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Parsons, Elizabeth [called the Cock Lane Ghost] (1749–1807), impostor, was born at Cock Lane, in the City of London, an obscure turning between Newgate Street and West Smithfield. She was the elder of two daughters of Richard Parsons, deputy parish clerk of St Sepulchre's, who supplemented his income by letting out rooms in the Cock Lane house. One lodger in 1759 was William Kent from Norfolk. Kent's wife had died in 1756, shortly before his arrival in London, where in Parsons's house he continued a relationship with his deceased wife's sister Frances Lynes, known as Fanny. On one occasion, when Kent was absent in the country, Fanny had Elizabeth Parsons, described as a ‘little artful girl about eleven years of age’, to sleep in her bed. In the night they 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, off Red Lyon Street, Clerkenwell. There Fanny died on 2 February 1760, her death having been diagnosed as due to smallpox.

The noises at Cock Lane ceased for a year and a half after Fanny left the house, but they recommenced in January 1762, shortly after Kent had successfully sued Parsons for the recovery of a debt. Elizabeth Parsons, from whose bedstead the sounds apparently emanated, suffered fits, and the household was continually disturbed by unexplained noises, likened at the time to the sound of a cat scratching upon a cane chair. Richard Parsons attributed these manifestations to the presence of a ghost, which he proceeded to interrogate by means of knocking on the bedpost. In this way it was ascertained that the spirit was that of the deceased lodger Fanny Lynes, and that she had been poisoned by a dose of ‘red arsenic’ administered by Kent in a glass of purl. The story was widely reported and drew numerous visitors, including the duke of York, to the dimly lit room where the manifestations were supposed to take place. During séances conducted by a female relative of Parsons named Mary Frazer, the ghost signified its displeasure at any expressions of incredulity by tapping and scraping, for which it was dubbed Scratching Fanny. The sceptics among the visitors had to conceal their opinion, ‘or no ghost was heard, which was no small disappointment to persons who had come for no other purpose’ (GM, 44). Horace Walpole was openly dismissive of ‘a ghost, that would not pass muster in the paltriest convent in the Apennine’ (Walpole to H. Mann, 29 Jan 1762, Walpole, 22.3). He visited the house on the following day, where 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’ (Walpole to G. Montagu, 2 Feb 1762, Walpole, 10.6).

On 1 February 1762 the Revd Dr Aldrich of St John's, Clerkenwell, assembled in his house a number of gentlemen and women, having persuaded Parsons to let his child be brought to the house and tested. The child was put to bed by the women at ten o'clock, and shortly after eleven the company, which included Samuel Johnson, assembled in the girl's bedroom, and with great solemnity requested the spirit to manifest its existence. However, 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 supernatural agency at work. The account of this investigation, published by Johnson in the Gentleman's Magazine, gave the imposture its death blow. Shortly afterwards Elizabeth Parsons was moved to another house, and threats were held out that her father would be imprisoned in Newgate if she did not renew the rappings. Scratchings and rappings were heard during the course of the night. Unlike previous manifestations, which were probably caused by ventriloquism, the sounds on this occasion were found to issue from a piece of board which the girl had concealed in her clothing. On 10 July 1762 Richard 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 Mr James, a tradesman, who had given countenance to the fraud, agreed to pay William Kent £600 as compensation, and 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 Mary Frazer were sentenced to hard labour in Bridewell for one year and six months respectively. The popularity of the imposture was shown by a public subscription made on behalf of Parsons, and by the calm demeanour of the mob when he stood in the pillory in February 1763.

The affair was the occasion of the well-known satirical poem ‘The Ghost’, by Charles Churchill, in which Johnson, or Pomposo, was falsely accused of being fooled by the hoax. A plan by Samuel Foote to transfer the caricature to the stage in his play The Orators (1762) brought the threat of a beating from Johnson. The imposture was also ridiculed by William Hogarth in his famous engraving of 1762 entitled Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. Elizabeth Parsons, who is thought to have been twice married, secondly to a market gardener, died at Chiswick in 1807 (London Scenes, 184).

Thomas Seccombe, rev. Heather Shore

Sources  

O. Goldsmith, The mystery revealed, containing a series of transactions and authentic memorials respecting the supposed Cock Lane ghost (1762) · G. W. Thornbury and E. Walford, Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places, 6 vols. (1873–8) · J. Timbs, Romance of London: strange stories, scenes, and remarkable persons of the great town, 3 vols. (1865) · H. B. Wheatley and P. Cunningham, London past and present, 3 vols. (1891) · Aleph [W. Harvey], London scenes and London people: anecdotes, reminiscences, and sketches of places, personages, events, customs and curiosities of London city, past and present (1863) · A. Lang, Cock Lane and common-sense (1894) · D. Grant, The Cock Lane ghost (1965) · GM, 1st ser., 32 (1762), 43–4, 81–4 · Annual Register (1762) · E. Chatten, Samuel Foote (1980) · Walpole, Corr.

Likenesses  

W. Hogarth, etching and engraving, 1762, BM · portrait, 1762, repro. in Grant, Cock Lane ghost · J. W. Archer, print, repro. in Grant, Cock Lane ghost · print, repro. in Grant, Cock Lane ghost