"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Ghost of Cock Lane: Partly Truth and Partly Fiction?

"Illustrated Police News," 1883


It is ironic that one of Britain’s most well-known spook stories, “The Cock Lane Ghost,” is famous not because it was proved to be a genuine haunting, but because it was officially labeled as a cruel hoax.

The “official” version of any story, is, of course, not necessarily the correct one…

The saga had its roots in the marriage of a young moneylender, William Kent, to a lady named Elizabeth Lynes. So far as we know, the marriage was a happy one, but it ended sadly with Elizabeth’s death in childbirth. The Lynes ladies, in fact, so suited Kent that after he became a widower, he entered into a liaison with his wife’s sister, Frances. As canon law forbade their marriage, in 1759 the two simply moved to Greenwich, where they were strangers, and settled down there under the pretense of being husband and wife. They found lodgings in the home of Richard Parsons, the parish clerk.

For a while, at least, relations between the Kents and the Parsons were quite cordial. Parsons also became a client of Kent, borrowing twelve guineas from him that he was to repay at the rate of one guinea a month. This seemingly innocuous transaction went on to figure highly in the upcoming trouble. Frances (commonly known as “Fanny,”) became so fond of Parsons’ eleven year old daughter Elizabeth that, one night when Kent was away, she had the girl come sleep with her for companionship.

This is where things began to get weird. Throughout the night, the pair found their sleep disturbed by loud and peculiar noises in their room, which Fanny described as a combination of rapping and scratching. The next day, Parsons suggested the noises came from a neighboring shoemaker industrious enough to work the night through. However, when a few days later Fanny heard the same noises—even louder than before—on a Sunday night, when even the most hard-working cobblers must rest, everyone realized something unusual was afoot. A visiting neighbor reported seeing a strange white figure drifting through the Parsons home. (This same neighbor, James Franzen, reportedly later heard the ghostly knockings in his own bedchamber.)

From then on, the noises were heard off and on at various volumes, always in the same room where the girl Elizabeth slept. The strange phenomenon became the subject of some talk in the neighborhood, but other than that no action was taken.  Fanny feared the sounds were caused by the spirit of her sister Elizabeth, angered at Fanny's irregular relationship with Elizabeth's husband.

Shortly after the manifestations started, Kent and Parsons quarreled, and the moneylender and his lady moved to other lodgings.  Some weeks later, in February 1760, the pregnant Fanny came down with what was diagnosed as smallpox, and died.

After the Kents moved out, the Parsons family heard no more of the strange noises, and they undoubtedly shrugged it off as “just one of those things.” At the time of the two families had parted company, Parsons still owed Kent three guineas. As he neglected to pay the outstanding amount, Kent took him to court. Shortly after he collected this debt, in January 1762, the strange noises started up again, even more loudly and vehemently than before. Again, the sounds centered in young Elizabeth Parsons’ bedroom.

It was now that the family decided they must have a ghost on their hands. By means of various reciprocal taps and scratches, they held communication of sorts with their strange visitor, and through this means, elicited the message that their “ghost” was none other than Fanny Lynes, wanting the world to know that William Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

The news that “Scratching Fanny,” as she came to be called, was trying to get justice from beyond the grave eventually spread throughout the neighborhood, then to all of London, then Britain as a whole, and finally to the continent. Fanny became a posthumous superstar.

People began to recall that before her death, Fanny had made a will leaving everything she owned to Kent. They remembered with even more interest than when Fanny’s sister Ann had arrived for the funeral, she was much perturbed to find that she had been unable to take one last look at her sister, as the coffin lid was already screwed down shut. She had been even more upset about Fanny’s will, suggesting that it had been something Kent engineered in order to rob Fanny’s surviving siblings, “who had all lived in perfect harmony until this unhappy affair happened.” Legal problems involving Fanny’s estate even compelled one of her brothers, John, to take Kent to court.

Many people began to be very interested in Mr. William Kent.

“Scratching Fanny” was taken so seriously that one evening, a squadron of twenty or so clergymen got together to “interview” her. Amid a sound that resembled the rustling of wings—a new addition to the program—she told her clerical audience that the fatal poison had been administered to her in “purl” three hours before her death, and that her former maid, Eleanor “Carrots” Carlisle, could tell them more about her murder. (When questioned, “Carrots” stated that she had no reason to suspect Fanny’s death had been unnatural, and that her former mistress and Kent appeared “very loving, and lived very happy together.”)

It was not long before Horace Walpole was describing Fanny as “the reigning fashion.” Although he thought her a rather paltry sort of ghost, he felt obligated to call on the Parsons, “for it is as much the mode to visit the ghost as the Prince of Mecklenburg, who is just arrived.”

I wonder what the Prince would have made of the comparison.

For some time, very many people had quite a good bit of fun with this novelty act, but eventually the more cynical members of society took the upper hand. They pointed out that Fanny’s “fortune” amounted to only about a hundred pounds—not, they reasoned, worth poisoning her over. The doctor who attended her last illness declared unequivocally that she had died of smallpox. And when it was learned that “Scratching Fanny” made her accusations against Kent right after he had successfully sued his former landlord, it began to look very like it was not a ghost, but Parsons himself, who sought revenge.

Suddenly, public opinion became as eager to discredit the “haunting” as it had been to champion it. The Lord Mayor directed that little Elizabeth Parsons, the central figure of the story, be removed from her parents and subjected to a close examination. (Among the committee appointed to examine the story was Dr. Samuel Johnson.) The results were inconclusive, but by this point, London’s intelligentsia was eager to seize upon anything they could to crush what they saw as the ridiculous superstition of spiritualism. In short, people were now as blindly, rigidly skeptical as they had earlier been blindly, rigidly credulous. For several nights, Elizabeth’s bed was swung up like a hammock over the floor, and her hands and feet were tied all night. No noises were heard during those nights, which led many to assume the girl was nothing but a common trickster. Her questioners badgered the child to confess that she herself was responsible for all the “ghostly” manifestations, and when she persisted in maintaining her innocence, she was told that if she did not make the ghost heard within half an hour, she and her parents would be sent to Newgate.

The terrified girl pleaded to be allowed to go to her bed to see if that would bring on the noises. That night was again a silent one. On being told that she would only get one more night before being imprisoned, the inevitable happened. The poor desperate child hid a board in her bed, and, when she thought no one was looking, began to scratch and knock upon it. She was found out, of course, and, even though those observers who had heard “Scratching Fanny’s” previous manifestations agreed that the sounds in no way resembled Elizabeth’s pitiful imitations, this was still seen as irrefutable proof that the whole “ghost story” was a giant fraud.

The “ghost,” the sophisticates said, was nothing but a naughty child and a piece of wood. Because, after all, what intelligent person believes in ghosts. Another victory for the forces of reason!



The now-vindicated William Kent had the satisfaction of seeing charges of conspiracy brought against the Parsons family, as well as several other people who had championed “Scratching Fanny.” After a trial of twelve hours, they were all found guilty. Richard Parsons, who continually maintained his innocence, was sentenced to three periods in the pillory, as well as two years imprisonment. (While he was in the stocks, a sympathetic crowd passed the hat and collected “a handsome subscription” for his benefit.) Mrs. Parsons got one year. Others involved in the so-called conspiracy got sentences varying from six months of hard labor to fines of various amounts.

And thus the Cock Lane Ghost was put to rest. Most modern accounts of the episode take it for granted that it was indeed nothing but a ridiculous fraud engineered by a vindictive family. In the sense that there is no other reason to suspect Fanny Lynes was murdered, the ghost was not legitimate. However, it does appear that there was something genuinely weird going on in the Parsons home. For one thing, it was acknowledged that Elizabeth’s efforts to mimic “Scratching Fanny” sounded nothing like the sounds heard before. Then there is the fact that on an earlier night, Elizabeth’s bed had been thoroughly searched before she was put to bed. However, when she was lying in the bed, it began shaking violently, from no discernible cause. And, it was never satisfactorily explained how a ghost was seen and heard by an independent party before Fanny died, or how the noises were first heard from the living Fanny Lynes herself.

Also, could the Parsons family really have been so murderously vengeful over the loss of three guineas that they did not even rightfully own that they would take the stupid gamble of completely inventing a ghost aimed, one presumes, at sending an innocent man to the gallows for murder?

Whatever the truth might have been about the “Cock Lane Ghost,” it may well have been a bit more complicated than we think.

2 comments:

  1. It sounds like everyone was punished in one form or another, most probably not deserving it. I liked your line, "people were now as blindly, rigidly skeptical as they had earlier been blindly, rigidly credulous." It's sometimes forgotten that being a bigoted zealot in the right cause is still being a bigoted zealot.

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  2. Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane is still guaranteed to get a laugh every time she's mentioned, but I've noticed that the story has been taken more seriously in recent years on London ghost tours.

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