This case is interesting because it was in 1804 and set out a legal precedent in the UK about self-defense; could someone be held liable for their actions even if they were the consequence of a mistaken/misguided belief…

Near the end of summer in 1803 a number of people claimed to have seen and even been attacked by a ghost in the Hammersmith area, London. It was believed that the ghost was a man who committed suicide the year before and was buried in the Hammersmith churchyard. It was believed he should not be buried in consecrated grounds, it was thought that suicide victims would not find rest if that happened.

3rd January, 1804 and a member of the armed patrols set up in response shot and killed a plasterer, Thomas Millwood. The man mistook the white clothes of Millwoods trade for the ghost and 29 year old Francis Smith was found guilty of murder. Mr Smith was tried for willful murder, and a witness stated she had warned the victim he might want to put on something that stopped him being all white, she had said he had already been mistaken for the ghost on a previous occasion.

Millwood’s sister testified that Smith had called on her brother to sop or he would shoot but he then fired almost immediately. The Lord Chief Baron Macdonald advised the jury that Smith’s character before may well have been good and there may have been no malice but the question was more if he had at that point shot with intent to kill.

Smith had not been provoked and had not made any attempt to apprehend the ghost, therefore he felt that the jury should be directed to find him guilty if they believed the facts presented. It took an hour for the jury to come back with a verdict of manslaughter. MacDonald said they could not deliver that response, it must be either guilty or acquittal, the belief that he was a ghost was to him irrelevant to the case. The jury then came back with guilt… MacDonald stated he intended to pass the case to the king, who had the power to commute the sentence.

Initially the trial stated that it was a sentence of hanging and dissection. It was commuted to a year’s hard labour. The publicity meant that the true culprit of the ghostly encounters came forwards, John Graham had been pretending to be the ghost so that he could frighten his apprentice, and his apprentice had been scaring the local children with stories of ghosts.

The impact on the law was that a question arose about whether the action taken under a mistaken self-defense would be chargeable, and it went to the Court of Appeal. It wasn’t clarified until 1984, when appellant, Gladstone Williams, had seen a man dragging a younger man along the street, the younger man was shouting for help. Williams thought that an assault was taking place and intervened, Williams had not known but the person being dragged had been caught trying to commit theft. Williams was then convicted of assault with actual bodily harm, and the Lord Chief Justice Lane referred to the debate when the appeal came up.

It was a problematic issue, Williams was trying to help albeit without understanding the situation he had seen someone in peril and thought he was doing the right thing. It was not unreasonable perhaps, that he stepped in trying to assist, the man was crying out for help. So in the end for Williams an appeal was allowed and his conviction was quashed… the decision was also later written into a more concise reference for law, Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, section 76.

And all this because a man dressed up in a white sheet and tried to scare his apprentice!

Hammersmith Ghost.PNG
Public Domain, Link

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s