The Cock Lane Ghost
The quaint old London church of St. Sepulchre's could not by any stretch
of the imagination be called a fashionable place of worship. It stood in
a crowded quarter of the city, and the gentry were content to leave it
to the small tradesfolk and humble working people who made up its
parish. Now and again a stray antiquarian paid it a fleeting visit; but,
speaking generally, the coming of a stranger was so rare as to be
accounted an event.
It is easy, then, to understand the sensation occasioned by the
appearance at prayers one morning, in the year of grace, 1759, of a
young and well dressed couple whose natural habitat was obviously in
quite other surroundings. As they waited in the aisle--the man tall,
erect, and easy of bearing, the woman fair and graceful--there was an
instant craning of necks and vast nudging of one's neighbor; and long
after they had seated themselves a subdued whispering bore further, if
unnecessary, testimony to the curiosity they had aroused.
Probably no one felt a more lively interest than did the parish clerk,
who, in showing them to a pew, had noted the tenderness with which they
regarded each other. It needed nothing more to persuade him that they
were eloping lovers, and that a snug gratuity was as good as in his
pocket. All through the service he fidgeted impatiently in the shadows
near the door, and as soon as the congregation was dismissed and he
perceived that the visitors were lingering in their places, he hurried
forward and accosted them. His name, he volubly explained, was Parsons;
he was officiating clerk of the parish; likewise master in the charity
school nearby. No doubt they would like to inspect the church, perhaps
to visit the school; it might even be they were desirous of meeting the
pastor? He would be delighted if he could serve them in any way.
"Possibly you can," said the man, "for you doubtless know the
neighborhood like a book. My name is Knight, and this lady is my wife.
We--" He stopped short at sight of the changed expression on the
other's face, and breesquely demanded, "How now, man? What are you
"No offense, sir, no offense," stammered the disappointed and
embarrassed clerk. "I beg your pardon, sir and madam."
There was an awkward pause before the man began again. "As I was saying,
my name is Knight and this lady is my wife. We have only recently come
to London and are in search of lodgings. If you know of any good place
to which you can recommend us, we shall be heartily obliged to you."
Whatever he was, Clerk Parsons was not a fool, and these few words
showed him plainly that he was face to face with a mystery. Elopers or
no, such a well born couple would not from choice bury themselves in
this forbidding section of London. With a cunning fostered by long years
of precarious livelihood, he at once resolved to profit if he could from
"I fear, sir," said he, "that I know of no lodgings that would be at all
suitable for you. We are poor folk, all of us, and--"
"If you are honest folk," interrupted the lady, with an enchanting
smile, "we ask no more."
Her husband checked her with a gesture and a look that was not lost on
the now all-observing clerk, though it was long before he understood its
"We are willing to pay a reasonable charge, and shall require only a
bed-room and a sitting-room. If possible, we should prefer to be where
there are no other lodgers."
"In that case," responded the clerk, with an eagerness he could scarcely
veil, "I can accommodate you in my own house. It is simple but
commodious, and I can answer that my wife will deal fairly by you."
"What think you, Fanny?" asked the man, turning to his wife.
"We can at least go and see."
This they immediately did, and to Clerk Parsons's joy decided to make
their home with him. Nor did their coming gladden the clerk alone. His
wife and children, two little girls of nine and ten, from the moment
they saw the "beautiful lady" conceived a warm attachment for her. Her
geniality, her kindliness, her manifest love for her husband, appealed
to their sympathies, as did the sadness which from time to time clouded
her face. If, like Parsons himself, they soon became convinced that she
and her husband shared some momentous secret, they could not bring
themselves to believe that it involved her in wrongdoing. For the
husband too they entertained the friendliest feelings. He was of a
blunt, outspoken disposition and perhaps a trifle quick tempered, but he
was frank and liberal and sincerely devoted to his wife. For all in the
household, therefore, the days passed pleasantly; and when Mrs. Parsons
one fine spring morning discovered her fair guest in tears she felt that
time had established between them relations sufficiently confidential to
warrant her motherly intervention.
"Come, my dear," said she, "I have long seen that something is troubling
you. Tell me what it is, that I may be able to comfort, perhaps aid
"It is nothing, good Mrs. Parsons, nothing. I am very foolish. I was
thinking of what would become of me if anything should happen to my
"Dear, dear! and nothing will. But you could then turn to your
"I have no relatives."
"What, my dear, are they all dead?"
"No," in a solemn tone, "but I am dead to them."
In a voice shaken by sobs, she now unfolded her story, and pitiful
enough it was. She was, it appeared, the sister of Knight's first wife,
who had died in Norfolk leaving a new born child that survived its
mother only a few hours. At Knight's request she then went to keep house
for him, and presently they found themselves very much in love with each
other. But in the canon law they discovered an insuperable obstacle to
marriage. Had the wife died without issue, or had her child not been
born alive, the law would have permitted her, even though a "deceased
wife's sister," to wed the man of her choice. As things stood, a
legitimate union was out of the question. Learning this, they resolved
to separate; but separation brought only increased longing. Thence grew
a rapid and mutual persuasion that, under the circumstances, it would be
no sin to bid defiance to the canon law and live together as man and
wife. This view not finding favor with their relatives, and becoming
apprehensive of arrest and imprisonment, they had fled to London and had
hidden themselves in its depths. Surely, she concluded, with a
desperate intensity, surely fair-minded people would not condemn them;
surely all who knew what true love was would feel that they could not
have acted otherwise?
This confession, though it did not in the least diminish her landlady's
regard for her, worked indirectly in a most disastrous way. Whether
driven by necessity, or emboldened by the belief that his lodgers were
at his mercy, the clerk soon afterward approached Knight for a small
loan; and, obtaining it, repeated the request on several other
occasions, until he had borrowed in all about twelve pounds. Payment he
postponed on one pretext and another, until the lender finally lost all
patience and informed him roundly that he must settle or stand suit.
Then followed an interchange of words that in an instant terminated the
pleasant connection of the preceding months. Parsons was described as
"an impudent scoundrel who would be taught what honesty meant." Parsons
described himself as "knowing what honesty meant full well, and needing
no lessons from a fugitive from justice." White with rage, Knight
bundled his belongings together, called a hackney coach, and within the
hour had shaken the dust of Cock Lane from his feet, finding new
lodgings in Clerkenwell and at once haling his whilom landlord to the
A little time, and all else was forgotten in the serious illness of his
beloved Fanny. At first the physician declared that the malady would
prove slight; but she herself seemed to feel that she was doomed. "Send
for a lawyer," she urged; "I want to make my will. It is little enough I
have, God knows; but I wish to be sure you will get it all, dear
To humor her, the will was drawn, and now it developed that the disease
which had attacked her was smallpox in its worst form. No need to dwell
on the fearful hours that followed, the fond farewells, the lapsing into
a merciful unconsciousness, the death. They buried her in the vaults of
St. John's Clerkenwell, and from her tomb her husband came forth to give
battle to the relatives who, shunning her while alive, did not disdain
to seek possession of the small legacy she had left him. In this they
failed, but scarcely had the smoke of the legal canonading cleared away,
before he was called upon to meet a new issue so unexpected and so
mysterious that history affords no stranger sequel to tale of love.
The first intimation of its coming and of its nature was revealed to
him, as to the public generally, by a brief paragraph printed in a mid
January, 1762, issue of The London Ledger:
"For some time past a great knocking having been heard in the night, at
the officiating parish clerk's of St. Sepulchre's, in Cock Lane near
Smithfield, to the great terror of the family, and all means used to
discover the meaning of it, four gentlemen sat up there last Friday
night, among whom was a clergyman standing withinside the door, who
asked various questions. On his asking whether any one had been
murdered, no answer was made; but on his asking whether any one had been
poisoned, it knocked one and thirty times. The report current in the
neighborhood is that a woman was some time ago poisoned, and buried at
St. John's Clerkenwell, by her brother-in-law."
Instantly the city was agog, and for the next fortnight The Ledger,
The Chronicle, and other newspapers gave much of their space to
details of the pretended revelations, though they were careful to refer
to names by blanks or initials only.[H] These accounts informed their
readers that the knocking had first been heard in the life time of the
deceased when, during the absence of her supposed husband, she had
shared her bed with Clerk Parsons's oldest daughter; that she had then
pronounced it an omen of her early death; that it did not occur again
until after she had died; that, if the soi-disant spirit could be
believed, the earlier knocking had been due to the agency of her dead
sister; and that, in her own turn, she had come back to bring to justice
the villain who had murdered her for the little she possessed. In
commenting on this amazing story, the papers were prompt to point out
that the knocking was heard only in the presence of the afore-mentioned
daughter, now a girl of twelve; and while one or two, like The
Ledger, inclined to credence, the majority followed The Chronicle in
denouncing the affair as an "imposture."
The outraged husband, as may be imagined, lost not a moment in demanding
admission to the seances which were proceeding merrily under the
direction of a servant in the Parsons family and a clergyman of the
neighborhood. He found that the method practised was to put the girl to
bed, wait until the knocking should begin, and then question the alleged
spirit; when answers were received according to a code of one knock for
an affirmative and two knocks for a negative. It was in his presence,
then, though not at a single sitting, that the following dialogue was in
this way carried on:
"Are you Miss Fanny?"--"Yes."
"Did you die naturally?"--"No."
"Did you die by poison?"--"Yes."
"Do you know what kind of poison it was?"--"Yes."
"Was it arsenic?"--"Yes."
"Was it given to you by any person other than Mr. Knight?"--"No."
"Do you wish that he be hanged?"--"Yes."
"Was it given to you in gruel?"--"No."
Here a spectator interrupted with the remark that the deceased was never
known to drink beer, but had been fond of purl, and the question was
"Was it not in purl?"--"Yes."
"How long did you live after taking it?"--Three knocks, held to mean
"Did Carrots" (her maid) "know of your being poisoned?"--"Yes."
"Did you tell her?"--"Yes."
"How long was it after you took it before you told her?" One knock, for
Here was something tangible, and Knight went to work with a will to
refute the terrible charge brought by the invisible accuser. As reported
in The Daily Gazetteer, which had promised that "the reader may expect
to be enlightened from time to time to the utmost of our power in this
intricate and dark affair," the maid Carrots was found, and from her was
procured a sworn statement that Mrs. Knight had said not a word to her
about being poisoned; that, indeed, she had become unconscious twelve
hours before her death and remained unconscious to the end. The
physician and apothecary who had attended her made affidavit to the same
effect, and described the fatal nature of her illness. It was further
shown that her death at most benefited Knight by not more than a hundred
pounds, of which he had no need, as he was of independent means.
Altogether, he would seem to have cleared himself effectually. Still the
knocking continued, and night after night the accusation was repeated.
He now resorted, therefore, to a radical step to convince the public
that he was the victim of a monstrous fraud.
Asserting that little Miss Parsons herself produced the mysterious
sounds, and that she did so at the instigation of her father, he secured
an order for her removal to the house of a friend of his, a Clerkenwell
clergyman. Here a decisive failure was recorded against the ghost. It
had promised that it would knock on the coffin containing Mrs. Knight's
remains; and about one o'clock in the morning, after hours of silent
watching, during which the spirit gave not a sign of its presence, the
entire company adjourned to the church. Only one member was found of
sufficient boldness to plunge with Knight into the gloomy depths where
the dead lay entombed; and that one bore out his statement that never a
knock had been heard. The girl was urged to confess, but persisted in
her assertions that the ghost was in nowise of her making.
Afterward, when the knocking had been resumed under more favorable
auspices, word came from the unseen world that the fiasco in the church
was ascribable to the very good reason that Knight had caused his wife's
coffin to be secretly removed. "I will show them!" cried the desperate
man. With clergyman, sexton, and undertaker, he visited the vaults once
more and not only identified but opened the coffin.
Meanwhile all London was flocking to Cock Lane as to a raree-show, on
foot, on horseback, in vehicles of every description. Some, like the
celebrated Dr. Johnson who took part in the coffin opening episode in
Clerkenwell, were animated by scientific zeal; but idle curiosity
inspired the great majority. The gossiping Walpole, in a letter to his
friend Montagu, has left a graphic picture of the stir created by the
"I went to hear it," he writes; "for it is not an apparition but an
audition. We set out from the opera, changed our clothes at
Northumberland House, 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 in torrents; yet the lane was full of mob, and the house
so full we could not get in; at last they discovered it was the Duke of
York, and the company squeezed themselves into one another's pockets to
make room for us. The house, which is borrowed, and to which the ghost
has adjourned, is wretchedly small and miserable; 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 to whom the ghost
comes, and whom they are murdering by inches in such insufferable heat
and stench. At the top of the room are clothes to dry. I asked if we
were to have rope dancing between the acts. We heard nothing; they told
us (as they would at a puppet show) that it would not come that night
till seven in the morning, that is, when there are only prentices and
old women. We stayed, however, till half an hour after one."
The skepticism patent in this letter was shared by all thinking men.
Letter after letter of criticism, even of abuse, was poured into the
newspapers. No less a personage than Oliver Goldsmith wrote, under the
title of "The Mystery Revealed," a long pamphlet which was intended both
to explain away the disturbances and to defend the luckless Knight. The
actor Garrick dragged into a prologue a riming and sneering reference to
the mystery; the artist Hogarth invoked his genius to deride it. Yet
there were believers in plenty, and there even seem to have been some
who thought of preying on the credulous by opening up a business in
"On Tuesday last," one reads in The Chronicle, "it was given out that
a new knocking ghost was to perform that evening at a house in Broad
Court near Bow Street, Covent Garden; information of which being given
to a certain magistrate in the neighborhood, he sent his compliments
with an intimation that it should not meet with that lenity the Cock
Lane ghost did, but that it should knock hemp in Bridewell. On which the
ghost very discreetly omitted the intended exhibition."
Whether or no he took a hint from this publication, it is certain that,
finding all other means failing, Knight now resolved to try to lay by
legal process the ghost that had rendered him the most unhappy and the
most talked of man in London. Going before a magistrate, he brought a
charge of criminal conspiracy against Clerk Parsons, Mrs. Parsons, the
Parsons servant, the clergyman who had aided the servant in eliciting
the murder story from the talkative ghost, and a Cock Lane tradesman.
All of these, he alleged, had banded themselves together to ruin him,
their malice arising from the quarrel which had led him to remove to
Clerkenwell and enter a lawsuit against Parsons. The girl herself he did
not desire punished, because she was too young to understand the evil
that she wrought. Warrants were forthwith issued, and, protesting their
innocence frantically, the accused were dragged to prison.
Their conviction soon followed, after a trial of which the only
obtainable evidence is that it was held at the Guildhall before a
special jury and was presided over by Lord Mansfield. Then, "the court
desiring that Mr. K----, who had been so much injured on this occasion,
should receive some reparation,"[I] sentence was deferred for several
months. This enabled the clergyman and the tradesman "to purchase their
pardon" by the payment of some five hundred or six hundred pounds to
Knight. But the clerk either would not or could not pay a farthing, and
on him and his, sentence was now passed. "The father," to quote once
more from the meager account in The Annual Register, "was ordered to
be set in the pillory three times in one month, once at the end of Cock
Lane, and after that to be imprisoned two years; Elizabeth his wife, one
year; and Mary Frazer, six months to Bridewell, and to be kept there to
hard labor." Thus, in wig and gown, did the law solemnly and severely
place the seal of disbelief on the Cock Lane ghost; which, it is worth
observing, seems to have vanished forever the moment the arrests were
* * * * *
But, looking back at the case from the vantage point of chronological
distance and of recent research into kindred affairs, it is difficult to
accept as final the verdict reached by the "special jury" and concurred
in by the public opinion of the day. It is preposterous to suppose that
for so slight a cause as a dispute over twelve pounds Clerk Parsons and
his associates would conspire to ruin a man's reputation and if possible
to take his life; and still more preposterous to imagine that they would
adopt such a means to attain this end. Of course, they may have had
stronger reasons for being hostile to Knight than appears from the
published facts. Yet it is significant that when the clerk was placed in
the pillory he seemed to "be out of his mind," and so evident was his
misery that the assembled mob "instead of using him ill, made a handsome
collection for him."
The more likely, nay the only defensible solution of the problem, is
that he, his fellow sufferers, and Knight himself were one and all the
victims of the uncontrollable impulses of a hysterical child. The case
bears too strong a resemblance to the Tedworth and Epworth disturbances
to admit of any other hypothesis. Not that the Parsons girl is to be
placed on exactly the same footing as the Mompesson children and Hetty
Wesley, and held to some extent responsible for the mischievous
phenomena she produced.
On the contrary, the more one studies the evidence the stronger grows
the conviction that in her we have a striking and singular instance of
"dissociation." She was, it is very evident, strongly attached to the
unfortunate Mrs. Knight, doubtless felt keenly the separation from her,
and, whether consciously or subconsciously, would cherish a grudge
against Knight as the cause of that separation. The news of Mrs.
Knight's death would come as a great shock, and might easily act, so to
speak, as the fulcrum of the lever of mental disintegration. Then, dimly
enough at first but soon with portentous rapidity, her disordered
consciousness would conceive the idea that her friend had been murdered
and that it was her duty to bring the slayer to justice. From this it
would be an easy step to the development, in the neurotic child, of a
full fledged secondary personality, akin to that found in the
spiritistic mediums of later times.
Now, for the first time, her faculties would seem to her astonished
parents to be in the keeping and under the control of an extraneous
being, a departed, discarnate spirit; and in this error she and they
would be confirmed by the suggestions and foolish questions of those who
came to marvel. It needed another great shock--there being in those days
no Janet or Prince or Sidis to take charge of the case--the shock of
the arrest and imprisonment of her parents, to effect at least partial
reintegration and the consequent disappearance of the secondary self,
the much debated, malevolent Cock Lane ghost.
Next: The Ghost Seen By Lord Brougham
Previous: The Visions Of Emanuel Swedenborg