by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
In the realm of spooky, it’s really a ghost of a tale. But in this case, it wasn’t the presence of a spectre — real or imagined — that provided plenty of copy for the print media, but the reaction of the woman who was haunted by a story published in a local newspaper just days before Hallowe’en.
The Manitoba Free Press became spooked by its story of a ghost inhabiting a North End home, as the homeowner claimed to be a victim of a devilish plot by the newspaper to undermine her ability to sell the property. Rachzel Miriam Gomez Nagy decided to sue the Manitoba Free Press Co. after it published the brief article, A Ghost in the North End of the City.
According to the October 23, 1905, article: “There is a ghost in the north end of the city that is causing a lot of trouble to the inhabitants. His chief haunt is in a vacant house on St. John’s Avenue near to Main. He appears late at night and performs strange antics so that timid people give the place a wide berth. A number of men have lately made a stand against ghosts in general, and at night they rendezvous in the basement and close around the haunted house to await his ghostship, but so far he still remains at large.”
Nagy, who owned the home, brought a suit against the newspaper, alleging the “haunted house” reputation gained as a result of the article depreciated the value of the home by nearly half and that the property was damaged by those intent upon proving the presence of the spectre. In their pursuit of the ghost, the intruders smashed windows and doors and created general mayhem in the premises. For both reasons, Nagy asked the court to award her over $10,000 in damages.
During the subsequent court case that began on October 24, 1906, Hugh C. Pugh, the business manager for Nagy, said he saw the 1905 article and then visited the home to investigate the claim. He found smashed windows and doors as well as several men in the basement and upstairs in the house. Pugh had the men evicted from the home and posted guards around the home to keep the ghost hunters out.
Pugh said he never saw a ghost after he slept for one night in the Nagy house to keep the earth-bound ghouls at bay, nor did he believe in ghosts.
“He tried to sell the house and had it listed ... with all the estate agents in ‘Winnipeg,’ but found it impossible to get an offer of anything like the market value of the premises as they were before the date of the publication ... This depreciation in value he attributed to the report,” according to an October 25, 1906, article appearing in the Morning Telegram.
“He was negotiating with different parties for the sale of the property, but was unable to close the deal on account of the purchasers reading the report and refusing to close in consequence.”
One of the prospective buyers was Dr. W.J. Kelly who had agreed to a purchase price of $11,000 and had put down $250. After reading the article, Kelly refused to close the deal and forfeited his down payment, giving as his reason “the report of the place being haunted” and the reputation it received. Under later cross-examination, Kelly admitted he had abandoned the offer because he intended to move to the West Coast.
Edward Hodgins also swore he was in negotiations with Pugh and offered $11,000 for the house, but read the article and decided to withdraw his offer.
R.D. Waugh said after the story appeared, he offered just $6,000 to buy the home on behalf of a client.
Following the publication of the story, next-door neighbour Charles Edward Drewry became alarmed when people gathered near the house every evening from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. in order to catch a glimpse of the shade. He sent for the police on account of the annoyance caused to his ill wife, who was recovering from typhoid fever, due to conduct of the people on the street.
The “Free Press Ghost Case” as it became termed — the Winnipeg Telegram referred to it as “The Ghost Story” — became the talk of the town and was humourously debated on city streets and in the courthouse. In fact, much of the testimony in the court solicited smirks and outbursts of laughter.
“The case appears to be rather full of humor,” reported the Free Press on October 25, 1906, “and as the evidence was heard, the gravity of the court was frequently disturbed by the questioning and cross-examination of different witnesses in regard to the alleged ghost.”
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.
“The decision in this case will have an important bearing on the conduct of daily newspapers in the future, as it will create a precedent,” claimed the Free Press.
The Free Press front-page headline on October 25 called it a “curious damage suit” and “an amusing case.” The text under the headline began: “A very remarkable case opened yesterday afternoon before Justice (Daniel Alexander) Macdonald at the courthouse.”
Representing the plaintiff in the Court of King’s Bench was J.E. O’Connor assisted by J. Hilliard Leach, while the defence lawyers were A.B. Hudson and E.L. Howell.
A surprising aspect of the case was that the Free Press was not the only newspaper to carry the story about the haunted house, as a similar article also appeared in the Telegram. But the Free Press ran the story three times — in its morning and evening editions of October 23, 1905, and its weekly edition on October 25, 1905.
Under cross-examination in the subsequent court case, real estate agent Joseph Riley, a witness for the plaintiff, admitted he had also read about the alleged haunted house in the Telegram. The presiding justice questioned why the Free Press was singled out by the plaintiff, when the Telegram had also published a story about the alleged ghost.
Both newspapers got the story when their respective reporters noticed an entry in the “Occurrence Book” at the Winnipeg Police Station. The entry on October 21 by Constable John Street read: “Second house east of Main Street on St. John’s Avenue is believed by some people to be haunted at night between 11 and 12 midnight. There are parties of men hanging around the house, also in basement awaiting the appearance of the spook. This house at present unoccupied. The Northern Fuel company are the agents of this house.”
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, who both refused to “give up the ghost.”
When Riley was asked in court by Free Press defence attorney A.B. Hudson whether ghosts inhabited partially-completed houses such as the Nagy’s, he replied, “I don’t think so. Ghosts aren’t often seen in new houses.”
Riley offered the court a description of a haunting, saying he had read that a ghost might be dressed in white clothes. When pressed by the defence attorney, he said a ghost may appear wearing no clothes. which brought on peals of laughter.
“Then, so far as you know, there may or may have not been persons with or without clothes walking about the house in question?” asked Hudson.
“I can’t say.”
Hudson’s cross-examination was directed toward making the point that an earth-bound individual may have wandered about the house when it was vacant, which brought to mind an earlier well-known occurrence in the St. John’s neighbourhood.
Riley was asked if there was a cemetery nearby, to which he replied in the affirmative.
In 1903, an investigation by William Binzier, the sexton of St. John’s churchyard, revealed that what had been widely believed to be a ghost haunting the cemetery turned out to be a homeless man whose chalky white appearance resulted from an illness.
To discover the truth of the claim, Binzier hid behind a clump of bushes waiting for the appearance of a spectral visitor. When the moon came up during the witching hour and cast an eerie glow over the graveyard, he saw a figure clad in a white fluttering undergarment.
After swallowing a lump in his throat, Binzier mustered his courage and questioned the so-called ghost, who admitted being very much alive but homeless and camping out in the graveyard every evening. The sexton told the man to move along, and the man spirited himself away to St. John’s Park where he spent the remainder of the night and every night thereafter trying to get a good night’s sleep.
This incident was extensively reported in newspapers and occurred just two years prior to the articles about the alleged haunted house on St. John’s Avenue.
But the primary point of the lawyers for the defendant was the presence of squatters damaging the house before the article was printed, which was alluded to in the court case.
On the witness stand, Gomez Nagy, the son of the plaintiff, said upon reading the October 23 Free Press article he immediately went to his mother’s home where he observed about 250 people gathered carrying cordwood sticks and threatening to break into the house to see the ghost. Nagy said there were crowds gathered in front of his mother’s house from the night the article was published to November 14, when he and his mother moved into the house.
“Were you there at night before the crowd,” asked Hudson.
“The people might have thought you were the ghost.”
“Well, they might have, but there’s not much danger.”
After reading about the home advertised for sale while in the Yukon, N.F. Hagel said he returned to Winnipeg determined to buy the house, as he knew it would be worth the cost due to the reputation of Mr. Nagy (then deceased) for being meticulous in building houses. But when he arrived in Winnipeg and was told the house was haunted, Hagel said he refused to buy it.
Hagel said he didn’t believe in ghosts, but he knew plenty of intelligent people who did.
“If a person told you that he had seen a ghost, would you not consider that it must have been an illusion or a hallucination?” asked Hudson.
“I wouldn’t attempt to answer that,” he replied. “I am inclined to think some times that they did see something.”
George Stewart Richards, a young real estate agent who accompanied Nagy to the house “out of curiosity” to “see the ghost,” and then helped to protect the property, said the home was depreciated in value by the news article.
Under cross-examination, he claimed a house in England had not sold because it was haunted.
A.J. “Alfred Joseph” Andrews was asked by plaintiff lawyer O’Connor whether he had once been the mayor of Winnipeg.
“I don’t see why you should bring up all my offences against me,” he replied to laughter in the court.
Andrews, who had been mayor in 1898–99, accepted the transfer of the property from Nagy for $5,500, which he claimed was far below the market value it commanded before the article was published.
On October 25, Hudson, who waived calling witnesses for the defence, moved for a “non-suit,” saying there were no instances where such a case had appeared before a Canadian court. If such a case was actionable, he claimed, there would have been other earlier precedents in history when superstition prevailed to a greater extent.
Furthermore, he said it was proved in court that people believed the house was haunted well before the publication of the October 23 article, as it was vacant for an extended period of time.
When he went to look at the house before making his offer and prior to the article being published, Dr. Kelly said the doors of the vacant home were wide open, allowing anyone easy access to the premises.
“If a ghost was what one of the witnesses for the plaintiff had said (was) ‘a person with or without clothes on,’ then there was already proof (from the testimony) that such persons had already been in the house,” the Free Press reported in its summation of Hudson’s closing remarks. “There is no proof that the being believed to have been the ghost was not Mr. Pugh as he had slept in the house.”
Hudson said it was a libel on the city, the country and the era to say that superstition could cause the depreciation in property value.
He did not think any person would believe in ghosts and thus be “unable to purchase a house such as Mrs. Nagy’s on St. John’s Avenue ... To say such a thing would be a libel on our times.”
Hudson said the claims made in the court by the plaintiff were malicious and not supported by evidence.
He also cited a 200-year-old law that had not been repealed which stated that no action could be taken against a person for saying that another person was a witch. His implication was that, for reporting the story of a ghost, the Free Press could not be sued by Nagy, as the two superstitions were similar in nature.
O’Connor, the lawyer for the plaintiff, argued that the entry in the police records was no excuse for the Free Press to enlarge upon the story and then publish it.
Even though most people did not believe in ghosts, said Leach, the other lawyer for the plaintiff, a report coming from a newspaper would compel people to think there was something wrong with the property.
Referring to the Bible, Leach said in Genesis and Job he found that Abraham, Isaac and Job all “gave up the ghost,” and there was no record that they did not return after leaving their earthly abode. The Bible proved there were ghosts and spirits and as a result no one could be blamed for having some belief in ghosts, he added.
“Every nationality represented in Winnipeg had a word in their language ... that referred to ghosts, showing that at some time there had been a belief in ghosts among these nations,” according to the Free Press summation of Leach’s remarks.
Actually, Leach was correct in asserting every nationality represented in Winnipeg had its otherworldly superstitions. The early Irish, Scottish and English settlers brought to Manitoba the celebration of Halloween, which was a throwback to ancient pagan Celtic rites. The dead and other spirits (both good and bad) for one night of the year on October 31 were said to communicate with the living during the Celtic festival of Samhain (Lord of the Dead) — ancient Britons called it Calan Gaeaf. The ancient Celts in France had a similar festival.
The festival was held on the eve of the pagan New Year on November 1. During Samhain, huge bonfires were lit to encourage the sun to again warm the Earth, the priestly-class of Druids sacrificed humans and animals, and long-dead ancestors were honoured and invited home for “treats,” such as food, while evil spirits were warded off by “tricks,” such as wearing disguises that included masks and costumes.
When the Christian church was established in the British Isles, it reinvented the most important pagan festival as All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows' Eve, which was celebrated on November 1. Over time, All Hallows’ Eve returned to its pagan roots and was celebrated on the evening of October 31, a day before All Saints’ Day. All Hallows’ Eve was eventually shortened to Halloween.
Halloween traditions in Canada were readily accepted by Eastern and Western European immigrants, such as Germans, Icelanders, Poles and Ukrainians, whose native folklore related tales of spirits in one form or another roaming the earth.
Justice Macdonald said the case was so unusual that he required time to consider Hudson’s motion for a non-suit; that is, rule whether there were no grounds for the claim by the plaintiff.
On December 14, Justice Macdonald issued his ruling.
“This is an action unique in the annals of British courts of justice,” said Macdonald, “and a thorough research fails to disclose one of a parallel character.”
Macdonald called in question much of the testimony of the witnesses for the plaintiff.
“One can imagine in the days of conjurations, enchantments and witchcraft when these and like superstitions were rife,” said the justice, “actions founded on such a statement as contained in the article in question being in evidence, yet we find 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.
“Assuming, however, that the article in question is actionable, I find myself unable to saddle the damages upon the defendant company.
(Next week: part 2)