Excerpt: 'The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons' by Colin Dayan


From Princeton University Press:

In 1989 Helen Ackley sold her five-thousand-square-foot eighteen-room Victorian house on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York, to a young couple, Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky. After making a down payment of $32,500 for the house, they learned that it was haunted. Although Jeffrey did not believe in ghosts and did not mind knowing that the house was thus occupied, his wife refused to live there. Ackley had enjoyed a good relationship with the ghosts for over twenty years, and had become accustomed to steps on the stairs, doors slamming, beds shaking, and chandeliers moving back and forth. She assured the couple that they had nothing to fear. The spirits were friendly and even gave what Ackley called “gifts” to her children: silver tongs and a gold baby ring. She refused to call off the sale. Stambovsky, a Wall Street bond trader, turned not to exorcism but to the law. He filed suit in New York to cancel the contract, telling the press, “We were the victims of ectoplasmic fraud.”

Although the house was widely known to be possessed by numerous ghosts, this was not disclosed by Ackley. A lower court dismissed the case, as the state applies the rule of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware.” Stambovsky appealed. In Stambovsky v. Ackley (1991), Judge Israel Rubin, writing for the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court, declared: “[A]s a matter of law, the house is haunted.” Since Helen Ackley not only knew of the spectral inhabitants—allegedly dating from the American Revolution—but had even celebrated them in an article, “Our Haunted House on the Hudson,” for Reader’s Digest in May 1977 and in a couple of local newspapers in 1982 and 1989, she was obliged to tell her potential buyers that the house was not vacant as they assumed. Not everyone, after all, shared her enthusiasm for what she described as “elusive spirits … gracious, thoughtful—only occasionally frightening—and thoroughly entertaining.” Although Ackley lost the lawsuit, she was glad that her ghosts were declared “officially alive.”

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