The Hammersmith Ghost murder case of 1804 set a legal precedent in the UK regarding self-defence: whether someone could be held liable for their actions even if they were the consequence of a mistaken belief.
Near the end of 1803, a number of people claimed to have seen and even been attacked by a ghost in the Hammersmith area of London, a ghost believed by locals to be the spirit of a suicide victim. On 3 January 1804, a member of one of the armed patrols set up in the wake of the reports shot and killed a plasterer, Thomas Millwood, mistaking the white clothes of Millwood’s trade for a ghostly apparition. The culprit, a 29-year-old excise officer named Francis Smith, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, commuted to one year’s hard labour.
The issues surrounding the case were not settled for 180 years, until a Court of Appeal decision in 1984.
Death of Thomas Millwood
In late 1803 a number of people claimed to have seen, and some to have been attacked by, a ghost in the Hammersmith area. Local people said the ghost was of a man who had committed suicide the previous year, and had been buried in Hammersmith churchyard. The contemporary belief was that suicide victims should not be buried in consecrated ground, as their souls would not then be at rest.
On 3 January 1804 one of the armed citizens patrolling the area, 29-year-old excise officer Francis Smith, shot and killed a white figure in Black Lion Lane, plasterer Thomas Millwood, who was wearing the normal white clothing of his trade: “linen trowsers [sic] entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.”
Trial of Francis Smith
Smith was tried for willful murder. One witness, a Mrs. Fulbrooke, stated she had warned the deceased to cover his white clothing with a greatcoat, as he had already been mistaken for the ghost on a previous occasion.
On Saturday evening, he and I were at home, for he lived with me; he said he had frightened two ladies and a gentleman who were coming along the terrace in a carriage, for that the man said, he dared to say there goes the ghost; that he said he was no more a ghost than he was, and asked him, using a bad word, did he want a punch of the head; I begged of him to change his dress; Thomas, says I, as there is a piece of work about the ghost, and your cloaths [sic] look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger;
—Mrs. Fulbrooke’s testimony at the Old Bailey trial
Millwood’s sister testified that although Smith had called on her brother to stop or he would shoot, Smith discharged the gun almost immediately. Despite a number of declarations of Smith’s good character, the chief judge, Lord Chief Baron Macdonald, advised the jury that malice was not required of murder, merely an intent to kill:
I should betray my duty, and injure the public security, if I did not persist in asserting that this is a clear case of murder, if the facts be proved to your satisfaction. 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.
—Lord Chief Baron Macdonald
The accused had not been directly provoked, nor made any attempt to apprehend the supposed ghost, therefore Macdonald directed the jury to find the accused guilty of murder if they believed the facts presented by the witnesses. After considering for an hour, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. Macdonald informed the jury that “the Court could not receive such a verdict,” and that they must either find Smith guilty of murder, or acquit him: that Smith believed Millwood to be a ghost was irrelevant. The jury then returned with a verdict of guilty. After passing the customary sentence of death, Macdonald stated his intent to report the case to the king, who had the power to commute the sentence.
The initial sentence of hanging and dissection was commuted to a year’s hard labour. The huge publicity given to the case had meanwhile persuaded the true culprit to come forward—John Graham, an elderly shoemaker. He had been pretending to be a ghost by using a white sheet to frighten his apprentice, who had been scaring the Graham children with ghost stories.
Effect on UK Law
The question of whether acting on a mistaken belief was a sufficient defence to a criminal charge was debated for more than a century until it was clarified at the Court of Appeal in the case R. v Williams (Gladstone) (1984), concerning an appeal heard in November 1983. The appellant, Gladstone Williams, had seen a man dragging a younger man violently along the street whilst the latter shouted for help. Mistakenly believing an assault was taking place, he intervened and subsequently injured the purported assailant, who was actually attempting to apprehend a suspected thief. Williams was subsequently convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. At the appeal, Lord Chief Justice Lane referred to the previous debate;
(the case) raised issues of law which have been the subject of debate for more years than one likes to think about and the subject of more learned academic articles than one would care to read in an evening.
—Lord Chief Justice Lane
Lane went on to clarify the problematic issue;
In a case of self-defence, where self-defence or the prevention of crime is concerned, if the jury came to the conclusion that the defendant believed, or may have believed, that he was being attacked or that a crime was being committed, and that force was necessary to protect himself or to prevent the crime, then the prosecution have not proved their case. If however the defendant’s alleged belief was mistaken and if the mistake was an unreasonable one, that may be a peaceful reason for coming to the conclusion that the belief was not honestly held and should be rejected. Even if the jury come to the conclusion that the mistake was an unreasonable one, if the defendant may genuinely have been labouring under it, he is entitled to rely upon it.
—Lord Chief Justice Lane
The appeal was allowed, and the conviction quashed. The decision was approved by the Privy Council in Beckford v The Queen (1988) and was later written into law in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, Section 76.