Cock Lane Ghost

The Cock Lane ghost

The Cock Lane ghost was a purported haunting that attracted mass public attention in 1762.

The location was an apartment in Cock Lane, a short road adjacent to London’s Smithfield market and a few minutes’ walk from St Paul’s Cathedral.

The event centred around three people: William Kent, a usurer from Norfolk, Richard Parsons, a parish clerk, and Parsons’ daughter Elizabeth. Following the death during childbirth of Kent’s wife, Elizabeth Lynes, he became romantically involved with her sister, Fanny. Canon law prevented the couple from marrying, but they nevertheless moved to London and lodged at the property in Cock Lane, then owned by Parsons.

Several accounts of strange knocking sounds and ghostly apparitions were reported, although for the most part they stopped after the couple moved out, but following Fanny’s death from smallpox, and Kent’s successful legal action against Parsons over an outstanding debt, they began again. Parsons claimed that Fanny’s ghost haunted his property, and later his daughter.

Regular séances were held to determine “Scratching Fanny’s” motives, and Cock Lane was often made impassable by the throngs of interested bystanders. The ghost appeared to claim that Fanny had been poisoned with arsenic, and Kent was publicly suspected of being her murderer, but a commission whose members included Samuel Johnson concluded that the supposed haunting was a fraud. Further investigations proved the scam was perpetrated by Elizabeth Parsons, under duress from her father.

Those responsible were prosecuted and found guilty; Richard Parsons was pilloried and sentenced to two years in prison. The Cock Lane ghost became a focus of controversy between the Methodist and Anglican churches and is referenced frequently in contemporary literature.

Charles Dickens is one of several Victorian authors whose work alluded to the story and the pictorial satirist William Hogarth referenced the ghost in two of his prints.