’s surname was Lynes. They stayed with Parsons for just six months in 1759, then moved out after a quarrel over money. Although it was Kent who had lent Parsons money and lost it, Parsons was the one who seemed to hold the greater grudge over it: Kent had threatened him with the law and he resented this uncompromising attitude.
William and Fanny stayed temporarily with a neighbour after their eviction, and it was whilst there that Fanny suddenly fell ill with what was diagnosed as smallpox. A few days later, on 2 February 1760, she died of it. Kent had her buried in a coffin without a nameplate – a rather odd circumstance which he later explained by saying that he had wanted to avoid either revealing her unmarried status or, if he gave her his own name, exposing himself to attack by her relatives. And indeed, he did have good reason to be fearful of the Lynes family; Fanny had almost entirely cut them out of the will, leaving everything to Kent, and they were determined to do anything they could to discredit him.
Two years went by; then, in the early days of 1762, a newspaper called the Public Ledger suddenly issued a series of sensational gossip pieces concerning Fanny’s death. The smallpox diagnosis had been a fraud; the truth was that she had been poisoned by her ‘husband’ William Kent, who had slipped arsenic into her drink. Moreover, this information came from none other than the ghost of the murdered woman herself, appearing at her former lodgings in Cock Lane (pictured below) and communicating with the world through a system of coded knocks. Curious readers were invited to seek more information from Parsons’ neighbour and friend, a clergyman named John Moore.
Alarmed, Kent called on Moore at once, and was told that the phenomenon was concentrated upon Parsons’ eldest daughter, 12-year old Elizabeth, and usually occurred in her room while she was asleep. Many people had heard Fanny scratching and knocking, and a local publican had even seen a glowing figure flit past him on the stairs. Elizabeth herself had seen the ghost, too, and described it as having no hands and wearing a shroud. Usually, however, there was no visible apparition at all: there were only noises. Simple questions could be called out to the ghost, and she would answer using a simple code: one knock for yes, two knocks for no.
Moore suggested that Kent visit the ghost himself, and Kent agreed – his only hope of clearing his name was to flush out the story and prove it to be a fraud. And so, on 12 January 1762, he and Moore called on Parsons together. They found Elizabeth in bed in the top floor bedroom, surrounded by a huddle of journalists, church officials, ghost enthusiasts and nosy-parkers of all sorts. Also in the room was a servant named Mary Frazer: it was her job to convey the questions and interpret the sounds which came in reply. She threw herself into this role with abandon, running around the room and raucously wailing, “Fanny, Fanny, why don’t you come? Do come, pray Fanny, come; dear Fanny, come!” For a long time the ghost did not answer, and in the end Moore sent everyone out of the room for a few minutes while he successfully raised it himself by stamping on the floor.
The first question to Fanny was: “Did you die naturally?” There was no noise or movement from the bed where Elizabeth lay, but two clear knocks were heard from the walls of the room – meaning “no”.
“Was it by poison?” There was one knock: “yes”.
“Did any person other than Mr Kent administer it?” Two knocks for no.
Fanny was asked how the poison was given, and by choosing from a list of alternatives replied that it had been put into her purl, a mixture of hot beer and gin that was popular at the time. “How long did you live after receiving it?” Three knocks: one for each hour.
Did ‘Carrots’ (Fanny’s former maid) know of the poisoning? Yes; she did.
“Should Mr Kent be arrested?” Yes.
One of the men in the room called out: “Kent, ask the ghost if you’ll be hanged!” The ghost knocked once for yes; Kent leaped angrily to his feet and shouted: “You are a lying spirit! You are not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said any such thing.” The ghost replied with a flurry of angry scratches, and the séance fell apart in scenes of disorder.
Newspapers reported the event with relish, and dubbed the ghost “Scratching Fanny”. By the following evening a mob of sensation-seekers was assembled around the house, jostling for space and trying to bluster or buy their way inside. After one or two nights like this a miniature economy grew up around Cock Lane: local publicans thrived on the extra trade, street hawkers sold food and drink, and the canniest entrepreneurs of all made money by simply selling positions near the door. In the attempt to pin the accusation down to something concrete, Kent seized on the spirit’s only truly testable claim: that she had told ‘Carrots’ of the poisoning. If Carrots denied this, the whole story would lose credibility. He therefore had Carrots traced to her new household and brought to visit the ghost herself on 19 January.
As usual, there were about 20 observers in the room. Elizabeth was put to bed, and Mary Frazer began her usual warm-up: “Fanny, Fanny, are you coming, Fanny?” In a new enhancement, she banged on the walls as she ran around the room. Moore asked her to desist and leave, but a sharp scratch of protest was heard from Fanny, followed by a long sulking silence even after Mary had been brought back. Once again everyone had to wait outside while Moore coaxed the spirit into talking. At last the knocking resumed and the audience were retrieved; Fanny was asked whether Carrots knew about the murder. She gave one knock in reply.
“If Carrots and her master were taken up and carried before a magistrate, would they confess?” There was one knock, followed by a noise like wings fluttering – a sign that the ghost was happy. Carrots herself asked Fanny, “Are you my mistress?” A single knock was heard for yes, but then the fluttering sounds were again replaced by irritable scratching. “Are you angry with me, Madam?” asked Carrots. There was one sharp knock.
“Then I am sure, Madam, you may be ashamed of yourself.” Carrots turned and declared to the others in the room that she had never heard Fanny breathe a word about any poisoning before her death – indeed, she had been unable to speak at all in the last four days of her life.
By this time Cock Lane was so jammed with crowds every night that higher-class stickybeaks could barely squeeze through in their coaches. There was a carnival atmosphere, as the onlookers enjoyed “all the good-humour which the spending one night with novelty inspires.” 1 The writer and socialite Horace Walpole visited the house and described his experience in a letter to a friend: “We set out from the Opera… 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 torrents; yet the lane was full of mob, and the house so full we could not get in; at last… the company squeezed themselves into one another’s pockets to make room for us… 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… whom they are murdering by inches in such insufferable heat and stench. At the top of the room are ropes to dry clothes. I asked if we were to have rope-dancing between the acts.” To everyone’s disappointment, no noises were heard at all, and the visitors were told to expect nothing until around seven in the morning. Walpole gave up long before then, and his party left with an air of amused disdain.2
Another writer, Oliver Goldsmith, also gave a vivid account of a typical séance: “The spectators… sit looking at each other, suppressing laughter, and wait in silent expectation for the opening of the scene. As the ghost is a good deal offended at incredulity, the persons present are to conceal theirs if they have any, as by this concealment they can only hope to gratify their curiosity. For if they show, either before or when the knocking is begun, a too prying inquisition, or ludicrous style of thinking, the ghost continues usually silent, or to use the expression of the house, Miss Fanny is angry.” The crowds were now so impossible that Parsons arranged for Elizabeth to be regularly moved from house to house. Poltergeist-like, the ghost followed her wherever she went.
Eventually, a proper investigation was scheduled to be held at the house of one Stephen Aldrich, conducted by a committee of experts – the most notable being the great and grave Dr Samuel Johnson. Others included the matron of a local maternity hospital, an eminent physician, an impostor-buster who had already exposed many frauds, and for some reason a trigger-happy eccentric named Captain Wilkinson who had turned up at a previous séance with a gun and a big stick – the gun for firing into the knocking sound and the stick for beating his way out if there was any trouble; fortunately no noises were heard on that occasion. The event was a double bill. First, the committee tried to speak to the ghost as usual in the room where Elizabeth was sleeping. Fanny declined to respond, although Elizabeth told her visitors that she felt the spirit “like a mouse, upon her back.” Then the group proceeded to the vault where Fanny was buried, and the ghost was asked to knock on her own coffin for dramatic effect. This, too, was greeted with silence. In his report for the Gentleman’s Magazine, Johnson concluded: “It 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 any higher cause.”
Johnson’s reaction to the ghost was to be frequently misunderstood, largely because of a mischievous caricature in a play by Charles Churchill. As ‘Pomposo’, Johnson was portrayed as falling for the ghost completely and spouting his belief with great airs of superiority and grandeur. In fact, this was merely a glorious act of revenge by the playwright, whose previous play had been badly reviewed by Johnson. Many years later Boswell still felt the need to defend his hero against the ‘Pomposo’ image: “So far was he from being the dupe of implicit faith, that he examined the matter with a jealous attention, and no man was more ready to refute its falsehood when he had discovered it.” Boswell did admit, however, that in later years Johnson became a little too fond of relating “with much satisfaction, how he had assisted in detecting the cheat, and had published an account of it in the news-papers.” 3
The attack on Johnson was not the only one to be inspired by ‘Scratching Fanny’. There were satirical songs with titles like ‘Cock-Lane Humbug’, the actor David Garrick performed a humorous interlude on the topic, and verses in the London Chronicle related how Fanny “began her old pranks, /With a furious scratching with one of the planks.” Another ballad mocked the involvement of the sinister Reverend Moore:
“I come, quoth the Parson, whatever may hap,
For the Sake of my Country I’ll stand in the Gap:
But prepare me a Bed, and a pretty young Maid,
For it is by this Means that the Ghost must be laid.” 4
The long-suffering Elizabeth, who was now showing increasing signs of mental derangement, was still being shunted around from place to place. Each householder was free to examine her and listen for the ghost in whatever way he pleased. At one of these houses, that of a Mr Missiter, she was subjected to a particularly gruelling investigation. For several nights she was tied with ropes, or held down by a maid, or confined in tight hammocks, but she always managed to slip out of the restraints somehow and the noises continued. At last Missiter told her that she had just one more night to prove her innocence, and if she failed she and her parents would all be sent to prison. She was then put to bed, and servants watched her through peep holes in the wall. Sure enough, Elizabeth crept out and removed from the chimney a short board on which a tea kettle normally stood, took it back to bed, and rapped on it to make the noises – although they did sound somewhat different from usual, a fact later adduced by her defenders. She was woken up, and tearfully admitted that she had resorted to trickery this time – but only because she was so terrified of being sent to prison.
By spring, Kent felt he had enough evidence to take the case to court, and he filed a lawsuit for conspiracy against Parsons together with his wife, John Moore, and Mary Frazer. The case was heard on 10 July at the King’s Bench, in front of a huge crowd. Kent produced ‘Carrots’, several doctors who had attended Fanny on her deathbed, and quantities of people who testified that the noises had stopped whenever Elizabeth was closely watched or restrained. The defendants countered with other people who had heard the knocking even when cheating seemed impossible, and who were convinced of the ghost’s reality. Then, when all the evidence had been heard, the jury went into a huddle to discuss it. (Juries did not normally retire at that time). It took just 15 minutes for them to reach a verdict – guilty.
Parsons and Moore were ordered to pay fines and compensation to Kent, and Mrs Parsons and Mary Frazer both received short prison sentences. True to form, Parsons never got around to paying a penny, and so eight months later he was given a further sentence of two years in Newgate and three sessions in the public pillory. Many people must have believed in his innocence, however, for each time he stood in the pillory he was not only spared the traditional pelting with stones and rotten eggs, but even had a collection taken up for him.
And so the case passed into history, and was almost forgotten until it was included in Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions in the mid-19th century. Mackay’s illustrator, JW Archer, had the coffin opened in search of new evidence – and shockingly reported that there were no signs of smallpox on Fanny’s body, and that the face was perfectly preserved in a way that was typical of arsenic poisoning. No further investigations took place, and the coffins were disposed of 10 years later, so this account could never be checked. An added complication is that, since the coffin was unnamed, he could well have had the wrong body.
Although it has usually been written off as a case of fraud, some writers have continued to find room for doubt, particularly those interested in poltergeist phenomena, of which it has all the hallmarks. The exact mechanism of deception was never conclusively discovered – if one assumes that the noise made at Missiter’s house was indeed different. In fact, this was almost certainly not the usual method, for most witnesses described the knocking as coming from the walls rather than the bed. If it was a fraud, an accomplice must have been making the noises from outside. Elizabeth’s mother or younger siblings are all likely suspects, since they were rarely present; Richard Parsons himself and Moore were generally in the room – but the latter’s habit of sending all the spectators away every so often is suspicious, to say the least.
What of motive? Mere resentment over an old financial squabble hardly seems adequate for such an elaborate plot – although it has also been pointed out that Parsons stood to make a great deal from selling ‘tickets’ to the séances, and that he may have received pay-offs from the traders outside the door as well. Moore, too, was probably making a profit, since there is no other reason why he should have been involved. But if it was more than just a basic financial scam, then an interesting possibility is that the Lynes family were behind it. After all, if Kent had been convicted of murder, Fanny’s will would have been overturned and the fortune would have reverted to the people they felt were the rightful heirs – themselves.
Whatever the true story, the Cock Lane ghost was such an outstanding source of entertainment in 1762 that it won pride of place among the many fanciful impostures and frauds that festooned that most theatrical of centuries. Even at the time, cultural pundits understood that the interest aroused by the case was not merely a sign of popular gullibility, for as Oliver Goldsmith observed, “even the vulgar” were sure that it was a trick, and their curiosity had less to do with the supernatural phenomenon itself than with how such a thing could be done, and why it should be done. It was, quite simply, a good yarn. And although there is still room (as there always is) for fortean doubt, these questions of how and why are the ones that continue to intrigue us now.
Unfortunately, they are questions to which we are unlikely ever to know the answers.