The small quaint English village of Hammersmith would have been completely oblivious today if not for the comical and dramatic Hammersmith Ghost case that gave it great legal significance. It has also been the moot cause for the case, and consequently, remembered nearly 217 years after its judgement which led to the rise of important questions of good… Read More »

The small quaint English village of Hammersmith would have been completely oblivious today if not for the comical and dramatic Hammersmith Ghost case that gave it great legal significance. It has also been the moot cause for the case, and consequently, remembered nearly 217 years after its judgement which led to the rise of important questions of good faith and mistake of fact. In this article, R. Nirmmita Mano and Mirudhula A analyse the peculiar case. I. Backdrop of Events The...

The small quaint English village of Hammersmith would have been completely oblivious today if not for the comical and dramatic Hammersmith Ghost case that gave it great legal significance. It has also been the moot cause for the case, and consequently, remembered nearly 217 years after its judgement which led to the rise of important questions of good faith and mistake of fact. In this article, R. Nirmmita Mano and Mirudhula A analyse the peculiar case.

I. Backdrop of Events

The supposed hauntings by the spectre were reported between November of 1803 and January of 1804 with no further claims after the passing of the court’s judgement and the defendants’ subsequent royal pardon. All public fancy and frenzy had completely died down. Like several other superstitious and God-fearing rural vicinities of London, Hammersmith was no exception with several claiming physical tussles with the apparition in December of 1803, particularly at the village churchyard.

According to a report by the Newgate Calendar, a prominent monthly bulletin at the time, one elderly woman and another pregnant woman, the latter who claimed the spirit wrapped its arms around her had succumbed to such great shock and fright that they died from it.

Later, a wagoner got such a scare from the sudden sight of the spirit that he, at that very instant abandoned the wagon, eight horses and sixteen passengers and took to his heels swiftly. Further Thomas Groom, the servant of a local brewer too, claimed that the spirit had grabbed him by the throat from behind when a fellow servant and he were walking home late one night down the village churchyard. Thus the spectral apparitions became a regular nocturnal occurrence and all claims and rumoured reports of encounters further added to the great public fear that was already at a climax.

It was also widely speculated that the ghost ought to be the spirit of a man who committed suicide earlier that year as it was a strong religious belief at the time that any burial of cases of suicide in consecrated land led to the spirit rising from the grave and wandering about, restless, unworthy of atonement and peace.

II. Possible Rational Explanations:

A certain Mr Thomas Millwood, a local bricklayer, had the habit of regularly roaming about Hammersmith in the garb of his profession, white clothing, particularly at night. He was, due to this reason and also the reported spectral sightings, advised by his mother-in-law Mrs Fullbrook to wear a dark greatcoat over his work apparel to avoid unnecessarily frightening fellow villagers, an advise received in vain. He had also startled two women and a man one night at the Hammersmith churchyard the Saturday before his death according to Mrs Fullbrook.

Further, during the trial of the case, Mr John Graham, a shoemaker came forward voluntarily and admitted to deliberately dressing up as the ghost to frighten his apprentices who regularly scared his three children with ghost stories, and said that he might be responsible for at least one of the sightings. On the 29th of December, 1803, the night watchman William Gridle claimed that he chased the spectre but it had taken off its white shroud and escaped into the narrow alleyways of the district, much to Mr Gridle’s realisation that the ghost was indeed a mischievous human of flesh and blood and not a spirit.

III. The Case

In January of 1804 at the height of great public speculation and fear frenzy, several men of the village volunteered to be part of a search party to hunt the supposed spectre and put an end to its nuisance. Many took to nocturnally patrolling the various paths and by-lanes leading into Hammersmith but in vain, as the ghost managed to play its antics on the unguarded entry points. On the 3rd of January 1804, a twenty-nine-year-old excise officer named Mr Francis Smith had been a member to this party and was armed with a fully loaded blunderbuss with the intention of shooting the spectre and capturing it.

At about 10:30 p.m. that night he met with Mr Thomas Gridle, a night watchman and the two conversed for a few minutes at the end of which Mr Smith stated his intention to search for the ghost down Blacklion lane and shoot it if found. To this, Mr Gridle stated that he too would join him and the two would jointly search after Mr Gridle was done with his daily night rounds. They agreed on the watchwords “Who comes there?-A friend.-Advance friend” for identification when approaching each other down Blacklion lane. After this, the two parted their ways with Mr Smith moving towards Blacklion lane.

Between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. of the same night, the previously mentioned Mr Thomas Millwood, the bricklayer was visiting the home of his parents and sister, Anne Millwood on the way to enquire about his wife who was at the outrider Mr Smith’s. Miss Millwood, after enquiring about his wife asked him to wait a while at her and her parents’ residence before asking him to head home at about 11:00 p.m., which Mr Millwood obliged.

Just as Mr Millwood was out the door, Miss Millwood heard an agitated voice demand who and what it was approaching with no reply followed by a distinct gunshot. It was Mr Francis Smith who had shot Mr Millwood mistaking him to the ghost due to his ghastly white attire. At the sound of this, an anxious Miss. Millwood called out to her brother about three to four times once again with no reply before being agitatedly trying in vain to convince her parents and an individual who lodged with them that her brother might be hurt.

She then rushed out herself only to find her brother quite dead and sprawled on the ground with a gunshot wound. She then rushed to her neighbours to seek help and on returning with the same found her deceased brother surrounded by Mr Francis Smith, Mr John Locke a wine brewer, Mr Stowe and Mr Thomas Gridle. The high constable was then sent for and Mr Smith was taken into custody.

IV. The Judgement

The case had an interesting trial and the judgement doesn’t fall short in entertainment. The judges did not take a lenient view in their interpretation of the law concerning murder. They held that a display of rashness such as by the prisoner, in, killing someone clearly amounts to murder even though there is an absence of malice. A person cannot kill another wantonly in the name of rashness and be excused for such a blunder.

While there were attestations towards the kind, humble and the mild character of the prisoner, these were held to be in conjecture as the prisoner was an excise officer constantly prone to transfers due to which none of the defence witnesses could attest to his character beyond a period of 2 years hence weak and excusable.

Further, the judges also declined the contestations made by the prisoner regarding the mistake of fact and lack of ill intention to kill. In addition, they also held that though the mischievous individual terrorising the village was committing a great deal of nuisance, an offence as petty as that did not call for such a brutal want of force to cease it. In the words of Lord Baron McDonald

However, disgusted the jury might feel in their own minds with the abominable person guilty of the misdemeanour of terrifying the neighbourhood, still the prisoner had no right to construe such misdemeanour into a capital offence, or to conclude that a man dressed in white was a ghost…

Thus, when the jury gave a verdict for manslaughter, it was sent again for reconsideration by the learned bench who were firm in their perspective about the offence being murder. They thus ordered that the jury chose between murder or complete acquittal. The jury returned a guilty verdict and the prisoner was awarded the death sentence.

The notable element of this judgment was its clear display of a legislative flaw regarding the lack of exceptions and defences for the accused. Further, more importantly, the attempt of use of good faith and mistake of fact as a defence, in the case raised important questions regarding their use which remained quite inconclusive and unfavourable until 180 years later in the case Regina v. Williams. Clearly, the defence put forth by Mr Smith proved to be quite innovative and thought-provoking and as a result of these important cases, the defences for the accused have broadened with the addition of good faith and mistake of fact.

V. Critical Analysis of the Case under Indian and General Legal Perspective

The aforesaid case if tried today with regards to the current perspectives of law and legal evolutions might have been interpreted differently. Upon giving an analysis of the verdict of this case according to the existing Indian criminal law, i.e., the Indian Penal Code and general legal principles, there are certain interesting points to ponder upon.

  • The wrong time?

The case can be seen through the perspective of many legal facets. While self-defence is an essential right for any individual, the concept of ghosts and hauntings are questionably debatable aspects and have no legal standing. Law has always presumed anything in the spectral realm to be non-existent and unreal, thus according it no legal validity.

However, taking note of the strongly religious and superstitious period in which the case took place and the social conditions of society then, it can be said that it was common for one to get greatly startled rather than reason on seeing the seemingly supernatural. Thus, anything done in this furtherance to be classified as an offence, was indefinite at the time, though it most often constitutes an offence now.

  • Good faith vs Ghost

In this case, there was a deliberate carrying out a loaded gun, which the prisoner concluded he was entitled to fire, but which he really was not; and he did fire it with a rashness that the law does not excuse.”

The following statement by Lord Baron McDonald when addressing the jury before the verdict of manslaughter was given can be interpreted in ways both favourable to the defence and the prosecution. In the latter perspective, the above statement signifies the accused’s necessary mens rea or criminal intent to shoot. Here the needed mental element of intending to cause harm is seen, more strongly when Mr Smith directly expressed his intention to Mr Gridle of shooting the ghost on finding it before heading towards Blacklion lane.

In defence perspective, the act concerns section 103 of the IPC,1860 [1], which is a general defence for offences. The aforesaid section provides immunity to an individual from punishment for his offence including death, provided that he only causes harm to another individual in the due course of exercising his private defence under good faith.

The element of good faith is decided based on the facts and circumstances of the case along with an acceptable good faith quotient. In the case, the accused shot the deceased in a sudden provocation fully and absolutely believing him to be the ghost, which held the entire village in a fear frenzy to such an extent that this fear even resulted in the formation of a hunting party to search and put down the troublesome spectre.

Even if the lack of scientific proof for the existence of ghosts is ignored, the basis of formation of the hunting party was on the complete good faith of wanting to relieve the village of its supposed peril. On the face of it and when seen under today’s scientific rationality, it would seem that the act of Mr Smith was selfish, not self-protecting but rather roguishly wanton and irrational. But, on the other hand, it could be theorised as an act of self-defence which went wrong, providing a strong defence for the prisoner.

  • Well, maybe it’s manslaughter!

Looking into the next defence, if the act of the accused was to be defined as murder under the context of Indian Penal Code, 1860, it would fall under section 301[2] of the same which explains culpable homicide not amounting to murder as a result of sudden provocation. In the said case the fully white attire of the bricklayer coupled with a particularly dark, visionless night and a singularly fearful mental frustration to catch the ghost are reasonable causes for his provocation.

By making a strong case for provocation, he can be made guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, thereby reducing his initial. In this view, the first verdict was given by the jury for manslaughter, and the Indian equivalent culpable homicide is sounder and just. However, English penal law at the time had a different perspective of the act of the prisoner which was held valid by the presiding judges who were firm and took no leniency in this respect.

  • A voluntary mistake of the deceased? (A perspective)

On a total inspection of the theory of Volenti non fit injuria on behalf of the deceased, his fatal death cannot be seen as a total surprise but rather an expected outcome of his lack of precaution and foolhardiness. This is so because, the bricklayer had previously alarmed a few villagers, walking around late at night, who mistook him to be the ghost on account of his white work ware. The advice of the deceased’s’ mother-in-law on the matter of the appearance of his attire is a testament to this.

She feared that him being mistaken several times for the ghost made him vulnerable to attacks by weary villagers apart from frightening them. Thus, it can be easily concluded that the deceased was aware of the consequences of his attire or had complete knowledge of danger he could face as a result of his white attire.

VI. Conclusion

The Hammersmith Ghost case thus resulted in the raising of a substantial question of law that which was answered satisfactorily and decisively in the case Regina v. Williams nearly 180 years later in 1984. In this case, the accused had mistakenly assaulted the victim believing the person to be causing harm to a youth, who was actually being apprehended by the victim for theft.

The accused was found guilty of assault, a verdict he appealed and won on the grounds that the harm caused by him was a result of his intended good faith and mistake of fact and did not in fact constitute an offence. Hence, the previously held verdict in the Hammersmith case was overturned marking a significant and equitable evolution in English penal law. [3]

By – R. Nirmmita Mano and Mirudhula A


[1] Indian Penal Code 1860 § 103

[2] Indian Penal Code 1860 § 301

[3] Kelly Buchanan, The Case of a Ghost Haunted England for Over Two Hundred Years, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (October 30, 2015), Available Here

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Updated On 8 Jan 2021 4:38 AM GMT
R. Nirmmita Mano

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