Friday, 6 November 2015

Cock Lane Humbug; the Ballad of Scratching Fanny - Mrs Frances Kent (1735-1760), St John's crypt, Clerkenwell

The burial register of St John's, Clerkenwell identfying Frances Kent as the Cock Lane Ghost

It would have been a strange scene; 1am on the night of the first of February 1762 in the vaults of St John’s Clerkenwell, a group of unlikely ghost hunting gentlemen led by that stalwart champion of common sense, Dr Johnson, hold out guttering candles and push forward one William Kent, gesticulating for him to address himself to an unmarked coffin. The coffin had been placed in the vaults almost a year earlier by Kent himself, and held the remains of his common law wife Frances. William had no doubt only come on this midnight jaunt to the vaults with the greatest reluctance but he had to try and clear himself of the accusation of murdering his dead wife. Who had accused him? Why, Frances herself, who had apparently returned from the dead in the guise of Scratching Fanny, a ghost who manifested herself solely in the presence of a young girl, Elizabeth Parsons and at her father’s house on Cock Lane, by the sound of fingernails scrabbling, scraping and knocking on wood. The father had devised a method of communicating with the ghost and thereby discovered that Frances had been murdered, poisoned, by her husband. Scratching Fanny became a public sensation and William Kent found his character blackened as a wife killer with seemingly no way to prove his innocence. There were sceptics however who were not convinced of the ghost’s veracity and to silence the doubters Scratching Fanny announced, by her system of knocks, that she would manifest herself in her own coffin on the first night of February, the anniversary of her death, and publicly condemn her murdering husband. And this was why Dr Johnson and his colleagues were down in the crypt of St John’s at one in the morning telling a trembling William Kent to stand in front of his wife’s coffin and call out her name clearly. William did what was asked, several times but to everyone’s relief, there was no response, no sign whatsoever of afterlife, from the cold and dusty coffin. Someone suggested opening the casket but the idea was quickly dismissed, William Kent was clearly innocent and the ghost of Scratching Fanny almost certainly a fraud.   



The ghost’s failure to appear did not stop the rumours, it merely rechanneled them. Newspapers and gossip mongers speculated that the reason Frances Kent did not manifest herself on the first of February was because someone had removed her corpse from the coffin! On 25 February William Kent in company with the undertaker who had buried Frances and the Parish Clerk and Sexton, made their way back into the vaults at St John’s, but during the day this time. In practical terms it does not matter what time you visit a church crypt, it is always going to be dark. This time the coffin had to be opened, unscrewed by the undertaker, to expose the “very awful shocking sight” of Frances Kent’s decomposing corpse. This episode dealt the final blow to the story and by July five people went on trial at the Guild Hall charged with conspiracy to take the life of William Kent by accusing him of the murder of Frances Lynes by giving her poison. At the trial the whole story was exposed.


It had begun with the marriage of William Kent and Elizabeth Lynes in Norfolk in 1756 or 1757. The marriage was short-lived because Elizabeth died in child birth, followed shortly by the baby. The distraught widower sought consolation in the arms of his wife’s younger sister Frances but did the honourable thing by proposing marriage. The church proved to be an obstacle to their union as canon law forbade a marriage to the sister of a deceased wife if she had borne a living child, which Elizabeth had. William moved to London where Frances eventually joined him and the couple lived as man and wife, hoping that no one would discover the deception. The couple had problems with their landlord to whom William had lent £20; he discovered their illicit relationship and refused to pay back the loan, assuming that William would rather lose his money than risk exposure. He was wrong; William had him arrested. Whilst looking for new lodgings he met the parish clerk of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, Richard Parsons, a man who liked a drink and whose finances were a little messy. Parsons offered lodgings to the young couple in his house in Cock lane where he lived with his wife and two daughters the eldest of which, a “little artful girl about eleven years of age” was called Elizabeth. 


The Kent’s initially got on well with the Parsons; William failing to learn from previous experience loaned his new landlord Richard Parsons 12 guineas. Strange phenomenon began to occur at Cock Lane, one night a local landlord was terrified by an apparition in white ascending the stairs of the house and while William was away in the country the now pregnant Frances took Elizabeth Parsons into her bed for company and then suffered a night of ominous knockings and scratchings which kept her awake until daylight. When William came home the couple moved to other accommodation but Frances became ill and was diagnosed with smallpox. Shortly before she died on 2 February 1760 she made a will leaving the bulk of her estate to William Kent. The Lynes family were furious and in Doctors Commons challenged the terms of Frances’ will, which had left half a crown to each of her siblings and the rest of her not inconsiderable estate to William. While the legal battle still raged William remarried, no doubt further fuelling the family’s animosity.

"English Incredulity", a contemporary satire on the Cock Lane ghost

Richard Parsons meanwhile had failed to repay William Kent’s 12 guineas and in January 1762 he found himself in court, sued for the balance of the loan by his former tenant. At Cock Lane the supernatural noises which seemed to follow Elizabeth Parsons around coincidentally started up again at around the same time. Richard Parsons called in John Moore,the rector of St Bartholomew-the-Great in West Smithfield, for advice on the apparent haunting. The two men came to the conclusion that the noises were made by the ghost of Frances Kent and devised a system of interrogating it, one knock for yes, two knocks for no. Questioning the restless spirit soon revealed that she still walked the earth because she had not died, as everyone thought, of the smallpox, but of arsenic poisoning and that the toxin had been deliberately administered by her ‘husband’ William Kent. The story of the ghost spread like wildfire helped in large part by the London press which picked up on it very early and then followed every thrilling development for the next six months. The house in Cock Lane was soon besieged by interested spectators and Richard Parsons quickly became alert to the commercial possibilities of the haunting, charging admission to anyone who wanted a consultation with the spirit. The haunting became a cause célèbre, society visitors to Cock Lane included Horace Walpole and Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany. Many of those who attended the séances were not convinced by the performance. Elizabeth Parsons generally remained tucked up in bed, often with her younger sister, and a female relative of the family, Mary Frazer, would run around the room crying “Fanny, Fanny why don't you come? Do come, pray Fanny, come; dear Fanny, come!” Eventually there would be a scratching or knocking sound from the bed, noises which often stopped if Elizabeth was instructed to put her hands outside the bed covers.


The ghost, details from Hogarth's
"Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism"
Some of the sceptics prevailed on Samuel Fludyer, the Lord Mayor of London, to conduct an investigation. The Mayor appointed a panel which included Bishop John Douglas, Stephen Aldrich rector of St Johns, Clerkenwell, John Moore who was still a believer in the ghost and Samuel Johnson amongst others. The Cock Lane ghost committee began its investigations on February first by attending a séance and then taking part in the vigil in the crypt at St James, waiting for Frances Kent to make an appearance. The investigation continued on and off for most of February with the committee growing increasingly sceptical as the ghostly noises always stopped whenever they attended a séance. By the 21 February Elizabeth was being warned that if the noises did not start up again she and her father would be taken to Newgate Gaol; that same day the scratchings started but the maids in attendance told the investigators that they had seen Elizabeth secret a piece of wood about her person before she went to bed. A search soon revealed the ‘ghost’, a small wooden paddle with Elizabeth used to knock on the bedframe and scratch on the wall. John Moore finally realised that he had been taken in a by a hoax and published a retraction of his previous support but it was not enough to stop him being charged with conspiracy along with Richard Parsons and his wife, Mary Frazer and Richard James a tradesman. All five were tried at the Guildhall on 10 July 1762 on a charge brought by William Kent “for a conspiracy to take away his life by charging him with the murder of Frances Lynes by giving her poison whereof she died". The trial went on all day, the jury did not retire until almost 11.00pm but it took them only 15 minutes of deliberations to find all five accused guilty. Sentencing did not take place until February 1763 by which time the relatively wealthy John Moore and Richard James had agreed to pay William Kent £588 in damages; they were released on their promise to pay. The two women received gaol sentences in Bridewell, Mrs Parsons 1 year and Mary Frazer 6 months. Richard Parons was given two years and further ordered to be set in the pillory at the end of Cock Lane three times in the following month. The triple dose of the pillory terrified Parsons more than the prospect of another two years in gaol, London crowds routinely abused pilloried criminals, sometimes with horrific savagery. In the event on all three appearances the crowd took pity on him and rather than pelting him with cabbage stalks and dung passed around the hat and took up a collection.  

 

Scratching Fanny in the pillory, detail from  Hogarth's "The Times"