If you kill someone because you think they’re a ghost, is it murder or manslaughter? Or self-defence?
The 1804 Hammersmith ghost murder case tested that question. For a couple of months, the residents of the West London suburb of Hammersmith believed that they were under attack by a spirit. People reported close encounters with an entity draped in a white sheet.
Locals organised patrols to hunt down the ghost. History is silent on whether any of these patrols carried traditional ghost-hunting apparatus (proton pack, mystery machine…), but one guy, Francis Smith, brought along a shotgun. Because, obviously, ghosts can be shot with a shotgun.
Enter Thomas Millwood. He was a bricklayer coming home after visiting family in the area. He was wearing the uniform of bricklayers: a white waistcoat, trousers, and apron. At 11pm on January 3rd, 1804, Smith and Millwood met on Black Lion Lane.
Smith saw a ghost in white, and shot. Millwood was hit in the jaw and died. Smith, aghast at his mistake, was arrested and put on trial for murder.
The trial itself is pretty daffy. The judge pointed out that it didn’t matter that Smith thought he was shooting a ghost:
All killing whatever amounts to murder, unless justified by the law, or in self-defence. In cases of some involuntary acts, or some sufficiently violent provocation, it becomes manslaughter. Not one of these circumstances occur here.
It’s not self-defence if the ghost wasn’t actually menacing you, I guess. Despite this instruction, the jury came back with a conviction for manslaughter. The judge told them to go back and try again. The second time, they came back with a conviction for murder, and Smith was sentenced to death (later commuted).
After the trial, a local shoemaker admitted to being the actual ghost. He had dressed up in a white sheet to scare his apprentice. And he would have gotten away with it too…