Winnipeg is noted for some of the strangest ghost tales ever to be told, and the relating of these encounters with eerie spectres is usually associated with Hallowe’en. Perhaps the strangest of the strange was the Free Press Ghost Case, which revolved not around the presence of a ghostly shade, but the reaction of a woman who was haunted by a story published in the Winnipeg-based newspaper just before Hallowe’en.
The Manitoba Free Press became spooked by its story about a ghost inhabiting a North End home, as the homeowner claimed to be the victim of a devilish plot by the newspaper to undermine her ability to sell her property. Rachzel Miriam Gomez Nagy decided to sue the newspaper for $10,000 in damages after it published the brief article entitled, A Ghost in the North End of the City.
According to the October 25, 1905, article, a ghost was haunting a vacant house on St. John’s Avenue near Main Street. The alleged haunting attracted the attention of a number of ghost hunters who awaited the appearance of their quarry in the basement of the Nagy home. Nagy claimed that the intruders smashed windows and damaged the haunted house to the extent that it had lost half its resale value. One prospective buyer had offered $11,000 for the property and had placed $250 down, but after reading the story became too spooked to follow through with the transaction. Others offered just $6,000 and $5,000, believing the ghost story made Nagy desperate to sell.
The ghost case became the talk of the town and was humorously debated on city streets and in the courthouse. The case was so unusual and precedent setting in both British and Canadian legal history that it attracted the widespread attention of lawyers, law students and the national press.
Another surprising aspect of the case was that it dragged on for nearly two years as a result of appeals by the plaintiff and the newspaper owners, who both refused to “give up the ghost.”
On the witness stand during the first of three trials, Gomez Nagy, the son of the plaintiff, said upon reading the article, he immediately went to his mother’s home where he observed 250 people gathered about carrying cordwood bludgeons and threatening to break into the house in order to witness the alleged nightly appearance of the ghost.
Lawyer A.B. Hudson asked Nagy if he had been in the house. Nagy replied, “Yes.”
“The people might of thought you were the ghost,” commented the defence lawyer.
Joseph Riley, a witness for the plaintiff, despite not seeing any spectral shade, offered the court his opinion that a ghost might be dressed in white clothes. When pressed by the defence, he further said that a ghost might appear without clothes, which prompted peals of laughter from the crowd in the courthouse.
“Then, so far as you know, there may or may not have been persons with or without clothes walking about the house in question?” asked Hudson.
“I can’t say,” replied Riley.
George Stewart Richards, a young real estate agent who accompanied Nagy to the house “out of curiosity” to “see the ghost,” as well as to help protect the property, claimed a house had not sold in Britain because it was haunted.
Hugh C. Pugh, the business manager for Nagy overseeing the selling of her home, said he saw the article and decided to personally visit the house to investigate the newspaper’s claim. Pugh had the ghost hunters evicted and then slept in the Nagy house in order to keep the earth-bound ghouls from returning. While he was in the house, Nagy said the ghost didn’t make an appearance. He also told the court he didn’t believe in ghosts.
When ruling on the case, Manitoba Justice Daniel Alexander Macdonald said: “One can imagine in the days of conjurers, enchantments and witchcraft when these and like superstitions were rife, actions founded on such a statement as contained in the article in question being in evidence, yet we found none, but in this enlightened age and generation and in this modern city of Winnipeg to find that such an article is a slander should be a calumny upon its people.”
Macdonald then dismissed the plaintiff’s case, but Nagy took her case to the Manitoba Court of Appeals, which overturned Macdonald’s ruling.
“The very nature of a ghost, as understood by superstitious people, is that of a phantom appearing at rare intervals,” said Justice J.A. Richards. “Unless, therefore, we hold that the courts should take judicial cognizance of the fact that ghosts do not exist, the falsity of the statement could never be absolutely proved. I think that the members of the court may, and as educated men should, assume that there are no such things as ghosts, and that therefore the statement is necessarily false.”
Richards said the newspaper’s editors and sub-editors should have known that “superstitious people” would have appeared at the house following the publication of the article, “while they themselves and other people of the educated class, would only treat such a report as jocular or harmlessly contemptuous, the more ignorant of humanity through reading it would be naturally and readily aroused to commit such overt acts as happened in this case.”
Even though the court of appeals justices didn’t believe in ghosts, they agreed by 2-1 that the value of the property had been diminished by the Free Press Ghost Story, and awarded Nagy $1,000 in damages. They further urged that the case be sent to the Supreme Court of Canada, “owing to so much that is involved being new law.”
The case did go before the supreme court, where the justices voted 4-1 in favour of the Manitoba Court of Appeals decision. Justice Idington said the newspaper had dressed up the original entry in the police occurrence book in “such a way to distort the statements it contained, by making them positive instead of being colourless as they stood, and by expanding, and adding to them so as to render the publication more attractive, more sensational, and more damaging — and then published it.”
Many people do believe that ghosts wander the earth. But the very nature of how ghosts or spirits are perceived to haunt the earth makes it impossible to prove their existence. In the end, the acceptance of their presence is a reflection of an individual’s belief system, as all tales of alleged haunted houses or other paranormal activity are found in the realm of narration and anecdotal evidence.
Even the justices in the three courts who participated in the Free Press Ghost Case refused to rule on the existence of ghosts, admitting that the spectres were beyond the earthly facts of the case.