Murder, Sex and Haunting

Paul Chambers. The Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr Johnson’s London. Sutton, 2006.

The Cock Lane Ghost was one of the great scandals of eighteenth century London. A man named William Kent had eloped to London with his deceased wife’s sister, someone whom he was not allowed to marry by canon law, and made the mistake of lending money to his drunken wide boy landlord, Richard Parsons. When he wanted repayment the landlord threatened him with exposure, but got sued instead. Meanwhile, Fanny the deceased wife’s sister had died of smallpox in the eighth month of pregnancy.

This provided an ideal opportunity for revenge, and Parsons was soon putting it about that his house was haunted. His young daughter Betty heard knockings and scratching, and was soon communicating in a knocking code with the spirit which obligingly revealed that it was none other than Fanny, who claimed to have been poisoned by her 'husband'.

The resulting scandal divided London, and set the Anglican establishment against the Methodists. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley was a great believer in ghosties and ghouls and witches and such like, and had no time for the Pelicanists of his day, and a Methodist preacher named Moore became one of the ghosts chief champions. Those who adhered to the new rationalism of the enlightenment were outraged by all of this and a ferocious war of words developed. Among those who got involved were Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and William Hogarth, whose famous drawing 'Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism' was partly inspired by the events at Cock Lane.

Parsons is in no doubt that the courts of the time were correct in seeing that this was an imposture, and for modern readers perhaps half the interest is in seeing how this story acted as a paradigm for many other cases in which young people became the centre of a variety of 'anomalous and paranormal' events, and were able to fool the learned. The story has obvious parallels with the events in the Fox household which led to the birth of spiritualism, and one wonders if they could have learned of Cock Lane through some chap-book, or whether the idea of communicating with spirits through knocks was an established folk custom.

Lest we attack the credulity of a past age, its worth bearing in mind that a huge amount of rational common sense was said about this event at the time, some of the comments being none too politically correct by today's standards. Would today's press be so forthright, and how many of today's literati would side with scepticism. What, one wonders, would Howarth have made of today's credulity, superstition and fanaticism? - Peter Rogerson

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