Darkness falls across the land, The Midnight Hour is close at hand.
-Rodney Lynn Temperton
Whether you’re looking to hunt Bigfoot (it’s legal in Texas!) or start a construction project in Iceland (you’d better ask the elves first), the intersection of laws in this human realm and supernatural phenomena can get complicated. Just for fun, let’s explore some spooky law stories.
Is it murder if he shot a ghost?
In December 1803, there were rumors of a ghost at large in London—a phantom that attacked travelers and terrorized villagers in Hammersmith, England. One night, a resident named Francis Smith decided to patrol the area with a gun. Unluckily, he encountered the ghost in a lane and, after calling to the approaching ghost twice with no response, shot him. It turns out that the being he killed was an actual human man, Thomas Milwood, who was dressed in his brand new white work clothes and shoes, standard garb for a bricklayer.
Smith pleaded guilty of manslaughter—not murder—on the grounds that at the time, he genuinely believed he had shot a ghost. Although the jury was sympathetic, the judge was not convinced, and instructed the jury to either acquit Smith or find him guilty of murder. The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to death, but public sympathy led to a Royal pardon and a mere one-year sentence.
A widow’s husband’s ghost gave miserly instructions
In McClary vs. Stull (1895), the children of a widow asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to invalidate changes that their mother had made to her will because she had made the changes under the orders of the ghost of their dead father. The court did invalidate the changes on the grounds that the deceased had exerted undue influence over his living wife. The judgment stated:
“Law, it is said, is ‘of the earth, earthy’ and that spirit-wills are too celestial for cognizance by earthly tribunals—a proposition readily conceded; and yet the courts have not assumed to deny to spirits of the departed the privilege of holding communion with those of their friends who are still in the flesh so long as they do not interfere with vested rights or by the means of undue influence seek to prejudice the interests of persons still within our jurisdiction.”
A widow’s husband’s ghost gave generous instructions
Speaking of undue influence and the supernatural, Mrs. Lyon was a spiritualist, someone who believed that the dead can communicate with the living. Her medium, Mr. Home, convinced her that her dead husband wanted her to gift Mr. Home a substantial sum—around $3 million in today’s money.
In Lyon v. Home (1868), the court found the transactions void on the grounds of undue influence, presuming that the relationship between medium (ghost communicator) and spiritualist (believer) was similar to doctor-patient or attorney-client with one party having influence over the other.
Haunted house buyer’s remorse
Some states require someone selling a home to disclose if a property is “psychologically impacted” in some way—for instance, if someone has recently been murdered there. Yikes! But what if the home is haunted?
In Stambovsky v. Ackley (1991), Jeffrey Stambovsky sued Hellen Ackley, the seller of the home that he had recently purchased, claiming that the house was purported to be haunted, thus lowering its value. The relevant law states that a condition that impairs the value of property, known to the seller and left undisclosed to the buyer, can constitute a basis for rescission of the contract. Even though the haunted state of the house was widely known in the community, and even reported in a national publication, Stambovsky claimed he was unaware of the stories of hauntings when he bought the house.
Helen Ackley claimed there were at least three ghosts in the residence: a married couple who had lived in the 18th century and a Navy Lieutenant in the American Revolution. In fact, when Helen’s daughter Cynthia was a child, she would be awakened most mornings by one of the ghosts shaking her bed. When she was on a school break, she announced loudly before going to bed that she didn’t have school in the morning and would like to sleep in. The ghost obliged.
The New York Supreme Court dismissed the claim and had an amusing time writing the majority opinion, stating that the “plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance.” An appeals court later reversed the ruling, saying that based on wide reports of the house’s haunted status, its value was affected and therefore the house was haunted as a matter of law.
In San Francisco, you need a license to tell the future
In San Francisco, it is against the law to practice fortunetelling without a valid permit issued by the San Francisco Police Department. The definition of fortunetelling under San Francisco law includes reading tea leaves or tarot cards, crystal gazing, astrology, mind reading, telepathy, and effecting spells, charms, or potions. Don’t even try to make one person marry or divorce another, induce a person to make or alter a will, or make someone reveal hidden treasure. You’ll be in trouble. Also, fortune telling includes necromancy—the manipulation of the dead. So maybe stay away from creating zombies, just to be safe.
You can’t sue the Devil in the US
Gerald Mayo tried to sue Satan and his staff, claiming that the Devil had violated his civil rights and “on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff’s downfall.” Poor Gerald—that sounds rough.
In a 1971 United States District Court decision, Judge Gerald J. Weber noted the difficulty of holding Satan accountable for his misdeeds. He said that, even if Satan were to appear, he would probably be considered a foreign sovereign and would argue that the US court lacked personal jurisdiction over him. He also noted that Mayo’s case could work well as a class action lawsuit (surely there are others with similar complaints against the Devil), but the case was ultimately dismissed because Mayo provided no instructions for serving process on Satan.
A legal will can support your wildest dreams
How would you like to spend your eternal repose sitting upright in a glass case for university students to pass on their way to class?
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) specified in his will that he wanted his body to first be publicly dissected for the benefit of medical science, and then be displayed in a glass case for viewing. His skeleton should be padded with hay and dressed in his own clothes, with his mummified head sitting on top. His body was to be positioned on a chair as if he were engaged in thought. Unfortunately his head ended up being poorly preserved and later replaced with a wax replica fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair, but his mummified head is kept safely locked away. Jeremy Bentham’s “auto-icon” is kept on public display at the University College London.
Happy Halloween from Sixfifty
For customized legal documents relating to data privacy or employment law, SixFifty has your back. (Book a demo.) For litigation related to a haunted house, ghost murder, medium fraud, or a Bigfoot hunting license, we can’t help you.
The moon has awoken with the sleep of the sun, the light has been broken; the spell has begun.