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“The End Looks Farther Off”

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 217th installment in the series.  

January 1, 1916: “The End Looks Farther Off”

Signing off in a letter to a friend, Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in France, struck a gloomy note which doubtless echoed the feelings of many as they contemplated another New Year in a world at war: “I cannot even send a hopeful message for 1916. The end looks farther off for me than it did at the beginning of the year. It seems to me that the world is only now beginning to realize what it is up against.”

Shortly afterwards, Muhammad Hussein Khan, an Indian soldier serving in the British Army on the Western Front, struck a similar note in a letter home written January 10, 1916:

There is no news about my return. It is not the work of days or months; it is becoming the work of years. May God be gracious and protect those of us in the fighting line, because hundreds of thousands of God’s servants are being ruthlessly slain. The enemy has commenced such atrocities as to murder without pity defenseless villagers, old men and young children, and to sink hospital ships. God bring him into a proper way of thinking.

Indeed the last year and a half had been an education for humanity in inhumanity as Europe, the center of the “civilized” world, suddenly tore itself to shreds for reasons that most people found (and still find) extraordinarily obscure.

Into the Whirlwind

In June 1914 the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the twin thrones of Austria-Hungary, provided the Austrians with the excuse they had long been seeking to crush the neighboring kingdom of Serbia, ending the threat of Slavic nationalism to the multiethnic empire once and for all (or so they hoped). Supported by Germany, which feared the demise of its only ally, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so extreme no independent country could possibly accept them—all part of an attempt to shift the blame to Serbia in order to keep the conflict from spreading.

However, Austria-Hungary and Germany underestimated the commitment of Serbia’s great Slavic patron, Russia, in protecting its sole remaining client state in the Balkans (after incompetent Russian diplomacy alienated Bulgaria). For its part, Russia could call on support from its ally France, which in turn had a defensive agreement with Britain, known as the Entente Cordiale. 

Operating in a fatal cloud of suspicion, deceit, miscommunication, and sheer negligence, in July 1914 Europe’s diplomats blundered and bluffed themselves into a war no one wanted. Their ambition and naiveté were abetted by mechanistic mobilization plans drawn up by their general staffs, including Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, calling for the invasion of France via neutral Belgium in violation of repeated promises—a move sure to infuriate Britain. In a few short weeks, a series of events no one could comprehend unleashed forces beyond anyone’s control.

The War in 1914

The first months of fighting shattered expectations, forcing the generals to tear up intricate plans years in the making and grapple with a new form of warfare. On the Western Front, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s Plan XVII, which envisioned a lunge into Germany powered by French fighting spirit, was resoundingly defeated in the Battle of the Frontiers. However, through masterful use of the French rail network and with assistance from the scrappy British Expeditionary Force, Joffre managed to fight off the surprise German invasion of northern France during the “Miracle on the Marne.”

The Schlieffen Plan unraveled partly because of last-minute tinkering by German chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, and partly because he was dealing with a surprise of his own 1000 miles to the east, where Russia was ready for action sooner than expected, thanks to a more aggressive mobilization schedule enabled by new railroads. The new commanders of the German Eighth Army, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, turned the tables on the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg, encircling and destroying the Russian Second Army in one of the greatest victories of the war—but the reinforcements Moltke rushed to the east may have fatally weakened the German invasion of France. 

Meanwhile, back on the Western Front (and following their withdrawal from the Marne), the Germans dug in north of Paris along the River Aisne, giving rise to trench warfare—a novel type of static combat, which had some precedents in medieval siege warfare as well as the Crimean War, the U.S. Civil War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War, among others. Above all, trench warfare exploited the enormous tactical advantage conferred on defenders by new weapons including machine guns, quick-firing rifles, and barbed wire, which allowed a small number of determined troops in protected positions to simply mow down row after row of attackers advancing across open fields.

With hundreds of thousands of soldiers frantically digging into soil soaked by autumn rains, the last chance of a quick victory lay in outflanking the enemy, resulting in the misleadingly named “Race to the Sea” in September to October 1914—when both sides tried to outmaneuver each other all the way north to the Belgian coast, but to no avail, unfolding two parallel lines of trenches behind them. It culminated in the the apocalyptic First Battle of Ypres from October to November 1914, where the Germans sent overwhelming numbers of infantry against outnumbered British and French positions in a series of human wave attacks, but ultimately failed to break through to the English Channel.

The rest of the war was essentially one long experiment (using tens of millions of live human subjects) in which commanders tried to discover the secret formula that would restore the initiative to the attackers.

1915: The Central Powers Ascendant

Ypres (and the French experience in the First Battle of Champagne in December 1914) left little doubt of the need for extensive artillery bombardment before infantry attacks, in order to break up barbed wire entanglements, take out machine gun nests and destroy the enemy’s trenches—but putting this theory into practice was another matter. For one thing, all the belligerents suffered severe ammunition shortages, which could only be remedied by political reform and major, long-term efforts at industrial reorganization, including the mass employment of women in war factories and agriculture.

In the meantime, however, the war went on—which in practice meant new offensives, even if shells were lacking. The predictable result was more grisly defeats for the British and French in 1915 at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers and Festubert, and Loos. Elsewhere the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November 1914, followed by Italy’s entry on the side of Allies in May 1915, massively expanded the theater of war and probably extended its duration, but did little to yield a decisive result—as did Germany’s declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1915 (later rescinded in September 1915, under American diplomatic pressure following the sinking of the Lusitania).

Searching for ways to break the deadlock on the Western Front, the Germans initiated a horrific new form of warfare with the introduction of poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915—a shocking new low that was condemned and then swiftly imitated by the Allies. Stubborn resistance by Canadian troops saved the day at Ypres, and the advantage of surprise was lost, as both sides now rushed to produce gas masks and invent ever-more toxic forms of gas; soon gas warfare was just another commonplace terror at the front, which did little to alter the strategic balance.

Meanwhile the Allies made another bid for a strategic breakthrough with an attempt to capture the Turkish straits, which would open the supply route to Russia through the Black Sea and probably knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. However the first phase of the campaign, in which the Royal Navy tried to “force” the straits with sea power alone, ended in total failure—setting the stage for an even bigger disaster when the Allies escalated to an amphibious operation to capture the Gallipoli peninsula and destroy the Turkish forts defending the straits from the land side in April. A further attempt to outflank the Turkish defenders with new landings at Suvla Bay in August also ended in resounding failure, and in December 1915 the Allies began withdrawing their troops.

In addition to their defensive victories on the Western Front, Italian Front, and at Gallipoli, the Central Powers scored major offensive victories on the Eastern Front and in the Balkans—in both cases thanks to massive superiority in artillery. In May 1915 the German-led breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow in Austrian Galicia punched a massive hole in the Russian defensive line, clearing the way for a series of advances that the Russians were powerless to stop because of their continuing shortage of artillery shells.

By September 1915, when the Russians were finally able to reestablish a strong defensive position stabilizing the Eastern Front, the Central Powers had conquered all of Russian (Congress) Poland and large swathes of Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic provinces, totaling about 65,000 square miles in area, while inflicting 1.2 million Russian casualties and taking 900,000 prisoners. Unsurprisingly these losses sparked furious criticism of the Tsarist regime, compounded by growing food shortages and the hypnotic hold of the malign holy man Rasputin on the Tsarina Alexandra. 

The Central Powers scored another important victory with the conquest of Serbia—ostensibly the reason for the whole war in the first place—from October to December 1915, aided by the entry of Bulgaria on their side. Faced with overwhelming artillery firepower and numerical superiority, the Serbian Army crumpled in a few short weeks, resulting in one of the war’s worst humanitarian disasters as hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers perished during the Serbian Great Retreat over the Albanian mountains. Those survivors lucky enough to arrive at the Albanian coast were eventually rescued from the pursuing Central Powers armies by Allied ships, which evacuated them to the Greek island of Corfu.

1916: Planning Horror

The conquest of Serbia opened up a line of direct communication with the Ottoman Empire, allowing Germany and Austria-Hungary to supply their beleaguered ally with ammunition, supplies, and reinforcements. But like the Central Powers’ multiple victories on the Eastern Front, it was ultimately a limited, local success, which improved the strategic situation but failed to yield a decisive result (below, a cartoon from Punch mocks the Kaiser’s ambition at yearend).

Thus in the New Year German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn once again turned his attention to the Western Front, planning a massive battle of attrition targeting the fortress town of Verdun, with the goal of “bleeding France white” and knocking her out of the war. Unbeknownst to Falkenhayn the Allies were also planning a climactic battle to wear Germany down and maybe even end the war, at the Somme. Either of these two cataclysms would qualify, by itself, as the biggest battle in history; incredibly they would overlap, making 1916 a year of horror exceeding 1914 or 1915.

Indeed historians discussing the human cost of the First World War often settle on one word: “appalling.” While estimates vary, on the Central Powers side, by the end of 1915 Germany had suffered around 2.5 million casualties, including 628,445 dead, 320,154 prisoners of war, and 1,595,406 wounded (many of whom returned to the fight). Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary had suffered even more losses: as 1916 dawned, she tallied around 2.8 million casualties, including 700,000 dead, 650,000 prisoners, and 1.5 million wounded. Firm figures for Turkey are harder to find, but between Gallipoli, Sarikamish, the Suez Canal, Mesopotamia, and rampant disease it seems certain the decaying Ottoman Empire had suffered at least half a million casualties, of which at least a third were dead. Thus by the end of 1915 the Central Powers had probably lost around 1.46 million dead (not counting Bulgaria’s losses in the Serbian campaign).

Allied losses were even greater. By December 1915 France has suffered around two million total casualties, including roughly one million wounded, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 730,000 dead. Meanwhile Britain tallied over half a million casualties, including 109,620 killed on the Western Front alone, as well as 60,000 prisoners of war, and 338,758 wounded. Russia, reeling from the Central Powers onslaught in the middle of the year, had suffered roughly 4.5 million casualties, including two million prisoners of war, 1.5 million wounded, and one million dead. Italy, a late entry to the war, had already sustained 135,000 casualties, including 31,000 killed and 95,000 wounded. Last but not least, the Serbian Army lost 187,157 men killed in the second half of 1915 alone, for a total of around 2.1 million dead on the Allied side.

Putting these figures together, by the end of 1915 the nations of Europe had sacrificed over 3.5 million men to the god of war. It should be noted that this number doesn’t even include civilian casualties caused by the war, for example through disruptions to the food supply or basic public hygiene.

On that note a typhus epidemic killed several hundred thousand Serbian civilians in the early part of 1915, and 140,000 Serbian civilians died in the Great Retreat. But the most civilian deaths by far resulted from the Armenian Genocide, in which the Young Turks triumvirate who ruled the Ottoman Empire ordered the massacre and “deportation” (a euphemism for death marches into the desert) of the empire’s entire Armenian population. Although estimates once again vary, up to 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of these genocidal policies from 1915 to 1917.

The Ottoman Empire’s own allies provided evidence that the genocide was ordered and carried out by the government, in the form of records left by German diplomats. On January 3, 1916, the German consul in Aleppo, Rossler, sent a report to the ambassador Wolff-Metternich in Constantinople, with an enclosed report from the consul in Alexandretta stating:

It can be regarded as an established fact that in the actual Armenian Vilayets—quite apart from the war zone near Van—the deportation has been accompanied by the massacre of the adult male Armenians, but also partly of the whole population of Armenian towns and villages … According to Vice-Consul Holstein’s personal knowledge, gained during his journey from Mosul to Aleppo, the people have been exhorted by gendarme patrols from Diyarbekir and Mardin to “finish off” the Armenians … The deportations from the actual Armenian vilayets were usually carried out in such a brutal manner that only the wretched remains of a mountain people … actually arrived at the collection camps … “… In six places between Tell-Ebiad and Kueltepe I saw dead naked women lying near to the railway lines, also a dead naked woman with mutilated feet, then two dead children, another dead older girl, next to hear a dead child, then the still clothed body of a dead woman and another dead woman who had been gagged. Also I twice saw two dead children, making a total of 18 bodies in all.”

Changing the World

Amidst the spreading catastrophe, it’s no surprise that growing numbers of people expected and perceived a fundamental change in the world around them, affecting everything from social structures and gender relations to art and literature. Also unsurprisingly, men in the frontline trenches were the most psychologically impacted by the fighting, and therefore among the most eager for instituting sweeping changes “after the war.”

But like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, different people saw different things in the effects of war, and hoped for very different outcomes. Predictably many expressed hopes for a pacifist revolution after the war, making it a “war to end all wars,” in a phrase adapted from H.G. Wells. On December 23, 1915 a British officer, Frederic Keeling, wrote home:

I can’t think that human nature ever had to stand in any kind of warfare in history what the modern infantryman has to stand. The strange thing in a way is that there doesn’t seem to be any limit to what you can make human nature stand. But I do think that after the war there will be a wave of practical pacifism from the ex-infantrymen of Western Europe that will sweep many barriers to progress away.

Similarly Robert Pellissier, a French chasseur-a-pied, wrote on April 22, 1915:

The one decent thing that may come out of this horrible mess may be the final discrediting of war in Europe, and perhaps elsewhere. It’s an idea which keeps up us French soldiers at present. One often hears them say, “Well, whatever happens to us, our children at least will be freed from the curse of militarism and all allied curses!”

For many, these hopes went beyond simple pacifism to embrace thoroughgoing social reform—or even revolution—to bring about a more equitable society, reflecting the rise of socialist political movements before the war. On January 29, 1916 a German soldier, Johannes Haas, struck an ominous (if ambiguous) note in a letter home, hinting at impending upheaval on the home front: “I don’t agree with the popular saying ‘that there will only be peace when the bullets are aimed in the opposite direction,' but, all the same, there will be a fearful awakening some day! It will be well then for those who can pass away into eternity still believing in the Fatherland, for that time will be worse than the war.”

Of course not everyone welcomed the idea, as reflected in the musings of Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin. On November 15, 1915, Blücher confided her fears of unstoppable social change to her diary:

Germany will be a very difficult country to live in after the war, as, whether she wins or loses, the Socialists are going to revolt—I feel quite sure of that. It is the German custom to nip everything in the bud, and to use such drastic measures that whatever goes on in the soul of a man or party never rises to the surface, but is left fermenting in suppressed silence. It seems now, though, that the war is going to alter this state of affairs … The long lists of casualties have developed into great thick volumes; more and more men are being called up; women are realizing the enormous burden imposed upon them.

Another relatively conservative observer, John Ayscough, a Catholic chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force, reluctantly dismissed the idea that the old order could continue after the war, writing his mother: “But I am convinced that it is all a dream: that the time for making new Kings in Europe is gone by, and that there is far more probability of existing monarchies collapsing.” And Edouard Drumont, a conservative and anti-Semitic French politician, also looked nervously to the future, according to his wife, who recorded his thoughts on the death of chivalry: “Look you, it is only the plebeians now who are so sturdy and so brave. The dispute between the men on foot and the cavaliers continues; but it is the man on foot who is now in the first rank … The old order changeth … Another which as yet we do not see will rise out of this present jumble. Let us wait in hope and faith.”

At the same time, there was also a widespread sense among advocates of change that it was yet to unfold, often with an accompanying feeling of resentment toward civilians at home, who didn’t seem to realize the nature of the war or the extent of the transformation it required. Alfred Vaeth, a philosophy student from Heidelberg, wrote in a letter home on July 12, 1915:

I did not get the impression the German people have grown, nor did I get the impression that they have grasped the seriousness of the war, and I did get the impression that it will be just at I expected while at the Front: things will go on just in the same bad old way as ever … The fine thing about it is at last one has acquaintances who really take a lively interest in the needs of the times … Thus we have at last a chance of getting an accurate general view of this gigantic war and learning how it affects the souls of our warriors. 

The logical corollary was that it would fall to the “men from the trenches” to create the new society. In another letter dated September 12, 1915, Vaeth wrote: “If there is to be a New Germany, the troops will have to take it home with them—it is not to be found there.”

But the hoped-for social change could take many forms—and the leftist goal of a pacifist, egalitarian world was just one of several competing utopian visions, reflecting the diversity of political opinions existing before the war. Men holding conservative or reactionary ideologies were also radicalized by their experiences, and reached very different conclusions about what changes were needed. Thus Adolf Hitler, a messenger in the German (Bavarian) Army, hoped for a Germany cleansed of “un-German” contamination:

… those of us who are lucky enough to return to the fatherland will find it a purer place, less riddled with foreign influences, so that the daily sacrifices and sufferings of hundreds of thousands of us and the torrent of blood that keeps flowing here day after day against an international world of enemies will help not only to smash Germany’s foes but that our inner internationalism, too, will collapse.

Changing Men

These rumblings of political upheaval were accompanied by profound changes in men themselves, resulting from physical privation, pain, and mass psychological trauma. At the most basic level, many soldiers remarked on the fact that they could no longer recognize their own appearance. Vasily Mishnin, a Russian soldier, confided his worries about the effect this would have on his relationship in his diary on April 11, 1915:

Dear God, I look like an old man in the photo. I don’t recognize myself at all. How quickly war can ruin a man. In five months I have completely changed. I look haggard, a young man no more. I don’t want to look like this. I worry that I shouldn’t send this photo to Nyura. It is bound to upset my sweet lady. She is still young, she still likes the look of a healthy young man, she wants to still fancy me. But there again, she loves me and knows that I belong to her alone, and we’ve been so happy together. Slowly my doubts begin to dissolve. A man’s heart is much more important than any photo. You see, I didn’t want to change, it’s the war, and I’m not the only one. But the thought of Nyura looking at this and saying “Vasyusha, what’s happened to you!” keeps troubling me.

Mehmed Fasih, a Turkish officer at Gallipoli, struck a similar note in his diary in November 1915:

“I’m 21 years old. My hair and beard are already grey. My moustache is white. My face is wrinkled and my body is rotting. I can’t bear these hardships and privations any more… Daydream about a happy family and nice kids. Will I live to see the day when I have some?”

Physical changes were mirrored by psychological effects, ranging from extreme reactions like shell shock to more subtle, but still significant, changes in attitude and outlook. Shell shock was undoubtedly the most visible such reaction, sometimes described as a form of hysteria or madness. One British soldier, Private James Beatson, recorded in his diary on August 11, 1915: “What wonder if, in such a hellish hurly-burly, the higher nerve centres are disintegrated and men revert to a primitive somnambulistic subconsciousness, deaf, dumb, and blind. The stoutest soldiers break in madness, paralysis, convulsions, aphasia and delirium.”

At a time when psychological trauma was still looked down on as a sign of cowardice, many attributed shell shock to spiritual “weakness.” Joseph Vassal, a French doctor serving at Gallipoli, wrote to his English wife in May 1915:

One’s imagination can suggest nothing like the reality. I could wish that there was no remembrance in my brain of these hours of blood and of death. Weak minds were upset. Few were able to keep a real and immediate notion of things. There is a physical exaltation which deforms and obscures everything and makes one incapable of reasoning.

Other participants readily admitted observing changes in themselves. Frederic Keeling, already quoted above, wrote on September 1, 1915: “My nerves are not what they were before I was wounded; every one seems to be the same. One gets steadily less cool out here. Every bombardment uses one up a bit more, I think…”

The British novelist Robert Graves claimed to be able to chart the psychological decline of officers in the trenches:

At six months he was still more or less all right; but by nine or 10 months, unless he had been given a few weeks’ rest on a technical course, or in hospital, he usually became a drag on the other company officers. After a year or fifteen months he was often worse than useless … The unfortunates were officers who had endured two years or more of continuous trench service … I knew three or four who had worked up to the point of two bottles of whiskey a day before being lucky enough to get wounded or sent home in some other way.

Some men were able to use psychological coping mechanisms, although their effects could be equally disturbing, including a curious detachment that would inevitably follow them back to civilian life once discharged. Alfred Pollard, a British soldier, remarked on a strange incident at Loos in a diary entry written September 30, 1915: “It was just as though my spirit were detached from my body. My physical body became a machine doing the bidding, coolly and accurately, which my spirit dictated. Something outside myself seemed to tell me what to do, so that I was never quite at a loss.”

Another soldier in the British Army, James Hall, recalled what might be termed a divided self:

I had the curious feeling that my body and brain were functioning quite apart from me. I was only a slow-witted, incredulous spectator looking on with a stupid animal wonder. I have learned that this feeling is quite common among men in the trenches. A part of the mind works normally, and another part, which seems to be one's essential self, refuses to assimilate and classify experiences so unusual, so different from anything in the catalogue of memory.

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Weird
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
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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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