“Law is born from despair of human nature” – Jose Ortega Y Gasset
Thomas Harris of Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, died in September 1790. This did not preclude him from testifying by proxy in a 1798 suit of James, Fanny, Robert, and Thomas Harris, devisees of Thomas Harris v. Mary Harris, relict and administratrix of James Harris, brother of Thomas, aforesaid. This is the legalese designating that Thomas’ four children were suing Mary Harris (the widowed wife of James) over the sale of land that they were supposed to inherit. Sadly, because all four children were actually illegitimate, by a legal technicality of the time, they would not automatically inherit Thomas’ property. Despite his presumably adulterous ways, Thomas was a reasonably good guy. He put his brother James in charge of administering his will, and directed him that upon his death, James should sell his land and divide the proceeds equally among the four children. James indeed sold the land, but kept the profit for himself, as by law James was technically the legal heir, excepting the last will and testament of Thomas. James died two years later, and the children sued Mary Harris. And Thomas was not going to let the mere fact of being dead get in the way of his express last wishes. Enter an old and well respected Revolutionary War veteran, William Briggs. From the time between Thomas’ death and James’ death, the ghost of Thomas appeared repeatedly to Briggs in order to convey instructions about how his estate should be disposed of in accordance with his original wishes. Briggs obligingly testified to this in court.
Imagine you’re dead. Not just your soul, which is the inevitable result of being a working adult in the modern U.S., but truly pushing up daisies. You’ve worked hard all your life, got yourself the little house with a white picket fence, farmed the land, and generally set up the next generation for a comfortable life. You can die knowing that you’ve provided for your family such as it is. Then some greedy jackass comes along and refuses to honor the terms of your last will and testament. Now, if you’re living, you hire yourself a lawyer. When you’re dead, things get a whole lot more complicated. Legal precedents for undead testimony are spotty at best. Nobody takes you seriously when you’re rotting in the ground. I have a suspicion that most poltergeists can be traced back to a summary judgement somewhere along the line. You need a spiritual medium to take your deposition. And that is exactly what ex-Thomas Harris did. He tapped his lifelong buddy, William Briggs to represent his interests in court and testify on the behalf of his children.
There was no chance of the children winning the case, as they had the audacity to be born out of wedlock, but the local magistrates obviously had too much time on their hands. When they heard about the nature of the undead witness for the plaintiffs, they just couldn’t resist. “Before the jury was sworn in the case, it was agreed by the counsel on both sides, that nothing could be recovered in the action except the balance of the personal estate, because the land was entailed. Secondly, because, if it had been a fee-simple estate, no person was appointed by the will to sell the land; the testator had directed it to be sold, and no doubt believed that his executor would be authorized to make sale of it. This understanding of the counsel was only known to themselves; they were anxious to hear the extraordinary reports that were circulated out of doors as to the appearance of the ghost of Thomas Harris to Briggs, related and sworn to in a court of justice. Briggs was known to be a man of character, of firm undaunted spirit” (Maidment, 1836, p194).
Wm. Briggs said he was forty-three years of age; that Thomas Harris died in September in the year 1790. In the March following he was riding near the place where Thomas Harris was buried, on a horse which had formerly belonged to Thomas Harris; after crossing a small branch, his horse began to walk on very fast; it was between the hours of 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning; he was alone; it was a clear day; he entered a lane adjoining to the field where Thomas Harris was buried; his horse suddenly wheeled in a panel of the fence, looked over the fence into the field where Thomas Harris was buried, toward the graveyard, and neighed very loud; witness then saw Thomas Harris coming toward him in the same apparel as he had last seen him in his lifetime; he had on a sky blue coat; just before he came to the fence he veered to the right and vanished; his horse immediately took the road. T. Harris came within two panels of the fence to him; he did not see his features nor did he speak to him. He was acquainted with Thomas Harris when a boy and there had always been a great intimacy between them. He thinks the horse knew Thomas Harris because of his neighing, pricking up his ears, and looking over the fence (Lowndes, 1941, p110-11).
Strangely, the ghost of Thomas Harris did not drop by for a chat. When you’re returning from the dead seeking justice, do you really want to scare people? You’ve got to let them warm up to the idea first. Accounts from Briggs’ courtroom testimony detailed the next appearance of the as of yet mute Harris, who escalated things a little bit, presumably to make sure Briggs was paying attention.
About the first of June following, he was ploughing in his own field, about three miles from where Thomas Harris was buried. About dusk Thomas Harris came alongside of him, and walked with him about two hundred yards. He was dressed as when first seen. He made a halt about two steps from him. J. Bailey who was ploughing along with him, came driving up, and he lost sight of the ghost. He was much alarmed: not a word was spoken. The young man Bailey did not see him; he did not tell Bailey of it. There was no motion of any particular part: he vanished. It preyed upon his mind so as to affect his health. He was with Thomas Harris when he died, but had no particular conversation with him. Sometime after, he was lying in bed, about eleven and twelve o’clock at night, when he heard Thomas Harris groan; it was like the groan he gave a few minutes before he expired. Mrs. Briggs, his wife, heard the groan. She got up and searched the house: he did not, because he knew the groan to be from Thomas Harris. Sometime after, when in bed, and a great fire-light in the room, he saw a shadow on the wall, and at the same time he felt a great weight upon him. Sometime after, when in bed and asleep, he felt a stroke between his eyes, which blackened them both: his wife was in bed with him, and two young men were in the room. The blow awaked him, and all in the room were asleep; is certain no one in the room struck him: the blow swelled his nose (Crowe, 1868, p258).
Now the spectral Thomas Harris was starting to alarm poor William Briggs, and again appeared to him in August and October, still saying nothing. At this point Briggs went to James Harris and reported that he had seen the ghost of his brother. According to Brigg’s sworn testimony, it was later on the same day of his initial October sighting of the apparition that the phantom finally engaged him in conversation.
On the same day about 8 o’clock in the morning he was handing up blades to John Bailey, who was stacking them; he saw Thomas Harris coming along the garden fence dressed as before; he vanished, and always to the east; was within fifteen feet of him; Bailey did not see him; about one hour and a half afterwards in the same place he again appeared, coming as before; came up to the fence, leaned on it within ten feet of the witness who called to Bailey to look there (pointing towards Thomas Harris – T.H. hereafter). Bailey asked what was there. Witness said, ‘Don’t you see Harris?’; does not recollect what Bailey said. Witness advanced towards T. Harris; one or the other spoke as witness got over the fence on the same panel that Thomas Harris was leaning on. They walked off together about five hundred yards; a conversation took place as they walked on; he has not the conversation on his memory; he could not understand Thomas Harris his voice was so low; he asked T.H. a question and he forbid him. Witness then asked, ‘Why not go to your brother instead of to me?’ T.H. said, ‘Ask me no questions.’; witness told him his will was doubted; T.H. told him to ask his brother if he did not remember the conversation which passed between them on the east side of the wheat stacks, the day he was taken with his death sickness; that he then declared he wished all his property should be kept together by James Harris until his children arrived at age, then the whole should be sold and divided among the children…he did not speak with the same voice as in his lifetime; sometimes could not understand him; he was not daunted while with T. H. but much so afterwards. Witness then went to J. Harris and told him he had seen his brother three times that day and related the conversation he had with him. Asked James Harris if he remembered the conversation between him and his brother at the wheat stacks; he said he did and told him what had passed; said he would fulfill his brother’s will; he was satisfied that witness had seen his brother, for that no other person knew that conversation. On the same evening returning home about an hour before sunset T. H. appeared to him; came alongside of him; witness told him that his brother said he would fulfill his will; no more conversation on this subject; he disappeared. He had further conversation with T. H., but not on this subject; he was always dressed in the same manner. Witness has never related to any person the last conversation and never would (Lowndes, 1941, p113-114).
When Briggs told James Harris of his encounters with his phantom brother, and gently reminded him of Thomas’ opinion on the dispensation of his property, James immediately went to the courts and declared that he owed money to his brother’s family, which is about as reasonable an outcome from a series of ghostly visitations as one can expect. Sadly, while the wheels of justice ground forward in trying to figure out what to do, James died as well, and his widow Mary Harris contested the children’s rights to the money, and that’s how the whole matter wound up in court.
Curiously, courtroom records indicate that when William Briggs was pressed to reveal the topic of his final mysterious discussion with the ghostly Thomas Harris, he flatly refused and was extremely agitated, declaring that he would die before telling the secret. This of course, makes us all want to know even more, but Briggs never did disclose what was said to him.
There is a surprisingly robust body of literature surrounding ghosts returning to sort out disputes over their last will and testament (and you heard it here first, I’m coining the phrase “rechtsgeist” – legal ghost). I’m thinking I better get to work on my will, so at least I might have the option to rise from the grave. I’m not saying I’ll do it, just that it’s nice to have choices. It seems vaguely unfair that some ghosts get to come back and hang around loved ones; poltergeists get to throw supernatural tantrums; and an unfortunate few are yanked from the afterlife to mediate contentious estate cases, but Ambrose Bierce warned us of this when he said, “Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate”.
Crowe, Catherine, 1790-1876. The Night-side of Nature, Or, Ghosts And Ghost Seers. New York: Widdleton, 1868.
Lowndes, Marion S. Ghosts That Still Walk: Real Ghosts of America. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1941.
Maidment, James, 1795?-1879. Notices Relative to the Bannatyne Club: Instituted In February, M.DCCC.XXIII. Edinburgh: Printed for private circulation, 1836.