Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism: who believed in ghosts in Hogarth’s England?

“ ’Tis the solitude of the Country that creates these Whimsies; there was never such a thing as a Ghost heard of at London , except in the Play-house. ” 1

“Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, A Medley” a print from an engraving was produced in 1762 by William Hogarth as a satire on certain superstitious aspects of contemporary popular beliefs. 2 Described by Bishop William Warburton as, “a horrid composition of lewd Obscenity & blasphemous profaneness for which I detest the artist”, it is particularly critical of Methodism and of the credulity with which many notorious supernatural hoaxes of the period were initially greeted. 3 One of the most famous of these alleged supernatural events was included for added resonance - the topical story of the ghost of Cock Lane. The following essay - using this print as a basis for research - will attempt to unravel its intriguing iconography and identify the characters and events in order to illuminate the beliefs and attitudes toward ghosts and the supernatural in the middle of the eighteenth century. The 1760s also represent a period of transition in the perception of apparition narratives which was to result in “the rise to authority of hedonistic and aestheticised versions of the supernatural which...render the problem of belief indifferent, and restore the ghost story to universal currency – only this time in the form of a commodity, a fiction to be bought and sold.” 4

The final engraving is a reworking of a first state from 1761 entitled Enthusiasm Delineated, a proof which remained unpublished. The subject matter of this first version reveals that Hogarth had to be careful not to offend too many people if he wished his print to be commercially successful. In the original plate the central criticism is of religious enthusiasm and idolatry. According to the Anglican Hogarth, Methodism was merely Roman Catholicism in another guise. The tonsured head of the inspired Methodist preacher in his harlequin costume resembles that of a Jesuit priest as he whips up fervour in is audience. He is accompanied by a howling dog with the name ‘Whitefield’ on its collar. George Whitefield’s name also appears on a slip of paper attached top the clerk’s lectern and features on ‘W(hitefiel)d’s Scale of Vociferation’, a sonometer near the pulpit , that alludes to his powerful projecting voice. Lastly, the clerk at the lectern is a cross-eyed, emaciated caricature of Whitefield flanked by cherubim, a reference to a false report on his
death in Lloyd’s Evening Post in 1761. The congregation, in religious rapture, devour figurines of Christ in a parody of the Eucharist. The experience of ecstasy, both spiritual and sexual, amongst the crowd, is measured by a prominent thermometer, with gradations rising from ‘Madness’ to ‘Despair’ to ‘Revelation’. 5 This depiction of blind faith verging on hysteria, lampooned by a rationalist artist, has been described as, “a realm of tormented reason...with its air of feverish Black Mass.” 6 It remained unpublished, however, as Bishop Hoadly, a friend of Hogarth’s, warned him that it could be interpreted as an attack on all religion, not just Methodism. Within a few months reports of the ghost in Cock Lane inspired Hogarth to return to the plate and rework it as a criticism of prevalent superstitious beliefs.

This contemporary credulity is exemplified by a number of the figures featured in the revised work, who presumably could be readily identified by the audience. In the lower left corner of the print a lady lies prostrate as a line of rabbits scurries from beneath her skirts. She can be unequivocally identified as Mary Tofts, who gained notoriety in 1726 for claiming that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. 7 The veracity of the claims was investigated and affirmed by the Surgeon and Anatomist of the Court: Nathaniel St Andre. When her duplicity was later revealed, following more rigorous investigation, the reputation of such “experts” was exposed to ridicule, exacerbated by another Hogarth print Cuncularii, or the Wise Men of Godliman, published in December 1726. Following these revelations a play was performed at Lincoln Inns Fields Theatre entitled Harlequin a Sorceror, featuring topical events from the case, which the theatre-going public would have recognised.

Similarly, Hogarth was always ready to exploit any newsworthy event to increase the sales of his prints. The later incidents in Cock Lane certainly constituted a widely-reported cause celebre throughout London in the early months of 1762. However, before that incident is analysed, a brief description of some of the further supernatural references in the print is necessary.

A figure crouched on the floor in front of the lectern, has been the subject of speculation amongst art historians, regarding its gender and identity. Despite a recent identification as a Methodist shoeblack, the depiction of nails being spewed from the person’s mouth would seem to indicate that he is William Perry, the Boy of Bilson, as most commentators agree, or at least that he has been the victim of witchcraft as such manifestations were commonly attributed to a witch’s spell. Perry’s was a seventeenth century case of supposed possession, which was discovered to be merely a fraudulent example of spite. 8 He is depicted as sitting next to a basket, in which a copy of George Whitfield’s Journal is prominently placed and in the bottom right corner of the print a Methodist’s brain rests on a copy of Wesley’s sermons and a work by Joseph Glanvill. Hogarth, is articulating the general belief at that time that Methodists were credulous and guilty of reanimating the Catholic legacy of popular superstition stifled by the Reformation. In 1795, years after Hogarth’s print had been published, a parish lecturer in Wakefield could still accuse the Methodists of having, “ reilluminated the fading flame of vulgar superstition.” 9

It is interesting that in the investigation of the Cock Lane case John Moore, the rector of St Bartholomew the Great West Smithfield, approached by Richard Parsons, was a Methodist. Indeed, John Wesley’s family had experienced an apparent poltergeist in their home in 1715, nicknamed by them ‘Old Jeffrey’. Although John Wesley was away at school, the household heard mysterious sounds, including knocking and Samuel Wesley claimed to have been pushed by this supernatural force. The year that the Cock Lane events occurred coincided with a period of intense Methodist missionary activity. 10 In 1778 John Wesley had famously written that, “the English in general…have given up all accounts on witches and apparitions, as mere old wive tales. I am sorry for it…They well know that the giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, thee giving up of the Bible…I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world; I mean that of witchcraft and apparitions, confirmed by the testimony of all ages.’ 11 Samuel Johnson, who was to pay an important role in events in Cock Lane, when asked by Boswell about the existence of a ghost in Newcastle investigated by John Wesley replied, “Why, Sir, he believes it; but not on sufficient authority…I am sorry that John did not take more pains to inquire into the evidence for it.” 12 Similarly, Robert Southey accused Wesley of, “voracious credulity…so silly, as well as monstrous that they might have nauseated the coarsest appetite for wonder.” 13 Methodism was perceived, at that time, as a religion that fostered belief in the supernatural amongst illiterate proletarians, thought to be essentially susceptible to superstitious beliefs in witchcraft and spirits.

The sighting of ghostly apparitions has persisted for many centuries and in his study of witchcraft and magic Keith Thomas has provided a concise overview of ghost beliefs during the Middle Ages and up to seventeenth century. 14 Following the Reformation, Protestantism had taught that the soul either went to Heaven or Hell after death, that Purgatory did not exist and that therefore no souls would be left wandering the Earth as disembodied spirits. Apparitions were still being reported, however, but were increasingly identified, not as souls of the dead, but as evil spirits sent by the Devil to lure the unwary. The effect of this interpretation was that, according to Gillian Bennett, “the transmutation of the morally neutral ghost into the servant of a higher moral power (usually the Power of Evil) would lead not only to short-term confusion but to a longer-lasting fear of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night.” 15 Bennett also claims that the concepts of the ghost and witch were mutually influential and that serious belief in ghosts declined at about the same time as belief in witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 had been repealed by 1736, but the preacher in Hogarth’s print is still attempting to illustrate his sermon with occult examples. In his left hand he brandishes a puppet of the devil and in his right a witch on her broomstick. Here the equation between Methodism/Catholicism and superstitious belief is again underlined. The principal works in witchcraft and apparitions appeared in the seventeenth century, but by the early eighteenth century far fewer were being published. Jacques de Daillon’s A Treatise on Spirits of 1723 was an attack on witchcraft, but also analysed the appearance the appearance of the ghost of Samuel to King Saul. 16 Henry Bourne, a clergyman and antiquarian, similarly believed in the Catholic origins of superstitious belief and his travels collecting folklore had also convinced him that, “Nothing is commoner in Country Places than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit around a Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts…From this, and seldom any other Cause, it is, that Herd and Shepherd have all of them seen frequent Apparitions… 17

The supposed connection between belief in ghosts and unsophisticated and backward rural life became increasingly prevalent during the early eighteenth century when the population of large cities, especially London, was rising dramatically and where urban mores were being disseminated through a burgeoning periodical culture as the height of fashion amongst urban elites. Joseph Addison made similar observations in an urban context in an article in The Spectator in which Mr Spectator, staying with a widow’s family, one night overhears them telling, “several dreadful Stories of Ghosts as pale as Ashes that had stood at the Feet of a Bed, or walked over a Church-yard by Moon-light...with many other old Womens Fables of the like Nature.” In his opinion, “they talked so long, that the Imaginations of the whole Assembly were manifestly crazed, and I am sure will be the worse of it for as long as they live”. Afterwards he was left to ponder on, “the unaccountable Weakness in reasonable Creatures, that they should love to astonish and terrify one another.” Addison, a man of the Enlightenment, deplores the superstitious notions that stubbornly persist in the face of rationality and scientific progress. Four months later, however, in another essay on the supernatural he states, “I think a Person who is thus terrify’d with the imagination of Ghosts and Spectres much more reasonable, than one who contrary to the Reports of all Historians sacred and profane, ancient and modern…thinks the Appearance of Spirits fabulous and groundless,” and in support cites Lucretius and Josephus. 19

Hogarth alludes to five examples of “ghosts and spectres” in his print, three of which are represented by mannequins suspended around the pulpit. The first, on the right-hand panel, portrays Sir George Villiers of Brookesby, said to have appeared as a ghost to prophesy the murder of his son, the unpopular first Duke of Buckingham. This account was first published in Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, a book here called Glanvil on Witches, which sits beneath Wesley’s Sermons upon which rests the brain and thermometer. 20 The central figure is that of Julius Caesar, startled by his own ghost in the mirror as he expires from his stab wounds, reminding us of the significance of ghosts in Shakespeare’s works and the popularity of his plays in London’s theatres, promoted by Hogarth’s friend the actor David Garrick.

To Caesar’s left a lady peers into a book at the name “Mrs. Veal”, a reference to a supernatural occurrence given much credence in the early eighteenth century and obviously still popular in 1762. Mrs Veal, who died on 7th September 1705, allegedly, on the following day, visited her friend Mrs Bargrave, who was unaware that she had died, conversing with her for some time and reading with her from a book by Charles Drelincourt entitled A Christian Man’s Consolation against the Fears of Death . The story was publicised in a touching narrative written by Daniel Defoe, first published in The Loyal Post (24th December 24th, 1705) and later as A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal in July 1706. At the time of the Cock Lane phenomenon two new editions of Drelincourt’s book were published, prefaced by Defoe’s account, in an attempt to profit from the upsurge of interest in the supernatural. Defoe’s reputation and credibility as a journalist were vital for the reception that the story received as a “True Relation” and paradigm for subsequent accounts of supernatural events that were “factual” and entertaining. 22

The tiny figure of a drummer in military uniform stands at the top of the thermometer and refers to an account of what today would be classified as a poltergeist manifestation. He represents the Drummer of Tedworth, whose story was already one hundred years old in 1762. Again the account can be traced back to Glanvil, a case that he investigated personally. 23 In March 1662 a drum was confiscated from an itinerant drummer by John Mompesson, a local dignitary of Tedworth in Wiltshire. His house was then subject to, “a very great knocking at His doors” and a drumming sound which moved about the house, often preventing the occupants from sleeping. Glanvil claimed that the causes were preternatural and the drummer, William Drury, was later tried for witchcraft and condemned to transportation. Many years later Addison used the story as the basis for his comedy The Drummer : or, the Haunted House , which opened in London in 1715, but failed to arouse interest. By 1762, however, with the widespread publicity surrounding the Cock Lane “ghost” Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres were staging rival productions, with textual amendments, that included topical references to recent events. The play was probably chosen as it featured an auditory phenomenon, which similarly communicated by tapping. In the Covent Garden production the prologue claimed that they had, “lur’d the Knocking Spirit from Cock-lane.” 24 The quotation from the play with which this essay begins is another indication of the rural/urban dichotomy with regard to belief in the supernatural. According to Emma Clery, “the audience’s laughter seems to mark a transition, a displacement of the old opposition of belief and scepticism, truth and error. It celebrates the wresting of the invisible world from the sphere of religious doctrine, and its incongruous hilarious embrace by the fashion system of the city.” 25

The events of Cock Lane, however, are the source of the final reference in Hogarth’s print and were the most directly relevant to its theme. 26 In his updating of Enthusiasm Delineated Hogarth replaced the figurines of Christ with small statuettes of the Cock Lane “ghost”, several held by members of the congregation, one being slipped inside a girl’s bosom and another emerging from the Boy of Bilston’s bottle. Inside a small structure at the top of the thermometer, divided into two panels, a girl lies in bed on the left and a ghost, with mallet in hand, strikes against the panel to her right. This represents Hogarth’s interpretation of the widely reported events that had excited London during the previous months, resulting in large numbers of people travelling to the City of London to witness the supernatural manifestation for themselves. Initially the Parsons family of Cock Lane had heard unusual noises and banging in their boarding house, which were soon concentrated in the vicinity of the young daughter Elizabeth. Parsons decided to interrogate the spirit with the assistance of the clergyman John Moore, mentioned above and Mary Frazer, an elderly servant. The presence of a clergyman added a clerical imprimatur and Parsons soon discovered that the noises emanated from the ghost of Fanny Lynes, the recently deceased “wife” of a former lodger William kent, who had rapidly departed after a quarrel over a loan that Parsons had failed to reply. It was soon established, by using a single knock to signify “yes” and two for “no”, that the ghost wished to inform its listeners that Kent had poisoned her and that he should be tried for murder.

These sensational revelations and their publicity through daily newspapers foregrounded the supernatural in contemporary discourse and led to interest amongst the intellectual elite in London. A variety of attitudes were exhibited, according to the London Chronicle, “some regarding it as a palpable imposition…whilst others put a graver face upon the matter.” 28 Here was an opportunity to converse with a ghost and prove conclusively the existence of spirits. Horace Walpole has provided an account of the unpleasant conditions in which he and his fashionable companions joined a crowd of spectators to experience what was “not an apparition, but an audition” apparently as a more unusual afterpiece to an opera. 29 As with the earlier case of Mary Tofts, the involvement of members of the elite resulted in more rigorous investigation, but also running the risk of ridicule for those involved. Eventually a committee was set up, comprising believers and sceptics, whose most famous member was Dr Samuel Johnson. His views on the supernatural were ambiguous; according to Boswell he was terrified by death and sought reassurance in an afterlife. A famous observation, that encapsulates his view, appears in Boswell Life,

“It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is 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.” 30

The interrogation of this spectral agent of retribution continued whilst an experiment was devised in which the ghost would knock on the coffin of Fanny Lynes in the crypt of St John Clerkenwell church, at an appointed time, when Johnson and two fellow members of the committee would witness it. As Charles Churchill wrote in his scathing poem The Ghost, “Silent all three went in; about/all three turn’s silent, and then came out.” 31 Finally, toward the end of February, Elizabeth Parsons was caught with a piece of wood hidden in her bedclothes, that was assumed to be the cause of the noises, although previously, the sounds had emanated form the wainscoting around the room and not directly form the bed. By the end of the month a pamphlet had been published, later attributed to Oliver Goldsmith, which recounted the episode in detail, comparing it to a sixteenth century Polish supernatural hoax and vindicating William Kent. 32

One of the most significant results of the events in Cock Lane, was the plethora of prints, pamphlets, poems and plays that it spawned, most of them satirical in intent. The Cock Lane Uproar treats the events as a form of entertainment, “Miss Fanny’s New Theatre.” The print is divided into two parts, the first depicting the interior of the crowded bedroom with a print on the back wall illustrating the Mary Tofts hoax, referred to above, as a hint for the reader to treat the Cock Lane Ghost with similar scepticism and on the right the fruitless “Procession to the Vault.” English Credulity, or the Invisible Ghost of Cock Lane includes the actor Samuel Foote regretting that he could not include the performance in one of his farces and again, through a pair of prints on the wall of the Parsons’ bedroom, signposts the manifestation as counterfeit. In this instance the prints show the widely publicised Bottle Conjuror’s non-appearance at the New Theatre Haymarket and the false claims of Elizabeth Canning that she had been abducted and survived for twenty seven days on sustenance provided by an angel. 33

According to Emma Clery, “Johnson represents the impasse in the debate over the reality of spirits; Walpole its supersession through the hedonistic acceptance of ghosts as a fiction, the move on which the founding of a popular genre of supernatural fiction will depend.” 34 The exposure of the Cock Lane hoax resulted, therefore, in the eventual commodification of the supernatural, the packaging of ghosts and supernatural entities as the subject matter for fictional stories, plays and novels. The spectre had been transformed into a spectacle. Apparition accounts became diversions to entertain the same audience that attended the theatre.

“Freed from the service of doctrinal proof, the ghost was to be caught up in the machine of the economy; it was available to be processed, reproduced, packaged, marketed and distributed by the engines of cultural production…The epistomological status of the supernatural, the truth or falsity of ghosts, is marginalised, a merely academic issue.” 35 Two years later Horace Walpole was to complete The Castle of Otranto, generally considered to be the first Gothic novel, utilising the supernatural for entertainment and diversion. In the resulting climate of heightened punitive scepticism it is no surprise to read in the London Chronicle of February 1762 that the announcement of a new knocking ghost, which was expected to perform in a house near Bow Street, in the heart of the culture of ridicule centred on the coffee houses, met a robust rejoinder from the Bow Street magistrate Sir John Fielding. He sent the spirit “his compliments with an intimation, that it should not meet with that lenity the Cock-Lane spirit did, but that it should knock hemp in Bridewell. On which the ghost, very discreetly, omitted the intended exhibition.” 36


1. Joseph Addison “The Drummer” in The Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Addison ed.A.C.Guthkelch vol.1 (Bell, London, 1914) p.443

2. For a detailed description see Ronald Paulson Hogarth: his Life, Art and Times (Yale University Press, new Haven & London, 1971) pp.354-359

3. Quoted in Bernd Krysmanski ‘We see a ghost: Hogarth’s Satire on Methodists and Connoisseurs’ in Art Bulletin June 1998 LXXX No.2 p.292

4. Emma Clery The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995) p.24

5. For more on this satirical device see Terry Castle The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (Oxford University Press, New York, 1995) pp.21-43

6. Jenny Uglow Hogarth: a Life and a World (Faber & Faber, London, 1997) p.649.

7. For the full account and medical details of this case see S.A.Seligman, ‘Mary Tofts -The Rabbit Breeder’ in Medical History, 5 (1961) pp.349-60

8. The Methodist shoeblack identification, with which I disagree, can be found in Bernd Krysmanski op.cit. p.297. For accounts of the Bilson Boy see Richard Baddeley The Boy of Bilson; or a true discovery of the late notorious impostures of certaine Romish Priests in their pretended Exorcisme or expulsion of the Divell out of a young boy, named William Perry (F.K. for W.Barrett, London, 1622)

9. Cited in Owen Davies “Methodism, the Clergy, and the Popular Belief in Witchcraft and Magic” in History vol.82 No. 266 April 1997 pp.253-265. Quotation from p.253

10. Douglas Grant The Cock Lane Ghost (Macmillan, London, 1965) pp.20-24

11. John Wesley Journal ed. N Curnock (8 vols. PUB 1909-1916) entry for 25th May 1768

12. James Boswell Life of Johnson ed. G. B. Hill, revised by L. F. Powell (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1934) p.297

13. Cit. Grant op. cit. p.22, but unsourced.

14. Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin ,London, 1991 ed.) pp.701-724.

15 Gillian Bennett “Ghost and Witch in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” in Folklore vol.97i, 1996 pp3-14, p.12

16. See Bennett ibid. p5. Another useful summary of earlier supernatural narratives is Coleman O.Parsons “Ghost-Stories before Defoe” in Notes & Queries July 1956 pp.293-298

17. Henry Bourne Observations on Popular Antiquities, including the whole Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, with addenda…as also an appendix…by John Brand (William Baynes, London, 1810) p.113

18 The Spectator No.12 14th March 1711 in D. F. Bond ed. The Spectator 5 vols. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969) pp.53-54

19. The Spectator No.110 6th July 1711 in D. F. Bond ed. op. cit. pp.453-456

20. Joseph Glanvill Saducismus Triumphatus; or, Full and plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (J. Collins and S. Lownds, London, 1681) reprinted in Collected Works of Joseph Glanvill (George Olms, Hildesheim, 1978) vol. 9 pp.225-227

21. Daniel Defoe ‘ A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal the next day after her death to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, the 8th of September 1705’ in The Works of Daniel Defoe (Boston, David Nickerson Co., 1903) Vol. 15 pp. 253-265.

22. See Coleman O.Parsons op. cit. p.297, which lists the journalistic devices Defoe employs.

23. Glanvil op. cit. pp. 89-117

24. Clery op. cit. p.16

25. ibid. p.17

26. The best account is Douglas Grant op. cit.

27. See her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

28. London Chronicle No. 792 19th to 21st January 1762 pp. 66-67.

29. Horace Walpole Correspondence ed. W.S. Lewis & Ralph S. Brown jr (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1941) vol. x pp. 5-7

30. James Boswell Life of Johnson op. cit. vol. iii p.230. For Johnson’s views on the supernatural see Douglas Grant op. cit ch. v.

31. Charles Churchill “The Ghost” in Poems of Charles Churchill ed. James Laver (king’s Printers, London, 1933) p.114

32. Oliver Goldsmith “The Mystery Revealed, Containing a Series of Transactions and Authentic Testimonials, Respecting the Supposed Cock Lane Ghost” (W. Bristow & C. Etherington, London, 1762) repr. In Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith ed. Arthur Freeman (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966) vol. iv pp.419-444

33. For the Bottle Conjuror see Clery op. cit. p.29. For the Elizabeth Canning case see Grant op. cit. pp.45-50, also Pat Rogers Henry Fielding, a Biography (Paul Elek, London, 1979) pp. 208-211.

34. Clery op. cit. p.17.

35. ibid. p.17.

36. London Chronicle No.802 11th to 13th February 1762.