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The Time a Ghost Had His Day in Court

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Thomas Blackwelder told the attorney the plain truth as he understood it. On July 6, 1925, his neighbor, James “Pink” Chaffin, knocked on Blackwelder’s door and asked him to accompany him on a short trip to visit his mother. An eyewitness was needed, Pink said, because Pink’s father had told him he would find something very valuable hidden in an old family Bible.

That it was Pink's father, James L. Chaffin, who told his son where to find the item was notable for one very particular reason: The elder Chaffin had been dead for nearly four years.

Courtesy of Davie County Public Library

For the two decades prior to his death, James L. Chaffin owned and toiled on a farm near Mocksville, North Carolina. With his wife, he raised four sons—Abner, Marshall, John, and James Jr. Although any reliable accounts of the family dynamic are hard to come by, it appeared that Chaffin was extremely close to Marshall in particular. When the Chaffins' own home was destroyed in a fire [PDF], they went to live Marshall and his wife, Susie, until their property was restored.

As a possible result of this close relationship, it was Susie who kept Chaffin’s last will and testament in her possession. Dated 1905, it named Marshall his father's sole beneficiary, a fact that his brothers were surprised—and dismayed—to learn upon their father’s untimely death in 1921, due to an accidental fall. When Marshall died just a year later from heart problems, the Chaffin property was granted to Susie. At no point did anyone offer the remaining brothers a portion of the inheritance.

While none of the Chaffin brothers was rich, Pink was known to be stretching his dollars as far as he could, planting sugarcane and cotton on his property and selling hand-carved axe handles for 25 cents apiece. He, his wife, and their children occupied a four-room home. By most measures, having a share of his father’s inheritance would have allowed for a more comfortable lifestyle. Still, none of the siblings contested the will—until something strange happened.

In June 1925, Pink began to suspect that his father’s final wishes may have been misrepresented after the elder Chaffin began appearing to Pink in dreams, with a "sorrowful" expression on his face. As Pink would later tell the court:

"I began to have very vivid dreams that my father appeared to me at my bedside but made no verbal communication. Some time later, I think it was the latter part of June, 1925, he appeared at my bedside again, dressed as I had often seen him dressed in life, wearing a black overcoat which I knew to be his own coat. This time my father's spirit spoke to me, he took hold of his overcoat this way and pulled it back and said, ‘You will find my will in my overcoat pocket,’ and then disappeared."

Pink was adamant that his father’s spirit had made direct communication to insist that his son follow a specific instruction.

After telling his wife about the dreams and the close encounter, Pink traveled 20 miles to his brother John’s home, where their father’s overcoat was stored in the attic. Spreading it open, he noticed that the inside pocket lining had been sewn shut. Ripping it open, he discovered a rolled-up paper tied by string. “Read the 27th Chapter of Genesis in my daddie’s old Bible,” it instructed.

At that point, Pink had the presence of mind to understand that whatever happened with the Bible might benefit from the testimony of another eyewitness, which is why he rounded up Blackwelder on that fateful July day. With witnesses in tow, Chaffin departed for the home of his mother, who allowed her son and his friend to search her house for the book. When they finally discovered it in a bureau drawer, it was so old and weathered that the binding had split into three pieces. Turning to Genesis 27, Blackwelder discovered two pages folded together to form a makeshift pocket.

When he peered inside, Blackwelder discovered the elder Chaffin’s last will and testament, dated January 16, 1919. This hidden document allowed for a fair and even split between Pink and his brothers. It read:

"After reading the 27th chapter of Genesis, I, James L. Chaffin, do make my last will and testament, and here it is. I want, after giving my body a decent burial, my little property to be equally divided between my four children, if they are living at my death, both personal and real estate divided equal if not living, give share to their children. And if she is living, you all must take care of your mammy. Now this is my last will and testament. Witness my hand and seal."

— James L. Chaffin

Pink was elated. The document seemed to correct all the wrongs of the previous will, which had made provisions for only Marshall, who inherited all 102 acres of their father's land, while the rest of the family was left out entirely. Later, in court, Pink insisted that it was the ghost of his father who told him exactly where to find the document—with Blackwelder corroborating the fantastic tale.

In the fall of 1925, the will of James L. Chaffin was tendered for probate. A court would have to decide whether the newly-discovered will was valid.

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Davie County Superior Court had never seen the likes of a probate case that had been spurred on by a ghost. Newspapers swarmed the courthouse and interviewed Pink, eager to hear details about how his father’s spirit had led him to the discovery of a second will.

Although he was willing to share stories of the visitations, Pink realized that pragmatism would win the day in court. He and his lawyers assembled 10 former friends and associates of Chaffin’s, who could attest to the fact that the signature on the second will was legitimate. A jury wouldn’t necessarily need to believe in the afterlife if they took these witnesses at their word. But they wouldn’t even get that chance.

During a court recess, lawyers for both the Chaffin brothers and Susie agreed to a settlement. It’s likely Susie was advised that her chances of arguing against the validity of the second will were slim and that a jury ruling could leave her with nothing. (Even Susie agreed that the signature on the second will was legitimate.) Instead, she would accept one-quarter of the estate, leaving the rest to be divided equally among the brothers.

A judge made it official. The second will superseded the first.

The presence of Chaffin’s ghost in articles about the case led to attention from a number of outlets that had little or nothing to do with the judicial system. The following year, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) dispatched a lawyer to interview the Chaffins to try and discern their sincerity. He found no evidence they—nor Blackwelder—were being deceptive.

The SPR, though eager to find evidence of phenomena, rebutted the lawyer's findings and speculated that it made little sense for Chaffin’s ghost to send his son on a scavenger hunt. Why not just tell him to look in the Bible in the first place?

A ghost’s eccentricities or communication limitations aside, there was also the matter of whether the brothers, feeling jilted by the wishes of the first will, decided to concoct a sensational story and forge a second, more generous agreement to be “found” at a later date. Some amateur sleuths speculated that Pink waited years before contesting the will because one of the brothers would need time to practice their father’s handwriting in order to pass an acceptable forgery.

In 2004, author Mary Roach was investigating paranormal activity for her nonfiction book Spook when she commissioned handwriting expert Grant Sperry to examine both the 1905 and 1919 wills. The first one was hand-drafted by another party but signed by Chaffin; the second appeared to be by his hand alone. Sperry offered that the signature in the 1905 will seemed rougher and less polished than the one drafted 14 years later—and usually, handwriting worsens over time. Sperry concluded that if the first signature was valid, then the second signature was a fake.

On the other hand, the writing in the second will was fluid, not halting like so many forgeries tend to be in their slow pursuit of perfection. If it had been written by someone other than Chaffin, perhaps it was done only to motivate Susie to share the wealth and with no expectation it would be exhaustively studied by a forensic specialist.

If the Chaffin brothers knew a revised, legitimate will was in the family’s possession, there’s no reason to have waited four years to reveal it. It's possible they felt a story was needed to help explain how well-hidden it had supposedly been, and perhaps they felt a ghost tale was less preposterous than claiming to happen upon it at random.

It’s certainly more likely that Pink orchestrated the discovery of a will more satisfactory to the family than the idea that Chaffin would revise his own, then never tell anyone about it. But Pink never even hinted at the possibility that his story was anything other than the truth.

“I was fully convinced,” he said in his statement, “that my father’s spirit had visited me for the purpose of explaining some mistake.” Having had his message received, Pink said he was never contacted by his father again.

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Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.

1. HIS EARLY LIFE MIGHT BE AN INTENTIONAL MYSTERY.

Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.

2. HE TOOK PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES FROM THE INVENTOR OF MORSE CODE.

When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.

3. HE SET UP SHOP IN NEW YORK AND BECAME THE GO-TO PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.

4. HE ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE FAME.

In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.

5. HE PHOTOGRAPHED EVERY PRESIDENT FROM JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO WILLIAM MCKINLEY ... WITH ONE EXCEPTION.

The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.

6. ONE OF HIS PORTRAITS INTRODUCED HONEST ABE TO THE COUNTRY.

When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.

7. HIS STUDIO’S WORK ENDED UP ON TWO VERSIONS OF THE $5 BILL.

A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”

8. OTHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF HIS BEST-KNOWN WORK.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”

9. HE HAD BAD EYESIGHT.

Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.

10. HE HELPED REVOLUTIONIZE COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHY.

War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

11. HE USED A FREEBIE TO CONVINCE GENERALS TO LET HIM PHOTOGRAPH THE WAR.

Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)

12. HE WAS BLAMED FOR UNION BATTLE LOSSES.

Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”

13. HE DIDN’T JUST PHOTOGRAPH THE UNION SIDE.

Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”

14. HIS CIVIL WAR PHOTOS ALSO MADE HIM POOR.

Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

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