Puppydog tails — 27 June 2014
Scratching Fanny in Cock Lane

Cock Lane, an inconspicuous narrow thoroughfare in Smithfield, in 1762 suddenly acquired international fame, or notoriety, when a house became one of London’s best known haunting. The spirit of Fanny Lynes accused someone of her own murder.

It’s 1749 and William Kent has recently arrived from Norfolk with his ’wife’ to take up lodgings at the home of Richard Parsons and his family.

Parsons owed Kent money and relations between the two men were strained. The epithet of loan shark could be given to Kent, for he had already fallen-out with a previous landlord over money that Kent had loaned him at usury rates.

Kent had married Elizabeth Lynes in 1756 but she died in childbirth, her sister, Fanny had moved in to help out with the surviving infant, and the inevitable happened.

Barred from marrying his sister-in-law they had moved to London posing as a married couple.

Fanny was now pregnant and while Kent was away Fanny shared a room with Parson’s 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth who became aware of odd scratching noises in the room which were, she claimed a manifestation of Kent’s first wife.

When Kent returned, presumably because of the deteriorating relationship with Parsons, he and Fanny changed lodgings. Sadly Fanny died of smallpox a short time later.

Now time has moved on, Kent has married for the second time, his third ’wife’, and has sued Parsons over the unpaid debt.

Cock_lane_ghost The house in Cock Lane already had a reputation for being haunted, when in 1762 the noises returned with added vigour.

It was now claimed that the renewed scratching was this time from Fanny’s ghost which could not rest because Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

News spread across London like wildfire. Crowds besieged the house to hear the noise. ’Fanny’ would answer questions in the time honoured way, once for yes, twice for no.

Picture: A 19th-century illustration of Cock Lane. The haunting took place in the three-storey building on the right

Parsons charged an entrance fee (presumably to recoup his losses to Kent). Credulity was divided. A young Methodist clergyman John Moore avidly believed in Fanny, others including Dr. Johnson were more sceptical and decided to investigate.

Attention focussed on young Elizabeth Parsons, who claimed to be the only one who could see the spirit of Fanny, who curiously only seemed to be active in her presence.

Fanny’s ghost then rashly promised to rap on her own coffin interned in the crypt of St. John’s, Clerkenwell, on a certain day, unsurprisingly nothing happened.

Elizabeth Parsons was taken to another house and closely watched. When she was seen secreting a piece of wood in her nightclothes it became apparent London had been duped.

Some regarded this was an Establishment conspiracy and claimed Elizabeth had been forced to cheat by the aggressive treatment of her interrogators, and also that the reason why the ghost could not appear in the crypt was that Kent had secretly moved Fanny’s coffin.

In the end Kent demanded justice claiming he was seen as a serial murderer and this had ruined his business – he was, after all a banker – and his life.

Cock Lane Ghost Parsons, his wife, Moore, and some of those publishing accusations against him were charged with ’conspiracy to take away the life of William Kent by charging him with the murder of Francis Lynes by giving her poison wereof she died’.

All were found guilty. Parsons, all the while protesting his innocence, was sentenced to two years imprisonment and three days in the pillory; his wife was imprisoned one year; and a servant conspirator, Mary Frazer six months in Bridewell, with hard labour.

Book cover: Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr. Johnson’s London by Paul Chambers

Local opinion regarded it as an official cover-up by the Establishment. Instead of subjecting him to the usual indignity, while in the pillory they started a collection to help Parson’s family while they languished in jail.

The conspiracy theory continued. It was claimed in 1834 J. W. Archer was sketching the crypt of St. John’s when a coffin was pointed out to him to be that of Scratching Fanny. Inside was a perfectly preserved body. Despite dying nearly 100 years ago it had no marks of smallpox but all the hallmarks of arsenic poisoning . . .

signature

Orange Cab

Orange Cab

June 13, 2017
Mummified Londoners

Mummified Londoners

June 09, 2017
Taxed beyond death

Taxed beyond death

May 12, 2017
A culinary classic

A culinary classic

May 05, 2017
Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone

April 07, 2017
The first A-Z

The first A-Z

March 31, 2017
Walk the Line

Walk the Line

March 28, 2017
The first London cab

The first London cab

March 07, 2017

Share

About Author

Gibson

(0) Readers Comments

What do you have to say for yourself?