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Histrionic Histories: The Cock Lane Ghost

 This week, I will tell you a ghost story. Originally, I was preparing a post about three Victorian era ghosts, but I came across the story of the Cock Lane Ghost. I realized I needed to dedicate an entire post to this fascinating story, and amidst my regular historical posts in this Histrionic Histories series, I will discuss more ghostly sensations and scandals as this weekly blog series progresses… So, now it is time to pull out your flashlights, hide under your covers, clutch the arms of the ones you love. This is about a haunting that stirred a sensation throughout English society in the mid-eighteenth century.

The haunting took place in London in a set of rooms on Cock Lane, a little ways from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Key persons in this haunting were William Kent, the man who scorned the memory of his wife, Richard Parsons, a parish clerk, and Parson’s daughter, Elizabeth. But before Cock Lane, our story begins in 1756 when William Kent married an Elizabeth Lynnes, a grocer’s daughter. Elizabeth fell pregnant shortly after the marriage. They moved to Stoke Ferry, where Kent maintained an inn and, soon after, a post office. Elizabeth’s sister, Frances, also called Fanny, moved in with the couple. 

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A sign for Cock Lane, the London street on which our story occurs.

It’s been noted that William and Elizabeth were very much in love, but how can this be? Elizabeth gave birth to a son, but died not long after the childbirth. Her sister, Fanny, stayed to raise the boy, but he died within months. And so, Fanny stayed to take care of William, his house, and the inn, and soon the two were in a budding romance. However, canon law prevented William and Fanny from marrying, but this did not keep the two from living together, out of wedlock. The two moved to London, and stayed at a property on Cock Lane, which was owned by the Parsons. 

Richard Parsons was considered respectable for his work for the church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate. However, he had a reputation as a drunkard, and he was finding it difficult to provide for his family, which were two daughters and a wife. This might explain why, upon moving into the lodgings at Cock Lane, William Kent and Fanny lent the Parsons 12 guineas. In return, Richard Parsons was to repay the loan at one guinea per month. Now, remember this detail. 

Strange happenings began at the lodgings on Cock Lane when William went to a wedding in the country. richard parsons’ eldest daughter, Elizabeth, stayed with Fanny, then pregnant, while William was away. The girl was eleven years-old. Noises, like knocking and rapping, started to occur. Mrs. Parsons attributed the noises to the cobbler next door, but on a Sunday, Fanny heard the noises again. She asked if the cobbler was working that day and learned, from Mrs. Parsons, he was not. Another spectator, James Franzen, landlord of a nearby public house, witnessed a ghostly white figure ascending the stairs of the Parsons’ house. He returned home traumatized by the event, and Richard Parsons later visited him to say he, too, saw the ghost. 

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Sketch of the house on Cock Lane, 1760.

Fanny, weeks away from pregnancy, urged Kent to make arrangements for a temporary stay at another property. They selected a property at Bartlet’s Court in Clerkenwell, but preparations for the place were not ready by January 1760. Fanny and William were moved to a place deemed insufficient by her doctor, and she fell ill on January 25th. She was moved, at the insistence of her doctor, to the lodgings at Bartlet’s Court, but her illness was to prove fatal. Her doctor diagnosed her with smallpox. She arranged for her will to be in William’s favor, and he would inherit her estate. She died on February 2nd, 1760.

William, however, moved on quickly. He remarried in 1761, and he took on the career of a stockbroker. Kent also recalled the loan his previous landlord, Richard Parsons, owed him. This was three guineas, and Kent sued him for the unpaid amount. William regained the debt by January 1762, when the mysterious noises began again at the house on Cock Lane. 

Catherine Friend lodged at the house shortly after William and Fanny left, but moved out when she heard the strange noises. These noises would not stop, and spooked, Catherine left. It came to be learned that these noises came from Elizabeth Parsons, who suffered from fits, and unexplained noises. One person compared the noise to a cat scratching a chair. Richard Parsons was determined to uncover what was making these unsettling noises, so he hired a carpenter to remove the wainscotting, or the wooden paneling to line the lower part of a room, around Elizabeth’s bed. As an added measure, he also sought the assistance of John Moore, an assistant preacher at St. Sepulchre’s and rector of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in West Smithfield. Richard Parsons and Thomas Moore came to the conclusion that the spirit haunting the home was Fanny, who had died in childbirth only the year previously. These men assumed that her spirit, and that of Fanny’s sister Elizabeth, returned to the house to deliver an important message. In the eighteenth century, this was a common belief for the restlessness and disturbances explained by a ghost. 

Parsons developed a communication system with John Moore. In attempting to communicate with the ghost, they would ask questions, and the ghost would respond with one knock for yes, two knocks for no. Parsons and Moore divined from this system that Fanny had been poisoned by arsenic. Before Fanny’s death, the sounds she heard and the white ghost seen by James Franzen had been the spirit of Fanny’s sister, Elizabeth, attempting to warn her of her impending death. And who had poisoned Fanny? It was determined that her lover, William Kent, had been her poisoner. 

 However, this charge against William Kent was never looked into. It was contrived by Parsons and Moore that Fanny, although suffering from smallpox at the time, was slipped arsenic two hours before her death by William. Her spirit returned seeking justice. Moore learned of the debt Parsons owed to Kent, and how Kent had pursued the payment of the debt. That, and a family member of Fanny’s had complained that her coffin lid had been screwed shut, thus making her corpse not visible. Moore supposed that if Fanny had a lack of scarring from the smallpox, Kent would have wanted to conceal this truth. Moore, inclined to seek further proof, sought the assistance of Thomas Broughton, an early Methodist. Broughton came away from the house on Cock Lane convinced the ghost was true. Soon enough, the story appeared in London’s The Public Ledger, and Kent was regarded as a murderer.

Séances were held  at the house, and Fanny’s ghost was dubbed “Scratching Fanny.” Crowds gathered outside the house, fascinated with the story. However, the haunting was proven to be a fraud by a group led by Samuel Johnson, a poet, essayist, and moralist. It was proven Elizabeth Parsons, under threat of her father, created the knocking and scratching noises. Those involved in the scam were charged, prosecuted, and deemed guilty. Richard Parsons was put into the pillory and sentenced to a two-year prison term.

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Dr. Samuel Johnson, the man who helped proved the Cock Lane ghost was a hoax.

However, “Scratching Fanny” remained a controversial peculiarity in the public eye. Charles Dickens was one of many Victorian authors to use the scandal as inspiration for his writing, and the famous William Hogarth, one of my favorite artists and deserving a post of his own, referred to the ghost in two of his prints.

And that, ladies and gents, is the story of the Cock Lane ghost. I hope you aren’t too scared, and please tune in next Thursday for another segment of Histrionic Histories.

Sources:

Enoch, Nick. “The curious case of the Cock Lane ghost: How a tale of sex, death and loan sharking  gripped London 250 years ago, thanks to ‘Scratching Fanny'” Daily Mail Online. January 05, 2012. Accessed April 03, 2017. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082797/The-Cock-Lane-ghost-How-tale-sex-death-loan-sharking-gripped-London-250-years-ago-thanks-Scratching-Fanny.html.

“The Cock Lane Ghost.” BizarreVictoria. February 19, 2016. Accessed April 03, 2017. https://bizarrevictoria.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/the-cock-lane-ghost/.

Sean Gaston, ‘An Event Without An Object: The Cock Lane Ghost, London 1762– 1763’. The Literary London Journal, Volume 12, Number 1–2 (Spring/Autumn 2015): 3–21. Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/londonjournal/springautumn2015/gaston.pdf.