Number 33, Cock Lane, behind St. Sepulchre's Church in London, England, no longer exists. Some tours of that city, however-- certainly, the ghost-themed haunted tours---, may note the site where the building once stood. In the second half of the 18th century, it housed St. Sepulchre's parish clerk, Richard Parsons, his wife, two daughters, one servant, and the era’s most famous ghost.
The tale begins in 1760, when Parsons rented a room to William Kent, a widower, and his sister-in-law, Frances "Fanny" Lynes, with whom he shared a romantic relationship (some accounts claim that William and Frances had married after the death of the first Mrs. Kent. While they claimed to be married, they apparently had never solemnized the arrangement). The relationship between landlord and tenants soured after Kent lent Parsons money, which Parsons proved reluctant to repay.
When Kent went out of town on business, Fanny slept beside Parsons' young daughter, Elizabeth, so that she would not feel quite so alone. One night a mysterious scratching noise reportedly awoke the pair, and Fanny considered it some supernatural foreboding from her late sister. Whatever the truth of this account, William and Fanny moved out, and the woman died soon after from smallpox.
Kent continued to seek repayment for his loan. Then, early in 1762, Parsons began claiming that the scratching noises had resumed, that the ghost of Fanny herself was now the source, and that she claimed she had been murdered by her lover. What might have seemed a poor scam to scare away Kent escalated, as Parsons charged admission to the public to hear the ghostly manifestations: knocking and scratching noises in Elizabeth’s room. On some occasions, her bed would shake violently. Parsons insisted he could decipher the ghostly messages, and he repeated and elaborated on the accusations of murder.
The number of witnesses to the (rather banal) activity brought "Scratching Fanny" notoriety. People sold food and beverages near the site; some even held and sold places at the front of the line. Horace Walpole and Oliver Goldsmith ranked among the more noteworthy individuals who felt the house at Cock Lane worth a visit. The poltergeist showed a definite affinity for Elizabeth, and she was actually brought to other locations; the ghostly sounds would generally follow. Claims of murder, of course, brought Kent back to clear his name, and they also caught the attention of certain eminent gentlemen, including a local parson, the Reverend Stephen Aldrich, and Samuel Johnson. They and several others investigated the case, asking questions of everyone involved. Two men from the group of investigators took up a dare to spend the night in the crypt where Frances had been buried, after she promised, through her knocking, that she would answer further questions with knocks to her coffin.
Fanny failed to keep her date. Legal proceedings were taken against Parsons, his wife, and other associates for conspiracy-- and Parsons for the failure to pay his debt. Apparently, hidden pieces of board and other very basic contrivances had been used to produce the ghostly noises. The courts excused Elizabeth, on the grounds that her father had orchestrated the charade. The elder Parsons, however, was ordered to stand in the pillory and spent two years in prison. His wife served one. Their servant, Mary Frazer, was ordered to serve six months in Bridewell.
The incident had other effects, apart from the imprisonment of those who had conjured up the scratching spirit. Playwright Charles Churchill, who held a grudge against Johnson for past poor reviews, caricatured him as Pomposo in his poem, "The Ghost," and created the impression that Johnson had actually believed the hoax. Popular songs were penned and, years later, Charles Dickens referenced Fanny in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby1. Johnson himself published an account of the incident; it ranks among his lesser-known writings. Let’s face it: as ghost stories go, it’s not a terribly good one. Without the involvement of Dr. Johnson, the British interest in ghosts, and the ribald and ridiculous connotations of "Scratching Fanny" and "Cock Lane," it would most likely be forgotten entirely.
1. Chapter 49, if you have to find it.
Sarah Baker. "Scratching Fanny." The Fortean Times. http://www.forteantimes.com/articles/150_cocklane.shtml
Charles Mackay. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). New York: Metrobooks, 2002.
"Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane and other British Legends." British Studies Newsletter October 1, 1996.
"True Ghost Stories: Scratching Fanny, the Cock Lane Ghost." London Walks