“Nature keeps herself whole, and…. suffers no seat to be vacant in her college. It is the secret of the world that all things subsist, and do not die, but only retire a little from sight, and return again…. Nothing is dead: men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some new and strange disguise” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nothing screws up a nice airtight case like introducing a ghost as a witness. It’s hard to put your hand on a Bible and swear an oath to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth when you don’t actually have physical hands. Thus spectral testimony is always suspect. And let’s face it, the living have no conclusive proof of life after death, and therefore we can’t possibly understand the rules that may govern the phantom lifestyle. Like a lot of witnesses, questions of credibility arise, and sadly this leads to skepticism even about the hard and fast facts of the case. Reasonable doubt and all. Looking for case law to support this assertion? Look no further than the 1754 trial in Edinburgh of Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain for the murder of Sergeant Arthur Davies on September 28, 1749.
Grant of Prestongrange, the Lord Advocate well known to readers of Mr. Stevenson’s Catriona, prosecuted Duncan Terig or Clerk, and Alexander Bain Macdonald, for the murder of Sergeant Arthur Davies on September 28, 1749. They shot him on Christie Hill, at the head of Glenconie. There his body remained concealed for some time, and was later found with a hat marked with his initials, A. R. D. They are also charged with taking his watch, two gold rings, and a purse of gold, whereby Clerk, previously penniless, was enabled to take and stock two farms (Lang, 1896, p256-257).
While Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain were the primary suspects in the murder, it wasn’t until June 1750 that they were arrested, when a certain Alexander Macpherson claimed that the ghost of Sergeant Davies had repeatedly implored him to lead authorities to his own grave and prosecute the authors of his demise. Alexander Macpherson had contacted local notable Donald Farquharson of Glendee at the reported insistence of the undead Sergeant Davies.
Sergeant Arthur Davies, of General Guises Regiment of Foot, three years after the Battle of Culloden, had the misfortune to be quartered in Durbach, an uncommonly wild and desolate part of the Scottish Highlands adjacent to the property of the Earl of Fife.
On the 28th day of September, the Sergeant set forth, along with a party, which was to communicate with a separate party of English soldiers at Glenshee; but when Davis’s men came to the place of rendezvous, their commander was not with them, and the privates could only say that they had heard the report of his gun after he had parted from them on his solitary sport. In short, Sergeant Arthur Davis was seen no more in this life, and his remains were long sought for in vain (Scott, 1831, xiii).
Five years passed, somewhat owing to local disaffection with the English, but evidence began mounting that Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain were the culprits in a murder most foul. A witness came forward claiming to have been laying in concealment on Christie Hill and seen the crime with his own eyes. Duncan Terig’s wife was observed wearing two valuable rings that had previously belonged to Sergeant Davies. It was said that even the legal defense team of Terig and Bain was convinced of their guilt. Along comes Alexander Macpherson, relating his tale of ghostly visitation by a phantasmagoric Sergeant Davies.
Some time after the murder, Donald Farquharson, living in Glenshee, had been informed by his neighbor Alexander MacPherson, that he (MacPherson) had been visited frequently by an apparition. It was the ghost of Sergeant Davies, who insisted upon having a burial of his remains. This MacPherson had declined to have anything to do with it. On this the spectre had bidden him apply to Donald Farquharson . Together they visited the spot where MacPherson said the remains were lying; Donald giving as a reason for going his fear of being troubled by the grave-seeking ghost of the slaughtered Saxon (Brent, 1868, p137-138).
Both Farquharson and Macpherson testified in court as to the circumstances that led them to discover the body of Sergeant Davies. Farquharson, as is typical in these situations, initially assumed Macpherson was nuts, until Macpherson explained in great detail and led him to the body of Davies.
Macpherson told him that he had been visited by a specter, as of a man clad in blue, which turned out to be the ghost of Sergeant Davies. It is surely uncommon to mistake a disembodied spirit for a neighbor and friend in the flesh, and only to be convinced of the error by specific information afforded by the ghost. Such, however, was the position in which this witness stated that he found himself. The vision said to him, “I am Sergeant Davies.” The narrative continues thus: “Before he told him so, the witness had taken the said vision, at first appearance, to be a real living man, a brother of Donald Farquharson’s. That the witness rose from his bed and followed him to the door, and then it was, as has been told, that he said he was Sergeant Davies, who had been killed on the hill of Christie about near a year before, and desired the witness to go to the place he pointed at, where he would find his bones, and that he might go to Donald Farquharson, and take his assistance to the burying of him. That upon his giving Donald Farquharson this information, Donald went along with him, and finding the bones as he informed Donald, and having then buried them with the help of a spade which he had alongst with him. And for putting what is above deposed upon out of doubt, deposes that the above vision was the occasion of his going by himself to see the dead body, and which he did before he either spoke to John Growar, Daldownie, or any other body. And further deposes, that while he was in bed another night, after he had first seen the body by himself, but had not buried it, the vision again appeared, naked, and minded him to bury the body; and after that he spoke to the other folks above-mentioned, and at last complied and buried the bones above-mentioned. That upon the vision’s first appearance to the witness in his bed, and after going out of the door, and being told by it he was Sergeant Davies, the witness asked him who it was that had murdered him, to which it made this answer, that if the witness had not asked him, he might have told him; but as he had asked him, he said he either could not, or would not, but which of the two expressions the witness cannot say; but at the second time the vision made its appearance to him, the witness renewed the same question, and then the vision answered that it was the two men now in the panel that had murdered him (Burton, 1852, p92-94).
Terig and Bain were unequivocally denounced as the murderers of Sergeant Arthur Davies, by no less than the dead Arthur Davies himself. There was also the circumstantial evidence of Terig’s wife being in possession of Davie’s rings and an additional witness. This may have seemed like an open and shut case, until the defense attorney for Bain and Terig pulled a stunningly brilliant legal maneuver. It came down to a linguistic question. Macpherson reported Arthur Davies communicated with him in Gaelic. Davies was English. The defense pounced.
When asked what language the ghost spoke in, he [Macpherson] answered, “as good Gaelic as he had ever heard in Lochaber…Pretty well for the ghost of an English Sergeant.” This was probably conclusive with the jury, for they acquitted the prisoners, in the face of the other incriminating evidence. This was illogical (Lang, 1896, p257).
The notion of an English sergeant speaking Gaelic obviously didn’t sit well with the jury, and consequently despite the other evidence as to the guilt of Bain and Terig, they felt forced to acquit. The jury unanimously returned the verdict that Bain and Terig were “Not guilty”. Given the wealth of additional evidence against them, this seem to be a wee bit of a miscarriage of justice, but this should serve as a warning to prosecutors. Ghosts move in mysterious ways. If they didn’t, we would have irrefutable proof of them already. If you wish to introduce ghostly testimony to the proceedings, you better do your best to prep the witness. Have a séance or something. Unfortunately, they don’t teach this stuff in law school.
Brent, Henry Johnson, 1811-1880. Was it a Ghost?: The Murders In Bussey’s Wood. An Extraordinary Narrative. Boston: Loring, 1868.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. Cock Lane and Common-sense. New ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1896.
Burton, John Hill, 1809-1881. Narratives from Criminal Trials In Scotland. London: Chapman and Hall, 1852.