The early 19th-century case of the Hammersmith Ghost set a legal precedent in the UK regarding self-defence: whether someone could be held liable for their actions even if they were the consequence of a mistaken belief, in this case that a man dressed in white was a ghost.
Towards the end of 1803, a number of people claimed to have seen and even been attacked by a ghost in the Hammersmith area of London; locals believed that the spirit of a suicide victim was responsible. On 3 January 1804, a member of one of the armed patrols set up in the wake of the reports shot and killed a plasterer, Thomas Millwood, mistaking the white clothes of Millwood’s trade for a ghostly apparition. The culprit, a 29-year-old excise officer named Francis Smith, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, commuted to one year’s hard labour. The issues surrounding the case were not settled for 180 years, until a Court of Appeal decision in 1984.
The publicity surrounding the case prompted John Graham, an elderly shoemaker, to confess to having started the scare by pretending to be a ghost; he had covered himself with a white sheet in an attempt to frighten his apprentice, who had been scaring his children with ghost stories
Beginning in November 1803, a number of people in the Hammersmith area claimed to have seen, and some to have been attacked by, a ghost. Local people said the ghost was of a man who had committed suicide the previous year, and had been buried in Hammersmith churchyard. The contemporary belief was that suicide victims should not be buried in consecrated ground, as their souls would not then be at rest. The apparition was described as being very tall and dressed all in white, but was also said to wear a calfskin garment with horns and large glass eyes at other times.
Stories about the ghost soon began to circulate. Two women, one elderly and the other pregnant, were reported to have been seized by the ghost on separate occasions while walking near the churchyard; they were apparently so frightened they both died from shock a few days afterwards. A brewer’s servant, Thomas Groom, later testified that, while walking through the churchyard with a companion one night, at close to 9:00 pm, something rose from behind a tombstone and seized him by the throat. Hearing the scuffle, his companion turned around, at which the ghost “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.”
On 29 December, William Girdler, a night-watchman, saw the ghost while near Beaver Lane and gave chase; the apparition threw off its shroud and managed to escape. With London not having an organised police force at the time, and as “many people were very much frightened,” according to Girdler, several citizens formed armed patrols in hopes of apprehending the ghost.
Death of Thomas Millwood
At the corner of Beaver Lane, while making his rounds at around 10:30 pm on 3 January 1804, Girdler met one of the armed citizens patrolling the area, 29-year-old excise officer Francis Smith. Armed with a shotgun, Smith told Girdler he was going to look for the supposed ghost. Girdler agreed that he would join Smith after he had called the hour at 11:00 pm, and that they would “take [the ghost] if possible.” They then went their separate ways.
There had already been several misguided attacks on white-smocked workmen mistaken for the ghost, and shortly after 11:00 pm Smith encountered Thomas Millwood, a plasterer who was wearing the normal white clothing of his trade. He was heading home from a visit to his parents and sister, who lived in Black Lion Lane. According to Anne Millwood, the plasterer’s sister, immediately after seeing her brother off, she heard Smith challenge him, saying “Damn you; who are you and what are you? Damn you, I’ll shoot you.” after which Smith fatally shot him in the left of the lower jaw.
After hearing the shot, Girdler and Smith’s neighbour, John Locke, together with George Stowe, met Smith, who “appeared very much agitated”; upon seeing Millwood’s body, the others advised Smith to return home. Meanwhile, a constable arrived at the scene and took Smith into custody. Millwood’s corpse was carried to an inn, where a surgeon, Mr. Flower, examined the body on 6 January and pronounced death to be the result of “a gunshot wound on the left side of the lower jaw with small shot, about size No. 4, one of which had penetrated the vertebrae [sic] of the neck, and injured the spinal marrow.”
Trial of Francis Smith
Smith was tried for wilful murder. The deceased’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Fulbrooke, stated that she had warned Millwood to cover his white clothing with a greatcoat, as he had been mistaken for the ghost on a previous occasion. Millwood’s sister testified that although Smith had called on her brother to stop or he would shoot, Smith discharged the gun almost immediately. Despite a number of declarations of Smith’s good character, the chief judge, Lord Chief Baron Sir Archibald Macdonald, advised the jury that malice was not required of murder, merely an intent to kill:
I should betray my duty, and injure the public security, if I did not persist in asserting that this is a clear case of murder, if the facts be proved to your satisfaction. All killing whatever amounts to murder, unless justified by the law, or in self-defence. In cases of some involuntary acts, or some sufficiently violent provocation, it becomes manslaughter. Not one of these circumstances occur here.
In his summing up, Macdonald observed that Smith had neither acted in self-defence nor had shot Millwood by accident; he had not been provoked by the supposed apparition or had attempted to apprehend it. Millwood had not committed any offence to justify being shot, and even if the supposed ghost had been shot, it would not have been acceptable, as frightening people while pretending to be a ghost was not a serious felony, but a far less serious misdemeanour, only meriting a small fine. The judge closed his remarks by reminding the jury that the accused’s good character meant nothing in this case. Macdonald therefore directed the jury to find the accused guilty of murder if they believed the facts presented by the witnesses. After considering for an hour, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. Macdonald informed the jury that “the Court could not receive such a verdict”, and that they must either find Smith guilty of murder, or acquit him: that Smith believed Millwood to be a ghost was irrelevant. The jury then returned with a verdict of guilty. After which Macdonald passed the customary sentence of death by hanging, which was commuted to a year’s hard labour.
The huge publicity given to the case had meanwhile persuaded the true culprit to come forward – John Graham, an elderly shoemaker. He had been pretending to be a ghost by using a white sheet to frighten his apprentice, who had been scaring his children with ghost stories.
Effect on UK law
The question of whether acting on a mistaken belief was a sufficient defence to a criminal charge was debated for more than a century until it was clarified at the Court of Appeal in the case of R. v Williams (Gladstone) (1984), concerning an appeal heard in November 1983. The appellant, Gladstone Williams, had seen a man dragging a younger man violently along the street while the latter shouted for help. Mistakenly believing that an assault was taking place, he intervened and subsequently injured the purported assailant, who was actually attempting to apprehend a suspected thief. Williams was subsequently convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
During the subsequent appeal, Lord Chief Justice Lane clarified the problematic issue:
In a case of self-defence, where self-defence or the prevention of crime is concerned, if the jury came to the conclusion that the defendant believed, or may have believed, that he was being attacked or that a crime was being committed, and that force was necessary to protect himself or to prevent the crime, then the prosecution have not proved their case. If however the defendant’s alleged belief was mistaken and if the mistake was an unreasonable one, that may be a peaceful reason for coming to the conclusion that the belief was not honestly held and should be rejected. Even if the jury come to the conclusion that the mistake was an unreasonable one, if the defendant may genuinely have been labouring under it, he is entitled to rely upon it.
The appeal was allowed, and the conviction quashed. The decision was approved by the Privy Council in Beckford v The Queen (1988) and was later written into law in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, Section 76.