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

In this post, Steph continues with the story of the Cock Lane Ghost. This time we see the ghosbusting in action!

Portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds. C.1775. Source: Wikicommons

The Paranormal Investigation

In January 1762 William Kent found out about the Cock Lane ghost and its supposed claim that it had been poisoned by a Mr. K. in the Public Ledger. It was then reported in other newspapers when it was revealed important members of society, including nobility, visited Cock Lane. Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, the first gothic novel, was among the more famous visitors to visit Cock Lane and he was of the opinion that the whole thing was a fraud. He was a fan of Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism when it was published after the Cock Lane ghost affair. Dr Samuel Johnson, a rather devout man, was not a fan of the piece and nor, it seems, was he a fan of Hogarth himself. The two had met once in somewhat unfriendly circumstances.

Those who interpreted the knockings and scratchings of the Cock Lane ghost were suggesting that the Mr. K. who had supposedly poisoned Fanny should be hanged. William gathered supporters and set about trying to disprove the ghost’s existence. He enlisted the help of Stephen Aldrich; the rector at St John Clerkenwell who had visited Fanny on her deathbed.

Aldrich and John Moore ended up taking the matter to Samuel Fludyer, the Mayor of London, albeit for different reasons. Moore believed that William Kent should be arrested for murder and Aldrich believed that Richard Parsons should be arrested for his accusations against Kent. The mayor determined that neither party had enough proof for their accusations to warrant an arrest. He did, however, adopt a plan previously suggested by Aldrich; Betty Parsons would be handed over to be investigated by Aldrich and watched by ladies of good reputation in order to detect if she was making the noises that were being attributed to the ghost.

English Credulity or The Invisble Ghost. An anonymous satirical piece. C.1762. Source: the Whitworth.

Parsons proved to be very reluctant to allow his daughter to be taken to Aldrich’s house, despite his claims to the contrary. He was eventually forced to send Betty into Aldrich’s custody by the mayor. Both parties tried to drag each other through the mud a bit over the matter through published statements. In the meantime, Aldrich had assembled a committee to uncover what was clearly a fraud, which included none other than the second Earl of Dartmouth who, though he sympathised with Methodists was very concerned about the sort of press the Cock Lane ghost was attracting to the movement, and Dr Samuel Johnson. Johnson would write the account of their investigation for the press. The committee also included James Penn; a friend of Aldrich and a lecturer at St Anne’s Church in Aldersgate, Captain Thomas Wilkinson; a neighbour of Parsons who had attended a séance armed with a pistol to shoot the source of the noises, a physician, and Dr John Douglas- a priest with a reputation for uncovering fraud!

Betty was moved to the house of a man called John Bray. Her stay there wasn’t long; John Bray’s wife and daughter, as well as the servants, believed in the ghost like so many Londoners. The affair was really getting out of hand now. Betty attracted crowds and it seemed that scepticism was the preserve of those who moved in more privileged circles; the educated upper and middle classes. Bray’s family became hysterical at the sounds that were made by the ‘ghost’ and Aldrich was eventually forced to have Betty moved.

Unsurprisingly, the committee eventually concluded that the noises attributed to the ghost were being made by none other than Betty. It had been observed that Betty had strangely calloused knuckles, as though she had been putting them to good use by knocking on things. Betty claimed that the ghost of Fanny would knock on the coffin in the crypt in which she had been buried at St John the Baptist’s church, if the committee visited the crypt.

Needless to say, no ghost appeared in the crypt!

The piece above, English Credulity, and the piece below are fine examples of the satirical content produced by artists in relation to the whole affair. Both were published anonymously but others, as we have seen with Hogarth’s Credulity were not. English Credulity, like Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, also contains references to other incidents. The images on the wall beside the bed in English Credulity refer to the Bottle-Conjurer and the case of Elizabeth Canning, two other cases of deceit.

Despite the criticism the whole affair attracted, with some seeming to believe that those who bothered to investigate it were a bit ridiculous themselves (as you can see below!), it seemed to whet the public’s appetite for tales ghosts and spooky events. Ghost stories enjoyed some popularity and perhaps it is just a coincidence but Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in which a curse looms over a castle and a man is crushed by a gigantic helmet, would be published two years later in 1764- giving birth to a new literary genre! News of the Cock Lane ghost was discussed throughout the country. Both John Moore and Dr Johnson were mocked for their roles in the whole affair.

Credit: Complete contemp. history of Cock Lane Ghost. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Aftermath

What fate awaited those who incited the fraud and what of their intended target? William Kent was still anxious to clear his name. Accompanied by Aldrich, an undertaker and the Parish sextant, he went back to the crypt. The lid was removed from the coffin to ascertain the cause of Fanny’s death. Kent was now clearly innocent of having supposedly poisoned Fanny.

John Moore, Richard Parsons and his wife, as well as Mary Fraser and a man called Richard James were all charged with conspiracy in July 1762. Two others were also charged; Robert Browne and Charles Say. Browne and Say paid Kent £50 and walked free. By November 1762, Moore and James had raised money to pay damages to Kent, which enabled them to escape any further time in prison. Parsons was eventually sent to the pillory on three occasions and sentenced to two years in prison. Mary Fraser, who had helped to conduct the séances, was sentenced to six months in prison and Richard Parsons’ wife, Elizabeth, was sentenced to a year of hard labour.

Despite having been exposed as a charlatan, Parsons received a rather charitable reception from the crowds when he was taken to the pillory; they gave him money! This is perhaps a testament to the power of a good ghost story and an indication of the power that a belief in ghosts continued to have for many. And what of the parsons family as a whole? It’s thought that the family was eventually reunited but apart from that we know very little, although there is one account that claims that, just before she died, Betty may have disclosed to someone how exactly she had made the noises that had once been attributed to the ghost.

Resources

Part one: https://aplacebetweenthetrees.wordpress.com/2020/05/20/the-cock-lane-ghost-ghostbusting-in-the-age-of-enlightenment/

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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