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Cock Lane and Common Sense


Contents:

Cock Lane Ghost discredited. Popular Theory of Imposture. Dr. Johnson. Story of the Ghost. The Deceased Wife's Sister. Beginning of the Phenomena. Death of Fanny. Recurrence of Phenomena. Scratchings. Parallel Cases. Ignorance and Malevolence of the Ghost. Possible Literary Sources. Investigation. Imitative Scratchings: a Failure. Trial of the Parsonses. Professor Barrett's Irish parallel. Cause undetected. The Theories of Common-sense. The St. Maur Affair. The Amiens Case. The Sportive Highland Fox. The Brightling Case.


If one phantom is more discredited than another, it is the Cock Lane ghost.

The ghost has been a proverb for impudent trickery, and stern exposure, yet its history remains a puzzle, and is a good, if vulgar type, of all similar marvels. The very people who 'exposed' the ghost, were well aware that their explanation was worthless, and frankly admitted the fact. Yet they, no more than we, were prepared to believe that the phenomena were produced by the spiritual part of Miss Fanny L.--known after her decease, as 'Scratching Fanny'. We still wander in Cock Lane, with a sense of amused antiquarian curiosity, and the same feeling accompanies us in all our explorations of this branch of mythology. It may be easy for some people of common-sense to believe that all London was turned upside down, that Walpole, the Duke of York, Lady Mary Coke, and two other ladies were drawn to Cock Lane (five in a hackney coach), that Dr. Johnson gave up his leisure and incurred ridicule, merely because a naughty child was scratching on a little wooden board.

The matter cannot have been so simple as that, but from the true solution of the problem we are as remote as ever. We can, indeed, study even the Cock Lane Ghost in the light of the Comparative, or Anthropological Method. We can ascertain that the occurrences which puzzled London in 1762, were puzzling heathen philosophers and Fathers of the Church 1400 years earlier. We can trace a chain of 'Scratching Fannies' through the ages, and among races in every grade of civilisation. And then the veil drops, or we run our heads against a blank wall in a dark alley. Chaldeans, Egyptians, Greeks, Eskimo, Red Men, Dyaks, Fellows of the Royal Society, Inquisitors, Saints, have perlustrated Cock Lane, and have come away nothing the wiser. Some, of course, have thought they had the secret, have recognised the work of God, 'daemons,' 'spirits,' 'ghosts,' 'devils,' 'fairies' and of ordinary impostors: others have made a push at a theory of disengaged nervous force, or animal magnetism. We prefer to leave theory alone, not even accepting with enthusiasm, the hypothesis of Dr. Johnson. 'He expressed great indignation at the imposture of the Cock Lane ghost, and related, with much satisfaction, how he had assisted in detecting the cheat, and had published an account of it in the newspapers. Upon this subject I incautiously offended him, by pressing him with too many questions,' says Boswell,--questions which the good doctor was obviously unable to answer.

It is in January, 1762, that the London newspapers begin to be full of a popular mystery, the Cock Lane ghost. Reports, articles, letters, appeared, and the ghost made what is now called a 'sensation'. Perhaps, the most clear, if the most prejudiced account, is that given in a pamphlet entitled The Mystery Revealed, published by Bristow, in St. Paul's Churchyard (1762). Comparing this treatise (which Goldsmith is said to have written for three guineas) with the newspapers, The Gentleman's Magazine and the Annual Register, we get a more or less distinct view of the subject. But the various newspapers repeat each other's versions, with slight alterations; The Gentleman's Magazine, and Annual Register, follow suit, the narratives are 'synoptic,' while Goldsmith's tract, if it be Goldsmith's, is obviously written in defence of the unlucky Mr. K., falsely accused of murder by the ghost.

Mr. K.'s version is the version given by Goldsmith, and thus leads up to the 'phenomena' through a romance of middle-class life. In 1756, this Mr. K., a person of some means, married Miss E. L. of L. in Norfolk. In eleven months the young wife died, in childbed, and her sister, Miss Fanny, came to keep house for Mr. K. The usual passionate desire to marry his deceased wife's sister assailed Mr. K., and Fanny shared his flame. According to Goldsmith, the canon law would have permitted the nuptials, if the wife had not born a child which lived, though only for a few minutes. However this may be, Mr. K. honourably fled from Fanny, who, unhappily, pursued him with letters, and followed him to town. Here they took lodgings together, but when Mr. K. left the rooms, being unable to recover some money which he had lent his landlord, the pair looked out for new apartments. These they found in Cock Lane, in the house of Mr. Parsons, clerk of St. Sepulchre's.

It chanced (here we turn to the Annual Register for 1762) that Mr. K. left Fanny alone in Cock Lane while he went to a wedding in the country. She asked little Elizabeth Parsons, her landlord's daughter, to share her bed, and both of them were disturbed by strange scratchings and rappings. These were attributed by Mrs. Parsons to the industry of a neighbouring cobbler, but when they occurred on a Sunday, this theory was abandoned. Poor Fanny, according to the newspapers, thought the noises were a warning of her own death. Others, after the event, imagined that they were caused by the jealous or admonishing spirit of her dead sister. Fanny and Mr. K. (having sued Mr. Parsons for money lent) left his rooms in dudgeon, and went to Bartlet Court, Clerkenwell. Here Fanny died on February 2, 1760, of a disease which her physician and apothecary certified to be small-pox, and her coffin was laid in the vault of St. John's Church. Now the noises in Cock Lane had ceased for a year and a half after Fanny left the house, but they returned in force in 1761-62. Mr. Parsons in vain took down the wainscotting, to see whether some mischievous neighbour produced the sounds. {165} The raps and scratches seemed to come on the bed of little Elizabeth Parsons, just as in the case of the Tedworth drummer, investigated by Glanvill, a hundred years earlier; and in the case at Orleans, 230 years earlier. The Orleans case is published, with full legal documents, from MS. 40, 7170, 4, Bibliotheque du Roi, in Recueil de Dissertations Anciennes et Nouvelles sur les Apparitions, ii. 90 (a Avignon, 1751). 'Scratching' was usually the first manifestation in this affair, and the scratches were heard in the bedroom occupied by certain children. The Cock Lane child 'was always affected with tremblings and shiverings at the coming and going of the ghost'. It was stated that the child had seen a shrouded figure without hands; two other witnesses (one of them a publican) had seen a luminous apparition, with hands. This brilliant being lit up the figures on the dial of a clock. 'The noises followed the child to other houses,' and multitudes of people, clergy, nobles, and princes, also followed the child. A certain Mr. Brown was an early investigator, and published his report. Like Adrien de Montalembert, in 1526, like the Franciscans about 1530, he asked the ghost to reply, affirmatively or negatively, to questions, by one knock for 'yes,' two for 'no'. This method was suggested, it seems, by a certain Mary Frazer, in attendance on the child. Thus it was elicited that Fanny had been poisoned by Mr. K. with 'red arsenic,' in a draught of purl to which she was partial. She added that she wished to see Mr. K. hanged.

She would answer other questions, now right, and now wrong. She called her father John, while his real name was Thomas. In fact she was what Porphyry, the Neoplatonist, would have called a 'deceitful demon'. Her chief effects were raps, scratchings, and a sound as of whirring wings, which filled the room. This phenomenon occurs in a 'haunted house' mentioned in the Journal of the Psychical Society. It is infinitely more curious to recall, that, when Mr. Im Thurn, in British Guiana, submitted to the doctoring of a peayman (see p. 39), he heard a sound, 'at first low and indistinct, and then gathering in volume as if some big winged thing came from far toward the house, passed through the roof, and then settled heavily on the floor, and again, after an interval, as if the same winged thing rose and passed away as it had come'. Mr. Im Thurn thinks the impression was caused by the waving of boughs. These Cock Lane occurrences were attributed to ventriloquism, but, after a surgeon had held his hand on the child's stomach and chest while the noises were being produced, this probable explanation was abandoned. 'The girl was said to be constantly attended by the usual noises, though bound and muffled hand and foot, and that without any motion of her lips, and when she appeared to be asleep.' {166} This binding is practised by Eskimo Angakut, or sorcerers, as of old, by mediums ([Greek]) in ancient Greece and Egypt, so we gather from Iamblichus, and some lines quoted from Porphyry by Eusebius. {167} A kind of 'cabinet,' as modern spiritualists call a curtain, seems to have been used. In fact the phenomena, luminous apparition, 'tumultuous sounds,' and all, were familiar to the ancients. Nobody seems to have noted this, but one unusually sensible correspondent of a newspaper quoted cases of knockings from Baxter's Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, and thought that Baxter's popular book might have suggested the imposture. Though the educated classes had buried superstition, it lived, of course, among the people, who probably thumbed Baxter and Glanvill.

Thus things went on, crowds gathering to amuse themselves with the ghost. On February 1, Mr. Aldrich, a clergyman of Clerkenwell, assembled in his house a number of gentlemen and ladies, having persuaded Parsons to let his child be carried thither and tested. Dr. Johnson was there, and Dr. Macaulay suggested the admission of a Mrs. Oakes. Dr. Johnson supplied the newspapers with an account of what happened. The child was put to bed by several ladies, about ten o'clock, and the company sat 'for rather more than an hour,' during which nothing occurred. The men then went down-stairs and talked to Parsons, when they were interrupted by some of the ladies, who said that scratching and knocking had set in. The company returned, and made the child hold her hands outside the bedclothes. No phenomena followed. Now the sprite had promised to rap on its own coffin in the vault of St. John's, so thither they adjourned (without the medium), but there was never a scratch!

'It is therefore the opinion of the whole assembly, that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting particular noises, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.'

In precisely the same way the judges in the Franciscan case of 1533, visited the bed of the child where the spirit had been used to scratch and rap, heard nothing, and decided that the affair was a hoax. The nature of the fraud was not discovered, but the Franciscans were severely punished. At Lyons, the bishop and some other clerics could get no response from the rapping spirit which was so familiar with the king's chaplain, Adrien de Montalembert (1526-7). Thus 'the ghost in some measure remains undetected,' says Goldsmith, and, indeed, Walpole visited Cock Lane, but could not get in, apparently after the detection. But, writing on February 2, he may speak of an earlier date.

Meanwhile matters were very uncomfortable for Mr. K. Accused by a ghost, he had no legal remedy. Goldsmith, like most writers, assumes that Parsons undertook the imposture, in revenge for having been sued for money lent by Mr. K. He adds that Mr. K. was engaged in a Chancery suit by his relations, and seems to suspect their agency. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was being 'tested' in various ways. Finally the unlucky child was swung up in a kind of hammock, 'her hands and feet extended wide,' and, for two nights, no noises were heard. Next day she was told that, if there were no noises, she and her father would be committed to Newgate. She accordingly concealed a little board, on which a kettle usually stood, a piece of wood six inches by four. She managed this with so little art that the maids saw her place the wood in her dress, and informed the investigators of the circumstances. Scratches were now produced, but the child herself said that they were not like the former sounds, and 'the concurrent opinion of the whole assembly was that the child had been frightened by threats into this attempt. . . . The master of the house and his friend both declared that the noises the girl had made this morning had not the least likeness to the former noises.' In the same way the Wesleys at Epworth, in 1716, found that they could not imitate the perplexing sounds produced in the parsonage. The end of the affair was that Parsons, Mary Frazer, a clergyman, a tradesman, and others were tried at the Guildhall and convicted of a conspiracy, on July 10, 1762. Parsons was pilloried, and 'a handsome collection' was made for him by the spectators. His later fortunes, or misfortunes, and those of the miserable little Elizabeth, are unknown. One thing is certain, the noises did not begin in an attempt at imposture on Parsons's part; he was on good terms with his lodgers, when Fanny was first disturbed. Again, the child could not counterfeit the sounds successfully when she was driven by threats to make the effort. The seance of rather more than an hour, in which Johnson took part, was certainly inadequate. The phenomena were such as had been familiar to law and divinity, at least since 856, A.D. {170a} The agencies always made accusations, usually false. The knocking spirit at Kembden, near Bingen, in 856 charged a priest with a scandalous intrigue. The raps on the bed of the children examined by the Franciscans, about 1530, assailed the reputation of a dead lady. When the Foxes, at Rochester, in 1848- 49, set up alphabetic communication with the knocks, they told a silly tale of a murder. The Cock Lane ghost lied in the same way. The Fox girls started modern spiritualism on its wild and mischievous career, as Elizabeth Parsons might have done, in a more favourable environment. There was never anything new in all these cases. The lowest savages have their seances, levitations, bindings of the medium, trance-speakers; Peruvians, Indians, have their objects moved without contact. Simon Magus, or St. Paul under that offensive pseudonym, was said to make the furniture move at will. {170b}

There is a curious recent Cock Lane case in Ireland where 'the ghost' brought no accusations against anybody. The affair was investigated by Mr. Barrett, a Professor in the Royal College of Science, Dublin, who published the results in the Dublin University Magazine, for December, 1877. The scene was a small lonely farm house at Derrygonnelly, near Enniskillen. The farmer's wife had died a few weeks before Easter, 1877, leaving him with four girls, and one boy, of various ages, the eldest, Maggie, being twenty. The noises were chiefly heard in her neighbourhood. When the children had been put to bed, Maggie lay down, without undressing, in the bedroom off the kitchen. A soft pattering noise was soon heard, then raps, from all parts of the room, then scratchings, as in Cock Lane. When Mr. Barrett, his friend, and the farmer entered with a candle, the sounds ceased, but began again 'as if growing accustomed to the presence of the light'. The hands and feet of the young people were watched, but nothing was detected, while the raps were going on everywhere around, on the chairs, on the quilt, and on the big four-post wooden bedsteads where they were lying. Mr. Barrett now played Moro with the raps, that is, he extended so many fingers, keeping his hand in the pocket of a loose great-coat, and the sounds always responded the right number. Four trials were made. Then came a noise like the beating of a drum, 'with violent scratching and tearing sounds'.

The trouble began three weeks after the wife's death. Once a number of small stones were found on Maggie's bed. All the family suffered from sleeplessness, and their candles, even when concealed, were constantly stolen. 'It took a boot from a locked drawer,' and the boot was found in a great chest of feathers in a loft. A Bible was spirited about, and a Methodist teacher (the family were Methodists) made no impression on the agency. They tried to get some communication by an alphabet, but, said the farmer, 'it tells lies as often as truth, and oftener, I think'.

Mr. Barrett, and a friend, on two occasions, could detect no method of imposture, and, as the farmer did not believe that his children, sorely distressed by the loss of their mother, would play such tricks, at such a time, even if they could, the mystery remains unsolved. The family found that the less attention they paid to the disturbances, the less they were vexed. Mr. Barrett, examining some other cases, found that Dr. Carpenter's and other theories did not account for them. But it is certain that the children, as Methodists, had read Wesley's account of the spirit at Epworth, in 1716. Mr. Barrett was aware of this circumstance, but was unable to discover how the thing was managed, on the hypothesis of fraudulent imitation. The Irish household seems to have reaped no profit by the affair, but rather trouble, annoyance, and the expense of hospitality to strange visitors.

The agency was mendacious, as usual, for Porphyry complains that the 'spirits' were always as deceitful as the Cock Lane ghost, feigning to be gods, heroes, or the souls of the dead. It is very interesting to note how, in Greece, as Christianity waxed, and paganism waned, such inquiring minds as that of Porphyry fell back on seances and spiritualism, or superstitions unmentioned by Homer, and almost unheard of in the later classical literature. Religion, which began in Shamanism, in the trances of Angakut and Birraark, returned to these again, and everywhere found marvel, mystery, imposture, conscious, or unconscious. The phenomena have never ceased, imposture has always been detected or asserted, but that hypothesis rarely covers the whole field, and so, if we walk in Cock Lane at all, we wander darkling, in good and bad company, among diviners, philosophers, saints, witches, charlatans, hypnotists. Many a heart has been broken, like that of Mr. Dale Owen, by the late discovery of life-long delusion, for we meet in Cock Lane, as Porphyry says, [Greek]. Yet this 'deceptive race' has had its stroke in the making of creeds, and has played its part in human history, while it contributes not a little to human amusement. Meanwhile, of all wanderers in Cock Lane, none is more beguiled than sturdy Common-sense, if an explanation is to be provided. When once we ask for more than 'all stuff and nonsense,' we speedily receive a very mixed theory in which rats, indigestion, dreams, and of late, hypnotism, are mingled much at random, for Common-sense shows more valour than discretion, when she pronounces on matters (or spirits) which she has never studied.

Beautiful instances of common-sense explanations, occur in two stories of the last century, the St. Maur affair (1706), and the haunted house of Amiens, (1746). The author of 'Ce qu'on doit penser de l'aventure arrivee a Saint Maur,' was M. Poupart, canon of St. Maur, near Paris. The good canon, of course, admits Biblical apparitions, which are miraculous, and admits hallucination caused by the state of the visual organs and by fever, while he believes in something like the Lucretian idea, that bodies, dead bodies, at least, shell off a kind of peel, which may, on occasion, be visible. Common ghosts he dismisses on grounds of common-sense; if spirits in Purgatory could appear, they would appear more frequently, and would not draw the curtains of beds, drag at coverlets, turn tables upside down, and make terrible noises, all of which feats are traditional among ghosts.

M. Poupart then comes to the adventure at St. Maur. The percipient, M. de S., was a man of twenty-five: his mother seems to have been a visionary, and his constitution is described as 'melancholic'. He was living alone, however, and his mother has no part in the business. The trouble began with loud knocks at his door, and the servant, when she went to open it, found nobody there. The curtains of his bed were drawn, when he was alone in the room, and here, of course, we have only his evidence. One evening about eleven, he and his servants heard the papers on a table being turned over, and, though they suspected the cat, no cat could be found. When S. went to bed, the same noise persisted in his sitting-room, where the cat, no doubt, could easily conceal herself, for it is not easy to find a cat who has motives for not being found. S. again hunted for the animal, but only heard a great rap on the wall. No sooner had S. gone back to bed, than the bed gave a violent leap, and dashed itself against the wall: the jump covered four feet. He called his servants, who replaced the bed, but the curtains, in their sight, were drawn, and the bed made a wild rush at the fireplace. This happened again twice, though the servants held on gallantly to the bed. Monsieur S. had no sleep, his bed continued to bound and run, and he sent on the following day, for a friend. In that gentleman's presence the leaps made by the bed ended in its breaking its left foot, on which the visitor observed that he had seen quite enough. He is said, later, to have expressed sorrow that he spoke, but he may have had various motives for this repentance.

On the following night, S. slept well, and if his bed did rise and fall gently, the movement rather cradled him to repose. In the afternoon, the bolts of his parlour door closed of their own accord, and the door of a large armoire opened. A voice then bade S. do certain things, which he was to keep secret, go to a certain place, and find people who would give him further orders. S. then fainted, hurt himself, and with difficulty unbolted his door. A fortnight later, S., his mother, and a friend heard more rapping, and a heavy knock on the windows.

M. Poupart now gives the explanations of common-sense. The early noises might have had physical causes: master, servants, and neighbours all heard them, but that proves nothing. As to the papers, a wind, or a mouse may have interfered with them. The movements of the bed are more serious, as there are several witnesses. But 'suppose the bed was on castors'. The inquirer does not ask whether it really was on castors, or not, he supposes the case. Then suppose S., that melancholy man, wants a lark (a envie de se rejouir), he therefore tosses about in bed, and the bed rushes, consequently, round the room. This experiment may be attempted by any philosopher. Let him lie in a bed with castors, and try how far he can make it run, while he kicks about in it. This explanation, dear to common-sense, is based on a physical impossibility, as any one may ascertain for himself. Then the servants tried in vain to hold back the excited couch, well, these servants may have lied, and, at most, could not examine 'les ressorts secrets qui causaient ce mouvement'. Now, M. Poupart deserts the theory that we can make a bed run about, by lying kicking on it, and he falls back on hidden machinery. The independent witness is said to have said that he was sorry he spoke, but this evidence proves nothing. What happened in the room when the door was bolted, is not evidence, of course, and we may imagine that S. himself made the noises on walls and windows, when his friend and mother were present. Thus M. S. was both melancholy, and anxious se donner un divertissement, by frightening his servants, to which end he supplied his bed with machinery that made it jump, and drew the curtains. What kind of secret springs would perform these feats, M. Poupart does not explain. It would have been wiser in him to say that he did not believe a word of it, than to give such silly reasons for a disbelief that made no exact inquiry into the circumstances. The frivolities of the bed are reported in the case of Home and others, nor can we do much more than remark the conservatism of the phenomena; the knocks, and the animated furniture.

The Amiens case (1746) is reported and attested by Father Charles Louis Richard, Professor in Theology, a Dominican friar. The haunted house was in the Rue de l'Aventure, parish of St. Jacques. The tenant was a M. Leleu, aged thirty-six. The troubles had lasted for fourteen years, and there was evidence for their occurrence earlier, before Leleu occupied the house. The disturbances were of the usual kind, a sound of heavy planks being tossed about, as in the experience of Scott at Abbotsford, raps, the fastening of doors so that they could not be opened for long, and then suddenly gave way (this, also, is frequent in modern tales), a sound of sweeping the floor, as in the Epworth case, in the Wesleys' parsonage, heavy knocks and thumps, the dragging of heavy bodies, steps on the stairs, lights, the dancing of all the furniture in the room of Mlle. Marie de Latre, rattling of crockery, a noise of whirring in the air, a jingling as of coins (familiar at Epworth), and, briefly, all the usually reported tintamarre. Twenty persons, priests, women, girls, men of all sorts, attest those phenomena which are simply the ordinary occurrences still alleged to be prevalent.

The narrator believes in diabolical agency, but he gives the explanations of common-sense. 1. M. Leleu is a visionary. But, as no one says that all the other witnesses are visionaries, this helps us little. 2. M. Leleu makes all the noise himself. That is, he climbs to the roof with a heavy sack of grain on his shoulder, and lets it fall; he runs up and down the chimneys with his heavy sack on his shoulder, he frolics with weighty planks all over the house, thumps the walls, makes furniture dance, and how? What is his motive? His tenants leave him, he is called a fool, a devil, a possessed person: his business is threatened, they talk of putting him in jail, and that is all he has got by his partiality for making a racket. 3. The neighbours make the noises, and again the narrator asks 'how?' and 'why?' 4. Some priests slept in the house once and heard nothing. But nobody pretends that there is always something to hear. The Bishop of Amiens licenses the publication 'with the more confidence, as we have ourselves received the depositions of ten witnesses, a number more than sufficient to attest a fact which nobody has any interest in feigning'.

In a tale like this, which is only one out of a vast number, exactly analogous, Common-sense is ill-advised in simply alleging imposture, so long maintained, so motiveless, and, on the whole, so very difficult to execute. M. Leleu brought in the Church, with its exorcisms, but our Dominican authority does not say whether or not the noises ceased after the rites had been performed. Dufresnoy, in whose Dissertations {178} these documents are republished, mentions that Bouchel, in his Bibliotheque du Droit Francois, d. v. 'Louage,' treats of the legal aspect of haunted houses. Thus the profession has not wholly disdained the inquiry.

Of all common sensible explanations, the most sporting and good- humoured is that given by the step-daughter of Alexander Dingwall, a tenant in Inverinsh, in 1761. Poor Dingwall in his cornyard 'heard very grievous lamentations, which continued, as he imagined, all the way to the seashore'. These he regarded as a warning of his end, but his stepdaughter sensibly suggested that, as the morning was cold, 'the voice must be that of a fox, to cause dogs run after him to give him heat'. Dingwall took to bed and died, but the suggestion that the fox not only likes being hunted, but provokes it as a form of healthy exercise, is invaluable. The tale is in Theophilus Insulanus, on the second sight.

There is no conclusion to be drawn from this mass of Cock Lane stories. Occasionally an impostor is caught, as at Brightling, in 1659. Mr. Joseph Bennet, a minister in that town, wrote an account of the affair, published in Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences. 'Several things were thrown by an invisible hand,' including crabs! 'Yet there was a seeming blur cast, though not on the whole, yet upon some part of it, for their servant girl was at last found throwing some things.' She averred that an old woman had bidden her do so, saying that 'her master and dame were bewitched, and that they should hear a great fluttering about their house for the space of two days'. This Cock Lane phenomenon, however, is not reported to have occurred. The most credulous will admit that the maid is enough to account for the Brightling manifestations; some of the others are more puzzling and remain in the region of the unexplained.


Andrew Lang