Murder, Mystery and Moneylending: The Peculiar Tale of the Cock Lane Ghost

In 1762, an unusual scandal riveted the population of London: the case of the Cock Lane Ghost. The story had something for everyone. Forbidden love, money, death and the supernatural were all elements in the sad tale of “Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane.” The ghost was reputedly that of a young woman, Fanny Lyne who was murdered by her lover just weeks before giving birth. After her death, Fanny haunted the couple’s former apartment in a house in Cock Lane; just a stone throw from Smithfield Market and St Paul’s Cathedral. Here Fanny made her presence known through strange knocking and scratching noises.

The story so entranced the general populace that they would block Cock Lane just to gain a glimpse of its haunted house. But the Cock Lane ghost also drew the attention of the London Society. Both the Duke of York and Dr. Samuel Johnson visited Cock Lane and took part in séances as they attempted to ascertain whether the ghost was real- or a fraud. The story led to accusations of murder and a sensational court case. It also provided an arena for a contest between persistent popular superstition and modern rationalism.   Here then, is the extraordinary story of the Cock Lane Ghost.

Cock Lane, London. Google Images

The Cock Lane Ghost

 Norfolk innkeeper William Kent was devastated when his wife, Elizabeth died in childbirth. Their baby boy however lived. So Elizabeth’s sister, Fanny Lyne, moved into the inn to help care for her nephew. Sadly, the little boy passed away soon afterward. However, the growing attraction between Kent and Fanny did not. The couple fell in love and wanted to marry. However, as Kent had been married to Fanny’s sister, and they had produced a living child, the couple was forbidden to do so by church law. Fanny and Kent tried to part, but their feelings persisted. So they reunited in London, where they passed themselves off as a married couple.

In 1760, the couple was in lodgings and Kent began to practice as a moneylender. However, it was not long before their landlord discovered the couples’ guilt secret. To compound matters, Kent had lent him money, and he refused to pay back his debt. Fanny and Kent had no choice but to seek new lodgings. Then they met parish clerk Richard Parsons who offered them rooms in his house in Cock Lane. The couple settled in, and Kent continued with his money lending business. Once again, lent his new landlord a considerable sum of money: 12 guineas to be paid back a guinea a month.

Fanny soon revealed she was pregnant. Not long afterward, Kent had to return to the country for a wedding, so he asked Parson’s 11-year-old daughter to care for his ‘wife’ while he was away. It was then that strange, inexplicable scratching noises began. Mrs. Parsons told Fanny workmen were making the noises. But the sounds persisted even when no work was occurring. Then, local pub landlord James Franzen visited the house and saw a ghostly apparition going up the stairs. Terrified, he fled. On his return, Kent was equally unimpressed and decided to move out.

The Ghost House in Cock Lane. Google Images

This decision was timely as Parsons was becoming difficult about the repayment of his loan. Shortly after moving out, Kent took his former landlord to court. The case was still ongoing in January 1761, when Fanny became ill with smallpox. By February 2nd, she was dead. Not long afterward, Kent won his case against Parsons. Grieving and sorely in need of a fresh start, he moved again and started a new career as a stockbroker. Meanwhile, in Cock Lane, the noises, which had stopped for a time after the Kent’s moved out, began again with a vengeance.

The noises focused around young Elizabeth Parsons who identified this ghostly visitor as Fanny Lyne. Parsons agreed with her- despite the fact that Fanny had not died at Cock Lane He decided to enlisted the help of the Reverend John Moore, a local preacher with Methodist leanings. Although many people still believed in ghosts, Methodists were particularly noted for their belief in the spirit world. Moore visited Cock Lane and agreed that it was indeed haunted. He and Parsons developed a mode of communication with the spirit- and it had an engrossing tale to tell.