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  • Irish Ghosts and Irish Judges: the House on the Marsh March 13, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Its always satisfying when the legal system and the paranormal come crashing together. Take this case from late nineteenth-century Ireland. The report appeared in a British newspaper and the writer just couldn’t hide his delight. We could have edited this down but the style is very Victorian and most splendidly supercilious.

    Most people are familiar with the ordinary difficulties experienced in taking a house. There are certain recognised discussions and investigations as to ventilation, with a view of ascertaining that the wind does not ‘blow where it listeth’, and as to many mysteries of pipes, tap, and water supply, the state of the oven, the boiler, and the copper – the latter subject being chiefly in the interest of the cook. Lawyers are about, and there is much investigation of title; and finally comes the grand triumph, so dear to newly-married couples, at all events, of the ‘moving in’. It is known that if the landlord has, as it were, played false cards, and talked over-lovingly, not to say altogether inaccurately, concerning the sanitary condition of the scullery, there are remedies; and if the ceilings be warranted sound, whereas in truth and fact they are but whited sepulchres of decaying lath and plaster, wonderful call is promptly made on clauses for repair, and the glorious machinery that is governed by the law of landlord and tenant is promptly put into action – that is to say, action at law – and judges have power to order bad landlords or recalcitrant tenants, as the case may be, to do their respective duties, and, moreover, to do them ‘with costs’. Now, it seems that a newly-discovered cause of complaint against landlords is not held to be good in law, and that is the suggestion that the house is haunted.

    The case in question comes straight from our beautiful sister isle, very properly renowned for its pixies and fairies, its leprechauns and ‘phocas’ – a sort of horse-ghost that lives in running water, and is addicted to making cataracts its especial domicile – and it concerns the presence of a ghost in a house in Drogheda – a town made immortal as having been once battered by the late Protector Oliver Cromwell: as the proud possessor of the lovely ‘Yellow Tower’, the work of fifteenth-century Franciscan monks; and in more recent days as the scene of a highly important contested election on which Mr Parnell’s most potent influence was brought to bear. Drogheda, it seems, has a ghost, who set himself to annoy the tenants, who, said the plaintiff, took ‘a house, her property, at the Marsh, Drogheda’.

    Now, what happened at this ‘House on the Marsh?’

    It seems that Mr and Mrs Kinney took the house, and agreed to pay Miss Weir, its undisputed owner, five pounds fifteen shillings a quarter for its use. The Kinneys moved in, having had no notice of the supernatural person who was to be a joint tenant, or a tenant in common – the point of difference was not raised – with them. The first night nothing occurred, but on the second night the Drogheda ghost began to ‘make noises’. Had he behaved properly, like a decent ghost, no Irish matron could have possibly taken exception to his conduct. ‘White ladies’, and wonderful persons with rustling silk dresses or clanking chaings, and invisible coaches and four that drive round gravel walks at night are quite common in Ireland; and all respectable families possess a banshee in attendance. So the mere existence of a ghost certainly ought not to have terrified Mrs Kinney. The lady, however, if her evidence be true, certainly had a grievance. For this ungallant ghost came by night, when ‘the varlets they were all asleep and none was there to see,’ and not merely was rude enough to intrude his presence on Mrs Kinney after that lady had retired to rest, but ‘threw heavy things at her,’ when she was in bed, in consequence of which she was ‘greatly frightened’, and had to leave next day.

    However, the landlady had the temerity to disbelieve Mrs Kinney.

    She did not urge that the ghost was an appanage of the house – a sort of thing like an easement, or a right of way; or even ‘an ancient light’. She merely said she wanted her rent, and asked the law, through his honour Judge Kisbey, to give the defendants no quarter, but to give her, the plaintiff, one specified quarter to the tune of five pounds and fifteen shillings. Judge Kisbey is a distinguished writer on the Law of Bankruptcy, and when at the Bar was a notable figure on the North-East Circuit, and had every opportunity of knowing all about Irish ghosts during the years he so successfully went that circuit. Being aware of this fact, and of the recognised logical impartiality of the learned judge, Mrs Kinney set up her case, and entrusted its conduct to one Mr Smith, a practising solicitor in the ‘City of the Yellow Tower’. That gentleman examined his client, and she swore to the behaviour of the ghost, and the heavy things thrown on her bed, whereupon it was put forward that, under the circumstances, Miss Weir, who, it was admitted, had never said one single word about the ghost at the time of letting the ‘House on the Marsh’, could not in law recover her rent. Spiritland was, no doubt, stirred to its depths, or heights when this defence – not at all complimentary to ghosts – was made.

    However, what would the predictably materialistic Anglo-Irish judge have to say about this?

    Without even adjourning the case, as it was in his power to do, for the purpose of serving an astral subpoena on the ghost or calling for ‘expert evidence’ from mediums or asking for an intermediate ‘dark séance’ in his private room he gave  bold judgement in the trite words, ‘That is no defence in the eyes of the law. I must give a decree.’ What a thunderbolt this decision must have been to Mr. Solicitor Snith of Drogheda, can well be imagined. Here was a judge, sitting at quarter sessions, who with distinct resolution and with his ‘sense of courage by no means daunted’, to alter Hood’s delightful line, said in fact that the law didn’t recognise ghosts at all! It must have been a very important psychological moment, and yet the indifferent Irish spirits who no doubt fluttered around his Honour’s wig made no sign, nor did they tear him in pieces as evidence to all time that ghosts exist. They did not even throw heavy things at him. Mr Smith, however, most undefeated of advocates, was not taken aback at all. He declared that ‘he had witnesses here who can prove to you that the house is haunted’; and it is indeed a loss to psychology to find that Judge Kiseby was perfectly adamantine on the point, and refused to hear the evidence of the fine old Irish believers in phantoms in general and the Kinney-haunting ghost in particular. His Honour put the matter somewhat abruptly, for all he condescended to say was ‘That does not matter;’ and so Miss Weir got her decree.

    The House on the Marsh seems to be a pub today (the Marsh House), which is just as well as that is one building where ghosts are welcome. Let’s hope it survived the smoking ban and the Euro Irish Tiger trap.

    Any other ghost cases in court? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    30 April 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books: On the subject of ghost cases in court, the following is an excerpt from my book The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales, citing several cases about ghosts and rent, including “The Great Spook Trial” of Marion, Ohio. It’s a moot point whether someone selling or renting a house is obliged to tell purchases/renters about the haunting. Is a ghost a disclosable defect? A couple in Nyack, New York sued to get back their deposit when they found the house they had purchased was haunted and the owner had not disclosed the fact. They won their case. I’ve found a number of similar historic cases where the residents were haunted either by spirits or buyer’s remorse, such as this one: GHOSTS AND HOB-GOBLINS IN COURT Human credulity touching ghosts and hob-goblins has just been illustrated according to law in Tuscarawas County. We learn by the New Philadelphia Advocate, that in January, 1856, Levi Hull bought a farm of 250 acres of William Dunlap, in Sandy Township, for which he paid $5,000 down, and his note for $3,000 secured by mortgage on the farm. The note was not paid, and Dunlap brought suit. Hull set up in defense that shortly after taking possession of said premises, he became convinced that the house was haunted and that ghosts, hob-goblins, spooks, evil spirits, &c., were in the habit of making nocturnal visits to the inhabitants of the mansion, and of making night hideous—that the neighbors were afraid to come near the house—that he was unable to get work hands to cultivate the land—that his own and his family’s health of body and peace of mind were destroyed thereby, &c.—and that therefore he ought not to be compelled to pay said note of $3,000, but ought to have judgment for $4,000 as damages sustained in consequence of getting so terribly “skeerd.” The hob-goblin plea, however, did not avail the frightened Mr. Hull, and instead of getting damages he got put in for the $3,000, interest and costs. The haunted farm can probably be bought cheap.  Cleveland [OH] Morning Leader 21 March 1859: p. 2 TUSCARAWAS COUNTY Here is a similar case from Marion, where a house was declared legally haunted. A JURY AND A GHOST EXCEPTIONAL CASE WHICH A MARION COUNTY JURY DECIDED ACCORDING TO WHICH GHOSTS AND HAUNTED HOUSES HAVE A LEGAL EXISTENCE LEGEND OF THE TOWN OF PROSPECT, WHICH REMAINS A MYSTERY It is likely that many more people believe in ghosts and apparitions than would like to acknowledge the fact…Superstition is yet part of our natures. But it is not often that a jury of enlightened Americans can be found who, in broad daylight, are willing to acknowledge their nightly fears, and to sympathize to the extent of their legal power with the victim of a witch, for example, or the tenant of a haunted house. The history of a little town in Ohio furnishes the only case within the knowledge of the writer of this, unless search is made in the records of a previous generation. The town of Prospect, in Marion County, was formerly called Middletown, because it lay midway between the cities of Delaware and Marion. It lies on the banks of the Upper Scioto, in the midst of a flat country such as if there is anything in geographical theories about superstitions, should make its inhabitants quite skeptical on all these mysteries. The town is a thriving one now, and some of its new citizens may be inclined to doubt whether a jury was ever impaneled in one of its Justice’s Courts that actually and frankly expressed in legal form its belief in haunted houses, but there are others who will certainly call to mind what happened not a great many years ago. The case caused a great stir in the town at the time and was even mentioned briefly in the newspapers as remarkable. The house which was the center of interest in the affair was anything but a castle or a manorial hall in its appearance. Generations of moldy ancestors had not called it theirs for several hundred years, and consequently had no occasion to be pottering around on the look-out for their degenerate heirs. Nor had it ever been the scene of a crime. The ghost that infested it did so out of pure wantonness or because the grave that had been made for him did not fit…The reputation of the house for queer carryings on was gained during a period in which it had no tenant. It began to be whispered about that strange beings and flitting lights and rapping noises disturbed its solitude at frequently intervals. A harmless lunatic who went by the name of Doc Weights, and whose mania was to load himself with all the old coats, old hats and old boots that he could find and carry them around the country, was allowed to take refuge in the house one evening. He was as simple as an infant, and utterly devoid of superstition because he had not sense enough to be terrified at a ghost had he seen one. He might have asked for its shroud, if he had observed that there was a hole in the garment anywhere but he was incapable of fear. His experience was looked upon beforehand as a real test of the reputation of the house. So many people were curious about the matter and watched the place so closely that it seemed hardly possible that any mischievously inclined person could have played the simple-minded old fellow a trick. Yet in the small hours of the night he was seen emerging from the house with his pack on his back. He moved with some haste, and seemed considerably disturbed. He was asked what the trouble was, and answered gruffly: “Don’t want to stay there. Man of the house makes too much fuss.” The madman’s verdict was thought by many people to be conclusive evidence that there was really some mystery which nobody could pretend to solve. But a young farmer who worked some land near the village on the shares moved into the house with his wife, taking the chance because the rent was cheap. He had one or two hired hands, who boarded with them. For a few nights they all got along well enough. Then the hired men began to show some signs of fright. They insisted that when they were awake and fully conscious something would come silently and pull the quilts off their bed. They would hold on the clothes and pull with all their strength, but slowly and surely the quilts would slip away. Then the farmer and his wife began to have the same experience. There were strange noises about the house at night, too, snappings and cracklings, as if the woodwork was on fire, creakings as if doors opened which were known to be not only shut, but locked and bolted. The climax was reached late one night. Every room in the house was lighted with a brilliant ball of fire. The sleepers were all awakened, and each saw in his own room the same apparition. That was enough. The next day the young farmer and his wife and hired men sought other quarters. The building remained empty for some time, until, at length, it was taken by a stranger unacquainted with the town and, of course, ignorant of the reputation of the house. He moved in with his family, and the neighbors waited to see what would happen. For a few days all was quiet enough. Then the stranger began to show signs of annoyance and discontent. When asked about the matter he stoutly insisted that he was not afraid himself, but there were queer things happening about the house, and he could not keep his wife and children from being frightened. The older residents, glad of a chance to gossip, gave him a full account of the events that had already happened, with such added details as their excited fancy dictated. In fact, without meaning to do it, they converted themselves into regular legend manufacturers. The women performed the same office for his wife. As a result the stranger and his household gathered up what belonged to them and sought a house not frequented by ghosts. Farmer Landon, the owner of the place, had rented it for a month, and when his tenant vacated thus unceremoniously he determined to find out what the law was in the case. After demanding the rent for a month and getting a refusal, he brought suit before the village Justice of the Peace. The foreman of the jury was Errick, the saddler, an eccentric but sharp-witted and sensible man, and the panel was throughout quite up to the average of juries. In the trial the endeavor was made on behalf of Landon to show that the plea of the defendant was frivolous, that no house could be haunted and that the belief in such things was absurd. The defendant produced plenty of witnesses whose senses had convinced them that a house could be haunted and that his house in particular was haunted to a peculiar and surprising degree. They had seen and heard things that neither science nor common sense could explain to their satisfaction. The jury, without pretending to any knowledge of their own with respect to ghosts, accepted the sworn statements of these eye and ear witnesses and returned a verdict for the defendant. They laughed it off afterward, but what was really the matter with the house is still a mystery. It was tenanted anew after a length of time and turned out one of the best behaved domiciles in the town. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 August 1883: p. 13 MARION COUNTY NOTE: The New York state court case was Stambovsky v. Ackley, 1991. I was puzzled about the connection between flat country and “geographical theories about superstitions.” I found some discussion among social theorists and geographers that geography, shaping a people’s way of life, also determined their level of superstition. For example, “Among pastoral tribes and nations..their habits of contemplation and solitude…dispose the mind for the reception of superstitious rites…In agricultural life, the regular and continuous strain on the physical powers produces corresponding exhaustion; leisure is used for rest…The physical development is in muscular strength, the mental is overpowered by it, the religious belief…becomes often vulgarly and coarsely superstitious.” A Manual of Geographical Science, Charles Grenfell Nicolay, 1852. Some of the more notable testimony in what was dubbed “The Great Spook Trial” follows: The Defendant testified that he had heard sounds at different times like dogs fighting and running across the floor in the night. Also, that on the night of 17th of December, 1856, clouds of fire and smoke appeared in the room with a flaming sword in the midst of it. The effect of the fire and smoke seemed almost to kill him…A bad smell also pervaded the house, like some person dead and putrid. At different times noises were heard as if potatoes were thrown violently across the floor… A crock of new milk put in the buttery, would spoil in one hour, and would have that putrid smell. First Witness for the defendant testified that the smell was very sickening one—that new milk would spoil. Also, that a young man stayed at the house when he lived in it—slept upstairs—heard something walking up and down the stairs like a man—which came to his bed and pulled the bed clothes from him….Also states he is not afraid of spooks, witches, spirits, men, or the d—l. Second Witness heard noises at different times—smelt the offensive smell—testified to the spoiling of new milk—searched the house at different times, but could find nothing; believed there was something troubling the house uncommon and unnatural. Third Witness was passing by one evening, with his son, when they heard a mournful groaning in the house, such as no human person could utter…saw large lights in and about the house, as large as a washing tub…was acquainted with the smell….the cause of the trouble he did not know. The defendant himself… made awful denunciations—so much so, that it would make the hair stand on end to hear him. Among other things he said he would go to jail and be carried out of the keyhole by worms before he would pay the rent, and so went on until he got perfectly enraged, when he took his seat, greatly excited. Thus ends the great spook trial. Now for the decision. Well, the spooks got off victorious—the plaintiff had to pay the cost of suit; lose all the rent, and pay $15 damage!…We are a people to be looked up to as a very intelligent and progressive people! We are the first in the world to bring to light and establish the personality of spooks by judicial litigation! NOTE: Quoted in News from Marion, Marion County, Ohio: 1844-1861, Sharon Moore (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1995): pp. 110-111 MARION COUNTY I also found this short article suggesting that there will always be people willing to exploit a landlord’s fear of notoriety. HOUSE HAUNTED? LOW RENT! When alien immigrants arrive in this country they often bring with them a stock of misapplied ingenuity. The tenant with a ghost is a game that is being played by foreigners in various parts of the United States, and, what is more, it is being played successfully. The newcomer takes a house, and, after one or two payments of rent, complains that the premises are haunted. Quaking with simulated fear, he tells a tale of horror—of a headless man seen stalking from the coal cellar, a lady in white or of something invisible but groaning. Now, a ghost is the average landlord’s prime aversion. Spectral visitors afford splendid subjects for gossip in the neighborhood, and prospective tenants seldom fail to hear and be warned off by the story. Anxious that the report shall not get about, landlord confers with tenant, and in several such instances the result has been this—the tenant agrees to stay on, to say nothing about the matters to others and to put up with the ghost, providing the rent is substantially reduced. The Logan [UT] Republican 4 April 1911: p. 2  There are several 18th- and 19th-century cases where a witness cited a ghost’s testimony or a dead person was called to the stand or a ghost appeared to a defendant in court. I also have a few cases where a ghost was cited as a co-respondent in a divorce suit. The information above is over-long already, so let me know if you’d like more cases. Thanks Chris!!