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11 Women Warriors of World War II

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There are more stories of heroism out of World War II than can ever fit in a school textbook, but hundreds of those stories are written down somewhere for those who want to find them. Over 100 million military personnel participated in the war, including many women. Here are the stories of eleven of these brave women. They are from many countries, and they all did their part and more for the Allied effort.

1. Nancy Wake: Guerrilla Fighter

Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Nancy Wake was a journalist in New York and London and then married a wealthy Frenchman and was living in Marseille when Germany invaded. Wake immediately went to work for the French resistance, hiding and smuggling men out of France and ferrying contraband supplies and falsified documents. She was once captured and interrogated for days, but gave no secrets away. With the Nazis in hot pursuit, Wake managed to escape to Britain in 1943, and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British intelligence agency. After training with weapons and parachutes, she was airdropped back into France -as an official spy and warrior. Wake had no trouble shooting Nazis or blowing up buildings with the French guerrilla fighters known as maquis in the service of the resistance. She once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands. After the war, Nancy Wake was awarded the George Medal from the British, the Medal of Freedom from the U.S., and the Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerre from France, among other honors. She also found out that her husband had died in 1943 when the Gestapo had tortured him to find out his wife's whereabouts. He refused any cooperation to the point of death.

Wake ran for political office a few times in Australia, and remarried in the 1950s. She published her biography, The White Mouse, in 1988. That was the Gestapo's nickname for her due to her talent for sneaking by them. Nancy Wake died August 7, 2011 at age 98.

2. Elsie Ott: Flight Nurse

Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott was the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal. Already a trained nurse, she joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was sent to Karachi, India. The Army Air Corps was considering using airplanes to evacuate injured military as they delivered fresh troops. Ott was assigned to the first evacuation flight with only 24 hours notice -and she had never flown before. The plane had no medical equipment beyond first aid kit supplies, the patients had a motley variety of injuries, diseases, and mental illnesses, and there was only one army medic to help her care for the passengers. The plane left India on January 17, 1943 and made several stops, picking up more patients, on its 6-day flight to Washington, D.C. The previous route for such a mission was by ship, and took three months. Ott wrote up a report on that flight, recommending important changes for further evacuation flights. She returned to India a few months later with a new unit, the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, and was promoted to captain in 1946.

3. Natalia Peshkova: Combat Medic

Natalia Peshkova was drafted into the Russian Army straight out of high school at age 17. She was trained with weapons that didn't work and then sent off with a unit so woefully equipped that at one time a horse ate her felt boot as she slept, forcing her to make do with one boot for a month. Peshkova spent three years at the front, accompanying wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals and trying to fight disease and starvation among the troops. She was wounded three times. Once, when the Germans moved into an area the Soviets held, Peshkova was separated from her unit and had to disguise herself. However, she could not discard her weapon because she knew the Soviet Army would execute her for losing it! Yet she made it back to her unit undetected. As the war dragged on, Peshkova was promoted to Sergeant Major and given political education duties further from the front. After the war, she was awarded the Order of the Red Star for bravery.

4. Susan Travers: French Foreign Legionnaire

Englishwoman Susan Travers was a socialite living in France when the war broke out. She trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross and became an ambulance driver. When France fell to the Nazis, she escaped to London via Finland and joined the Free French Forces. In 1941, Travers was sent with the French Foreign Legion as a driver to Syria and then to North Africa. Assigned to drive Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, she fell in love with him. In Libya, her unit was besieged by Rommel's Afrika Corps, but Travers refused to be evacuated with the other female personnel. After hiding for 15 days in sand pits, the unit decided to make a break at night. The enemy noticed the escaping convoy when a land mine went off. Driving the lead vehicle with Koenig, Travers took off at breakneck speed under machine gun fire and broke through the enemy lines, leading 2,500 troops to the safety of an Allied encampment hours later. Her car was full of bullet holes. Travers was promoted to General, and served in Italy, Germany, and France during the remainder of the war. She was wounded once during that period driving over a land mine.

After the war, Travers applied to become a an official member of the French Foreign Legion. She did not specify her sex on the application, and it was accepted -rubber-stamped by an officer who knew and admired her. Travers was the only woman ever to serve with the Legion as an official member, and was posted to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War. Some of her awards were the Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire. Travers waited until the year 2000, when she was 91 years old, to publish her autobiography Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion. By then, both her husband (whom she met after World War II) and Colonel Koenig (who was a married man during the war) had passed away.

5. Reba Whittle: POW Nurse

Lt. Reba Whittle was the only U.S. female soldier to be imprisoned as a POW in the European theater of war. Whittle was a flight nurse with the 813th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, and had logged over 500 hours. On a flight from England to France to pick up casualties in September of 1944, her plane went off course and was shot down over Aachen, Germany. The few survivors were taken prisoner. The Germans did not know what to do with Whittle, as she was their first female military POW -at least on the Western Front. In the East, many female Russian soldiers were interned as POWs and used for forced labor. Whittle, who was initially rejected by the Army Air Corps in 1941 for being underweight, was allowed to minister to the wounded in camp. A Swiss legation that negotiated POW transfers, mostly of wounded prisoners, discovered her in custody and began to arrange her release. Whittle was escorted by the German Red Cross away from the camp along with 109 male POWS on January 25th, 1945.

Whittle's status as a POW was undocumented by the U.S. military. She was awarded the Air Medal and a Purple Heart, and promoted to lieutenant, but was denied disability or POW retirement benefits. Her injuries kept her from flying, so she worked in an Army hospital in California until she left the service in 1946. Whittle applied for, and was denied, POW status and back pay for ten years. She finally accepted a cash settlement in 1955. While nurses who were imprisoned in Asia had received hero's receptions upon their release, Whittle's story was kept quiet by the Army and barely noticed by the media in the celebrations of the war's end. Whittle died of breast cancer in 1981. Her POW status was officially conferred by the military in 1983. You can read an expanded version of her story, plus the diary she kept during her captivity, in this document.

6. Eileen Nearne: British Spy

Eileen Nearne joined the Special Operations Executive in Britain as a radio operator. Two of her siblings also served the SOE. Only 23 years old, Nearne was dropped by parachute into occupied France to relay messages from the French resistance and to arrange weapons drops. She talked her way out of trouble several times, but was eventually arrested by the Nazis, tortured, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Yet Nearne stuck to her cover story. She was transferred to a labor camp and escaped during yet another transfer. Once again, Nearne talked her way out of trouble when confronted by the Gestapo and hid in a church until the area was liberated by the Americans.

After the war, Nearne was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and was made a a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by King George VI. She suffered some psychological problems and lived a quiet life with her sister Jacqueline (also a British spy during the war) until Jacqueline's death in 1982. When Eileen Nearne died in 2010, her body was not discovered for several days, and her wartime exploits were only revealed after a search of her apartment uncovered her war medals. Nearne was then given a hero's funeral.

7. Ruby Bradley: POW Nurse

Colonel Ruby Bradley was a career Army nurse well before the war began. She was a hospital administrator on Luzon Island in the Philippines when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Bradley hid in the hills with a doctor and another nurse when the Japanese overran the island. Turned over by locals, they were taken back to their former base, which had been turned into a prison camp. They once again went to work aiding the sick and injured, though with fewer supplies and hardly any equipment. Bradley spent over three years as a POW, performing surgery, delivering babies, smuggling supplies, and comforting the dying in the camps. When she was finally liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, she weighed a mere 84 pounds, down from her normal 110 pounds. You can read Bradley's own account of her imprisonment.

But wait -there's more! After the war, Bradley stayed with the Army and earned her bachelor's degree. In 1950 she went to Korea as the 8th Army's chief nurse, working at the front lines. During one medical evacuation just ahead of the enemy, she loaded all the wounded soldiers and was the last person to jump aboard the plane, just as her ambulance exploded from the shelling. Bradley remained in Korea through the entire conflict. Bradley's 34 medals and citations included two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Stars from the Army, which also promoted her to Colonel. She was also awarded the International Red Cross' highest honor, the Florence Nightingale Medal. Bradley retired from the Army in 1963, but continued to work as a supervising nurse in West Virginia for 17 years. When she died in 2002 (at age 94), she was buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery.

8. Krystyna Skarbek: Polish Spy

Krystyna Skarbek (later Christine Granville) was the daughter of a Polish Count and the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Skarbek's second husband was a diplomat, and they were together in Ethiopia when World War II broke out. Skarbek signed up with Britain's Section D to return to Poland through Hungary and facilitate communications with the Allies. Impressed with the "flaming Polish patriot," the British intelligence service accepted her plan. Beginning in 1939, Skarbek worked to organize Polish resistance groups and smuggle Polish pilots out of the occupied nation. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, but faked a case of TB by biting her tongue until it bled. They let her go after hours of interrogation. Skarbek and her partner Andrzej Kowerski went to the British embassy and received new identities as Christine Granville and Andrew Kennedy. They were smuggled out of Poland through Yugoslavia to Turkey, where they were welcomed by the British.

In Cairo in 1944, Granville and Kennedy founded themselves persona non grata because the Polish group they had been working with, the Musketeers, had been compromised by German spies. Granville could not be sent back to Poland, and instead trained as a radio operator and paratrooper. After D-Day she was dropped into France, but her assigned resistance area was overrun with Germans, so she escaped, hiking 70 miles to safety. She then worked in the Alps to turn Axis fighters. Granville's success rate was almost supernatural and she took extraordinary risks to pull off further capers. The most famous was when she outed herself as a spy to French officials working for the Gestapo, and arranged a prisoner release by threats and promises of money. Granville and the prisoners made it out alive, which secured her reputation as a legendary spy.

After the war, Granville was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). However, Granville was at loose ends without the adrenaline rush of her wartime exploits. She did not return to Poland, as it was under Russian authority, but lived in Britain, Africa, and then Australia. Granville was murdered in 1952 by Dennis Muldowney, a stalker who had become obsessed with her. There was a rumor that Granville carried on a one-year affair with Ian Fleming, but there is no evidence to support it. However, she is considered to be the inspiration for at least two of his Bond girls.

9. Lyudmila Pavlichenko: Russian Sniper

Unlike many of the young girl snipers of the Soviet Army, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was an accomplished sharpshooter before joining the military. She was older than the others as well, and was in her fourth year of study at Kiev University when war broke out. The Russian Army sent around 2,000 trained female snipers to the front during the war; only around 500 survived. Pavlichenko had by far the greatest war record of them all, with 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. And that was accomplished by 1942! Pavlichenko was wounded by a mortar and pulled from the front. Because of her record, she was sent on a public relations tour to Canada and the United States to drum up support for the war effort and make an impression on the Allies. She was never sent back to the front, but served during the remainder of the war as a sniper trainer. Pavlichenko earned the title Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war, she completed her university degree and became a historian and served on the the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.

10. Aleda Lutz: Flight Nurse

1st Lt. Aleda E. Lutz volunteered with the unit inaugurated by Elsie Ott (see #2), the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, designed to carry wounded soldiers quickly away from the war front. Lutz flew 196 missions to evacuate more than 3,500 men. No other flight nurse logged as many hours as Lutz. She would have stretched that record of 814 hours out further, but in December of 1944, her C47 hospital plane picked up wounded soldiers from Lyon, Italy, and then crashed. There were no survivors. Lutz was the first woman ever awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, conferred posthumously. This was in addition to the Air Medal (earned four times), the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Red Cross Medal, and the Purple Heart. In 1990, the Veterans Administration Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan was named in her honor.

11. Noor Inayat Khan: Spy Princess

Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan had a particularly distinguished background. Her father was Indian Sufi master and musician Inayat Khan; her mother was American Ora Ray Baker, the niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and her paternal great-great-grandfather was the ruler of Kingdom of Mysore. Noor was born in Russia; her younger siblings were born in England. She held a British passport, but lived in France when Germany invaded. The family was able to escape to England ahead of the Germans, and Noor Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The British intelligence agency SOE took her as a wireless operator and sent her to France in June of 1943. There, she transmitted information out of France by Morse code. She refused to quit, even as other radio operators were arrested. Khan was arrested in October by the German intelligence agency (SD) and fought them so fiercely that she was classified as "an extremely dangerous prisoner." A month of interrogation yielded no information about Khan's SOE activities, and she even sent a coded message about her compromised position (which the SOE ignored). However, the Germans found her notebooks, which gave them enough information to send false messages and lure more British spies to France and arrest. In November, Khan escaped briefly, but was caught and then kept in shackles for ten months. In September of 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau, where she was immediately executed along with three other female SOE agents.

Khan was posthumously awarded the British George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The strange part of her story was that Khan was a Sufi Muslim pacifist of Indian origin. She opposed the British rule of India, and if it weren't for the Nazi invasion of Europe, might had fought against the British instead of for them.

Also see the followup to this article: 8 Female Fighters of World War II

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. 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.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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