“I intend to live forever, or die trying” – Groucho Marx
Any good accountant will tell you to get your business done before you die, as once dead you don’t have much legal standing. Or, for that matter, a body. Well, maybe you have a corpse for a little while, but lack of neural activity and decomposition makes it hard to set up a meeting. And, don’t take this personally, but you smell rather fetid. Plus nobody wants to have a power lunch in a cemetery. Final requests used to be taken more seriously, even for condemned prisoners, but modernity has promoted the attitude that “you are dead, so what are you going to do about it”. Tort law similarly takes a rather grim view of contractual obligations when signatories have already received last rites. This of course varies by jurisdiction, but by and large, death has the unfortunate consequence of leaving the deceased with little recourse in settling commercial affairs with the living. Your only viable option may be to get a little “haunty”, and as spectral standards surrounding communication and travel have traditionally been fairly restrictive, it may be necessary to enlist the aid of a corporeal representative. Sadly, your estate has likely already been disbursed, so you have no finances to speak of, and we all know lawyers don’t work for free, thus you will probably have to “catch as catch can” and coerce whatever living (and sometimes unwilling) accomplice you can reach out to. As a cautionary tale, consider the witnessed, documented, and well authenticated 1662 A.D. case of Irish farmer James Haddock, late of Malone in Northern Ireland’s County Down.
Four miles south of Belfast, should you happen upon Drumbeg’s St. Patrick Church, a curious gravestone stands (or rather lays crookedly) identifying a nice green plot as the final resting place of “James Haddock who dwelled in Mallon and deceased the 18 of December, 1657”. The gravestone was meant to stand upright, but to this day refuses to do so. For many years, the Parish diligently went about standing the tombstone up straight, but it was always found to have fallen again, and it was eventually deemed metaphysically prudent to let it be. What James Haddock died of in 1657 isn’t entirely clear, but suffice it to say, it probably had something to do with poor judgment. As poor Haddock lay dying, he made a last request of his spouse (Arminell “Eleanor” Walsh), telling “his wife to keep his farm till his son was twenty-one, and then to hand it over to him. Instead the wife remarried, had a second family, and with them continued to live on the farm” (M’Kean, 1905, p35), thereby singlehandedly managing to fail to honor her husband’s dying wishes as well as cheat her son out of his bequeathed inheritance. Haddock wasn’t a complete jerk, so he left his manor house to Arminell, but was insistent that son John should get the farm when he reached the age of majority. Unfortunately, James Haddock made some dire deathbed miscalculations; understandable as he was no doubt preoccupied giving up the ghost with a modicum of decorum. Haddock tried to arrange things before he expired, starting the process of adding his son’s name to the lease (he actually rented his farm from Lord Donegall), but the reaper came for him before this task was completed, and the executor of the will, a certain Jacob Davis, had other plans. The widowed Mrs. Haddock had married Jacob Davis shortly after James Haddock’s death, and the couple was living in wedded bliss with their brand new baby on Haddock’s former property. As Davis was the executor of Haddock’s last will and testament, he deftly adjusted the terms of the lease to ensure that his son, rather than Haddock’s would eventually get the farm. An important lesson here is to choose your executor carefully. If you catch him surreptitiously ogling your wife, you might have a problem. Another lesson, learned the hard way by Arminell and Jacob Davis, was don’t mess with the determined or legally savvy dead, as you soon shall see. In 1662, five years after Haddock’s death, during which he was undoubtedly preparing his legal briefs, Haddock decided to rise from the grave and right some wrongs, seizing upon a reluctant, living acquaintance to act as his mouthpiece.
Francis Taverner, about twenty-five years old, a lusty, proper, stout fellow, then servant at large (afterwards porter) to the Lord Chichester, Earl of Donegal, at Belfast, in the north of Ireland, county of Antrim and diocess of Connor, riding late in the night from Hilbrough homeward, near Drum Bridge, his horse, though of good mettle, suddenly made a stand; and he, supposing him to be taken with the staggers, alighted to blood him in the mouth, and presently mounted again. As he was setting forward there seemed to pass by him two horsemen, though he could not hear the treading of their feet, which amazed him. Presently there appeared a third in a white coat just at his elbow, in the likeness of James Haddock, formerly an inhabitant of Malone, where he died near five years before; whereupon Taverner asked him, in the name of God, who he was? He replied, I am James Haddock; and you may call me to mind by this token, that, about five years ago, I and two other friends were at your father’s house, and you, by your father’s appointment, brought us some nuts; and therefore be not afraid, says the apparition: whereupon Taverner, remembering the circumstance, thought it might be Haddock; and those two who passed him he thought to be his two friends with him when he gave them nuts, and courageously asked him why he appeared rather to him than any other? He answered, because he was a man of more resolution than others; and, if he would ride his way with him, he would acquaint him with a business he had to deliver him; which Taverner refused to do, and would go his own way (for they were now at a quadrival), and so rode homewards. But, immediately on their departure, there arose a great wind, and withal he heard very hideous screeches and noises, to his great amazement; but, riding forwards as fast as he could, he at last heard the cocks crow, to his comfort: he alighted off from his horse, and, falling to prayer, desired God’s assistance; and so got safe home (Jarvis, 1823, p16-17).
Haddock the Friendly Ghost perhaps chose too subtle an approach when opening negotiations with Taverner, who was clearly upset at the sudden appearance of a phantasm who wanted to discuss business strategies. Having made it home safely, Taverner resolved to think no more on the matter, but Haddock, being dead and having nothing better to do, wasn’t going to let it go so easily. Taverner was again visited by ghostly Haddock on the following eve.
The night after there appeared again to him the likeness of James Haddock, and bid him go to Eleanor Walsh, now the wife of Davis, living at Malone, but formerly the wife of the said James Haddock, by whom she had an only son, to whom the said James Haddock had by his will given a lease which he held of the Lord Chichester [Earl of Donegall], of which the son was deprived by Davis (who had married his mother) and to ask her if her maiden name was not Eleanor Walsh; and, if it were to tell her that it was the will of her former husband, James Haddock, that their son should be righted in the lease. But Taverner, partly loath to gain the ill will of his neighbours, and partly thinking he should not be credited, but looked on as deluded, long neglected to deliver his message, till, having been every night for about a month’s space haunted with this apparition, in several forms (every night more and more terrible), which was usually preceded by an unusual trembling over his whole body, and great change of countenance, manifest to his wife, in whose presence frequently the apparition was (though not visible to her), at length he went to Malone, to Davis’s wife, and asked her whether her maiden name was not Eleanor Walsh ? If it was, he had something to say to her. She replied there was another Eleanor Walsh besides her. Hereupon Taverner returned, without delivering his message (Timbs, 1825, p147).
Obviously, Taverner was still waffling on the wisdom of acting as a go between for an embittered phantasm, and although the apparition manifested nightly to bid him deliver the message, he hesitated. “I was chatting with your dead husband…” tends to be a strange introduction, as well as an abrupt conversation ender. Undead Haddock on the other hand was losing patience and took off the kid gloves.
But having learnt the truth of the matter in some mysterious way, it again appeared, this time in a great fury, and threatened to tear him to pieces if he did not do as it desired. Utterly unnerved by these unearthly visits, Taverner left his house in the mountains and went into the town of Belfast, where he sat up all night in the house of a shoemaker named Peirce, where were also two or three of Lord Chichester’s servants. About midnight, as they were all by the fireside, they beheld Taverner’s countenance change and a trembling to fall upon him; who presently espied the Apparition in a Room opposite him, and took up the Candle and went to it, and resolutely asked it in the name of God wherefore it haunted him? It replied, Because he had not delivered the message; and withal repeated the threat of tearing him in pieces if he did not do so speedily: and so, changing itself into many prodigious Shapes, it vanished in white like a Ghost (Seymour, 1930, p137-138).
At this point it sucked to be Taverner, only slightly more so to be dead Haddock. Francis Taverner knew he was out of his depth, so he despondently went to Lord Chichester and the Lord’s chaplain James South, laying the entire predicament at their doorstep. The Reverend South pointed out that the wisest course of action, all things considered would be to deliver Haddock’s message posthaste. South enlisted the assistance of the minister of Belfast, Dr. Lewis Downes, and together the three hastened to the home of Arminell and Jacob Davis, whereupon Taverner communicated Haddock’s message to his ex-wife and her new husband. Now that the clergy was involved, some documentation was in order, and the esteemed Dr. Jeremiah Taylor, Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore summoned Taverner for examination, proving conclusively that no good deed goes unpunished, after which he was also questioned by a certain Lord Conway in the presence of many notables. Thomas Alcock, then secretary to Bishop Taylor, recorded most of the proceedings. Reportedly, Haddock made another visit to Taverner to thank him for his assistance and inquire as to the Bishop’s attitude towards the case, and as Davis still resolutely refused to honor the inheritance of Haddock’s son, the ghostly Haddock directed Taverner to take the case to court.
After several visitations of this description, Taverner was induced, not by menaces, but by earnest solicitations, to speak to Davis about the lease. Davis not being inclined to comply with the wishes of the ghost, the latter urged its reluctant “medium” to bring the case to a trial. “What will be the use of that?” said Taverner, “I have no witnesses.”—” Never mind,” replied the ghost, “I will be present, and appear when called upon.” After much solicitation Taverner consented; the trial came on at Carrickfergus, and this part of the story is related with somewhat of dramatic effect. The opposing counsel brow-beated and upbraided Taverner for inventing an absurd and malicious story against his neighbour Davis, and ended by tauntingly desiring him to call his witness. The usher of the court, with a sceptical sneer, called upon James Haddock, and at a third repetition of the name, a clap of thunder shook the courthouse to its foundation; a hand was seen upon the witness-table, and a voice was heard saying :—” Is this enough.” Of course the terrified jury exclaimed their complete satisfaction, and gave an immediate verdict in favour of young Haddock.” Davis, amidst the execration of the crowd, slunk from the court, and on his way home fell from his horse and broke his neck. On the same evening Taverner had his last visit from the ghost. It mounted behind him at the accustomed spot, and warmly thanked him for his services. Taverner, wishing to know how his old friend was “regimented”—as worthy Bishop Taylor phrased it—in the other world, said, “Now, Haddock, I want to ask you one question :—Are you happy in your present state ?” “If,” replied the ghost, in a voice of anger, “you were not the man you are, I would tear you in pieces, for daring to ask such a question.”It then went off in a flash of fire, and Taverner was relieved from its visits from that time (Pinkerton, 1855, p331-332).
As a post-script to this otherworldly legal maneuvering, no less than the famed Daniel Defoe reported that Haddock clearly intended to continue protecting the interests of his son, when five years later, another attempt was made to take away the lease by the trustee for Haddock’s son.
It is to be observed here, and should have been added to the story, that the said Davis and his wife, though, it seems, much against his will, did give up the lease to the child, the son of that James Haddock; with this dismal circumstance attending it, viz., that about ﬁve years after, and when the bishop was dead, one Costlet, who was the child’s trustee, threatened to take away the lease again, railed at Taverner, and made terrible imprecations upon himself if he knew of the lease, and threatened to go to law with the orphan. But one night being drunk at the town of Hill Hall, near Lisbourne in Ireland, where all this scene was laid, going home, he fell from his horse and never spoke more, and so the child enjoyed the estate peaceably ever after (Defoe, 1840, p278-279).
The essential takeway from this, for safety’s sake, is that you need to assume the recently deceased were serious about their last will and testament, and they will likely use all means supernatural and legal at their phantasmagoric disposal to see that their wishes are honored. In the end, it’s not the living or the dying that present us with our greatest difficulties, its moving between the two points, for as Isaac Asimov said “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome”.
Defoe, Daniel, 1661?-1731. The History And Reality of Apparitions. Oxford: D. A. Talboys, for Thomas Tegg, 1840.
Jarvis, T. M.. Accredited Ghost Stories. London: J. Andrews, 1823.
M’Kean E.J. “Irish Ghost Lore”. Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (1821-). Report and Proceedings of the Belfast Natural History & Philosophical Society 1904-1905. Belfast: The Society, 1905.
Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft And Demonology. Dublin: Hodges, Figgs, 1930.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Signs Before Death, And Authenticated Apparitions: In One Hundred Narratives. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1825.
Pinkerton, W. “Down and Antrim Ghost Stories of the Seventeenth Century”. Ulster Archaeological Society. Ulster Journal of Archaeology v3. Belfast: [Ulster Archaeological Society], 1855.