As one witness would later state in court, "it was an extreme [sic] dark night" in January 1804, and some people in Hammersmith were feeling uneasy. For the past three months, local residents had been reporting multiple sightings of a ghost around the area. But on this evening, the case would take a shocking turn, which would lead to a murder trial. The implications of the accused's defence wouldn't be resolved in English law until 180 years later.
A haunting in Hammersmith
The 'Hammersmith Ghost' had first been spotted in November 1803. This spectre wasn’t content with merely floating around the west London neighbourhood: it was supposedly attacking people, with several claiming to have been physically grabbed in and around Hammersmith churchyard. Some thought it was the spirit of a man who had killed himself and whose spirit could not lie at rest. Descriptions of its appearance varied, but most stated that it was tall and wore white.
A mysterious tablecloth?
However, some were sceptical that this 'ghost' was everything it had been claimed to be — not least when one witness alleged the ghoul was seen discarding a white tablecloth before running off on one occasion. Still, many local people remained sufficiently unnerved by the possibility of a supernatural presence haunting Hammersmith, and nervous at fleeting glimpses of figures wearing white. It felt that the whole area had the jitters.
A history of confusing ghost watchers
White clothes also happened to be the garments most often worn by local bricklayer, Thomas Millwood. This hadn't gone unnoticed: a few people had previously been startled when encountering him at night. His wife had even asked him to wear something different, as she thought it might scare people unnecessarily. But Millwood insisted on maintaining the same outfit. But no-one could have predicted what would happen next.
A case of mistaken identity
Reports of a ghost on the prowl had also led to ghost hunters on the march. On 3 January, local man Francis Smith decided he was going to look for Hammersmith’s supernatural resident — and took a shotgun with him. Given the insubstantial nature that ghosts were legendarily associated with, it’s hard to know how he thought bullets were going to deal with this alleged neighbourhood spirit. Nonetheless, Smith went off to patrol the area with his blunderbuss — just as Millwood was making his way home late at night by the Black Lion Lane. On spotting him, Smith — who'd had a few ales at this point — called out, demanding to know "Who are you and what are you?". Then he shot him. It quickly became clear the victim was no ghost, and Millwood was taken to the nearby Black Lion inn, but it was already too late.
The supernatural defence
Smith confessed to shooting Millwood but said he had genuinely believed him to be a ghost. Time would tell if this defence would convince a court, and he went on trial for "wilful murder" at the Old Bailey later that year. The jury had to answer a curious question. Is saying you thought someone was a supernatural being a defence against murder? In their view, it was — and so they returned a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.
But the judge wasn't happy, and forbade the jury from returning a verdict on that grounds, stating that Smith believing Millwood to be a ghost should not be considered a factor. The jury were told: deliberate again, and either convict him or clear him of murder alone. This time they did deliver a guilty verdict on the most serious charge, and Smith was initially condemned to death. His sentence was later reduced to a year in prison with hard labour.
The case would take another turn when a man named John Graham came forward claiming to have been responsible for at least one of the sightings of the ghost. He said he had been annoyed that apprentices from his workplace had told ghost stories to his children, and one night decided to dress up in a white sheet to scare the men in question.
180 years later…
Over time the curious case of the Hammersmith Ghost faded into history — but the questions raised in law by Smith's attempted defence remained open. The implications of it were finally clarified during a case in the early 1980s. A man had witnessed what he believed to be one person assaulting another, and attacked the man he believed to be committing the crime. However, it turned out the alleged assailant was actually taking away the other person on suspicion of theft, and was not attacking him. The person who had intervened was convicted of assault, but appealed on the grounds he genuinely believed the victim was the one committing a crime, even if that was a mistaken belief. After considering the case, the judges agreed with this argument and overturned his conviction.
Meanwhile, the tale of the Hammersmith Ghost, and the unfortunate case of Millwood and Smith, would go on to be enshrined on a plaque outside the Black Lion pub, where it can still be seen today.