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The Ghost of Cock Lane
A Tragic Death
In 1762 Cock Lane was a row of typical houses and businesses in what little more than a narrow alley way. There was little to discriminate it from hundreds of other London streets. Nobody could have predicted that by the end of the year it would be the most notorious street in London. Each night it would be thronged with crowds drawn by a story of murder, revenge, infidelity, greed and deception. And at the centre of the whole sorry tale, an innocent woman, Scratching Fanny the Ghost of Cock Lane.
The story begins with the death of a young wife, Elizabeth Lynes. Elizabeth married a man called William Kent. William and Elizabeth ran a post office in Wiltshire and there is no reason to suspect that they were anything but happy. However, Kent also ran another less respectable business. He was a moneylender who sometimes charged exorbitant rates of interest. Tragically, within a few years of their marriage Elizabeth died in childbirth. Her younger sister Fanny who had arrived to support her sibling through the birth, stayed on to care for her baby son. Before long William and Fanny fell in love and began to live together as a couple. Canon Law forbade them from ever marrying and eventually after the baby died, Fanny returned home. Keen to put recent events behind him, Kent set off to London to begin a new life
A Dangerous Affair
This might have been the end of the affair, except that the young Fanny was smitten. Despite her family’s fury, she continued to write to Kent begging him to take her back. Within months Kent relented and Fanny moved into his lodgings in Greenwich. The couple lived discreetly as man and wife with no one suspecting the true nature of their relationship. At some point Kent made a loan of 20 guineas to his landlord at a high rate of interest. The landlord struggled to repay what was, at that time, a vast sum. When Fanny’s family revealed the truth about her relationship with William to him, the landlord seized his opportunity. Using his newly acquired knowledge he threatened to reveal the couple’s secret if the loan wasn’t waived. William was made of stern stuff. He would not be blackmailed and had the landlord arrested. The cat was out of the proverbial bag however, and the couple were forced to move on to an area where they were not known.
While attending the church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, Kent struck up an acquaintance with a man called Richard Parsons. Parsons was the parish clerk and seemed to be sympathetic to the William's plight. When he offered the young couple lodgings in his house in Cock Lane, they accepted. Before long two significant events happened, Fanny became pregnant and Kent made his new landlord a loan of 12 guineas. When William had to travel to a wedding some distance away he left the heavily pregnant Fanny at home. Frightened of being alone so far into her pregnancy Fanny asked Parsons if his daughter Elizabeth could spend the night with her. Elizabeth was eleven at the time and was later described in the newspapers as ‘an artful child’.
The Haunting Begins
That night the young woman and her child companion settled down to sleep. Before long, the two began to hear scratching and tapping noises from behind the wood panelling that lined the room. In rat infested London this should not have been totally unexpected. When the noises continued, the landlord and a neighbour investigated. When Fanny heard they had witnessed a ghostly apparition in her room she became inconsolable. She was convinced that it was the spirit of her dead sister Elizabeth who was angry that Fanny had stolen her husband and was expecting a child. When Kent returned from the wedding he removed the agitated Fanny straight away to different lodgings. He also asked an apothecary to attend on her. Sadly, the apothecary revealed that Fanny had contracted smallpox. Realising she was doomed Fanny made out a will. She left a considerable sum of money and land that had been bequeathed to her to William Kent. A few days later, on the 5th of February 1861 she died. Her infuriated family tried to prevent Kent from inheriting her property but were unsuccessful. By October the twice widowed William had remarried.
The two men arranged series of seances to discover Fanny’s message. Another Methodist minister and some neighbours were invited to attend. Also present was the child Elizabeth and her sister who were placed in the bed that had once been Fanny’s. Before long Fanny’s ghost made itself present, communicating via a system of knocks, one knock for yes, two knocks for no. Through a series of crafty questions, Parsons and his witnesses claimed that poor Fanny had been murdered. They suggested that Fanny never had smallpox but instead had been poisoned by Kent using arsenic. Her restless spirit now wanted justice for herself and her unborn child. Hearing of these events Fanny’s family further whipped up rumours. They suggested Fanny was placed in a closed coffin to hide the fact she wasn’t pock marked before Kent attempted to bury her in secret to prevent them attending her funeral.
A Fresh Start
By the time he let in the New Year in January 1762, Kent must have thought things were going his way. Remarried and employed as a respectable stockbroker, he had also successfully sued his old landlord Richard Parsons for the return of his unpaid loan. Little did William know that his world was soon to be rocked by rumour and accusation. Parsons claimed the strange scratching noises had continued at Cock Lane after the death of Fanny Lynes. Before long, supported by a Methodist preacher, John Moore, Parsons declared that his home was haunted by two ghosts, Elizabeth Lynes and her sister Fanny. What’s more the ghosts were haunting Parson’s daughter because they had a message, a message that would be revealed through the innocent young child.
The Truth is Sought
News of the seances soon spread and Parsons began to charge a fee for those wishing to attend. Cock Lane became crowded each night by a public intrigued by the ghost they nicknamed Scratching Fanny. Some believed the story was a vengeful hoax to frame the innocent William Kent. Others believed that Fanny had been murdered by her amoral lover. The story was made more fascinating by the fact Fanny appeared to have attached herself to the child Elizabeth. Scratching Fanny would appear wherever the child was making those who witnessed the strange events more and more suspicious. Those keen to disprove the existence of the ghost, including William Kent, insisted the child be removed from the house and watched closely. Eventually, a committee was formed to decide once and for all whether the ghost existed. It included such notables as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. Night after night Elizabeth was closely observed while seances were held. The ghost of Fanny obligingly communicated by knocking until Elizabeth was forced to reveal her hands, then she went strangely silent. On some occasions Fanny failed to manifest at all. Eventually, the child and her father were threatened with imprisonment for fraud if they could not prove the existence of the ghost.
The Mystery Solved
Sometime around the 21st February Elizabeth was observed hiding small pieces of wood in her clothes and the trick was revealed. Elizabeth was her own poltergeist. The mischievous child had been making the noises all along. Whether her father put it up to it from the beginning is debatable. What is certain is that he took advantage of the situation to wreak revenge and make a little money on the side. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary The Methodist, John Moore still refused to accept that the whole matter was a hoax. When rumours began that Fanny’s body had been removed from its coffin, he insisted that it was opened. What he and others saw when the coffin lid was removed, was horrific. The young woman was still in her coffin and had clearly died of smallpox. Moore, horrified by his unwitting involvement in the persecution of an innocent man, printed a full retraction of all allegations.
Despite offering a full apology, John Moore was charged with conspiracy to commit fraud. Eventually he paid a hefty fine in reparation and escaped imprisonment. Richard Parsons, his wife and a maid servant were less fortunate. They were found guilty of creating the whole sorry tale as revenge.The three served sentences of between six months and two years hard labour. As for the child Elizabeth and William Kent, little is known. Gradually their story, like that of Scratching Fanny the Ghost of Cock Lane, faded into obscurity. One can only hope that William never lent money to a landlord again and Elizabeth went on to live a long and honest life.