• That Was Genius Team

Episode 42 - One Dead President and a Scottish Woman's Bottom (Spooky Week)

Updated: Apr 17


Sam's Episode Notes: The Hammersmith Ghost murder

Today Tom, I'm going to talk to you about a grisly tale from the turn of the 19th century – a hunt for a dead man that left a man, erm... actually dead.

The year is 1803, and we're in London, a city of around a million people at the time – and after dark, when there were no real street lights as such, not a very safe place to be.

And it was about to get a lot more dangerous, with an evil walking the streets that would see an innocent man killed, and result in a quirk of UK law that would still be haunting the legal system for the next 200 years.

In November 1803, a string of assaults took place near Hammersmith churchyard at night. Two women, one very old and the other very pregnant, had been grabbed as they passed the churchyard,both dying of shock within a few days. A few days later, at around 9pm, a man was grabbed by the throat whilst walking through the gravestones, and claimed he had punched the supposed ghost, later telling a court that the ghost: “"gave me a twist round, and I saw nothing; I gave a bit of a push out with my fist, and felt something soft, like a great coat." – his companion corroborated the story. In another instance, a hackney carriage driver saw the ghost and fled, abandoning his passengers. Which I suspect was just because they wanted to try and get to the South of the river after 10pm. Embittered former Londoner joke there.

Then, on December 29th, a night watchman called Willy Girdler spotted the ghost whilst patrolling around beaver lane and chased it, but it got away, throwing off its shroud as the figure beneath darted into an alleyway. (Incidentally, Tom, if your Willy is walking on Beaver Lane, never throw off your shroud. Practice safe sex, kids).

So, was this a ghost, or was it a man? Rumours circulating at the time were that it WAS a ghost, of a man who had committed suicide the year before by slitting his own throat. He had then been buried in the churchyard, which superstition at the time argued was a very bad idea because the soul of the deceased would not be able to rest. Hence becoming a ghost.

It also seemed that being buried in a churchyard gave the dead some very odd fashion sense, because as well as the traditional white sheet, he also apparently had great big viking horns, a cloak, and big glass googly eyes.

Hmmm, big googly eyes and a viking outfit. I suspect this wasn't so much a ghost as just someone cosplaying Asterix in a graveyard. Which, if you've been to London in the last few years, would not be that strange.

Either that or the suicide victim was the unsuccessful owner of Britain's first fancy dress shop and was buried with all his most precious objects – arrow through the head, glasses with eyes on springs...

Either way, the locals were convinced there was either a ghost or a walking joke shop on the prowl, and decided to do something about it. And that something was to form vigilante groups of concerned citizens. Because what could possibly go wrong when you give nervous, untrained members of the public weapons and adrenaline?! Hello to all our American police audience by the way. Actually they'd never have shot at a ghost, he was white.

Anyway, we're back to Beaver Lane and Willy Girdler, who was on his patrols again when at around 10.30pm on January 3rd 1804, he met one of the vigilantes, a customs officer called Frances Smith, and they agreed to meet again just after 11 to go ghost hunting.

So 11 arrived, and Smith went to meet Girdler. On the way, he came across a painter and decorator in the street, a guy called Thomas Millwood, who was on his way home from visiting his Mum.

And what do painters and decorators traditionally wear, Tom? White hats, white overalls, and white linen trousers. And, presumably because he'd just been visiting his Mum, Millwood's linens were all clean, sparkly, and very, very bright white.

Frances Smith had a shotgun. Frances Smith had an itchy trigger finger, being out on his own at night. And pretty quickly Smith had an actual dead man at his feet.

Thomas Millwood's sister heard the commotion, later telling the court that just after her brother left the house, she heard Frances demanding: "Damn you; who are you and what are you? Damn you, I'll shoot you."

A post mortem in a local pub found that he'd been shot in the jaw, with one of the pellets severing his spine. Which must have put the other drinkers off a little.

Meanwhile, A crowd gathered around and Smith was arrested and tried for wilful murder. In the trial, the judge told the jury:

I should betray my duty, and injure the public security, if I did not persist in asserting that this is a clear case of murder, if the facts be proved to your satisfaction. All killing whatever amounts to murder, unless justified by the law, or in self-defence. In cases of some involuntary acts, or some sufficiently violent provocation, it becomes manslaughter. Not one of these circumstances occur here.

Now, it's important to note that impersonating a ghost is not a capital offence, in fact it carried only a small fine (yes, there was a law about scaring or pranking the public). The judge also noted that Smith had made no attempt to arrest the supposed ghost, he'd just shot it. And also, it wasn't a ghost, just a bloke.

The jury tried to return a verdict of manslaughter or accidental killing, but the judge told them no, he's either guilty of murder or not guilty at all – so the jury said it was murder.

Smith was sentenced to death and dissection, later commuted by the King on appeal to one years hard labour.

In fact, the real ghost did eventually come forward, a shoemaker called John Graham who had been dressing as a ghost to scare and get revenge on his apprentice, who kept telling his kids scary stories.

Now, that would seem to be the end of it, but it wasn't – because the case set a precedent in UK law that if you mistakenly believed a crime was taking place and intervened to help, it wasn't a defence. It set up the idea that it was your actions, not your thoughts, that were to be judged.

And this case stood as precedent until 1984, when the court of appeal overturned the theory. It was in a case called The Crown v Williams, where a guy saw what he thought was an assault and wrestled the assailant to the ground. It turned out the supposed assailant was trying to arrest a thief. Williams was initially found guilty of assault, but that was later overturned because he had genuinely believed he was helping. And so, after 180 years, the Hammersmith ghost could finally be laid to rest.

But oh if only the ghost had come around 120 years later Tom, if only! We could have talked to it on today's honourable mention, Thomas Edison's ghost phone. Oh, actually, no we couldn't, because it was a nonsense machine that never worked from one of history's most dubious inventors slash intellectual property thieves.

Yes, in October 1920 Thomas Edison told American Magazine, the magazine for Americans and the people that love them, that he had invented, quote: “An apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us”. And by personalities who have left this Earth, he meant ghosts, not astronauts. Or William Shatner.

And whilst no actual documentation exists on the machine, he claimed to have a nearly working prototype, saying: "I don't claim anything because I don't know anything about the subject. For that matter, no human being knows. But I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, the apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication."

He didn't give too much away about how it would work, just saying it was very sensitive valves, and on another occasion mentioning something about points of light. Either way, he had a test subject lined up, an apprentice who had died whilst working on the project. Typical Edison that, even in the grave he's calling to ask if you can cover extra unpaid shifts. The dick.

Tom's notes:


Spooky Week

I’m going to talk about Spiritualism.

· Big topic!

· So going to focus on a few silly aspects of spiritualism

o And there are plenty of them!

What is Spiritualism?

· Spiritualism was big during the Victorian period in Western countries

· It is called a ‘religious’ movement but I’m not sure to what extent Spiritualists would have identified solely as Spiritualists and not followers of orthodox religions

o I suspect most of the people interested in this were Christians who were interested in communicating with spirits

o And that is what Spiritualism essentially was; a belief that after death there was a spirit world that could be accessed by the living; through mediums

§ This is the world of séances, Ouija boards, unexplained levitating objects, haunted houses etc.

o I’m referring to this movement in the past tense because it reached its height in the second half of the 19th century and declined in popularity in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Okay, that’s the background bit done. Now for the fun stuff.

Let’s start with the mediums who were channelling spirits

· Here’s a good example; the Fox Sisters; some of the earliest and most influential mediums

o As girls, they lived in a house that was supposedly haunted; there were lots of mysterious tapping and rapping noises. The girls learned to communicated the spirit creating these noises through a system of taps, one of yes, two for no, three for ‘I don’t really exist’, 4 for ‘we’re a naughty bunch of sisters taking the piss out of people’.

o When investigated, it was proposed that the girls were communicating with the spirit of a man murdered in the cellar. The cellar was investigated and bones were found!

o The sisters then became very famous and started public shows where they would communicate with spirits. They mingled with the rich and famous and were investigated by many famous peoples (including Houdini; other mediums were investigated by other famous people like Arthur Conan Doyle)

§ In fact, the act of investigating Spiritualists seems like a religious movement in itself! We’ll come on to this shortly

o In reality, the three girls had worked out a way of making loud clicking noises with their toe joints or by other means. This was admitted by one of them and observed by many investigators.

· Okay, so now some ridiculous mediums

· Daniel Douglas Home was a Scottish medium; again, very famous at the time

o This man could apparently levitate to great heights

§ There are lots of possible explanations for this; it was basically trickery

o As with all of these famous mediums, they were caught being fraudulent on many occasions which completely undermined the credibility of their other acts that nobody had quite worked out yet

o In 1855 he was caught by a customer using a false limb attached to the end of his arm!

o During another séance, one of the attendees grabbed at a luminous object that magically appeared at the table; it turned out to be Home’s naked foot! Or shoud I say desocked

o He also appeared to use oil of phosphorous to make things glow faintly

· Eusapia Palladino; she had a spirit guide called John King – taking the piss a bit there aren’t we?

o She used similar tricks to those already discussed, but also liked to attach hairs to objects so she could apparently make them move

· There are lots of examples of spirits appearing, and attendees grabbing at the spirit to find that this was something rather more earthly

o Sometimes it was the medium wearing a silly headdress or false beards

§ One medium was discovered on her knees pretending to be an Indian child

o Sometimes it was a badly constructed effigy, and by badly constructed, I mean really badly constructed!

§ Often cut outs from magazines of famous people’s faces stuck on cardboard and covered in cheesecloth on a stick!

· These mediums were often totally balmy too

o Eva Carrière was well known for getting naked during séances and running around the room performing semi-pornographic acts on sitters

o She was also big on ectoplasm

§ Ectoplasm is the name of the substance that sprits supposedly were made of when they entered the living world

§ These are great!

§ Usually they were made of things like cheesecloth, paper, tissues etc. and apparently often smelled a bit funny; more on this shortly…

o Eva Carriere would drape these ‘ectoplasms’ over cardboard cut outs of people like Woodrow Wilson and King Ferdinand of Bulgaria!

§ Ooooh I’m Woodrow Wilson, and I’ve got 14 points for youooooooo

o In one sitting, a researcher give her a vaginal exam to ensure that no fake ectoplasm had been stuffed up there. After the sitting, Carriere apparently spread her legs and excitedly asked the researched to check again

o Ectoplasms stuffed in vaginas was not unusual, Ectoplasms were often regurgitated by mediums during séances also and one Danish medium used to stuff his ectoplasm up his arse.

§ So I think we know where the funny smells came from

· Darling, how did you enjoy the séance then? Corrrr the spirit world smells remarkably like arse, vag and vomit doesn’t it

o Sounds like a Victorian puppet act

Here’s a funny anecdote to finish on. Helen Duncan was a balmy Scottish medium who produced some truly spectacularly shit ectoplasms; worthy of a primary school nativity play. She was known for swallowing ectoplasm and regurgitating it. One investigator asked her to be x-rayed. Abbreviated quote from the investigator:

…She refused to be X-rayed. Her husband went up to her and told her it was painless. She jumped up and gave him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling. Then she went for Dr. William Brown who was present. He dodged the blow. Mrs. Duncan, without the slightest warning, dashed out into the street, had an attack of hysteria and began to tear her seance garment to pieces. She clutched the railings and screamed and screamed... I leave the reader to visualize the scene. A seventeen-stone woman, clad in black sateen tights, locked to the railings, screaming at the top of her voice… However, they gave us another seance and the "control' said we could cut off a piece of "teleplasm" when it appeared. The sight of half-a-dozen men, each with a pair of scissors waiting for the word, was amusing. It came and we all jumped. One of the doctors got hold of the stuff and secured a piece. The medium screamed and the rest of the "teleplasm" went down her throat. This time it wasn't cheese-cloth. It proved to be paper, soaked in white of egg, and folded into a flattened tube... Could anything be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money, and energy on the antics of a fat female crook.

Interestingly Helen Duncan was the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft act of 1735. This was a good act by the way, it stopped people from claiming that they or someone else had magical powers.

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