Scratching Fanny the ghost of Cock Lane was the veritable wonder of the age, or at least a Grub Street media sensation for a few months in 1762. This was a tale with sex and subterfuge, debts and defamation; of a man accused of murder from beyond the grave and a household turned upside down by poltergeist activities. Methodists and Anglican’s went head to head on the existence of the paranormal; celebrities flocked to witness the phenomena even the famously irascible lexicographer Dr Johnson became involved. As QI quite pithily put it ‘The Age of Reason was put on hold for a few months'
Flatmate wanted – apply Cock Lane
Richard Parsons and his family lived in a house on Cock Lane, a shabby chic area of Smithfield, London. To his neighbours Parsons was a respectable church clerk; however he also liked a bit of a tipple and was not terribly good with money. That his best friend James Franzen ran the local boozer, the Wheatsheaf, probably didn’t help keep Parsons either sober or in funds.
Fate it would seem was being kind the day that Parsons path crossed that of a genteel couple in need of lodgings. A deal was struck, and Mr William Kent and his wife Frances moved in to Cock Lane. Fate must have been in a really good mood that day because it also turned out William Kent was a usurer and readily loaned 12 Guineas to the insolvent Parsons, to be paid back 1 Guinea a month thereafter. What could possibly go wrong…
Secrets and lies
At first Parson’s and Kent must have got on, because Kent soon confided in him that he and his ‘wife’ Frances, Fanny, were not actually married – Kent had been married a few years earlier to her sister Elizabeth Lynes. They kept an Inn and later a Post Office in Stoke Ferry in Norfolk; when Elizabeth had a difficult pregnancy Frances had moved in with them to help out. Elizabeth died, swiftly followed by the child, but Frances stayed on for a while as a housekeeper. Soon the grieving husband was seeking solace with his supportive sister-in-law. Things got quite hot and heavy. Kent even traveled to London to seek advice on the prospect of marrying Frances, but Canon law at the time would not allow it.
The lovers would seem to have been thwarted. Kent moved to London in an attempt to remove himself from temptation, but Fanny was having none of it and wrote a stream of passionate letters to him. Kent swiftly succumbed and they soon were living together in London, and masquerading as man and wife (which an offense at the time). The Lynes family, it seems, were far from happy about this liaison. Parsons, it would seem, was now privy to some quite sensational information about this genteel young couple cosily cohabiting under his roof.
The first installment of the haunting began in 1759 when William Kent was out-of-town. Fanny was pregnant and wanted company in Kent’s absence so Parson’s 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth stayed with her, sleeping in the same bed. It was at this time that both heard strange knocking and scratching noises coming from the wainscot. Initially Mrs Parson’s attributed the noise to the cobbler next door but when the noises continued on a Sunday – when he was not at work – the inhabitants of Cock Lane began to wonder if more sinister agencies were at work….
The situation took a dramatic turn when James Franzen, land lord of the Wheatsheaf and boozy buddy of Parsons turned up at Cock Lane one day to visit the absent Parsons. He was the reluctant witness to a spectral glowing figure in white shooting up the stairs. Parsons who (rather conveniently, to my mind) had been coming home at the same time, corroborated the story.
Messengers from beyond
In the eighteenth century the rising tide of Methodism was creating a very populist version of Christianity that was Very Enthusiastic, people actually Got Excited at meetings, Methodists even entertained the idea of spiritualism and messages from beyond the grave. Just the kind of anti-establishment shenanigans that would smack of Popish superstition to any right-minded mid-eighteenth century high church Anglican.
It in the spirit of the age, therefore, that Mr Parsons began to look for reasons why the ghost was pestering his family. Surely it had an important message to impart to the living? The theory was soon put forward that it was Kent’s first wife Elizabeth, returned from the grave to accuse her faithless spouse of murder!
Is it worth mentioning that at about this time, Parson’s had defaulted on his debt to the accused Mr Kent?…And their relations cooled still further when Mr Kent instructed his solicitor to sue Mr Parsons for the recovery of that debt…who would be surprised if Mr Parson’s tongue was soon wagging about that supposedly respectable couple who were actually living in sin…
The Kent’s moved out, but their troubles were not over. The heavily pregnant Frances succumbed to smallpox and died on 2 February 1760. She laid to rest in the vault of St John Clerkenwell. Even though they were not married they had made their wills in each others favour, so Fanny’s not inconsiderable funds passed to William Kent, much to the chagrin of her family. Kent was making enemies…..
In January 1762, at about the same time that Kent’s solicitor successfully recovered the debt owed by Parsons, Cock Lane was again the centre of supernatural phenomenon. Subsequent lodgers had been chased off by nocturnal knockings and scratching sounds. The young Elizabeth Parsons was reportedly subject to fits and convulsions. The family was at their wit’s end.
Mr Parsons called in John Moore a local rector, follower of Methodism and sympathetic to the idea of spirits. It was soon diagnosed that the spirit now haunting Cock Lane was that of Fanny Kent herself come to accuse William Kent of her murder. Through a series of seances it was established that William Kent had poisoned her Purl (an herbal drink) with arsenic and this, not smallpox, had killed the unfortunate Fanny. There were plenty of people ready to believe this allegation – Fanny’s sister Anne, for one. Still niggled at the terms of Fanny’s will Anne claimed that the coffin procured by William Kent had been screwed tightly down so that nobody could tell if signs of smallpox were present on the body.
Grub Street scoop
Despite the eighteenth century’s fondness for reason and general air of enlightenment, there was still nothing folk liked better than a good ghost story. A ghost story based on a sex scandal and an allegation of murder was even better, add in a hysterical prepubescent girl as the focus of the haunting and you were on to a winner.
Parsons was not slow to cash in, holding nightly seances for a paying crowd. Soon Cock Lane was the destination for sensation hungry Londoners, noble and commoner, credulous and skeptical alike. Thanks to Grub Street and the tireless self promotion of Richard Parsons and his supporters, poor Frances went down in history as ‘Scratching Fanny’.
Horace Walpole, effete and often acidic observer and pronounced skeptic, witnessed the Cock Lane haunting, as did Oliver Goldsmith and various members of the nobility.
William Kent, only found out what was going on through the sensationalist media reports that abounded and would probably have disagreed with the saying that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’. Horrified, he swiftly called upon John Moore, Parsons firm supporter, and was able to impress Moore as a respectable and honest man (and one not afraid of litigation).
Kent and his supporters even attended the seances in order to deny the allegations against him. At one such seance on the 12 January, Parsons 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth, the focus of the haunting, was publicly undressed and put to bed in front of a group onlookers, while another relative, Mary Franzen, ran about the room calling for Fanny to come forth. When this failed to entice the spirit, Moore cleared the room and was able to persuade the reluctant spirit to attend before allowing the onlookers back in. During the subsequent communications Kent felt compelled to defended his innocence against the ghost’s accusations exclaiming ‘Thou art a lying spirit…thou art not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said such a thing.'
The Media sensation caused by the Cock Lane Haunting, heightened by nightly seances held for throngs of onlookers, was not just jolly spectral japes, it had created a dangerous public mood. The mob wanted blood – Kent’s blood.
Who you gonna call? A lexicographer – obviously
With the skeptics and the believers skirmishing in the press and the angry mob howling for Kent to be hanged for murder, the Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Fludyer, was forced to take action. The veracity of the ghost would be tested by a specially selected Committee lead by Rev Stephen Aldrich, vicar of St John’s Clerkenwell. Perhaps it’s most famous member was the legend that was Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler not just of A dictionary, but of THE dictionary. Surprisingly enough Samuel Johnson for all his enlightenment credentials, was actually rather interested in ghosts, and in fact, was ribbed mercilessly for his involvement in the Cock Lane Haunting for some time afterwards. Nevertheless he left a vivid account of the Seance held on 1 February 1762:
‘On the night of the 1st of February many gentlemen eminent for their rank and character were, by the invitation of the Reverend Mr. Aldrich, of Clerkenwell, assembled at his house, for the examination of the noises supposed to be made by a departed spirit, for the detection of some enormous crime. About ten at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl, supposed to be disturbed by a spirit, had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. they sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went downstairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud. The supposed spirit had before publickly promised, by an affirmative knock, that it would attend one of the gentlemen into the vault under the Church of St. John, Clerkenwell, where the body is deposited, and give a token of her presence there, by a knock upon her coffin; it was therefore determined to make this trial of the existence or veracity of the supposed spirit. While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back, and was required to hold her hands out of bed. From that time, though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency, no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited. The spirit was then very seriously advertised that the person to whom the promise was made of striking the coffin, was then about to visit the vault, and that the performance of the promise was then claimed. The company at one o’clock went into the church, and the gentleman to whom the promise was made, went with another into the vault. The spirit was solemnly required to perform its promise, but nothing more than silence ensued: the person supposed to be accused by the spirit, then went down with several others, but no effect was perceived. Upon their return they examined the girl, but could draw no confession from her. Between two and three she desired and was permitted to go home with her father. It is, therefore, the opinion of the whole assembly, that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.’ 
In February further tests on the Parsons child were carried out, some produced characteristic knockings and scratching, but as soon as measures were taken to ensure Elizabeth’s hands and feet were in view, all supernatural phenomena ceased. She was also observed, on one occasion, hiding a small piece of wood about her person. Some felt that this action was precipitated by the girl being warned her father would be sent to Newgate prison if the ghost was not proved to exist. It was concluded that Elizabeth’s actions had been carried out at the instigation of her father.
With the publication of the snappily titled “The mystery revealed; containing a series of transactions and authentic testimonials: respecting the supposed Cock-Lane ghost: which have hitherto been concealed from the public.” (attributed to Oliver Goldsmith) debunking the haunting as a hoax, things were looking bleak for the Cock Lane Ghost.
One final macabre turn happened on 25 February when Kent, accompanied by a group, had Fanny’s coffin opened in order to put paid to rumours that her body had been removed to prevent the ghost from knocking. The body was definitely still there and John Moore was so horrified he was moved to print a public retraction.
Kent strikes back
Vindicated by the Commission and with the ghost pronounced a hoax, Kent now sought legal redress. After all, the episode had publicly damaged Kent’s reputation and ultimately, had the ghost’s supporters been vindicated, could very well have cost him his life as well. The Five people were charged with conspiracy including Richard Parsons and John Moore. Moore and another of the accused paid Kent a considerable sum in compensation and avoided jail. Parsons was not so lucky and after three stints in the public pillory, during which the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the crowd treated him kindly and even raised a subscription for him, he was sentenced to two years in prison.  Elizabeth was not charged, and seems never to have been visited by the ghost again.
It was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that an artist, J W Archer, visited the vault at St Johns and was shown an unmarked coffin said to be that of Scratching Fanny. Upon opening the casket he is said to have found the well-preserved body of a handsome woman, with no visible mark of smallpox. Sounds a bit suspicious right? Arsenic, after all, is said to preserve corpses (it was even used to embalm bodies in the nineteenth century until it was discovered to be highly dangerous) . Maybe there was some truth in the allegations….? Kent certainly got through a lot of wives – he was onto number three before Fanny was cold in the grave, and he always seemed to end up with the money…. who knows. However, call me skeptical, but J W Archer was producing illustrations for a book called ‘Memoir so extraordinary popular delusions’ by Charles Mackay which included the story of the Cock Lane Ghost….perhaps it was all just a bit of marketing hype?
All in all, it would seem to me that perhaps Horace Walpole got to the heart of the matter when he summed up the Cock Lane Haunting as:
“a drunken parish clerk set it on foot out of revenge, the Methodists have adopted it, and the whole town of London think of nothing else.” 
Hang on..did I just hear a scratching noise……?
Sources & notes
Kelly, Ian, ‘Mr Foot’s Other Leg’, 2012, Picador