Ghost as Alibi

Here’s another old newspaper article, from the Independent of 3 January 2009 by Arifa Akbar.

“One winter’s night in 1804, a vigilante fired a gun at a bloodcurdling spectre he believed to be the “Hammersmith Ghost” that had terrorised the neighbourhood.

But the visitation turned out to be an innocent bricklayer, walking home in his white overalls, and Francis Smith’s bungled shooting triggered one of the most curious legal wrangles in British criminal history.

Today, 200 years later, up to 50 lawyers and followers of the paranormal will meet outside the Black Lion Pub in Hammersmith, West London, where the bricklayer’s body was taken, to celebrate teh case.

The Ghost Club, the country’s oldest paranormal organisation, was co-founded by Charles Dickens, and had the poets WB Yeats and Siegfreid Sassoon as members.

Alan Murdie, a barrister and the chairman of the Ghost Club, said that the case was so fascinating because it “bristles with legal and supernatural interest.”

Mr Murdie said that during the Christmas and New Year period of 1804, there were a series of reports of a frightening phantom Haunting Hammersmith churchyard. the apparition, in white with horns and glass eyes, had reportedly attacked passers-by and left some seriously ill from shock.

Smith, 29, a customs officer, had been drinking at a nearby inn on 3 January when he heard te chilling tale and launched an armed patrol in Brick Lion  Lane.

“At around 11pm, smith was rewarded by a figure in white appearing in the lane. challenging the apparition, he demanded to know its identity. when the figure moved towards him, smith discharged his gun.”

But on examination, the vision was James Milwood, 29, whom he had shot in his left jaw.

during his trial for “willfull murder”, smith raised the question of whether someone could be held liable for their actions if they used force as a result of an unreasonable but mistaken belief. the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, apparently accepting smith’s assertion that he thought he was shooting a ghost, but it was changed to murder under the guidance of the judge. smith was condemned to death but the penalty was later commuted to one year’s hard labour.

“The trial and conviction of Francis Smith for murdering a man he mistook for a ghost illustrates a legal problem not settled for 180 years and one which still generates argument. it has played a part in shaping the modern law of self-defence,” said Mr Murdie.

The point of law was finally settled by a Court of Appeal decision in 1984.

The Black Lion’s Landlord, Kevin Sheehy, said the legacy of the ghost lived on in the pub. “The chef who lives upstairs has been woken up in the night by someone calling his name, computers get switched on by themselves and you can sometimes hear the floorboards creaking when the pub’s empty and names being whispered. the incidents have happened over the past 7 or 8 months, so the spirit must know the the anniversary is coming up,” he said.

The pub displays a plaque marking the ghostly incident. “

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