Many cartoons, movies, television shows and drawings depicting ghosts all have one thing in common - a white sheet. At Halloween if someone says they are dressing up as a ghost, it is likely you will see them wearing a white sheet with two holes cut out for the eyes. While we don't know for sure what a ghost is, many people tend to believe that it is related to the soul or energy of a person who was once living and remains as a 'spirit' in the afterlife. When people spot apparitions or think they have seen a ghost, the report is usually of a normal looking person in period clothing - no white sheet to be seen. So where did this white sheet concept come from?
For centuries, bodies have been wrapped in a white linen shroud when they are buried so it is easy to see why there would be a connection here. Jesus was even said to be wrapped in this white shroud so it gives you a bit on an indication just how far back it goes. Around the 17th century, poorer people were unable to afford a basic burial and were given what was called a 'pauper's funeral' which was paid for by the state. While it still honoured those who had died, it was without a lot of the trimmings. The coffin was often a wooden box and instead of a special burial shroud, a bedsheet was often used instead to wrap the body in a wooden coffin. You can see where people would make the connection between a ghost and a sheet.
Times were tough back then and Halloween costumes weren't really available to buy at the local shop so it became a really easy thing to throw a sheet over someone and say they were dressed as a ghost for Halloween. In the 17th century, it was one of the most common costumes. It was even used for another purpose - 'bedsheet ghost robbery' actually became a thing.
Criminals would wear a sheet to conceal their identity and rob people in the dead of the night. People who saw glimpses thought they were being robbed by real ghosts. It ended tragically one night when one local decided he would do a spot of 'ghost hunting'.
Image Source Wikimedia commons
One such famous case that helped to cement this depiction of ghosts into history was that of the Hammersmith Ghost. One night in January 1804 in the town of Hammersmith, Frank (Francis) Smith was on the hunt to find the 'supernatural' ghost that locals had been terrorised by for the last 3 months. Smith who was said to have been drinking at the local pub spotted what he thought was 'the ghost' and decided to take matters into his own hands. He raised his gun and 'shot' the ghost. Sadly it wasn't a ghost, it was fellow local Thomas Millwood who was a local bricklayer whose uniform happened to be all white. He was on his way home from a late finish at work. It was not the first time he had been mistaken as a ghost. His Mother in Law claimed he had scared local women at the local Church who saw in him at night in the uniform. His family urged him to wear a grey coat to stop the confusion, advice in hindsight he should have listening to. The case of course went to court and Smith claimed that he was certain when he fired the gun that he thought he was shooting a ghost.
During the inquiry, many locals came forward with their thoughts on the supposed haunting terrorism.
The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”
The ghost was said on one occasion to scare two women so very badly that one of them fainted.
Initially Smith was given a softer penalty with a conviction of manslaughter based on his supernatural defense by the jury, however the judge threw this out and said that it could not be a factor. He was either guilty of murder or not. The jury came back again with a guilty verdict and originally he was sentenced to death. It wasn't until another local came forward with information that greatly reduced his sentence to a one year penalty in prison with hard labour.
Local John Graham came forward to admit that one night he had thrown on a sheet and dressed up to scare some of his apprentice staff. You see these men had been telling his children ghost stories so he thought this would be the perfect revenge. Little did he know he was adding to the community paranoia that there were being terrorised by ghosts. It us unknown just how many people were responsible for the sightings, but the town were not lying when they said they saw what looked like bedsheets floating through the night. What they didn't know at the time was that there were real living people underneath those sheets!
It remains such a famous incident that a plaque was erected outside The Black Lion Inn which is outside where the shooting had taken place.
So the next time you think you see a ghost in a white sheet, don't shoot! It is a 99% chance there is a human underneath it!
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