The Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane

Nothing cheers up a good ghost story than a juicy double entendre. One of London’s most famous 18th century hauntings took place in the marvellously named Cock Lane.

Cock Lane is right in the City of London. It’s name gives its history away; it used to be well-known for legal brothels operating in the area during medieval times. [1] Today, the area is as civilised as one would expect, having long shed its sleazy past.

A Photo of the City of London - London, United Kingdom

The City of London – London, United Kingdom

In 1759, William Kent from Norfolk moved to London. His wife had just died in childbirth and William got involved with her sister, Fanny. They rented a property in Cock Lane from Richard Parsons and lived together there as Mr and Mrs Kent, even though they were not married. Rumours of ghostly apparitions and strange scratching noises surfaced while they lived there, stopping when they moved out. Fanny later died of smallpox in 1762, at which point the strange occurrences started to happen again. [5]

Parsons’ daughter Elizabeth claimed to hear the noise of a cat scratching at something. James Franzen, landlord of one of the nearby pubs, swore he saw a ghostly white figure climb the stairs. [5]

Parsons consulted a rector at his local church and the two concluded that the spirit haunting the house must be Fanny’s ghost. At the time, people believed ghosts would try to warn the living about something, the two were sure Fanny had a message for them. [5]

A photo of Cock Lane - London, United Kingdom

Cock Lane – London, United Kingdom

Parsons and the rector conducted seances to work out what ‘Scratching Fanny’ wanted to say. The two men concluded that Fanny had been murdered with arsenic, and that the ghost Franzen saw was Fanny’s sister trying to warn her about William. News spread and the local papers published the story. [5]

It soon became clear that the ghost would follow Elisabeth Parsons round London when it started answering questions at the house of a Mr Bray while she was present. Later it appeared at nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital when she was admitted there. When a priest tried using a candle during a séance to look under Elisabeth’s bed, the knocking and scratching stopped. People concluded that ghosts don’t like light, rather than the more obvious, ‘We’re being conned’. [5]

Sensing an opportunity, Parsons started charging people to enter his house. Miraculously, the ghost was always ready to chat whenever a paying customer passed by. Cock Lane became so popular that you couldn’t pass through for the masses of interested people hoping to see or hear something. [3]

A photo of Cock Lane - London, United Kingdom

Cock Lane – London, United Kingdom

It didn’t take much longer for allegations of a con to surface. On 1 February 1762, a committee met to examine the haunting. The committee included none other than Dr Samuel Johnson. Their conclusion was that this was fake and not caused by ghosts in any way. [4]

From the 7 – 10 February, Parsons reacted to these allegations by allowing his daughter to be examined at a house on the Strand. Everyone heard knocking and scratching noises until Elizabeth was made to keep her hands outstretched, when nothing could be heard. [5]

Elizabeth confessed to being behind all this, insisting her father had forced her to do it.

A photo of 20, Cock Lane - London, United Kingdom

20, Cock Lane – London, United Kingdom

William Kent took them all to court for trying to blame him for poisoning Fanny, when she had died naturally. The trial started on 10 July 1762 at 10 am and lasted till 9:30 pm where Parsons was found guilty and imprisoned. [5] The story was popular enough to be referenced in plays at the time; it even found its way into Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ [2]

The building was demolished 1979 and the location of Parsons’ old building corresponds with the current 20, Cock Lane. [5] This building has, too, been demolished and is currently being rebuilt as the photos here show.

 

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References

[1] (2015-11-12), Cock Lane, Wikipedia,
[2] Dickens, Charles (1859), A Tale of Two Cities, London, page 1
[3] Walpole, Horace (1845), Memoirs of the Reign of King George III, London
[4] Boswell, James (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson, London
[5] (2017-5-21), The Cock Lane Ghost, Wikipedia

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