Parsons, Elizabeth (1749-1807) (DNB00)

PARSONS, ELIZABETH (1749–1807), ‘the Cock Lane ghost,’ daughter of Richard Parsons, deputy parish clerk of St. Sepulchre's in the city of London, was born in Cock Lane, an obscure turning between Newgate Street and West Smithfield, in 1749. Among other means of gaining a livelihood her father was in the habit of letting lodgings. One of his lodgers in 1759 was a certain William Kent, a native of Norfolk. Kent's wife had died in 1756, shortly before his arrival in London, and while in Parsons's house he was privately living with his deceased wife's sister Fanny Lynes. The latter on one occasion, when Kent was absent in the country, had Elizabeth Parsons, a ‘little artful girl about eleven years of age,’ to sleep with her. In the night the sleepers were disturbed by extraordinary noises, which Fanny interpreted as a warning of her own death. Neighbours were called in to hear the sounds, which continued to be heard in an intermittent fashion until Kent and his sister-in-law left Cock Lane, and went to live at Bartlett Court, Clerkenwell. There Fanny died on 2 Feb. 1760, and her coffin was laid in the vault of St. John's Church.

The noises in Cock Lane ceased for a year and a half after Fanny left the house, but they recommenced in January 1762, shortly after the successful institution of a suit against Parsons for the recovery of a debt by his old lodger Kent. Elizabeth Parsons, from whose bedstead the sounds emanated, pretended to have fits, and the household was continually disturbed by noises which were compared to the scratching of a cat upon a cane chair. Parsons alleged that these manifestations were due to the presence of a ghost which he proceeded to interrogate, the supposed ghost answering by means of negative and affirmative knocks. In this way it was elicited that the spirit was that of the deceased lady lodger, who had been poisoned by a dose of ‘red arsenic’ administered by Kent in a glass of purl. This story was so well circulated that thousands of persons of all ranks crowded to Cock Lane to hear ‘the ghost.’ The Duke of York and numerous other noblemen and leaders of fashion squeezed themselves into the wretched room, lit by one tallow candle, and crowded to suffocation, where the manifestations were supposed to take place. The séances were conducted in the dark by a female relative of Parsons named Mary Frazer. The ‘ghost’ signified its displeasure at any expressions of incredulity by scratching, and was in consequence vulgarly designated ‘Scratching Fanny.’ The sceptics among the visitors had to conceal their estimate of the matter, ‘or no ghost was heard, which was no small disappointment to persons who had come for no other purpose’ (cf. Gent. Mag. 1762, p. 44, where minutes of the proceedings on 13 Jan. 1762 are given in full). Horace Walpole, in a letter to Mann, dated 29 Jan. 1762, states that he ‘stayed until past one, but the ghost was not expected until seven, when there are only 'prentices and old women.’ The methodists, he added, had promised contributions to the ghost's sponsors: ‘provisions are sent in like forage, and all the taverns and alehouses in the neighbourhood make fortunes.’ On 1 Feb. 1762 the Rev. Dr. Aldrich of St. John's, Clerkenwell, assembled in his house a number of gentlemen and ladies, having persuaded Parsons to let his child be carried thither and tested. The child was put to bed by several ladies at ten o'clock, and shortly after eleven the company, including Dr. Johnson, assembled in the girl's bedroom, and with great solemnity requested the spirit to manifest its existence; but although the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back, no sounds were heard, and Dr. Johnson expressed the opinion of the whole assembly that the child had some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there was no higher agency at work. The account of this investigation, published by Dr. Johnson in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ gave the imposture its death-blow. Shortly afterwards Elizabeth Parsons was removed to another house, and threats were held out that her father would be imprisoned in Newgate if she did not forthwith renew the rappings. Scratchings and rappings were heard in the course of the night. There are moderately good grounds for attributing the previous manifestations to ventriloquism. But the sounds on this occasion were found to issue from a piece of board which the girl had concealed in her clothing, and taken to bed with her. On 10 July 1762 Parsons, his wife, and Mary Frazer were tried at the court of king's bench before Lord Mansfield and a special jury, and were convicted of conspiracy. A clergyman named Moore and one James, a tradesman, who had given countenance to the fraud, having agreed to pay Kent 600l. as compensation, were dismissed with a reprimand. Parsons was sentenced to appear three times in the pillory, and to be imprisoned for two years; his wife and Frazer were sentenced to hard labour in Bridewell for terms respectively of one year and six months. The popularity of the imposture was shown by a public subscription made on behalf of Parsons, and by the demeanour of the mob when he stood in the pillory (February 1763). Elizabeth Parsons, who is said to have been twice married, died at Chiswick in 1807. Her second husband is described as a market gardener (London Scenes and London People, 1863).

The affair was the occasion of the well-known satirical poem ‘The Ghost,’ by Churchill, who, ‘confident in his powers, drunk with prosperity, and burning with party spirit, jumped at the opportunity of making fools of so many philosophers.’ Johnson was unmercifully ridiculed as Pomposo; but the transference of the caricature to the stage by Foote was averted by Johnson's memorable threat. The imposture was also ridiculed by Hogarth in his famous plate entitled ‘Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism.’

[Oliver Goldsmith's very rare Mystery Revealed, 1762, 8vo, which is reprinted in Cunningham's edition of Goldsmith's Works, 1854, vol. iv.; cf. Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. viii. 371; Gent. Mag. 1762, passim; Ann. Register, 1762; Wilson's Wonderful Characters, ii. 104–25; Thornbury's Old and New London, ii. 435; Timbs's Romance of London, i. 497; Wheatley and Cunningham's London Past and Present, i. 432; Extracts concerning St. Sepulchre's Parish (Brit. Mus. 1889 b); Churchill's Poems, 1854, ii. 208, and Aldine edition, 1892, ii. 32; Lang's Cock Lane and Common Sense, 1894; Walpole's Correspondence, ed. Cunningham.]

T. S.