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The Cock Lane Ghost
The Cock Lane Ghost - Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr Johnson’s London

Author: Paul Chambers
Publisher: Sutton
Price: £14.99
Isbn: 0750938692

A clear account of the famous haunting that wasn’t

The Cock Lane Ghost was one of the 18th century’s most celebrated hauntings. For a few months in 1762 it became a national wonder.

No matter the weather, a crowd gathered each night in the narrow City lane to witness a possible supernatural visitation, shushing one another in the hope of hearing spectral communications. At the top of the house, nobles and gentlemen gathered around the apparently sleeping figure of the landlord’s 12-year-old daughter, Betty Parsons. They might wait hours for the knocking (once for ‘Yes’, twice for ‘No’) to begin. When it did, they were uncertain of the source.

Many observers suspected the spirit was a hoax; the London populace, roused by a sensationalist press, believed it was real.

The most likely explanation is that the girl’s father instigated an extended malicious prank to harass William Kent, a former tenant with whom he had quarrelled, though a poltergeist cannot be ruled out, nor, presumably, some combination of poltergeist phenomena and fiddle.

Ultimately, the existence or otherwise of the ghost is not as intriguing as the tangle of tense relationships to which it gave life.

This is Paul Chambers’s focus.

The true story is the human one. This book presents the ghost in its social context, providing a vivid glimpse into the bustle and brutality of Hogarth’s and Johnson’s London.

William Kent, naïve but well-to-do, came to London from rural Norfolk with dreams of making his fortune. He and his wife Frances sought lodgings while they waited to move to a property in Clerkenwell.

In St Sepulchre’s Church, near Newgate, Richard Parsons engaged them in conversation and offered to rent them a room in his house in Cock Lane. For a time everything was rosy. Kent even confided that he and Frances were not married; he had eloped with his late wife’s sister.

That was his first error of judgement.

His second was to lend a substantial sum of money to Parsons, an incurable alcoholic who could not possibly pay him back. The atmosphere turned nasty when Kent started asking for repayment.

Strange knockings and scratchings began which Parsons explained as the ghost of Kent’s wife. Vague rumours of a ghost at Cock Lane circulated. Had the tenant been more sensible he would have recognised the implicit threat of publicity and written off the 12-guinea debt. Instead he threatened to sue, they argued, and Parsons evicted Kent and the pregnant Frances.

Worse was to come.

Three months later, his heavily pregnant “wife” contracted smallpox and died. The body was placed in a sealed coffin in the crypt of St John’s, Clerkenwell.

The haunting of Cock Lane soon resumed. Through a medium who happened to be an acquaintance of Parsons, the spirit revealed herself to be none other than Frances, returned to inform the world she had been poisoned by Kent and wanted him hanged for murder. The knockings grew frantic and the matter escalated into a public controversy, with Parsons able to charge gentlemen to attend the séances at his pretty daughter’s bedside while the mob bayed for Kent’s execution.

A gullible Methodist minister, John Moore, exacerbated the situation by taking the ghost’s side. Like evangelicals today, the Methodists were always keen to believe in supernatural occurrences since a good haunting encourages the conversion of the wide-eyed.

At last the Lord Mayor agreed to appoint a commission which included Dr Johnson among its notables. Johnson was subsequently ridiculed for having been credulous enough to spend a candlelit night in St John’s next to Frances’s coffin waiting to hear her spirit tap on the lid.

Betty Parsons was removed to a secure house, where she was observed hiding a wooden board under her nightdress.

At the next séance, when the spirit arrived, the blankets were pulled back, exposing the charade, and the ghost was never heard knocking again… Parsons, the Reverend Moore and the medium were sentenced to imprisonment.

Paul Chambers has studied the case for many years and writes clearly. He is an admirable guide to the crowded streets of 18th-century London and knows the colourful personalities who seemed to be everywhere then, yet nowhere now.

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