The Cock Lane Ghost: Ghostbusting in the Age of Enlightenment. Part One.

In this post Steph discusses the scandalous case of the Cock Lane ghost, which had London in an uproar in 1762 and provided artists like Hogarth with some great material!

Edward Bird (1772-1819.) The Apparition. Pencil and watercolour. Source: the Whitworth.

Do you believe in ghosts? A lot of people in Britain do, even people who are not usually inclined towards spiritual beliefs. Many aspects of English folklore in particular seem to have been forgotten in these Isles. Yet some old superstitions and practices survived into the early twentieth century and some beliefs persist even today. People may not talk about fairies much now, especially in England, but you only have to see how popular ghost hunting television shows and those who claim to be psychic mediums are to realise just how willing people are to look for ghosts. I confess; I love a good ghost story myself and our ancestors were certainly no different!

Working in a building that has so much history behind it means we sometimes get the odd question about whether the Whitworth has any ghosts lurking about. The answer is usually a no but if any apparitions were present and wished to peruse the works on display, far be it from us folks on the Visitor Team to try and stop them! We’d probably just end up handing them a map and welcoming them to the gallery. There are, however, ghosts depicted in our collections and one of these ghosts is particularly famous. Here’s a true story about a ghost that caused quite a fuss back in the Eighteenth Century!

The Spectres in Our Midst

William Hogarth (1697-1764), ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism: A Medley’, c.1762. Source: Wikicommons

Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism. A Medley. is partly a satire against the emerging Methodists of his time and religious, as well as secular, gullibility. The ghost we are looking for, the Cock Lane ghost, is actually present all over the piece; the congregation clutch and conceal little figures representing this ghost and she makes yet another appearance on the thermometer measuring ‘lust’ and ‘madness’ among other things. Her hand is raised, poised to make the knocking and scratching sounds she was known for, which earned her the nickname ‘Scratching Fanny’. Above the Cock Lane ghost, at the very top of the thermometer, stands the Drummer of Tedworth, another famous figure to which a supernatural cause had been attributed in an incident pre-dating the Cock Lane ghost.

Devil and drum from the frontispiece of the third edition of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus. Third edition published c.1700. Source: Wikicommons.

Three other ghosts are present in Hogarth’s Credulity. They are depicted as puppets. One puppet represents the ghost of Mrs. Veal, who was said to have visited her friend the day after her death in 1705 in order to make sure that her possessions were distributed amongst friends and family according to her wishes. Another puppet depicts the ghost of Julius Caesar, as a reference to his ghost appearing to Brutus in order to accuse him of murder in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The ghost of Sir George Villiers of Brookesby, father of George Villiers, the first duke of Buckingham and favourite of James I, is also depicted as a puppet. Villiers was said to have appeared as a ghostly apparition to warn his son that he was about to die. These stories all contain ideas about ghosts which are quite familiar to us today; the reasons for the appearance of the ghosts in these tales are ones that we ourselves might suggest should we find ourselves in a situation where we believe someone has had a brush with the supernatural.

It’s worth noting that Hogarth’s original concept was a piece called Enthusiasm Delineated, which was more critical of the Church. His friends, however, advised Hogarth against publishing such a piece. It would be too risky, they thought, and people might take it as an attack on religion in general. A golden opportunity soon arrived when the case of the Cock Lane ghost occurred. It sent London into an uproar! And Hogarth had a chance to publish his idea, with some adjustments; the ghost herself would make an appearance in the piece and this print would mock religious fanaticism in the form of those with more Methodist leanings, as well as those idolatrous Catholics- always a safe target! The figures clutched by the congregation seem to be reminiscent of ‘idolatrous’ images of saints and Christ. The case of the Cock Lane ghost isn’t the only odd incident the piece refers to but the ghost appears frequently enough!

William Kent and the Lynes Sisters

In the Eighteenth Century, the Age of Enlightenment, you might think that those who considered themselves to be learned and sophisticated might expect to be ridiculed if they admitted to believing in ghosts. Yet we know that some folk beliefs still persisted amongst some people and a belief in ghosts was one of them. The case of the Cock Lane ghost is one of the most famous ‘hauntings’ in British history. In 1762 this ‘ghost’ was accusing someone of murder and its supporters were suggesting that the man in question, William Kent, ought to be hanged.

Cock Lane, as seen in Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. C.1852. Source: Wikicommons.

How did it get to that point? The story began around 1757. William Kent, a young man in Norfolk, married Elizabeth Lynes. He wasn’t exactly popular with her family and their disdain for him was about to become much, much worse. Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy who lived for just two months and she herself died just after giving birth. One of Elizabeth’s sisters, Fanny, had moved into the household to keep her sister company and stayed on to help care for her nephew and brother-in-law after her sister’s death.

Fanny and William soon fell in love but when William sought legal advice, he was advised that the law would prevent him from marrying his sister-in-law, as William’s marriage to Elizabeth had produced a child who had lived, if only very briefly. William moved away to London in 1759 in an attempt to move on but it wasn’t long before he and Fanny hatched a plan to help her run away to London, where they lived together under the guise of being husband and wife. They also made wills in which they bequeathed their worldly possessions to one another, yet another reason for the Lynes family to hate William.

William had a pretty bad habit of lending untrustworthy people money. He lent their first landlord money and struggled to get it back; resorting to suing the man for the money he was owed. He and Fanny then found lodgings in Cock Lane with Richard Parsons, a clerk at the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Parsons took in lodgers to help support his family and he was known to have a drinking problem. Not one to break own bad habits, William ended up lending him money. When William was away on business, Fanny invited Richard Parsons’ daughter Elizabeth, also known as Betty, to stay with her in her room. It is thought that perhaps she let slip to Betty the reality of their situation.

The Haunting Begins

Whilst Betty Parsons slept in her room, Fanny was disturbed by strange scratching and knocking noises. Richard Parsons suggested that a nearby shoemaker might be responsible but the noises continued even on a Sunday, casting doubt on that explanation. It’s more than a little suspicious that once William Kent returned and Betty went back to sleeping in her own room, the noises were apparently not heard as much. Richard Parsons still owed Kent money and the two began to argue about this issue. William and Fanny left their room at the Parsons’ home and had to quickly secure lodgings elsewhere whilst building work was still being carried out on William’s house. These new lodgings were pretty terrible and Fanny soon contracted smallpox. A doctor was called and it was decided that Fanny must be moved to somewhere with better living conditions immediately.

Poor Fanny and her unborn child died in January 1760 after being moved to William’s house. After Fanny’s death, the Cock Lane ghost mysteriously, or perhaps not so mysteriously, re-emerged under a new identity in 1761. It was suggested that Elizabeth Lynes had previously haunted the Parsons and had tried to warn her sister of impending doom but this time it was the spirit of Fanny who made scratching and knocking noises, earning the ghost the nickname ‘Scratching Fanny’. Perhaps Fanny had not died of smallpox after all? The ‘ghost’ was said to be attached to young Betty in particular because of Fanny’s past friendship with Betty.

Epworth Rectory, c.1890. Source: Wikicommons.

John Moore, the local Reverend, had become involved. Moore was an Anglican interested in Methodism, which is thought to have predisposed him to believe in ghosts; John Wesley, a leader of the Methodist movement, was known to be open-minded when it came to believing in the existence of apparitions and witchcraft. Wesley recorded the tale of ‘Old Jeffrey’, also known as the Epworth Poltergeist; this was a spirit his family believed had haunted the rectory where they lived when he was a boy. Wesley and those sympathetic to his cause had an interest in the supernatural and were keen to uncover proof of the paranormal.

People began to flock to Cock Lane, where multiple séances held at the Parsons’ house with a woman called Mary Fraser seeming to summon the spirit. Fraser was a friend of the Parsons family and, like Richard, had a bit of a dodgy reputation. The séances took place in to room of young Betty Parsons and her sister Anne, with the noises seeming to emanate from the direction of their bed. A soldier even attended one of these séances armed with a pistol to shoot the source of the noises!

Richard Parsons realised that he was on to something that was potentially quite lucrative and began to charge people to attend these séances, claiming that the presence of the ghost was deterring potential lodgers. It certainly didn’t keep all visitors away, however; Cock Lane was so busy some nights that the thoroughfare was packed with coaches! Rich and poor, sceptics and believers alike flocked to Cock Lane to hear about the supposed ghost.

To be continued…

Resources

http://gallerysearch.ds.man.ac.uk/Detail/1064


http://gallerysearch.ds.man.ac.uk/Detail/10566


http://gallerysearch.ds.man.ac.uk/Detail/2295


Jo Bath and John Newton, ‘”Sensible Proof of Spirits”: Ghost Belief During the Later Seventeenth Century’, Folklore 117: 1 (2006), pp. 1-14.


David Bindman, Hogarth and His Times: Serious Comedy (Los Angeles, 1997).


Michael Behrens, ‘The Threat and Allure of Methodism’, The Eighteenth Century 56:3 (2015), pp. 383-387.


Paul Chambers, The Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr Johnson’s London (Stroud, 2006).


Owen Davies, ‘Wesley’s Invisible world: Witchcraft and the Temperature of Preternatural Belief’, in Robert Webster (ed.) Essays in Honour of Henry D. Rack: Perfecting Perfection (2015), pp. 147-172.


Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth Century England (London, 2016).


Fiona Haslam, From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Liverpool, 1996).


Bernd Krysmanski, ‘We See a Ghost: Hogarth’s Satire on Methodists and Connoiseurs’, The Art Bulletin 80:2 (1998), pp.292-310.


Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: Art and Politics, 1750-1764 (Cambridge, 1993).

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