The Last Time There Was A Court Case About A Man Pretending To Be A Ghost, It Changed British Law

“But, soft: behold! lo where it comes again! / I’ll cross it, though it blast me. - Stay, illusion!” - Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 1.

1. Today’s Southern Daily Echo carries the news that a man has been fined for pretending to be a ghost in a Portsmouth cemetery.

2. The story contains a superb quote from the court.

Prosecutor Tim Concannon said: “He was throwing himself backwards, waving his arms about and going ‘wooooooo’. I’m assuming he was pretending to be a ghost.”

4. It’s worth pointing out that he was also seen playing football, which isn’t particularly ghostly behaviour.


But to be fair, it’s not the most respectful thing to do in a graveyard either. The paper goes on to report that “Stallard was fined £35 for his behaviour, as well as being ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £20 and court costs of a further £20.”

5. But it could have been so much worse for the perpetrator. We need to talk about the Hammersmith Ghost of 1804.

A picture of the ghost from a magazine published that year.

6. What happened in 1804 was this:


A ghost had apparently been terrorising people in West London for a few months. So a local named Francis Smith started to patrol the area. He took a gun with him, because as everyone who’s played House of the Dead knows, the best way to kill a ghost is by pumping it full of lead.

20th Century Fox / Via youtube.com

Artist’s impression of Francis Smith in 1804, getting ready to deal with the local ghost.

8. And here’s what happened next, according to the BBC:


When he saw a figure in white appear in the lane he shot him, but it turned out to be a 23-year-old bricklayer and Smith was taken into custody.

9. Yup. Rather unfortunately, as historical researcher Mike Dash explains, said bricklayer:


…was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men in his trade: ‘linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.’

10. The jury thought it was a case of manslaughter, because he was trying to kill a ghost. So they probably thought it was ghostslaughter if we’re honest. Anyway, the judge felt otherwise.


According to Wikipedia, he “informed the jury that “the Court could not receive such a verdict”, and that they must either find Smith guilty of murder, or acquit him: that Smith believed Millwood to be a ghost was irrelevant. The jury then returned with a verdict of guilty.” Smith was initially sentenced to death, but this was downgraded to hard labour.

11. And it would actually be another 180 years before the law was clarified. The judgment can be found here, but the key lines are these:


In a case of self-defence, where self-defence or the prevention of crime is concerned, if the jury came to the conclusion that the defendant believed, or may have believed, that he was being attacked or that a crime was being committed, and that force was necessary to protect himself or to prevent the crime, then the prosecution have not proved their case. If however the defendant’s alleged belief was mistaken and if the mistake was an unreasonable one, that may be a peaceful reason for coming to the conclusion that the belief was not honestly held and should be rejected.

12. And the ghost? It turned out to be the local cobbler, who’d been pranking everyone with a white sheet.

And there you have it. That’s why people pretending to be ghosts have an important part to play in the British legal system.

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