In November and December 1803, reports began circulating in the parish of Hammersmith to the west of London, that a terrifying ghostly apparition was being encountered by men and women as they made their way along the district’s dark thoroughfares by night.
Some witnesses said that it was attired in a white sheet, whilst others said that it wore the skin of an animal, a calf’s hide, or something of that nature.
However, the story, when it was reported in the daily newspaper – a bit like the much later Plaistow Ghost story of 1889 – caused a sensation, and it wasn’t long before groups of young men, armed with pistols and rifles, were wandering the dark lanes of Hammersmith by night determined to lay the troublesome spectre once and for all.
THE HAMMERSMITH GHOST VIDEO
THE JANUARY GHOST HUNT
Amongst the ghost hunters was a twenty-nine-year-old Excise officer by the name of Francis Smith.
On the night of the 3rd of January 1804, he armed himself with a fowling piece and headed out into the dark of Black Lion Lane to search for the wraith that had been causing so much trouble in the parish.
At the same time, twenty-two-year-old Thomas Milwood, a bricklayer by trade, had just left his parents’ house on Black Lion Lane to go and meet his wife who was ironing at the house of the local outrider.
Thomas was dressed in his usual work attire, which consisted of white canvas trousers, a white apron, a white waistcoat, and a white shirt.
A TRAGIC AFFAIR
At Black Lion Lane’s junction with Beaver lane, the two men came face to face, and Francis Smith, who had, according to contemporary reports, partaken of a liberal amount of dutch courage in one of the district’s taverns, was convinced he was in the presence of the Hammersmith Ghost.
“Damn you,” cried Smith, “Who are you? What are you? Damn you, I will shoot you.”
The “ghost” made no reply, but instead, advanced towards him; and the terrified Smith raised his fowling-piece, pulled the trigger, and shot Thomas Milwood dead.
SENT FOR TRIAL
Smith then went to alert the night watchman, William Girdler, that he had shot the ghost.
Hurrying to the scene, Girdler found the body of Thomas Milwood, lying face up in the dark lane, quite dead. He told Smith to go back to his lodgings, which Smith did.
Girdler and several other men then carried the lifeless body to the Black Lion Inn.
At the inquest into Thomas Milwood’s death, which was held at the Black Lion, the jury found that the victim had been wilfully murdered by Francis Smith, and the Coroner ordered him to stand trial at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey.
SENTENCED TO DEATH
At his trial, Smith was found guilty of murder, and the Recorder duly sentenced him to death, albeit a stay of execution was then obtained and, a few weeks later, Smith received His Majesty’s Pardon on the condition he serve a year in prison.
You can read a full transcript of Francis Smith’s trial at the Old Bailey Online resource.