‘Scratching Fanny’, The Ghost of Cock Lane

In 1762, the haunting of Cock Lane gripped a nation and sent the capital wild with fear and excitement. ‘Scratching Fanny’, so called by the methods of her communication, was the ghost that dominated the 18thcentury.  Was she murdered? Was she even real? The case still divides opinion today. The story of Fanny’s life, death and afterlife is certainly stranger than fiction.

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In 1760, William Kent rented a house in Cock Lane in the suburb of Westfield, London. Kent’s sister in law, Fanny, had become romantically involved with him since his wife’s death (her sister) the year before. Although Fanny and Kent could never legally marry, they lived together, referring to themselves as Mr and Mrs Kent. While they hoped to remain discreet, the landlord soon found out about their arrangement and refused to pay back a loan of £20 to Kent. Kent had him arrested and left the lodgings with Fanny.

 

During morning prayers at church, the couple met Richard Parsons, the clerk. While in a respectable position, Parsons was a known drunk and criminal. However, he offered the couple a good rate for a room at his own house, an offer that Kent quickly took up. He loaned Parsons 12 guineas, under the agreement that it would be paid back at a guinea a month. Fanny quickly became pregnant and the company of Parsons and his daughters was a welcome relief.

While Kent was away attending a wedding, noises began to resonate throughout the house. At first, these were scratches and knocks and weren’t initially attributed to anything supernatural. Such news began to spread and the nearby landlord, James Franzen, soon bore witness to the first appearance of the spectre. Franzen reported to have seen a white, ghostly figure ascend the stairs of the lodgings and the house’s reputation began to grow.

 

After the Kents briefly moved to a nearby apartment, Fanny fell gravely ill. She was diagnosed as suffering from the early stages of an ‘eruptive fever’, which soon developed into smallpox. As the couple were not married, Fanny was keen to get her affairs in order and made sure that a will was drawn up to name Kent as her beneficiary. At this point, as Fanny lay on her death bed, the spectral problems continued, with the ghostly apparition identified as Fanny’s Sister, Elizabeth. Succumbing to her illness, Fanny died a short time afterwards.

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Cock Lane

Due to their ‘shameful’ living arrangements, arranging a funeral for Fanny was more than a little problematic. While Kent tried to remain nameless throughout, his name was recorded on her death certificate and her family caught wind of the news.

Her sister was appalled at Fanny’s will which left her siblings very little, leaving the lion’s share to Kent, including £150 and some land inherited from her brother. After a failed attempt to block the will, the family went their separate ways and there was no love lost between them.

In the following years, Kent trained as a stockbroker and remarried. Yet he did not forge the debt owed to him by his old landlord, Parsons. Kent took legal action and recovered his debts. Yet, as soon as the money was back in his account, the mysterious noises at the Cock Lane residence started once again.

After the couple had left, a woman called Catherine Friend had moved into the lodgings at Cock Lane but moved when she couldn’t handle the knockings any longer. The sounds had also developed to include cat-like scratching noises, all of which appeared to emanate from young Elizabeth Parsons. However, with Fanny now dead, Elizabeth and her father came to the conclusion that the haunting was attributed to a new ghost with unfinished business, Fanny herself.

 

But Parsons was angry. Fanny’s death gave him the opportunity to spread rumours about Kent, and set to telling the world that Fanny’s death was a case of murder and Kent was the culprit. Sadly for Parsons, this didn’t spread as wildly as he hoped, and he began to escalate his story.

Not only did Parsons claim that his house was haunted by Fanny’s ghost, but his 12 year old daughter had spoken to the spectre herself, with Fanny telling the child that Kent had indeed poisoned her with arsenic.

 

To even further escalate his claims, Parson invited a ‘man of high standing’ to the house, intending for him to corroborate his ghostly claims. The man did not see Fanny, but saw the terrified figure of his daughter who claimed to have seen her. He also supposedly heard the knockings that followed and deemed the case to be worthy of further study.

The following night, the man returned with around 20 people in tow, poised to investigate the supposed haunting.

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English Credulity or the Invisible Ghost (1762)

Conveniently, the ghost would only appear to Elizabeth, but would communicate through a series of knocks – one knock for yes, two knocks for no. This basic séance and communication via knocks predated the Fox sisters’ spiritualist rapping by almost a century. It was also very popular with curious visitors and investigators alike. And, much like many Victorian mediums, Elizabeth was clear that Fanny’s ghost would best communicate in darkness.

While the group of men waited, Elizabeth once again saw the ghost of Fanny and soon enough, the knocks began again. Through coded knocking, the ghost confirmed that she had indeed been murdered by Kent and only when he was hanged could her soul truly be at rest.

These claims and communications astounded the men and they went home to spread the news. The tales of Fanny’s communication caught public imagination and were extensively published in The Public Ledger. Subsequently, Kent’s reputation was in tatters as he was now tarred as a murderer. Cock Lane was inundated with enormous queues of visitors, all hoping to enter the house and experience the knockings. For a small fee.

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A 19th Century Illustration of the Room where Events Took Place

The father and daughter duo were soon out of their depth when their ghost went on the road with them. The ghost told a gathered crowd that it would follow Elizabeth everywhere, to which the ever-present committee of investigators said ‘prove it’.

The committee took the girl to the house of a clergyman and asked her to communicate with Fanny. Instead of a manifestation, the ghost could only produce knocks, instantly rousing suspicion.

 

The duo had also claimed that the ghost would appear to anyone who visited her burial vault. Fanny’s sister, who still believed that Fanny’s will was unlawful, was also keen to see proof of her sister’s smallpox, having been denied an open coffin at her burial.

The committee visited the vault and was met with silence. Parson had remarked that Kent’s presence alone would be sure to rouse her angry spirit.

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Men Entering the Burial Vault

As Kent stood in the vault, surrounded by expectant investigators, the air remained silent. Exhausted by years of accusations, Kent insisted on opening Fanny’s coffin. Unsurprisingly, they revealed Fanny’s decomposing body. With this, the spectral matter was at an end.

The state of Fanny’s body was too much for the champions of the ghost and of Parsons, with John Moore –  a renowned preacher, fully taken along by Parson’s deception  – announcing in 1762 that:

 

‘I do hereby certify, that though, from the several attendances on this occasion, I have not been able to point out, how, and in what manner, those knockings and scratchings, of the supposed Ghost, were contrived, performed, and continued; yet, that I am convinced, that those knockings and scratchings were the effects of some artful, wicked contrivance…’

 

Legally, however, Kent was not about to sit down. He indicted Parsons, his daughter and several other conspirators. All were swiftly found guilty and ordered to pay Kent a substantial amount for the distress caused. Still protesting his innocence, Parsons was sentenced to two years imprisonment and was ordered to stand in the pillory (public stocks) three times, before finally being released. Unusually, Parsons was treated well by the crowds as he stood in the pillory, with several people making collections of money for him.

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Cock Lane

Although the Cock Lane ghost was essentially disproven, its importance in the public eye was well established. As belief in the afterlife was essential in Christian doctrine and several preachers had become embroiled in the case, a debate as to the place of the supernatural in Anglican and Methodist belief erupted across the country.

The Cock Lane ghost lived on in art and theatre for centuries, featuring in the work of Oliver Goldsmith and William Hogarth. It was also satirically featured in works by Dicken’s, with Mrs Nickelby humorously claimed that her great-grandfather ‘went to school with the Cock-lane Ghost.’

 

Today, Cock Lane is no more, having been demolished in 1979. In its place sits a row of rather nondescript office buildings – their haunting status currently, unknown.

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To read more of the ghosts exploits and the religious issues arising from the case, take a look HERE and HERE.

 

 

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