The SSPR Investigation Group met on Sunday the 15th of July, 2018 at 1.30pm until 3.30 pm in the Glasgow Theosophical Society, 17 Queens Crescent. Glasgow, G4 9BL.
The group discussed one of the main perspectives/traditions which people turn to on paranormal phenomena: Modern Spiritualism.
Innes Smith presented a talk which covered the founding of Modern Spiritualism in 1848, the first touring mediums, their formal investigation (by Michael Faraday and Sir William Crookes), spiritualist beliefs and the issues of hoaxing and fraud. It was followed by examining some famous precedents of Modern Spiritualism, such as Frederika Hauffe and the Ghost of Cock Lane.
The Ghost of Cock Lane 1761
It all began in an alley near St Paul’s called Cock Lane in a house so narrow that each of its three storeys contained just one room. The house’s owner was Richard Parsons, fond of a drink; and lodgers. Among these were a couple who lived as William Kent, a stockbroker and his ‘perceived wife’ Fanny Kent – though in fact they were not married and the woman’s surname was Lynes. She was William’s dead wife’s sister – who had come to live with him after his wife died. They stayed with Parsons for just six months in 1759, then moved out after a quarrel over money.
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 – probably so that he didn’t have to write her real name Fanny Lynes. The Lynes family were no friend to William Kent, as Fanny had given nearly all of her money to him in her will.
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 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. 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: she camped it up, summoning the ghost:
“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.
The only way to prove his innocence was find ‘Carrots’. So, on the 29th he returned with Carrots.
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.
Eventually, a proper investigation was scheduled: 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.”
The long-suffering 12 year old 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.