Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies and the law of murder


Thomas Millwood meets his end. From a contemporary book illustration.

Late on the evening of 3 January 1804, a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millwood left his home in Hammersmith, to the west of London. He was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men of his trade: “linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.” Unfortunately for Millwood, though, those clothes proved to be the death of him. At 10.30pm, while he was walking alone down Black-lion-lane, he was confronted and shot dead by a customs officer called Francis Smith – thus setting in motion one of the strangest, best-remembered and most influential cases in British legal history.

The Millwood murder is of interest to us because Smith’s motive for killing him was decidedly peculiar. Hammersmith, then a village on the outskirts of London, had been terrorised for more than a month by reports that some sort of malignant ghost or spirit was haunting the graveyard of St Paul’s chapel-of-ease. Today this cemetery stands in the shadow of the A4 flyover and right next to the busy four-lane Hammersmith roundabout, but 200 years ago it was considerably more isolated. St Paul’s was then still surrounded by fields, and the paths that ran past the graveyard were unpaved and unlit. It’s not difficult to see how, in the depths of winter (the Hammersmith ghost scare ran from December 1803 to January 1804), frightening stories could readily circulate, nor why several local men took it upon themselves to patrol the darkened streets in the hope of encountering and ‘laying’ the ghost. Milwood, in his all-white clothes, had been mistaken for the apparition twice earlier that same day. It was his bad luck that the third time the same mistake was made, the man facing him was not just nervous but armed with a shotgun.

Smith, when he realised his mistake, was horrified. He gave himself up immediately and was swiftly charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey less than a week later. There, though, the prisoner’s hurried surrender and obvious contrition stood him in good stead. The prosecution accepted Smith’s version of events, and the jury was plainly anxious to show mercy; instead of finding the customs man guilty of murder, they returned a verdict of manslaughter instead. It was left to the judge to explain that such a verdict was not possible, and that the prerogative of mercy lay not with the jury, but the crown. Smith was promptly found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, then reprieved that same evening by the king. In the end he served only six months in jail.

The Hammersmith Ghost case featured prominently in the Newgate Calendar, and full transcripts of Smith’s murder trial can nowadays be found online at the exemplary Proceedings of the Old Bailey site, which covers pretty much every case heard in Britain’s senior court between 1674 and 1913. It seemed even then to be a peculiarly important case, and over the years it became celebrated for the influence it had on framing acceptable defences for murder; even today it crops up frequently in legal text books and in university law lectures. It is not, however, nearly so unique as writers on the subject have tended to assume. In the course of my own research into the ghost story, I have prodded around in search of some comparable cases and been startled to discover that a considerable number have been reported from all over the world. Upon reflection, though, is it really a surprise? Belief in supernatural powers, after all, has been endemic for millennia, in all countries and in all cultures. Is the Hammersmith Ghost case really that different, at root, from witch burnings, or even the activities of the Inquisition?

What turns out to be really interesting is the wide variety of ways in which a rainbow of beliefs interfaced with the law. From the fairy traditions of Ireland to tales of shape-shifting sorcerers in Africa, there turn out to be dozens of similar-but-different cases in which outlandish superstition was the best defence for murder. Here, summarised all too briefly, are a few of the cases I’ve collected over the years.

1826 Belief in the existence of changelings remained strong in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century. According to folklore, these sickly infant fairies were frequently exchanged for healthy human infants under cover of darkness, and the human child was taken away to be brought up by its abductors. It could only be recovered if the changeling was put in such peril that its fairy parents would return to rescue it.

A case of murder arising from these beliefs was tried at Tralee Assizes in July 1826, and reported in the London Morning Post, where it was seen by the folklorist Thomas Crofton Crocker (Crocker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (London, 1828) I, vii-viii):

Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age, was indicted for the murder of Michael Leahy, a young child, by drowning him in the Flesk. This case… turned out to be a homicide committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition. The child, though four years old, could neither stand, walk, or speak – it was thought to be fairy struck – and the grandmother ordered the prisoner and one of the witnesses, Mary Clifford, to bathe the child every morning in the pool of the River Flesk where the boundaries of three farms met; they had so bathed it for three mornings running, and on the last morning the prisoner kept the child longer under the water than usual, when her companion (Mary Clifford) said to the prisoner, ‘How can you hope ever to see God after this?’ to which the prisoner replied, ‘that the sin was on the grandmother and not on her.’ Upon cross-examination, the witness said that it was not done with intent to kill the child, but to cure it – to put the fairy out of it.

Verdict – not guilty.

c.1850 A similar account, also from Ireland and published in 1852, noted that ‘About a year ago a man in the county of Kerry roasted his child to death, under the impression that it was a fairy. He was not brought to trial, as the Crown prosecutor mercifully looked upon him as insane.’ (WR Wilde, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) p.28.) The author of this brief note, Sir William Wilde, was Oscar Wilde’s father.

1875 John Hayward, an agricultural labourer from Long Compton in Warwickshire, stabbed an elderly fellow villager named Ann Tennant to death with a pitchfork on 15 September ‘under the delusion of witchcraft.’ The particulars of this case were that Tennant, who was 79, and Hayward, who was about 30, had both lived in Long Compton all their lives. Hayward, who was thought to be ‘weak minded’, and who certainly had been drinking on the afternoon of the murder, told Superintendent James Thompson of the Shipton-on-Stour police that he believed Tennant to be

the leader of a pack of witches who resided in Long Compton, and that she had bewitched him all day and prevented him from working. He said that he meant to kill her and would do the same to the other witches. He said he could see the witches in a glass of water he was given.

An inquest, held in the local pub two days later, recorded a verdict of willful murder and Hayward was sent for trial at the Warwick assizes, where his case came up on 15 December 1875. He was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, but sentenced to be confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure. Little provision was made for mentally ill prisoners in those days, and when Hayward died some months later he was still in Warwick jail. This case was extensively covered by the local Stratford on Avon Herald, and more recently has been reinvestigated by a couple of genealogists who separately discovered that Tennant was their great-grandmother.


Swift Runner, the cannibal Cree, shortly before his execution.

1878 A number of Native Canadian tribes firmly believed in the existence of the windigo or wendigo, a sort of vampiric spirit capable of appearing in human guise to ‘annoy and trouble’ their peoples, and in some cases to possess them with what is termed ‘wendigo psychosis,’ the compulsion to attack and eat other humans. The windigo was held in such terror that, over the years, several innocent men, women and children have been killed by assailants who firmly believed that their victims were possessed, and a smaller number killed by people who were themselves in the grip of the psychosis.

Instances of murder involving the windigo supposedly date all the way back to 1741, though the evidence that actually survives from that early date strikes me as extremely murky (below). Nonetheless, the best-known, and certainly the most spectacular, of these cases involved a Cree by the name of Swift Runner (left), who – apparently convinced he had been possessed by a windigo – killed and ate his wife, mother, brother and six of his own children over the winter of 1878-79. The case has been studied by Nathan Carlson, an Alberta anthropologist who described the windigo (an Anglicised form of the native ‘witiko’) as ‘the consummate predator of humanity – an owl-eyed monster with large claws, matted hair, a naked emaciated body and a heart made of solid ice.’ According to Carlson, the windigo is an unstoppable terror. ‘The more it eats, the hungrier it gets,’ he says, ‘so it just keeps eating.’ The Canadian belief is that, once possessed by such a spirit, the unfortunate victim becomes wild-eyed, ravenous and possessed of superhuman strength.


The earliest known account of a ‘Windigo murder,’ from the 1741 papers of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Swift Runner first came to the attention of the Canadian authorities in the spring of 1879, when he turned up alone at a Catholic mission station in St Albert. He told the priests there that he was the only member of his family to survive the severe winter, but his condition – the Cree weighed in at a hefty 200lbs – aroused suspicions, as did the ‘screaming fits’ and night terrors that Swift Runner experienced. When the police visited  the family campground near Edmonton, they found a site littered with bits of human flesh, hair, and bones that had been snapped in two so that the marrow could be sucked out. Swift Runner then confessed that he had shot and bludgeoned the other members of his family. He was tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged at Fort Saskatchewan in December 1879.

1884 In another Irish fairy changeling case, ‘Ellen Cushion and Anastatia Rourke were arrested at Clonmel on Saturday charged with cruelly ill-treating a child three years old named Philip Dillon. The prisoners were taken before the mayor, where evidence was given showing that neighbours fancied that the boy, who had not the use of his limbs, was a changeling left by fairies in exchange for their original child. While the mother was absent, the prisoners entered her house and placed the lad naked on a hot shovel under the impression that this would break the charm. The poor little thing is severely burned, and is in a precarious position.’ Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1884. CS Kenny, in Outlines of Criminal Law (London, 18th edn., 1962) p.54, mentions what seems to be the same case (he dates it to 1880) and states that a woman was ‘convicted and sentenced’ for the crime.

1887 In Queen-Empress v Hayat (Panjab record 1862-1919, no.11 of 1888), the prisoner, an Indian villager, ‘entertained a belief that a stooping child whom he caught sight of in the early gloaming was a spirit or demon, the child being in a place which the prisoner and his fellow villagers deemed haunted.’ He beat the infant to death before discovering his mistake, and, while acquitted on a charge of murder, was convicted under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, section 304A, which allowed for sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

1888 On 30 January, Joanna Doyle, aged 45, was admitted to Kilkenny Asylum after murdering her son Patsy with a hatchet. Doyle was described as ‘a wild fierce Kerry peasant, scarcely able to speak English intelligibly,’ and her 13-year-old son variously as an ‘imbecile’ or an ‘epileptic idiot.’ The mother insisted that Patsy had been ‘not my son, he was a devil, a bad fairy.’ Belief that the boy was a changeling was apparently widespread in the neighbourhood; Doyle’s daughter Mary, 18, told the Medical Superintendent of the Dublin hospital where her mother was eventually sent that ‘I was not shocked when I heard my mother kill him, as I had heard people say he was a fairy, and I believed them.’ Journal of Mental Science v.34 n.148 (January 1889) pp.535-9.

1894 The Swift Runner tragedy is the only one known in which a man committed murder believing himself to be possessed by a windigo. More common are ‘windigo execution’ cases, in which potential victims convince themselves they are in danger from one of the vampiric spirits and kill the ‘possessed’ man in what they conceive as self-defence. Several examples of such killings exist in Canadian records. In a number of cases, those who believed they were turning windigo were reported to ‘go into convulsions, made terrifying animal sounds, and beg their captors to kill them before they started eating people.’  In Regina v. Machekequonabe (28 Ont. 309), a Canadian Indian of the Sabaskong tribe was tried at the Rat Portage (now Kenora, Ontario) assizes on the charge of killing his foster father. The facts, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, 7 December 1896, were that

The band in which the trouble occurred was thoroughly pagan, possessed of a firm belief in the power of the Wendigoes, or evil spirits, to appear in the form of a human being to annoy and trouble the  tribe. For some time prior to the murder the Indians on the Sabaskong reserve were seized with the idea that a Wendigo was exercising an evil influence on their band and damaging their property They hid away their canoes, but apparently to no purpose. At length they decided to place armed sentries on the watch in order to capture the evil spirit. This watch was sustained continuously for eight days, the prisoner and the murdered man participating in the watch. On the eighth night the prisoner was on guard when he saw a mysterious figure flitting from one spot to another, with its blanket streaming behind it in a peculiar manner. He at once challenged, but received no reply; he challenged again, and yet again, and still receiving no answer he fired at what he was firmly convinced was the Wendigo. In the yell that followed the prisoner recognised the voice of his foster father, who for some reason or another had left his post and was probably hastening back to it. Mr Justice Rose charged the jury and declared the case to be without parallel in the history of law. Under his advice the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, and the prisoner was sentenced to six months’ hard labor pending the result of a reference of the case to his brother judges.

Rose’s sentence was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. [My thanks to John Adcock for locating the Free Press clip.]


The fireplace in Bridget Cleary’s home.

1895 Regina v. Michael Cleary (National Archives, Dublin, Convict Records Misc. 1619/10) concerned the killing of a young Irish woman named Bridget Cleary, who lived in Clonmel, not far from Waterford. When Cleary fell ill with what was perhaps TB, or possibly pneumonia, her husband Michael and her other relatives became convinced that she had actually been abducted by fairies and a sickly changeling left in her place. They attempted to force her to drink a folk remedy – herbs boiled in milk – designed to force the changeling to flee, and then doused her with three or four pints of urine, another folk remedy supposed to rescue the victims of fairies; when she resisted, they dragged her over to the kitchen fire (left) and held her over it while they continued to question her; supposedly this, too, was part of the cure. Cleary’s questioning was severe and prolonged, in part quite possibly because her husband also suspected her of having a lover, but also because it began late in the evening and family believed that Bridget would be ‘lost forever’ if she was not recovered from the fairies by midnight. Eventually she began to answer questions more coherently, and the family congratulated themselves that their intercession had worked. Cleary had been severely burned, however, and died a few days later of her injuries. Her husband was subsequently tried and found guilty of manslaughter, and eight friends and neighbours were found guilty of wounding. Michael Cleary received a sentence of 20 years’ penal servitude, apparently because the judge in his case ‘was by no means convinced that all the talk of fairies was not a cloak for ordinary murder [and] he felt the evidence more consistent with murder than manslaughter.’ He served 15 years and, on his release, emigrated to Canada. The Bridget Cleary case was the subject of an excellent book by Angela Bourke, which places it firmly in the context of Irish folk belief of the late nineteenth century.

1906 A Cree shaman known as Jack Fiddler (his real name was Zhauwunogeezhigo-Gaubow, ‘he who stands in the southern sky’), who was headman of the Sucker people of Sandy Lake in northwestern Ontario, was a noted windigo fighter who claimed to have defeated 13 of the monsters during his lifetime. It was not until 1907, when Fiddler was about 70 years old, that the RCMP realised exactly what this meant; the shaman was arrested for the murder of his daughter-in-law, Wahsakapeequay, who had been brought to the Sucker encampment ‘very sick’ and there strangled by Fiddler and his brother, Pesequan.

Jack Fiddler seems to have impressed everyone who met him. ‘He is a quiet dignified man who has lived his life with a clear conscience,’ the Methodist missionary Joseph Lousley said, and the local police superintendent recommended mercy. Before the case could come to trial, however, Fiddler escaped from the constable guarding him and made off into the tundra, where he hanged himself. Pesequan was tried and found guilty by a jury that had been instructed by the magistrate: ‘What the law forbids, no pagan belief can justify.’ Despite the jury’s recommendation for mercy, he was sentenced to hang, but died of consumption on 1 September 1909, three days before an appeal overturned the capital sentence. Dictionary of Canadian Biography vol.XIII (1901-10). A book by a member of Fiddler’s family has been published on this case: Thomas Fiddler and JR Stephens, Killing the Shaman (Ontario, 1985).

1926 In Waryam Singh v. King Emperor (AIR 1926 Lah554: 28 Cri LJ 39), the defendant was a man living in what is now Pakistan whose three children had all died young. It was suggested to his wife that she could safeguard the lives of any future infants by bathing on the tomb of one of her dead children. Singh’s wife took off her clothes and sat on the tomb while her husband poured water over her. As he did so, a figure appeared in the dark that the bereaved parents took to be a ghost. Singh beat the figure to death and was charged with murder, but acquitted on the grounds that if ‘he believed in good faith at the time of the assault that the object of his assault was not a living human being but a ghost or some object other than a living human being, he is not guilty of murder.’

1936 In the case of Sudan Government v Ngerabaya Jellab (unreported), the accused killed a neighbour named Tugu because he suspected him of murdering two of his brothers and a daughter by witchcraft. ‘When I killed Tugu,’ Jellab said, ‘I did not kill him for the purpose of revenge only. I was afraid of him and afraid for my own life and the lives of my family and dependents. It might be my turn next.’ In court, Jellab claimed that his relatives ‘had died as a result of magical spells cast by the deceased. The accused was tried for and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment even though his belief that the deceased possessed supernatural powers was shared by the rest of the tribe to which he belonged.’

1942 In Bonda Kui v. King Emperor (Patna High Court 1942, 43 Cri LJ 787), the accused, described as a ‘superstitious woman’ aged 50, was in her house in north-east India, accompanied only by a niece, when in the middle of the night she saw ‘a form, apparently a human form, dancing absolutely naked with a broomstick and a torn mat around the waist.’ Taking this bizarre apparition to be ‘an evil spirit or a thing which eats up human beings,’ Bonda Kui threw off her own clothes and attacked the figure with an axe. Having succeeded in hacking it to death, she told her niece she had killed ‘an evil spirit or witch,’ but, on investigation, the figure turned out to be that of her sister-in-law. What the sister-in-law was doing dancing naked in the middle of the night is not explained in the legal summary of the case, but we do know that Bonda Kui was protected by the Indian Penal Code, section 79, which stated: ‘Nothing is an offence which is done by any person with reason of a mistake of fact [who] in good faith believes himself to be justified by law in doing it.’ She was acquitted.

1959 In Sudan Government v. Abdullah Mukhtar Nur (Sudan Law Journal & Reports, 1959), the defendant, a 20-year-old farmer, was charged with murder after inadvertently killing an old woman. As in the Hammersmith case, stories had been circulating in Nur’s village that there was a ghost in the area. One evening, while searching for a missing cow, Nur encountered a tall figure dressed entirely in black and carrying a stick. He challenged the figure, and, receiving no reply, took it for the ghost and beat it with his own stick until it fell to the ground. It was only later that Nur discovered he had assaulted an elderly woman, who had died of her wounds. When the case came to trial, the President of the court ordered an acquittal on the grounds that ‘the accused acted in good faith and in the honest belief that he killed the ghost without any intention of killing a human being.’

It is interesting to speculate quite where all this leaves us in legal terms. Certainly it seems that under English criminal law a defendant who killed in the sincere belief that he was confronted with some supernatural menace would be unlikely to be convicted of murder. Whether he was sentenced for manslaughter, or acquitted, would seem to depend largely on the scale and imminence of the supposed threat – the law is highly unlikely to show mercy in cases of premeditated murder no matter what the killer himself believed – and the leniency with which a court would deal with cases with supernatural elements would almost certainly be based on its assessment of the ‘reasonableness’ of the belief. ‘If the belief is shared by the community,’ one lawyer concludes, ‘or even a section of the community to which the accused belongs, there is a strong presumption that such belief is reasonable.’

Plenty of related topics would repay further investigation. For example, in the southern Annang region of Nigeria, between 1945 and 1948, the police, press and politicians were all caught up in the investigation of a supposed ‘Man-Leopard Society’, said at the time to be the ‘biggest, strangest murder hunt in the world’. Almost two hundred men, women and children died in what appeared to be ordinary leopard killings, but were suspected to be the work of shape-shifting African sorcerers who had the ability to turn themselves into wild animals. (Similar apparently ritual killings had been reported from Sierra Leone since the 1860s and occurred in Liberia during the years 1930-1940 and 1944-1946, and these were attributed to a similar ‘Leopard Society’; eventually the head of a Christian mission in the country was arrested and tried for the Liberian killings.) The Nigerian Man-Leopard murders also resulted in a trial; an anonymous letter published in the Nigerian Eastern Mail, 10 March 1945, implicated a head court messenger who was arrested, tried and eventually executed in March 1946. According to another source, the unravelling of the case resulted in a total of no fewer than 95 murder convictions, of which only 16 ended in reprieves. For further reading on this subject, see David Pratten, The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria (University of Indiana Press, 2008); Pratten, ‘The district clerk and the “man-leopard murders”: mediating law and authority in colonial Nigeria’, in Benjamin N. Lawrance et al, Intermediaries, interpreters, and clerks: African employees in the making of colonial Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); and L.O. Aremu, “Criminal Responsibility for Homicide in Nigeria and Supernatural Beliefs,” International & Comparative Law Quarterly (1980), 29 : 112-131

One thought on “Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies and the law of murder

  1. The novelist Hannah Kent has written a book, The Good People (2017) on the Ann Roche case, and contributed a very interesting article about her search for additional information on this story. Despite long searching, she found only a single brief piece of confirmation that Roche actually existed to back up the version you report here:

    “There are three women confined to our County Jail, charged on the verdict of the Coroner’s Jury… Their names are Anne Roche, Honora Leahy and Mary Clifford.

    “Nance Roche, who is described as superannuated and having of necessity, retired from the bustle and frail vanities of this wicked world, now claims a mysterious intimacy with certain busy beings, respectfully denominated, Good People—hints at her profound knowledge and powerful influence on their supernatural agency, and is deeply skilled in every Fairy Herb and Nostrum.”

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