Mass Hysteria and Murder: the Tale of the Hammersmith Ghost
How a cobbler in a tablecloth terrorized his neighborhood and caused an innocent man’s death
During the long, dark nights of November and December 1803, a rumor spread in Hammersmith, a neighborhood in west London. Several residents reported seeing a ghost. He was tall and dressed in a white cloak, although some residents said he had horns. The ghost jumped out and scared people in the darkness; some said that he had actually attacked them. Thomas Groom, a servant, described his encounter with the apparition:
“I was going through the church yard between eight and nine o’clock, with my jacket under my arm, and my hands in my pocket, when some person came from behind a tomb-stone, which there are four square in the yard, behind me, and caught me fast by the throat with both hands, and held me fast; my fellow-servant, who was going on before, hearing me scuffling, asked what was the matter; then, whatever it was, gave me a twist round, and I saw nothing; I gave a bit of a push out with my fist, and felt something soft, like a great coat.”
People in Hammersmith began to panic — as is the case with things like this, rumors built on each other and took on a life of their own. A story spread that a pregnant woman had died of fright after being assaulted by the ghost. Many residents believed that the spirit of a man who had committed suicide was roaming the neighborhood — it was considered sacrilegious to bury a suicide victim in a holy burial ground. Citizens formed neighborhood-watch patrols, prowling the streets each night in search of the spectre. A few days after Christmas, one of the watchmen saw the ghost and chased him, but he tossed its white cloak aside and disappeared into the night.
On January 3, 1804, a man named Francis Smith was walking the streets of Hammersmith with his shotgun, keeping an eye out for the ghost. As midnight neared, he saw something — a figure clad all in white. He called out: “damn you, who are you, and what are you? Damn you, I will shoot you!” Smith fired before the ghost could answer.