The Smithfield Ghost

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The Smithfield Ghost…[who] scared even the stalwart butchers of that neighbourhood in the 17th century, is probably now forgotten.


So wrote the author of The Mystery and Lore of Apparitions, a work from 1930 whose subtitle fulsomely describes its content as containing “some account of ghosts, spectres, phantoms and boggarts in early times”.

The Smithfield Ghost certainly still appears to be on of the capital’s lesser-known spirits, although his actions as described in The mystery and lore of apparitions deserve deserve recapping, particularly on Halloween.

As related in the book, the ghost apparently took the shape of a lawyer called Mallet – who was well-known in the area – and behaved in a mischevious way, amusing himself by pulling joints of meat off the butcher’s stalls at Smithfield as he passed along them.

And even though the Smithfield Ghost was said to keep regular hours – appearing every Saturday evening between the hours of nine and midnight – the butchers couldn’t catch him: “Many have ventured”, states a contemporary account, “to strike at him with cleavers and chopping knives, but cannot feel anything but aire”.

The same contemporary account offers the image shown above (which is reprinted in The mystery and lore of apparitions). However, once we look at that contemporary account, the Smithfield Ghost takes on a slightly different hue.

The account comes from 1654 and issue 85 of a news book called Mercurius democritus, or, A true and perfect nocturnall, communicating many strange wonders out of the World in the Moon, the Antipodes, Magy-land, Fary-land Green-land, Tenebris and other parts adjacent.

What the author of The mystery and lore of apparitions does not mention is the highly politicised nature of Mercurius democritus – published during the Cromwellian regime, it was produced by John Crouch, a pamphleeter of the time who often fell foul of the authorities. With regards to the substance of Mercurius democritus, Crouch’s ODNB entry tells us that “The principal aim of Democritus, Heraclitus, and Fumigosus [other titles produced by Crouch] was to parody the lies and exaggerations of the rest of the press by deliberately peddling half-truths and hyperbole”. [1]

As such – and is we know of no other contemporary accounts of the Smithfield Ghost – this account of ghostly goings-on in London should perhaps not be taken at the same face-value as it appears the of author of The mystery and lore of apparitions did. And who was this author? A pivotal figure in the growth of Henry Wellcome’s collections – and so the development of the Wellcome Library – C J S Thompson. We’ll leave for another time more details on Thompson’s fascinating career…

[1] Jason Mc Elligott, ‘Crouch, John (b. c.1615, d. in or after 1680)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 31 Oct 2011]

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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