Writing Portfolio

21.11.16

Dr Johnson and the 'ghost' of Cock Lane

If there’s one thing London has in abundance, it’s ghost stories – I was merely scratching the surface when I did an article on who London’s ghosts are last month. In fact, London is said to be one of the most haunted cities in the world. The historian Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: The Biography, has even described London as “a spectral city, so filled with imitations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants”. Traditionally, Londoners have tended to be a credible lot when it comes to ghosts, and nowhere is this better displayed than in one of the most famous London ghost stories of them all, the tale of the Cock Lane ghost.

This story was the media sensation of its day (1762), and a few years ago a book – The Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr Johnson’s London by Paul Chambers – was published about it. The sub-title gives a hint as to why the story so fascinated people at the time, and it’s well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy.


The titular Cock Lane – “narrow, steep and surrounded by towering buildings that place it in almost permanent shade” – was and remains a small street near Smithfield Market, and it was there that the story began in 1759 when a couple calling themselves William and Fanny Kent took up lodgings in the home of Richard Parsons – a clerk at the local church, appropriately enough given his name, but also an alcoholic and a debtor. The couple were not all they seemed. Not only were they not married, they were actually forbidden from marrying by law, he having previously been married to her sister, who had died (one of the reasons why they’d moved to London had been to get away from her family, who had disapproved of the marriage in the first place and were incensed by Kent’s subsequent relationship with Fanny).

William Kent could be a bit naïve – on more than one occasion, he lent money to people who had little chance of being able to repay him. One such person was his new landlord, Richard Parsons, in whom he was also foolish enough to confide the true status of his relationship with Fanny. When Fanny fell ill, Kent had her moved elsewhere, but she contracted smallpox and died in early 1760. Some time later, Kent took legal action against Parsons over the unpaid debt.

In early 1762, mysterious noises started to be heard in the Parsons house – knocking and scratching sounds, for the most part. Some of the neighbours were already under the impression that the place was haunted by the time a local clergyman, the Reverend Moore, paid a visit, and as he had Methodist inclinations it didn’t take much for him to be convinced that the ghost was real (Chambers does well to give some context here, pointing out that early followers of John Wesley were noted for their credulity as far as the supernatural was concerned, which made them an easy target for mockery from those who feared their popularity). Furthermore, communication with the ghost – one knock for yes, two for no – seemed to establish that the ghost was that of Fanny, who was claiming that Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

From then on, the story spread like wildfire. Two rival newspapers locked in a circulation war, the Public Ledger and the Daily Gazetteer, began to give detailed accounts and crowds rushed to Cock Lane to witness the phenomenon for themselves. A neighbour, whose “reputation as a local troublemaker was on a par with that of Richard Parsons himself”, appointed herself as a mistress-of-ceremonies for the regular séances that were conducted in a darkened bedroom at Parsons’s house for curious and credible visitors. Even the great and the good – among them the Duke of York (George III’s brother) and Horace Walpole (the writer and son of the first Prime Minister) – went to Cock Lane to see what all the fuss was about and listen to the noises made by ‘Scratching Fanny’, as the ghost was quickly nicknamed.

By now, things were becoming serious as William Kent had to all intents and purposes been publicly accused of murder (and accused in person, for he’d even gone to one of the séances himself, as had a former servant of his who knew him to be innocent). It was by this point well-known that the ghost only seemed to make itself known in the presence of Parsons’s daughter, Betty, and it was decided that the matter should be investigated by a committee of ‘learned men’ which included a lord, a couple of priests who were less credulous than the Rev. Moore (one of whom, indeed, was “famous for his work in detecting frauds”), a physician of whom “little is known”, a hospital matron to act as lady-in-waiting (a woman, of course, would be needed to search young Betty) and – who else? – Samuel Johnson. If something required a little more intellectual weight in London at the time, there were few better candidates than the man who had completed the Dictionary a few years previously. As far as ghosts were concerned, he was sceptical; “as a devoutly religious man, he could not rule them out entirely, but neither could he believe in the many spooky tales doing the rounds ... ‘I make a distinction,’ said Johnson, ‘between what a man may experience by the strength of his imagination and what imagination cannot possibly produce.’”

Betty was moved to another house and questioned by the committee; she denied that she was making it all up. However, the ghost had previously promised that she would prove that she was real by striking Fanny’s coffin. Therefore, in one of the stranger turns of events in London’s history, the committee ending up paying a midnight visit to the crypt of St John’s, Clerkenwell (where Fanny had been buried). “For a few minutes,” Chambers writes, “some of the most eminent and respected gentlemen in London society could be found standing in a dark, damp and smelly crypt at midnight waiting for a spectre to communicate with them by banging on a coffin lid.” When this didn’t happen, they concluded – in Johnson’s words – that “the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause”. Even the Rev. Moore now believed that the ‘ghost’ was not real, and a couple of weeks later Betty, having been moved to another house, was found to have a piece of wood concealed about her person.

Parsons and several others (but not Betty, who was a minor) ended up on trial for conspiracy; they protested their innocence but were found guilty. Parsons was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and also had to stand in the pillory - although, in contrast to many other criminals, the crowd (many of whom had doubtless believed the ghost to have been real) treated him kindly. Some of those involved were widely mocked for their part in the saga; Hogarth went to town on the Methodists (his piece ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism’, reproduced in Chambers’s book, contains several references to the Cock Lane story), while Samuel Johnson could be “such a pompous and forthright character that many took the opportunity to portray him as a believer in the ghost. The fact that he had stood in the crypt at midnight ... caused further mirth.” The comedy actor Samuel Foote (who from his brief appearance in this book strikes me as someone I would like to know more about) was keen to do a play about the Cock Lane ghost (‘Fanny Phantom’, he called it) and wanted to use it to lampoon Johnson (who’d slighted him in the past) but thought better of it after becoming convinced that Johnson, a much bigger man, would beat him up if he did. The sub-plot about the play, in which Foote took the mickey out of someone else, is hilarious – although the undeserved ridicule that Johnson received over the Cock Lane story remained a sore point for years. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, was even drawn to comment that “many of my readers, I am convinced, are to this hour under an impression that Johnson was foolishly deceived. It will therefore surprise them a good deal when they are informed ... that Johnson was one of those by whom the imposture was detected.”

The ghost’s legacy was a long one; “ripples ... carried through into the Victorian era and beyond”. ‘Scratching Fanny’ became a bedtime story aimed at scaring children into behaving themselves. Dickens mentions it in several of his books, while the term ‘Cock Lane’ became a byword for a farce which highlighted public gullibility. Interestingly, the spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century produced many a medium who relied on the same basic technique that Betty Parsons had used, and like Betty many of them were eventually caught out. Chambers ends his study with a few pages on what happened to the main protagonists, or rather on what little is known of William Kent and the Parsons family after their fifteen minutes of fame; we even have what appears to be a partial confession from Betty herself towards the end of her life (although she was found out, she never admitted to it). Chambers concludes with his suspicion that the ghost noises were originally a team effort by Parsons and some of his friends; “it is often remarked that the séances took place in crowded rooms that were poorly lit ... the noises could be heard coming from different directions”, although once Betty was on her own she had to do the noises herself.

This book was a most engrossing read, one of those accounts of an historical event where the author is both entertaining and informative. I, of course, was drawn to it on account of my admiration for Samuel Johnson as well as my recent researching into London’s ghosts, but I believe that anyone with even the smallest interest in London’s rich and fascinating history would enjoy it.

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