How A Ghost Sighting Changed UK Law Forever

The dark, foggy winter streets of Hammersmith were haunted by an apparition that had gripped local people with fear. Some claimed they had even been attacked.

Stories about the ghost circulated quickly, and amateur paranormal investigators hit the streets trying to find out what they could and protect people in the process. With two reports of women dying from shock after being grasped by the ghost, it was a matter of public safety to them.

The belief at the time was that the ghost was the restless spirit of a man who had taken his own life, as during the 19th century, suicide was seen as a mortal sin and its victims were not buried in sacred ground.

After other sightings and attempted attacks, these investigations evolved into citizen’s armed patrols who would patrol the streets at night in an age before the police force.

Francis Smith, a 29-year-old excise officer, was one of these. On 3rd January 1804, he spotted an apparition clad entirely in white. He called out to the figure before shooting him with a shotgun.

However, the figure he had killed was not a ghost but a local bricklayer named Thomas Millwood. Mr Smith was arrested and tried for murder, ultimately being found guilty of murder.

However, this case would end up casting a long and lingering spectre over UK law, as the particularly strange circumstances of the case posited a question about the definition of murder.

If you act based on a belief that turns out to be mistaken, is that a defence to a criminal charge? Should Mr Smith have been convicted of murder rather than manslaughter and was believing the man to be a violent ghost sufficient provocation?

The jury initially believed so and returned a verdict of manslaughter which was not accepted by the court.

It took nearly two centuries for a consensus to be found when the case was cited in R v Williams (Gladstone), a case of mistaken identity where a man assaulted a police officer whom he believed was assaulting someone else.

Ultimately the consensus was a precedent still relied on today; if someone acts under a mistaken but honest belief, there may be grounds for a criminal defence and the jury may have been right.

In the end, the lesson is simple; do not try to shoot a ghost.

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