The Cock Lane Ghost

I found this story in Fortean Times (Christmas 2015). You should really read the whole article, if you have a chance, because it includes lots of other interesting material and scandals about Cock Lane, whereas I’m focusing purely on the ghost and the people involved in the hauntings.

I haven’t even started this post and I’m already giggling over the title. If you think “The Cock Lane Ghost” is a ridiculous name, just wait until you hear what it was called at the time: “Scratching Fanny“. In the UK, “fanny” means “vagina”, so . . .

Seems legit.

Seems legit.

Okay, here’s what happened.

In 1759 in London, the clerk of St. Sepulchre’s Church (which is right next to Cock Lane) discovered a genteel husband and wife attending his morning service. The husband, William Kent, and the clerk, Richard Parsons, started chatting and became friendly.

Kent assumed the clerk was respectable (spoiler: he wasn’t), and asked Parsons if he could direct him to some lodgings for himself and his wife. Apparently the Kents, who were expecting a baby, were in the middle of refurbishing their new house nearby, but it was not yet habitable.

Parsons told the couple they could stay with him and his family, who lived right near the church, in Cock Lane. The problem was not only that Parsons was thought to be respectable, and wasn’t; as it turns out, the Kents were also thought to be respectable and weren’t.

This is the equivalent of finding a sketchy roommate on Craigslist, and it will probably end just as well.

Parsons was a bit of a drunk, but the government had recently upped the taxes on alcohol, so Parsons couldn’t afford to indulge as much as he wanted. Where once he only a drunken fool, now he was outright corrupt and was running scams in order to pay for his fix.

“He was also a gossip, a tattletale, a bit of a bad apple. He had, for example, been obscurely involved in a ‘malicious and ill-minded’ hate mail letter campaign only three years earlier, involving the death of someone just off Cock Lane”. Classy.

William Kent didn’t have the rosiest backstory, either. His “wife”, Fanny, wasn’t even his wife. She was his sister-in-law whom he had gotten pregnant when his first wife (and their infant son) died. It was a strange quirk of law at the time which kept men from marrying their sisters-in-law under certain conditions.

So, with one sister dead, and the other sister pregnant, and no hope of a marriage forthcoming, William Kent and Fanny ran off together and tried to pass themselves off as husband and wife. The result? SCANDALAMITY. And some pretty pissed off in-laws.

Within a few days of moving into Parsons’s home, Kent lent Parsons 12 guineas (the equivalent of £12.60, or almost $20. A decent chunk of money for the time, anyway). At first, it was fine. Kent went away on business, Fanny had a great time hanging out with Parsons’s young daughters, and Parsons was probably drinking away the 12 guineas.

Then Fanny, who shared a room with the little Elizabeth (or Betty) Parsons when William was away, started hearing weird, violent noises in the middle of the night which terrified her. Was it her creepy Craigslist roommate, or a goddamned ghost? Fanny didn’t know. It’s all fun and games until someone gets haunted.

Then things started going south between William Kent and Richard Parsons. So you’re living with someone you barely know, have loaned him money he doesn’t seem to want to pay back, and now there’s a fucking poltergeist haunting your wife. It’s time to move.

It was *so* time to move that Fanny contracted smallpox just so they could get goddamned hell out of there. Okay, I’m pretty sure she didn’t deliberately give herself smallpox, but I bet she thought about it.

They moved Fanny into more comfortable lodgings nearby, as their house still wasn’t finished. William Kent asked Parsons for the money he owed, but Parsons refused to pay it back. He had somehow figured out that Fanny wasn’t really William’s wife and decided “What’s a little blackmail between friends?”

While all of this was playing out, and while Fanny lay dying of smallpox, the Cock Lane poltergeist was getting ready to rave. It was so loud that neighbors complained, including the dude who owned the pub next door, James Franzen. When a bar is complaining that you’re too loud, then you need to get your shit together.

Here’s the thing: James Franzen was absolutely petrified of ghosts. And Parsons knew it.

And, as it turns out, the poltergeist was all completely staged by Parsons and young Betty. (Gasp! I know you’re shocked by this completely unpredictable turn of events.)

So, one night, “Parsons lured Franzen next door and staged a fake apparition for the poor man to see, claiming it was a ghost related to William Kent – in fact his first wife, Elizabeth Lynes . . . . Having put a sheet over his head and scared the poor man out of his wits, Parsons, sheetless but three-sheets-to-the-wind, pursued the landlord back to his pub, demanding entry and, most crucially, the largest brandy that the publican could provide“.

The fuck was the purpose of that? I’m sure I don’t know. This is not exactly the work of a criminal mastermind. I guess he just really wanted a brandy and didn’t want to pay for it, and Elizabeth Lynes was the first dead person he could think  of?

Over the next two years (during which time Fanny died of her smallpox, along with their unborn child), Kent took Parsons to court and managed to reclaim his money, and the ghost calmed down a bit, although it’s a likely assumption that Parsons kept it up at least a little bit to scam booze off of the terrified Franzen.

Meanwhile, William Kent was (legitimately) married for the second time to a woman with the magnificent name of Bathsheba Bowers. It all looked a bit sketchy: his first wife and child die and he immediately impregnates and runs off with her sister, only for her to die about nine months later, and she leaves him most of her money in her will, and then he marries again with unseemly haste. The Lynes family must have been fucking livid.

In fact, that they were so angry that they submitted a Bill of Complaint against him to the Lord Chancellor, convinced something shady was going on.

An investigator started digging around to see if the Bill of Complaint has any merit. In the course of the investigations, the investigator ran into Parsons, who was still pissy that Kent had the AUDACITY to ask for his loan to be repaid. So Parsons, learning of this case against Kent, got an idea. A shitty, dirtbag idea.

He was going to see if he could get William Kent hanged, all for some bad blood over 12 guineas.

His daughter already had the late, small-poxed Fanny all freaked out by a fake ghost, and Parsons already has the poor, ghost-phobic Franzen next door terrified of a sheet with two eye-holes cut in it claiming to be Elizabeth Lynes. So he lured Franzen back over (NO, FRANZEN, JUST SAY NO) to his house and sprung an impromptu seance on the poor guy.

Parsons made sure that Franzen heard some creepy scratching and knocking sounds, and he suggested that it was either Elizabeth Lynes again, or Fanny Lynes who’s back to revenge her murder. At this point, Franzen fled the house.

After various noise complaints and probably due to Franzen babbling in fear to all his patrons, the rumor of the Cock Lane ghost was starting to gain serious traction. The problem is that the issue of ghosts was something of a religious debate, and the Cock Lane ghost was starting to pique the interest of church officials.

The short version of this is that Methodists at this time were ghost-believers, thinking that “ghosts might be proof of supernatural power, and thus proof of God – minor proof, of an inferior light-show variety, but still proof”. The issue of ghosts wasn’t currently high on the Church of England’s agenda, so the Methodists, in an attempt to grasp power, thought the Cock Lane ghost might be the key to their ascendancy.

A Methodist reverend named John Moore had Parsons organize another seance, largely because Moore was convinced that the hauntings were real, and that the ghost of Fanny Lynes was going to give evidence that she was murdered by Kent. If this were to happen, in one fell swoop the Methodists would outpace the Anglicans in theological breakthroughs AND British justice could be served.

His presence at the seance gathered a crowd of people outside. Everyone heard the knocking, ERMAGERD.

Parsons, not knowing when to stop, then organized another seance, during which time the knocks, in answer to questions he asked, absolutely confirmed that William Kent was a murderer, and that he had killed off Fanny with arsenic for her money or because the situation was too difficult, etc. Pick a motive: Kent had a lot. The newspapers started picking up the story.

At this point, Kent was like, “I’ve had enough with this bullshit, I’m going to attend a seance and we’ll see which one of us is the criminal.” The seance was big and sensational, with Parsons crying out, “Kent! Ask the ghost if you are to be hanged!

So Kent decided to go to two more seances in Cock Lane about a week later. Only this time he brought his lawyer, a clergyman of his own choosing, and Fanny’s apothecary who attended to her during her illness. Brother came prepared. And the ghost started making mistakes in its story. Which was damned good timing for Kent, because people were starting to demand his arrest.

With people growing more unruly regarding the matter, the Lord Mayor insisted that young Betty Parsons, who had been present at all the seances, be taken elsewhere and tested on her truthfulness. Funnily enough, the “ghost” only seemed to follow Betty. Wherever she was, so was the knocking and scratching. Betty finally broke down and confessed that she sneaked a wooden board into her bed, and she was the one who was knocking on it, scaring the wits out of Fanny back in the day. I have no idea why. A childish whim, I suppose? She also admitted that her father pressured her into repeating her performance at the seances. A committee, just to be on the safe side, went to Fanny Lyne’s crypt, since her “ghost” promised to knock on the lid of her coffin. It did not happen.

The whole scam rapidly crumbled and the hatred of Kent dissolved (at least by the public; probably not by his wife and mistress’s family, or by Parsons). In 1762, Parsons was put on trial and convicted, along with four other people. One of the other four was Reverend Moore. I have no idea how complicit Moore was in any of the ghost nonsense.

Parsons was put in the pillory on Cock Lane, where he was, inexplicably, treated very kindly by his neighbors. The same neighbors whom he had been terrifying with sheets and from whom he had been scamming liquor and money, and disturbing with weird noises in the middle of the night. Then he was forced to spend two years in prison. And, worst of all, he and Moore had to pay Kent £588 in damages. Kent presumably led a normal life after that with his second (third?) wife, and the exposure of Parons’s scandal was significant enough to allow Kent to regain his reputation.

The house in Cock Lane survived until the 1980s, when it was demolished for housing developments.

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2 Responses to The Cock Lane Ghost

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

  2. Pingback: Histrionic Histories: The Cock Lane Ghost – Katherine Givens

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