The Cock Lane Ghost of 1762 : an 18C intersection between magic and religion

cocklane ghost

In January 1762 the parish clerk at St Sepulchre’s in Cock Lane, Richard Parsons, invited a genteel man to come and witness a terrifying atrocity taking place in his home. An inexplicable haunting, anchored to his young 12 year old daughter, was ensuing. The young girl reported communications with Fanny Lynes, who wished to be avenged for her death. This vengeful spirit asserted that her caretaker, William Kent, had murdered her by poison.

The news of this macabre event spread far and wide, and a deluge of genteel individuals camped out at the Parsons’ household each evening, awaiting further correspondence with this evasive spirit. None saw her, but all could hear her – communication was arranged by issuing questions, to which the ghost would respond with knocks or scratches: one knock was an answer in the affirmative, two knocks the negative, and scratching indicated frustration.

Visitors were ushered into the room of Parsons’ young daughter at bed-time, where the bed, bed sheets, and girl were thoroughly checked for any signs of deceit… the girl was placed into the bed where subsequent reports of the bed shaking were reported – and thus Fanny’s presence was noted. The interview included the following questions:

Is your disturbance occasioned by any ill-treatment from Mr Kent?  – one knock.

Were you brought to an untimely end by poison? – one knock.

In what way was the poison administered? Beer (yes) or Purl (no). – two knocks.

Whether, if the accused should be taken up, he would confess? – one knock.

Would it ease your mind if the man was hanged? – one knock.

Furthermore, she was asked a variety of questions regarding the people in the room and the colour/size of various items in their possession. The answers were regarded as extraordinary, and each night the crowds increased – many wanted to witness for themselves the vengeful spirit who had latched herself to the parsons daughter.

cocklane pic1This theatrical episode reached its end when it was finally discovered that the young girl carried a small wooden plank on her person, which she used to issue answers during these allegedly mystical displays. The Court of the King’s Bench convicted Richard Parsons and his wife Elizabeth for their alleged fraud; Richard was set in the pillory three times followed by two years imprisonment. His wife, Elizabeth, received one year in prison.

It is unsurprising that this event generated a sensation throughout the Georgian world – stories such as these were not infrequent postulated. Many would take advantage of the fame and fortune to be generated by these sensational claims; it is no surprise that a book on The History of Apparitions released in 1762. What is intriguing, however, is the great deal of tension which this event generated. The rising Enlightenment era of reason and sensibility had not persuaded all that such events must be, by their very nature, sensational products of deceit. There were many individuals – especially those who were religiously inclined – who remained credulous.

Indeed, as the Cock Lane Ghost enigma gained steam, a local Manchester newspaper issued an article elucidating the tension which had arisen amongst some religious communities:

cocklanepic2

“The Clergy as well as Laity, who are endeavouring to satisfy themselves concerning the reality or deception of this strange Story, seem at present to be much divided in their Sentiments. Some regarding it as a palpable Imposition, which a very short Time and Attention must infallibly expose; whilst others put a grave Face upon the Matter, and are much inclined to give Credit to it.”

In an era booming by Christian growth through the evangelical revivals, spiritualism and Christian spirituality were still viewed as corollaries. Indeed, even John Wesley himself argued that a true Bible-believing Christian could not discount the reality of ghosts and witchcraft in his journal in 1768, a few years later.

“It is true, that the English in general, and indeed most of the men in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives’ fables. I am sorry for it; and I willingly take this opportunity of entering my solemn protest against this violent compliment, which so many that believe the bible pay to those who do not believe it…giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible. And they know…that if but one account of the intercourse of men with separate spirits be admitted, their whole castle in the air (Deism, Atheism, Materialism) falls to the ground.”

One often thinks of the modern era as definitively noted by rationalism and reason – even amongst the ranks of religious individuals. However, perhaps this interaction is slightly more nuanced… not only was the space for these mystical realities still present in the 18th century, it was viewed as unbiblical to deny their presence by some prominent Christians. It would be fascinating to note how prevalent such ‘superstitious’ views were amongst the wider evangelical population…

 

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