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The Sinister Secrets of the Cock Lane Ghost

In the grim and haunting streets of London's Cock Lane in 1762, a chilling tale unfolded, capturing the morbid fascination of the masses. This spectral saga revolved around three individuals: William Kent, a usurer from Norfolk; Richard Parsons, a parish clerk; and Parsons' daughter, Elizabeth

Ghost of cock lane

The dark narrative began with the tragic demise of Kent's wife, Elizabeth Lynes, during childbirth. Bereaved and bound by canon law, which forbade their union, Kent sought solace in the arms of Elizabeth's sister, Fanny. Despite their inability to marry, they clandestinely relocated to Cock Lane, a foreboding abode owned by Parsons.


Strange reports soon surfaced, recounting eerie knocking sounds and ghostly apparitions that


plagued the premises. These spectral disturbances subsided after the couple's departure but returned with a vengeance following Fanny's untimely death from smallpox. Adding fuel to the infernal fire, Kent successfully pursued legal action against Parsons for an outstanding debt.


Parsons, in turn, claimed that Fanny's tormented spirit now haunted his dwelling, and later, his daughter Elizabeth. Gripped by fear and curiosity, fervent séances were held to unearth the motives of the infamous "Scratching Fanny." The streets of Cock Lane teemed with intrigued onlookers, as the ghostly tale consumed their collective imagination.


The vengeful spirit insinuated that Fanny had been ruthlessly poisoned with arsenic, casting a shadow of suspicion upon Kent as her alleged murderer. However, a commission, including the esteemed Samuel Johnson, concluded that this purported haunting was nothing more than a fraudulent scheme.


Further investigations exposed Elizabeth Parsons as the mastermind behind the deception, coerced by her own father. Justice was served, and the guilty parties faced prosecution. Richard Parsons, condemned by public opinion, endured the pillory and was sentenced to two years behind bars.


The saga of the Cock Lane ghost became a catalyst for controversy between the Methodist and Anglican churches, intertwining with the fabric of the era's literature. Reverberations of this macabre tale resonated through the works of renowned Victorian authors like Charles Dickens, while the satirical prowess of William Hogarth immortalized the ghost in two of his prints.


Around 1756-57, William Kent, a usurer hailing from Norfolk, wedded Elizabeth Lynes, daughter of a grocer from Lyneham. Their love burned bright but was tragically short-lived when Elizabeth succumbed to childbirth shortly after their move to Stoke Ferry. During Elizabeth's pregnancy, her sister Fanny joined the couple as a caretaker for the infant and her grieving husband.


Despite familial disapproval, William and Fanny's bond deepened, though the constraints of canon law prevented them from marrying. Seeking advice in London, Kent learned that their union was forbidden due to Elizabeth having borne him a son. In January 1759, he abandoned his post office and departed from Fanny, hoping to suppress his unfortunate passion by immersing himself in the bustle of the city. Fanny, on the other hand, stayed with her brother in Lyneham.


Undeterred by societal norms, Fanny continued to express her ardor through impassioned letters to Kent, imploring him to spend their lives together. Eventually, Kent relented and allowed Fanny to join him in East Greenwich, where they lived as partners, secretly making wills in each other's favor. Their discreet cohabitation was disrupted when their landlord, privy to their relationship, displayed his disdain by refusing to repay a loan Kent had extended. Kent resorted to legal action, resulting in the landlord's arrest.


During their attendance at morning prayers in St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church,

the couple met Richard Parsons, the parish clerk. Taking a keen interest in their predicament, Parsons offered the use of a house he owned on Cock Lane. The couple, desperate to escape their current residence, accepted the offer and moved into the Cock Lane house on April 23, 1760.


From the outset, the Cock Lane house seemed to harbor a dark and foreboding presence. Soon after their arrival, the tenants on the lower floor reported hearing strange knocking noises in the evenings. Fearing that these disturbances might result in their eviction, the couple considered leaving. However, the knocks ceased, and they decided to stay.


On August 13, 1760, Fanny's health began to deteriorate, and she was diagnosed with smallpox. Kent, desperate to find a remedy, consulted a local physician who prescribed a risky but innovative treatment involving the application of cowpox. Unfortunately, Fanny's condition worsened, and on September 2, 1760, she passed away at the age of 26. Her death devastated Kent, plunging him into a deep depression.


During Fanny's illness, Elizabeth Parsons, Richard Parsons' daughter, had been a frequent visitor to the Cock Lane house. In the wake of Fanny's passing, she continued to console Kent, spending more time with him. However, Elizabeth also began experiencing strange occurrences, including unexplained knockings and movements of furniture. Rumors of a supernatural presence soon spread, fueling the atmosphere of dread.


Elizabeth Parsons claimed that she had been receiving messages from the ghost of Fanny, who blamed Kent for her murder. These accusations gained traction, and a committee formed by interested parties was established to investigate the haunting.


This committee included prominent figures such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, writer and lexicographer, and John Moore, the Bishop of Ely. Their inquiries involved questioning Elizabeth and conducting séances to communicate with the alleged spirit.


Scratching sounds and knocks purportedly made by the ghost during these séances drew immense public attention. The phenomenon became a sensation, with large crowds gathering outside the Cock Lane house, hoping to witness the ghostly occurrences. People from all walks of life were drawn to the story, including the rich and famous, along with commoners seeking intrigue and entertainment.


The accusations leveled against William Kent reached a fever pitch, with many believing he had

poisoned Fanny to free himself from their forbidden love. In response to these allegations, Kent sought legal assistance from John Glynn, a lawyer and Member of Parliament. Glynn initiated legal proceedings against Richard Parsons and the members of the investigating committee, accusing them of conspiracy to slander and defame Kent.


The trial, which took place in the Court of King's Bench on January 10, 1762, revealed the truth behind the alleged haunting. Elizabeth Parsons, under oath, confessed that she had been responsible for the ghostly noises. She explained that her father had coerced her into participating in the scheme, hoping to extort money from Kent and tarnish his reputation.


Richard Parsons and his daughter were subsequently indicted for conspiracy a

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

nd perjury. On April 10, 1762, Richard Parsons stood in the pillory at the end of Cock Lane for one hour, enduring the public's ridicule and abuse. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was spared the pillory due to her youth but was sentenced to two years in prison.


The Cock Lane ghost affair left a lasting impact on society and the literary world. It drew attention to the intersection of superstition, fraud, and the public's fascination with the supernatural. The controversy also ignited a debate between the Methodist and Anglican churches regarding the existence of spirits and the practices of spiritualism. The tale of the Cock Lane ghost continued to captivate imaginations, inspiring works of fiction and artistic interpretations for years to come.


In the chilling realm of religious controversy, the Cock Lane ghost loomed like a specter, haunting the divide between Methodists and orthodox Anglicans.


The belief in an afterlife, the existence of spirits, and the supernatural had become the battleground for these opposing factions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, himself had been deeply influenced by a haunting in his family home, leading to his religion being closely associated with the paranormal. On the other hand, the Anglican establishment dismissed such phenomena as remnants of Catholic superstition.



Samuel Johnson, a devout Christian, shared the concern of Joseph Glanvill, an author who warned against the rise of atheism and skepticism eroding religious beliefs. Johnson found the idea of a non-existent afterlife to be abhorrent, but he maintained a cautious distance from the more credulous Methodists.


He believed in the need for concrete evidence of supernatural communication. Johnson's skepticism, however, didn't spare him from being mocked for his apparent gullibility. Satirist Charles Churchill, harboring resentment toward Johnson, portrayed him as one of the more easily fooled investigators of the ghostly occurrences.


The exposure of Richard Parsons' deception didn't dampen the flood of scorn heaped upon the Cock Lane ghost affair. Satirical works, poems, and plays proliferated, ridiculing the credulity of those involved. Horace Walpole, in his memoirs, accused the Methodists of actively seeking to validate the existence of ghosts.


Publishers and newspapers dug into the past, unearthing accounts of previous hoaxes and citing works like Reginald Scot's "Discoverie of Witchcraft" from 1584. The controversy even inspired Oliver Goldsmith's satirical illustration, "English Credulity or the Invisible Ghost," which depicted a séance with a hovering ghost and lampooned various figures, including magistrates and clergy.


Playwright David Garrick capitalized on the public's fascination with the Cock Lane ghost, dedicating his successful play "The Farmer's Return from London" to satirical artist William Hogarth. Hogarth himself contributed to the mockery, attacking Methodist ministers and employing sexual innuendos in his artwork. His prints, such as "Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism," drew a connection between the Methodists and political demagoguery, enraging Bishop William Warburton.


The Cock Lane ghost continued to cast its eerie presence in literary works throughout the years. Charles Dickens, influenced by his nursemaid's stories of ghosts, made references to the haunting in several of his books. From Mrs. Nickleby's claim of her great-grandfather attending school with the Cock Lane Ghost to passing mentions in "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Dombey and Son," the spectral legend endured.


The physical remnants of the Cock Lane haunting also became part of history. The site of Richard Parsons' lodgings, believed to be at 20 Cock Lane, was a building constructed in the late 17th century, which sadly met its demise with its demolition in 1979, leaving behind only echoes of the past.


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Unknown member
Jul 17, 2023

Brilliant read thank you again Gary x

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