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Spirit of the law - 3 times the paranormal clashed with the legal

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 28 October 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Skull on a book. As you do

You wouldn’t imagine the law to have much sway over the supernatural. You can’t take out a restraining order against a persistent haunting, or sue a poltergeist for property damage - for the most part, the denizens of the spirit realm abide not by the rules of man. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally get tangled up in some strange legal cases.

What happens if you try to murder a ghost?

One legal case whose implications lingered for 180 years had the most innocuous of origins – a simple, everyday ghost.

It was January 1804, and Hammersmith, London, was in the midst of a haunting. Sightings of a ghost in and around the local churchyard were rife, with some people even claiming to have been attacked by it, and rumours that one woman had died of shock after being touched by the apparition.

The fear had reached such a level that residents had taken to patrolling with guns in search of the ghost. On the 3rd of January, one such resident, 29-year-old Francis Smith, was approached by a white-clad figure which did not respond to his requests to identify itself. Smith feared it was the ghost and, clearly lacking knowledge of some pretty basic ghost facts (hint: they’re already dead), opened fire.

Unfortunately for both parties, the figure turned out not to have been a restless spirit, but a very-much-alive-up-until-then plasterer named Thomas Millwood, clad in the typical uniform of his trade (white trousers, waistcoat, and apron). Smith was duly arrested and tried for murder at the Old Bailey.

It was here, however, that an unexpected legal problem cropped up. After hearing of the atmosphere of fear in the village and witnessing Smith’s contrition for his crime, sympathy began to grow for him. His victim, Millwood, had already been mistaken for the ghost on a previous occasion, and a woman he lived with testified that she had warned him to wear a coat over his white clothes to avoid frightening people. (Millwood’s preferred response was to threaten to punch them in the head.)

Believing that Smith had acted reasonably in his fear of the “ghost”, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter – only to be told by the judge that this wasn’t an acceptable decision. Smith had not been defending himself against violence, nor had his attack been accidental. If the jury accepted that Smith had killed Millwood, even in the belief he was a ghost, they had to find him guilty of murder.

The jury returned a murder verdict, for which the sentence was death. Fortunately for Smith, the judge reported the case to the king and managed to have his punishment reduced to a year’s hard labour. Despite this, the oversight in law that almost saw him executed persisted for 180 years – acting under a mistaken belief could not be used as a defence when being charged with a criminal act.

The issue was finally settled in 1983, in a far less spine-tingling case. A man who had apprehended a thief and was dragging him along the street was assaulted by another man who believed he was witnessing a violent crime. As the attacker had been acting under the honest yet mistaken belief that he was preventing a crime from taking place, it was ruled that his actions were reasonable. The criminal defence of a mistaken belief was later codified as law in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

What happens if you buy a haunted house?

Most homebuyers’ concerns tend towards the pragmatic – they’re looking for somewhere reasonably priced, in a good location, and with no underlying structural problems. “Lack of infestation with horrifying spectres” rarely makes the list.

However, that’s the problem that one couple cited when justifying their refusal to pay the final £3,482 they owed to the sisters from whom they had purchased the 300-year-old Lowes Cottage in Derbyshire.

In 1994, Andrew and Josie Smith and their children moved into the aforementioned property, only to discover that it was, according to them, already home to a number of terrifying apparitions.

They reported a number of paranormal encounters within the cottage, including possessions being inexplicably thrown around by an unseen force, attacks on the family by invisible entities, and sightings of a small boy with red, piggy eyes. Before long, another spectre loomed over them – that of an impending legal case.

The sisters who had sold them the house were suing them for their failure to pay the full amount owed. In turn, they countersued – claiming that they should’ve been informed that the house was haunted before they bought it.

Unfortunately for anyone who feels they were tricked into purchasing a haunted house, the Smiths did not win their case. Despite the testimony of a vicar who had attempted to carry out an exorcism at the property, the sisters denied that there had ever been any paranormal phenomena in the house, and the judge agreed with them. In January 1999, the Smiths’ case was thrown out and they were made to pay the rest of the money.

This is not the only case on the books regarding a haunted house – as recently as 2012 the Property Ombudsman ruled against a prospective buyer who wanted a deposit refunded as he had not been told of a house’s eerie history and the ghost that was said to reside there.

In America, however, successful cases have been brought. In one famous court action, Jeffrey Stambovsky successfully fought to have a contract for purchasing a house rescinded after he discovered that the seller, Helen Ackley, had widely spread claims that the property was infested with poltergeists.

The court did not attempt to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, but it was ruled that “as a matter of law, the house is haunted” – the fact that Ackley had reported supernatural occurrences in the house to local newspapers and even Reader’s Digest meant that she should have disclosed the claims to the buyer, as the reputation the property had acquired as a result would affect its value.

Taking a wider view, many US states have rules requiring disclosure for so-called “stigmatised” properties, which can include houses with dark histories and even those which are rumoured to be haunted. Since 2013, however, there have been stronger disclosure requirements imposed on estate agents in the UK as well – so maybe it’s only a matter of time before we see successful claims brought by those who have inadvertently purchased a disquieting abode.

What happens if you speak ill of the dead?

Our next bone-chilling tale might make you think twice before you speak unfavourably of a ghost. Was its visage really that hideous? Were its moans really that unearthly? Have you considered whether maybe your words could be construed as slander?

Such was the predicament of a man known only as Captain Barnaby, who in May 1687 was preparing to leave the Italian island of Stromboli, along with two other captains and assorted crew members. They saw two men running across the island, one of whom Captain Barnaby recognised, improbably, as his next-door neighbour from London, Mr. Booty.

Mr. Booty was being pursued by an unidentified man dressed in black, and, to the crew’s consternation, both men ran into the mouth of the active volcano on the island, accompanied by a noise “too horrible to be described”.

“I do not doubt, but it is old Booty running into hell,” Barnaby was noted to quip.

Upon their arrival in England that October, Captain Barnaby was met by his wife, who in the course of conversation delivered the news that Mr. Booty had passed away.

“That we all know,” he responded, playing it casual, “for we all saw him run into hell”.

Captain Barnaby’s wife told a friend of hers about the strange encounter on the island, and this news made it back to Mr. Booty’s widow, who was unsurprisingly displeased that Captain Barnaby was reporting that her husband had been pursued into the underworld. The result? She brought a case against Captain Barnaby for slandering her deceased spouse.

The Court of King’s Bench heard the case, but the captain’s interpretation of the strange apparition was not as easy to dismiss as it might seem, with so many others having seen it. Bolstering his claim was the fact that the time of the sighting, as recorded in the crew’s journals, was within two minutes of Mr. Booty’s death. What’s more, men who had never met the deceased before were able to describe details of the coat he always wore (even, apparently, after death – so maybe you can take it with you).

And so what at first had sounded like a scornful comment on the captain’s part turned out to have 30 witnesses backing it up. Sir Edward Herbert, the Chief Justice, is recorded to have said: “Lord have mercy on me, and grant that I may never see such a sight! I think it impossible for thirty persons to be mistaken!”

On the strength of the evidence, Mrs. Booty’s case was thrown out. Legally speaking, at least, the late Mr. Booty was indeed considered to have been pursued by the devil into hell.

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