From the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (London, April, 1904, p. 217-19) where the editors relate a cautionary tale from 100 years earlier:
“For some five weeks previous to January, 1804, the inhabitants of Hammersmith, (then a suburban [English] village of scattered houses, connected by dark unfrequented lanes, bounded in places by high hedges), had been alarmed by the frequent appearances of ‘a Ghost,’ described as dressed sometimes entirely in white, sometimes in the skin of a cow or other wild beast. One witness at the trial of Smith said he and a fellow servant had met the Ghost one night in the churchyard, that he touched it and felt something soft, but whatever it was, it disappeared. Another witness had met and given chase to the Ghost, who only escaped by throwing away the sheet in which he was enveloped, and so outrunning his pursuer, who however got near enough to say that this Ghost was a tall man wearing a dark coat with shiny metal buttons. It also appeared that two clergymen had each offered a reward of five guineas for the capture of the Ghost, and that several persons had gone ghost hunting armed with guns, etc., but without success; until on the 3rd January, 1804, a certain Mr. Francis Smith, an excise officer, went out for the declared purpose of looking for the Ghost, carrying a fowling piece loaded with shot, and having taken the precaution to arrange with ‘a watchman,’ who carried a pistol, that if they two met in the dark, they should challenge each other. Smith did meet a figure in white, in a dark lane with high hedges, and was heard by a witness who gave evidence at his trial to say, ‘Damn you, who are you? speak or I’ll shoot!’ Smith’s own account as given to the jury at his trial was that the figure gave no answer but ‘came on.’ Smith there upon fired, and at such close quarters that he practically nearly blew the Ghost’s head off, blackening its face with gunpowder. The Ghost fell to the ground, and Smith immediately went for assistance, and was no doubt terribly distressed, and insisted on giving himself up to the Police. The Ghost (on this occasion) turned out to be one Millward, a respectable bricklayer, with whom Smith was slightly acquainted, but there was no suggestion of any ill-will between them. Millward on the night in question was wearing a white jacket with white trousers down to his heels; he had previously been mistaken for the Ghost and had been warned about his dress. It is not clear whether he was on this particular night masquerading as the Ghost, and from the evidence of his relatives, and the description of the Ghost as seen by another witness, he certainly was not the only Ghost, for he was not the tall man with dark coat and shiny buttons enveloped in a sheet, and it is not clear whether there were more Hammersmith Ghosts than one, besides the original genuine Ghost, if he ever existed.
Under these circumstances, the coroner, while expressing sympathy with Smith’s and Millward’s families, very properly directed the jury to return a verdict of wilful murder against Smith, so that the circumstances might be further investigated. This the Coroner’s jury did and Smith was tried a few days afterwards at the Old Bailey on the Coroner’s inquisition, before the Lord Chief Baron Macdonald.
Smith was assisted by Counsel, who at that time were not allowed to address the jury, but who called and examined witnesses on Smith’s behalf. The witnesses gave Smith an excellent character for humanity and respectability, and Smith himself addressed the jury admitting all the facts, and expressing the greatest sorrow for the fatal result. The Lord Chief Baron in a most careful charge explained the law to the jury, telling them that there was no justification in anything urged by Smith, that the facts did not admit of a verdict of manslaughter, and that their duty was to find Smith guilty of wilful murder.
The jury, however, after long consideration, returned a verdict of manslaughter.
The Lord Chief Baron refused to receive the verdict, and after conferring with the two other judges, Lawrence and Kooke, and the Recorder, who all three expressed themselves as in entire agreement with the law as laid down by the L. C. B., told the jury to reconsider their verdict, which must be either not guilty or guilty of murder. The jury then returned a verdict of wilful murder.
The Lord Chief Baron thereupon passed sentence of death in the usual form, to be carried into execution on the following Monday. And there the report in one of the volumes of the Annual Register ends!
In the other volume it is, however, stated that a reprieve was obtained that very night, and the sentence commuted into one of a year’s imprisonment in Newgate.”