Towards the end of 1803, a number of people in the Hammersmith area of London claimed they had seen and, in some cases, even been attacked by a spectre which they believed to be the ghost of someone who had committed suicide. What they allegedly saw was an apparition dressed in white robes. One woman, in particular, said that she saw something rise up from the tombstones, she tried to run but the ghost overtook her, held her in its arms, she fainted and was discovered later by neighbours who took her home and put her to bed. At that time it was the case that anyone who committed suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground as it was believed that their souls would not rest.
With all these reports the locals set up patrols and on the 3rd January 1804 Francis Smith, aged 29 years, an excise officer, armed with a gun saw a figure in white. He demanded the identity of the figure and when the figure did not respond but moved towards him, Smith shot the apparition. It was established afterwards that the apparition who died from this shot was a 23-year-old James or Thomas Milwood, a bricklayer, who according to the Old Bailey transcript was wearing:
‘ Linen trowsers [sic] entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him; his trowsers [sic] came down almost to the edge of his shoes’
We have seen records that name him as James Milwood, but just to confirm, according to the burial records for Hammersmith the deceased was a Thomas Milwood, aged 22.
Francis Smith gave himself up to the police and was put on trial at the Old Bailey for murder. It was decided by the judge that if the case were proven then he would be found guilty of murder and nothing less. The jury, however, was sympathetic and gave the verdict as manslaughter but the judge was not happy with this and the jury was forced to revise it to murder.
After passing the sentence of death Lord Chief Baron Macdonald reported the case to the King and the sentence was reduced to a year’s hard labour.
After the trial, a shoemaker, by the name of John Graham, admitted that he was the ‘ghost.’ He had covered himself in a white sheet to frighten his apprentice for reading ghost stories to his children.
Full transcript: Old Bailey Online
Hammersmith Broadway; Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local History Centre