When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster

Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)
Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she had hidden a small wooden board in the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open-minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

12 Facts About Shirley Chisholm, The First African-American to Run For President

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Being the first black woman to serve on Congress would be a significant enough accomplishment for a lifetime, but it wasn’t good enough for Shirley Chisholm. Three years after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Chisholm became the first woman to run for president for the Democratic party. When announcing her intention to seek the nomination on January 25, 1972, Chisholm stated, “I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”

Though her campaign was controversial at times, it wasn’t the downfall of her long and noteworthy career. And she's still making headlines. In late 2018, Oscar-winner Viola Davis announced that she would be producing and starring in The Fighting Shirley Chisholm, a biopic chronicling Chisholm's amazing life. On January 21, 2019—nearly 50 years after Chisholm announced her presidential run—California senator Kamala Harris announced her own 2020 presidential run and unveiled her campaign logo, which pays tribute to Chisholm.

Here are a few things to know about this bold educator-turned-politician.

1. She had international roots.

On November 30, 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York to Ruby Seale and Charles St. Hill. Her mother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados; her father, a factory worker, was originally from Guyana.

2. She was born in Brooklyn, but had a slight English accent.

In 1928, Chisholm and her two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados, while her parents stayed in New York and worked through the Great Depression. Chisholm attended a one-room schoolhouse on this island in the West Indies. In addition to receiving a British education, she picked up an accent, which remained slight but noticeable throughout her life.

3. Education had a significant impact on her life.


Library of Congress

Chisholm returned to the U.S. in March 1934 at age 9 and resumed with a public-school education. Following high school, she studied sociology at Brooklyn College and earned her BA in 1946. (She was a prize-winning debater in college, a skill that would serve her well throughout her political career.) She continued her education at Columbia University and earned an MA in early childhood education in 1952. While she was still a student at Columbia, she began teaching at a nursery school and married Conrad Chisholm in 1949. They would later divorce in 1977.

4. Her first career was as an educator.

After working at the nursery school, Chisholm worked her way through the teaching ranks and by 1953 was the director of two day care centers, a position she held until 1959. Her expertise and experience led to her role as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care from 1959 through 1964.

5. Her political career was revolutionary from the beginning.

Chisholm was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League before she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964. When she won, Chisholm became the second African-American woman to serve on the state legislature. From 1965 to 1968, Chisholm served as a Democratic member and focused on unemployment benefits for domestic workers and education initiatives.

6. Redistricting inspired her run for Congress.

Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L) between 1960 and 1970.
Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L)
Library of Congress

Chisholm set her sights on Congress when redistricting efforts gave Brooklyn a new congressional district. Not one to shy away from the public, Chisholm used to drive through neighborhoods while announcing, “This is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.” She defeated three candidates in the primary election, including a state senator, before defeating well-known civil rights activist James Farmer in the general election. This victory made her the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and she would go on to serve seven terms.

7. She had a way with words and established herself as outspoken and ready for change early in her first term.

She was known for her bold declarations. After her upset victory in the congressional election, she boasted, "Just wait, there may be some fireworks." And she delivered on that promise. Given her campaign slogan “Unbought and unbossed,” it should come as no surprise that Chisholm quickly made her presence known in Congress. She spoke out against the Vietnam War within the first few months of her arrival and said she would vote against military spending. When she was initially relegated to the House Agricultural Committee, she requested a new assignment, claiming that she didn’t think she could best serve her Brooklyn constituents from that position.

After directly addressing House Speaker John McCormack on the matter, she was reassigned to Veterans’ Affairs, and then moved to the Education and Labor Committee in 1971. True to her desire to bring about change, Chisholm hired all women for her office, half of whom were African-American. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus.

8. Her presidential campaign was unexpected and historic.

Chisholm formally announced her intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in January 1972, making her the first African-American to run for a major party and the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination. During her speech, which she delivered in her hometown of Brooklyn, Chisholm said, "I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that...I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

Although her campaign wasn’t as well-funded as her competitors’, Chisholm did get her name on the primary ballot in 12 states and won 28 delegates in primary elections. She received about 152 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, coming in fourth place for the party.

9. The campaign trail was full of challenges.

Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Polly Shulman

Chisholm likely expected challenges during her campaign, and she certainly encountered a fair amount. She received multiple threats against her life, including assassination attempts, and was granted Secret Service protection to ensure her safety. Chisholm also had to sue to be included in televised debates.

There was even controversy where there could have been encouragement. Her decision to run for the Democratic nomination caught many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) off-guard, and they weren’t happy that she acted before a formal and unified decision could be made. But Chisholm was done with waiting; when the subject of the CBC came up on the night she announced her campaign, she told the crowd, “While they’re rapping and snapping, I’m mapping.”

10. She had an unlikely supporter in George Wallace.

Chisholm was well aware that her biggest source of support came from women and minorities and often advocated on their behalf, so it shocked many of her supporters and constituents when she visited political rival George Wallace after an assassination attempt sent him to the hospital—and ultimately left him paralyzed—in 1972. Wallace, who was governor of Alabama, was known for his racist comments and segregationist views, but Chisholm checked on him. She said she never wanted what happened to him to happen to anybody else.

Ultimately, their friendship benefited the public when Wallace came through for Chisholm on an important piece of legislation in 1974. She was working on a bill that would give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage. Wallace convinced enough of his fellow Southern congressmen to vote in favor of the bill, moving it through the House.

11. Following retirement, Chisholm didn’t slow down.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982, but leaving the political arena didn’t mean she was done making a difference. Although she planned on spending more time with her second husband, Arthur Hardwick Jr., she also returned to teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and continued to speak at colleges across the country.

Chisholm passed away on January 1, 2005 at age 80 in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is buried in Buffalo, New York, and the inscription on the mausoleum vault in which she is buried reads “Unbought and Unbossed.”

12. She continues to garner accolades for her trailblazing work.

Chisholm was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service debuted the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp as part of the Black Heritage Series. A year later, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and now Viola Davis will star in a movie about her life. But Chisholm never doubted what legacy she wanted to leave behind, once saying, “I want history to remember me ... not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2017.

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