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Erin McCarthy

12 Things You Won't See on Display at The Field Museum

Original image
Erin McCarthy

Visitors to Chicago’s Field Museum will see a dinosaur named SUE, check out some of the earliest dioramas created by the visionary taxidermist Carl Akeley, and wander through an Ancient Egyptian tomb. But much of the museum’s collections—which contain some 30 million objects—are not on display. Earlier this year, mental_floss visited The Field Museum to take a peek at the institution's research collections; here are a few things we saw behind the scenes.


Photo by Erin McCarthy

In 2009, two employees of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, were accused of digging up bodies, dumping them in other locations around the cemetery, and reselling the plots. When authorities found 1500 bones from at least 29 people scattered around the grounds, the employees at first denied it, then changed their tune to say that yes, bodies had been dug up, but it had happened a long time ago. So the police called in experts from The Field Museum to weigh in.

“One of the things [the investigators] found was a clump of dirt that, according to the tag, was ‘found amongst human bone remains approximately 8 inches under the surface,’ and it had green moss growing on it,” said Laura Briscoe, a bryologist (someone who studies mosses) and collections and research assistant in the Botanical Collections. “The thought was, ‘Is this something that could be living underground and still be bright green, or was this evidence of something that was more recently turned under?’”

The team collected samples of the moss at the cemetery to prove it was growing there. Back at The Field Museum, they analyzed the moss specimen that the police had collected alongside the fresh moss they had gathered, then sent the fresh moss to physiologists that specialized in mosses. “We determined that the moss was probably not underground for more than two years,” Briscoe said. 

Other scientists not affiliated with The Field Museum, working on tree roots found with human remains, reached the same conclusion. In February, the employees were found guilty. Now, the moss—evidence bag and all—is part of the museum’s Botanical Collections, which numbers some 3 million specimens.


Scutisorex somereni skelton. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

Not all spines are created equal—and two species of shrew have the most incredible vertebral columns of all. The so-called Hero Shrew (Scutisorex somereni) was first discovered by Western scientists in Uganda in 1910 and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1915. The locals, of course, had known about it for much longer. “They told the scientists, ‘If we take some of that animal’s hair, or we kill it and burn it in the fire, and smear the ash on our bodies, we will be invincible when we go into battle. We will survive any spear, any bullet,’” Bill Stanley, Director of Collections, Gantz Family Collections Center and Negaunee Collection Manager, Mammals, told mental_floss when we visited. (Stanley passed away on October 6 during an expedition in Ethiopia.)

The scientists were rightfully doubtful—and then one of the natives, a fully grown man, grabbed a live shrew, put it on the ground, and stood on top of it on one foot for 5 full minutes. When he stepped off of it, the animal walked away. “Anything else would have just been crushed flat,” Stanley said. Though scientists brought a specimen back to the United States, they wouldn’t discover the truly incredible thing about the animal until 1917: Its vertebral column, which has double the number of lumbar vertebrae of typical mammals. For example, typical mammals may have five or six compared to 11 in Scutisorex. The profuse development of interlocking spines—especially on the lumbar vertebrae (from 20 to 28) is a situation unrecorded for any other mammal. The spines are fixed so that the horizontal spines interlock with those of the next adjoining vertebra. “This is the most bizarre spine of any animal in the world,” Stanley said.

Scutisorex thori skeleton. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

Fast forward to 2012, when Stanley was in the Congo trying to track the vector in an outbreak of monkeypox. In the process of collecting animals and taking tissue samples, Stanley found a new species of hero shrew. “It didn’t have as many processes as the other hero shrew, and the processes were slightly bigger,” he said. “It was big news. This would be like finding a new species of platypus.” He named the new species Scutisorex thori. “While it might invoke the god Thor, it’s actually named after a personal hero, Thor Holmes, who is the collection manager of the Vertebrate Museum at Humboldt State University, where I went to school,” Stanley said.

Though scientists aren’t quite sure why these shrews have such intense spines, there is one hypothesis, offered by Stanley’s friend, Lynn Robinson, who went with villagers to an area where they collected beetle grubs from between the bark and trunk of palm trees. “The villagers said, ‘We always see hero shrews running around here,’ and Lynn thought to himself, ‘I bet the shrews crawl between that brack and the trunk, and they bend their backs and are able to pry the brack away from the tree and get food that isn’t accessible to anybody else,’” Stanley said. “We don’t have proof of this, but it is a hypothesis to explain the adaptive significance.”


Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 190571

The Field Museum’s anthropology collection contains between 1.5 and 2 million objects; 800 are stored in a big climate- and temperature-controlled room deep underground, below the museum’s public halls. Among the things you’ll see in the room are Roman wine and oil storage vessels from the time of the Vesuvius eruption; a scaled-down Japanese pagoda built for the 1893 World’s Fair; and huge masks used in the ceremonial rites of the Sulka in Papua New Guinea. The room also holds Francis Brenton’s boats.

Born in Britain in 1927, Brenton eventually settled in Chicago. There, the photographer became a member of Chicago’s Explorers Club and made trips to Central America, bringing things back for The Field Museum. At one point, he took a trip down to Panama, where he acquired a 20-foot-long canoe from the Kuna people for the museum. To get it back to Chicago, “He had a second canoe, 2 feet longer than this one, lashed them together, and sailed them up to Chicago from Colombia—up the Mississippi, up the Illinois River, into Burnham Harbor,” said Christopher Philipp, Regenstein Collections Manager of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum.

One canoe became part of the collection; Brenton, meanwhile, took the other, put a fiberglass pontoon on it, and traveled out the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic. From there, he attempted to sail all the way to Africa. “He got lost at sea, was picked up by a German freighter, and was eventually deposited in Senegal,” Philipp said. Then he hatched a plan to try to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, starting in Cape Verde. When that didn’t work, he disposed of the pontoon, got another boat, and “sailed his vessel back across the ocean and to Chicago,” Philipp said. That boat also became part of The Field Museum’s collections.

Brenton would go out to sea again, and get lost again—this time, for good. “We don’t know what happened to Mr. Francis Brenton,” Philipp said. His boats, too, were lost for a time in The Field Museum itself, because they had no catalog numbers, which tie an object to the data about it. “Pre-1999, that used to sit out in the Middle American halls,” Philipp said. “All the paint was gone from the inside, because kids would hop in it for photo ops.”

When it came off display, some believed it was an exhibits prop and could be thrown out. “I was acting as a registrar for the department in 1999 and found the accession file for this thing and said, ‘We can’t throw that out!’” he recalled. They identified Brenton’s other boat from the Senegalese flag painted on it.


It might be hard to tell, but this is a dinosaur skull. Note the crest on the top right of the skull, from which the animal gets its name: Cryolophosaurus, or frozen crested lizard. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

The geological history of Antarctica isn’t exactly clear. “Most of it is under ice, so a lot of what we know is what has been spit up by glaciers,” said Peter Makovicky, an associate curator in the Earth Sciences section at The Field Museum. “It wasn’t until Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition in 1912, when he found Glossopteris [seed fern fossils], that it became clear that this place has a deep geological history.”

Then, in 1990, a geologist walking up Mount Kirkpatrick—part of the 14,000-foot-high Central Transantarctic Mountains—stumbled across a dinosaur thigh bone, purely by chance. (It wasn't the first dinosaur fossil to be found in Antarctica: Those were unearthed on the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1980s; the animal they came from, an armored dinosaur, wouldn’t get its scientific name, Antarctopelta oliveroi, until 2006.) A group of paleontologists also working on the continent began to extract the dinosaur from the side of the mountain 12,000 feet above sea level. “They got the skull and a number of parts in 1990,” Makovicky said. By 1994, it had a name—Cryolophosaurus, or frozen crested lizard, which lived at the beginning of the Jurassic and was “sort of the first big dinosaur and predator,” Makovicky said. “It’s from 195 million years ago. Dinosaurs were present in the Triassic, but they shared their environment with a lot of other animals. At the beginning of the Jurassic, dinosaurs were the big dogs on the block—and this is sort of the first big meat eater.”

The scientists returned to the site in 2003, and Makovicky was part of the last expedition there, in 2010 and 2011. Getting to the site involves helicoptering in, and the researcher had to use power tools to extract the fossils. “The fossils come from mudstone,” he said. “It’s extremely hard and virtually unbreakable.” Typically, the next step would be to wrap the bones in plaster to secure them for their trip to The Field Museum, but in Antarctica, that’s impossible—the water in the plaster freezes before the fossils can be wrapped. So the scientists extracted huge hunks of rock containing the bones, dragged them to the helicopter landing zone for a flight back to camp, then loaded them onto big military planes, which then flew the specimens back to McMurdo. There they were eventually loaded on cargo ships and taken back to The Field Museum.

The holotype specimen at The Field Museum is about half of the animal. The mountainside where it was found “is actually pretty rich with dinosaurs,” Makovicky said. On the most recent trip, “we found parts of a small plant-eating dinosaur”—one of three different herbivores found on the mountainside, which has yet to be named—“and another Cryolophosaurus brain casing.”

Analyzing the vascular structure of a juvenile dinosaur. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

Once back at museum, preparers used tools to isolate the bones from the rock. Scientists at the museum are now studying these dinosaurs, examining the bones, using 3D printers to print the skulls and analyze brain casings, and slicing open the fossils to look at the vascular structures inside under microscopes.


Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 273650

In 1958, the museum acquired around 9000 Pacific Island objects from a London-based collector named Alfred Fuller, who bought the objects from traders at auction. “He wasn’t really out to collect the most beautiful things, or the aesthetic objects," Philipp said. "He was looking for the range of technology. So there will be 18 fish hooks from Tonga, and they’ll all be a little different, technology-wise. But there are also many beautiful objects in the collections as well.”

Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 273650

One of the beautiful things is this cloak, made from the feathers of kiwi on a backing of flax with a tāniko border. These cloaks are still made by Maori women today, and are given to both men and women of high status. The Maori also see these historical objects as connections to their ancestors. “When I held my first visit to this cabinet with a Maori weaver, she started crying as soon as I opened the cabinet,” he said. It wasn’t because the cloak was in bad condition—it’s not—but because of the connection she felt with her ancestors who made the garment. “It really highlights the importance that The Field Museum has in keeping and caring for these objects,” Philipp said. “They aren’t just things that you stick up on the wall to display.”


Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 274251

Star Wars fans might find these clubs familiar: According to Philipp, creator/director George Lucas based the weapons carried by the Tusken Raiders on the Totokia—top-heavy wooden clubs carried by Fijian warriors in the 1800s. The clubs were used in warfare to deliver a deadly blow to the skull. They've also been called pineapple clubs.


Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 91440

The Field Museum has 123 weapons, spears, or lances that feature shark teeth from Kiribati. The weapons, which line the walls of the Anthropology Oversize storage room, come from two main sources: A 1905 acquisition from a German supply house called the Umlauff Museum, and the 1958 acquisition from Fuller. (Fun fact: To protect themselves against these nasty weapons, warriors would wear armor woven with coconut fiber and human hair.) And they’re proof of how historical research collections can inform current science.

A few years ago, Josh Drew, who was working in the ichthyology department, came down to the anthropology collections and asked if there were any shark tooth weapons from the Gilbert Islands, which are part of the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean. “We’ve got a lot,” Philipp said. After looking at all 123 of these weapons, Drew determined that three of the shark species represented on the weapons are no longer present in the waters near the Gilbert Islands.

“That opens up many questions,” Philipp said. “Was it overfishing? Was it global warming? Was it trade between ancient islanders? We don’t know the answers to those questions. But here’s really old historical objects informing current science, which is really cool, and shows you the reason why we keep all this stuff. Lots of people come down here and say, ‘Why do you keep this stuff if it’s not on display?’ Well, this is primarily a research collection. We don’t know what we’re going to be able to do with collections 100 years from now.”


Photo by Erin McCarthy

The Field Museum has around 7500 volumes in its Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room, but it also has plenty of things that aren’t books. Among its 3000 works of art are the graphite drawings and watercolors of Christophe Paulin de la Poix de Freminville, who was born in 1787 and died in 1848. The collection was purchased and donated to the library in 1990s.

Freminville was a sailor in the French Navy and did a lot of traveling. “He went to the North Pole and the Caribbean,” said technical services librarian Diana Duncan. “There are several species that bear his name, but most of his published works deal with antiquities, so he was an archaeologist, too.”

Photo by Erin McCarthy

The Field Museum has several boxes of drawings and matted works from Freminville. He drew everything from snakes to butterflies to fish. Many of them never made it into books—which, sadly, isn’t all that unusual. “There are some publication endeavors that people work on and they run out of money, or they die, and their dreams go unrealized,” said Christine Giannoni, the museum’s librarian. “There’s all sorts of sad stories in the history.” It's not known why Freminville failed to publish these remarkable illustrations.


Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 189262.1&.2

Archaeologists have long been interested in Maya Blue, a pigment that’s been used on everything from murals to ceramics. “Maya blue has always been kind of an enigma because it’s a very stable pigment,” said Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian Anthropology. “It’s one of the few blues that’s produced without any modern chemical processes. It was made pre-Hispanically—the Maya and Mesoamerican people figured it out.”

How they made the pigment was a mystery—until scientists analyzed an incense-burning bowl that had been dredged from a cenote, or sinkhole, in Chichen Itza in the late 1800s. The piece, which was initially held at Harvard, was traded to The Field Museum in the 1930s (“at that time,” Feinman said, “it was OK to trade pieces”). The bowl still contained copal incense, a type of tree resin. “The incense, which is an organic material, normally would not preserve in an archeological context," Feinman said. "But it was preserved [in this case] because it was underwater for centuries.”

Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 189262.1&.2

Dean Arnold, who became an adjunct curator at The Field Museum after he retired from Wheaton College, “has been investigating Maya Blue forever,” according to Feinman. When he wanted to continue his research into the pigment, he came to The Field Museum, which has a laboratory that allows researchers to analyze the chemical compositions of substances. One of the pieces they pulled for testing was the bowl. They examined the copal and eventually took a sample, which they analyzed with a mass spectrometer.

“We noticed that there was something interesting about this particular piece of preserved copal because there’s blue pigment on it,” Feinman said. “It also has white inclusions, which turned out to be a very fine white clay.” Using the test, they surmised that Maya Blue was made in a process that used resinous copal as a bonding agent to fuse the inorganic molecule (fine white clay) to an organic molecule (indigo solution). “The inorganic material is a fine clay and the organic material is a solution of indigo, which gives the pigment its blue color,” Feinman said.

This approximately 1100-year-old figurine head, which has a lot of Maya Blue on it, "comes from a late classic Maya site in the northern part of the Maya region," Feinman said. "It looks like it could be an important figure, given the nature of the jeweled headdress, but more than that I cannot say. This was almost certainly a part of a full-body figure, but the rest is gone." Photo by Erin McCarthy // The Field Museum, Cat. No. 48592.

The scientists concluded that the Maya were likely making Maya Blue at the edge of the cenote, coating objects (or human sacrifices) with the pigment, and then throwing them into the water. “A 16th-century Spanish priest who studied the Maya and Maya sacrifice reported that everything, when it was sacrificed, was first painted blue, so they were making the pigment on the side of the cenote before they sacrificed and threw it into the water,” Feinman said. “It gave us the first context ever where the Maya were actually making Maya blue. In other words, we know they made it at various places, but here we have proof that they were making it at the side of the sinkhole. There’s a good chance that they were using this copal incense and heat [to create a bond], because they burned the copal as a resin to bind the indigo solution and the clay. Those two things don’t fuse easily, but once they do, it’s a very stable bond.”


Photo by Erin McCarthy

At some point in his life, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney—signer of the Constitution, Revolutionary War vet, presidential candidate, and buddy of Alexander Hamilton—nabbed himself a copy of Philosophie Botanique de Charles Linné and signed his name on the title page. “He signed it as an owner,” Giannoni said. “There are bookplates—which would say ‘this book belonged to so and so’—but other people would sign their names as a mark of ownership.” The library purchased this volume in 1907.


Photo by Erin McCarthy

Most of the bird egg collection at The Field Museum is more than 100 years old. Back then, the collection and study of eggs—called oology—was a popular pursuit. People would go to active nests, pull out eggs, remove the insides, and add them to their collections. But no more. “It’s just not a cool thing to do anymore like it was back in the day,” said Joshua Engel, a research assistant at The Field Museum.

Still, the egg collections are another example of how historical specimens can inform scientific research much later. In the 1960s and ‘70s, ornithologists noticed that apex bird populations were declining. Eventually, the entire Midwestern population of Peregrine Falcons was wiped out. “One big problem was that eggs weren’t surviving the nests—they were breaking really easily,” Engel said. The scientists went into museum collections, at The Field Museum and around the world, where they analyzed contemporary eggs against historical ones, looking at things like weight and thickness of the shells. “They were able to determine that egg shells were much thinner during that period, especially in the ‘70s, than they were before,” Engel said. The culprit? Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, a pesticide widely used on crops after World War II. The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.

To bring Peregrine Falcons back to the Midwest, scientists worked with falconers to breed birds for release into the wild. Peregrines typically nest on cliffs, and the hope was that the reintroduced birds would return to their historic range. Many Peregrine instead build their homes on skyscrapers, using the urban environment like a pseudo-cliff. The Chicago Peregrine Program started 30 years ago and has grown since then from none to “just a couple of birds to 30 pairs through the state of Illinois,” Engel said. “When you’re talking a big bird of prey, that’s a big number.”

These days, the scientists keep close tabs on the birds. “We go to the nests in late spring, take the young birds out, and put bands on their legs,” Engel said, so that birders can track them. And if they go to a nest and find some unhatched eggs, they’ll take them, blow out the insides, and add the shells to the collections: “You never know how they’ll be used down the line.”


Photo by Erin McCarthy

The Field Museum’s Economic Botany Collection contains “everything from musical instruments to drinking vessels to baskets—things people make out of plants,” Briscoe said. There are jars of baby pineapples preserved in liquid, dried-out loofahs, drawers full of tea, and, delightfully, container upon container of plant-related items from the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. Among them is a jar labeled “Croton Draco? Dragon’s Blood” that came from Colombia. Dragon’s Blood is a cure-all medicine made from the latex (sap) of a tropical South American croton plant, used to treat about any ailment internally and externally.

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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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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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