The Time a Ghost Had His Day in Court

iStock
iStock

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.

12 Facts About Shirley Chisholm, The First African-American to Run For President

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Being the first black woman to serve on Congress would be a significant enough accomplishment for a lifetime, but it wasn’t good enough for Shirley Chisholm. Three years after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Chisholm became the first woman to run for president for the Democratic party. When announcing her intention to seek the nomination on January 25, 1972, Chisholm stated, “I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”

Though her campaign was controversial at times, it wasn’t the downfall of her long and noteworthy career. And she's still making headlines. In late 2018, Oscar-winner Viola Davis announced that she would be producing and starring in The Fighting Shirley Chisholm, a biopic chronicling Chisholm's amazing life. On January 21, 2019—nearly 50 years after Chisholm announced her presidential run—California senator Kamala Harris announced her own 2020 presidential run and unveiled her campaign logo, which pays tribute to Chisholm.

Here are a few things to know about this bold educator-turned-politician.

1. She had international roots.

On November 30, 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York to Ruby Seale and Charles St. Hill. Her mother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados; her father, a factory worker, was originally from Guyana.

2. She was born in Brooklyn, but had a slight English accent.

In 1928, Chisholm and her two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados, while her parents stayed in New York and worked through the Great Depression. Chisholm attended a one-room schoolhouse on this island in the West Indies. In addition to receiving a British education, she picked up an accent, which remained slight but noticeable throughout her life.

3. Education had a significant impact on her life.


Library of Congress

Chisholm returned to the U.S. in March 1934 at age 9 and resumed with a public-school education. Following high school, she studied sociology at Brooklyn College and earned her BA in 1946. (She was a prize-winning debater in college, a skill that would serve her well throughout her political career.) She continued her education at Columbia University and earned an MA in early childhood education in 1952. While she was still a student at Columbia, she began teaching at a nursery school and married Conrad Chisholm in 1949. They would later divorce in 1977.

4. Her first career was as an educator.

After working at the nursery school, Chisholm worked her way through the teaching ranks and by 1953 was the director of two day care centers, a position she held until 1959. Her expertise and experience led to her role as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care from 1959 through 1964.

5. Her political career was revolutionary from the beginning.

Chisholm was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League before she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964. When she won, Chisholm became the second African-American woman to serve on the state legislature. From 1965 to 1968, Chisholm served as a Democratic member and focused on unemployment benefits for domestic workers and education initiatives.

6. Redistricting inspired her run for Congress.

Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L) between 1960 and 1970.
Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L)
Library of Congress

Chisholm set her sights on Congress when redistricting efforts gave Brooklyn a new congressional district. Not one to shy away from the public, Chisholm used to drive through neighborhoods while announcing, “This is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.” She defeated three candidates in the primary election, including a state senator, before defeating well-known civil rights activist James Farmer in the general election. This victory made her the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and she would go on to serve seven terms.

7. She had a way with words and established herself as outspoken and ready for change early in her first term.

She was known for her bold declarations. After her upset victory in the congressional election, she boasted, "Just wait, there may be some fireworks." And she delivered on that promise. Given her campaign slogan “Unbought and unbossed,” it should come as no surprise that Chisholm quickly made her presence known in Congress. She spoke out against the Vietnam War within the first few months of her arrival and said she would vote against military spending. When she was initially relegated to the House Agricultural Committee, she requested a new assignment, claiming that she didn’t think she could best serve her Brooklyn constituents from that position.

After directly addressing House Speaker John McCormack on the matter, she was reassigned to Veterans’ Affairs, and then moved to the Education and Labor Committee in 1971. True to her desire to bring about change, Chisholm hired all women for her office, half of whom were African-American. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus.

8. Her presidential campaign was unexpected and historic.

Chisholm formally announced her intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in January 1972, making her the first African-American to run for a major party and the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination. During her speech, which she delivered in her hometown of Brooklyn, Chisholm said, "I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that...I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

Although her campaign wasn’t as well-funded as her competitors’, Chisholm did get her name on the primary ballot in 12 states and won 28 delegates in primary elections. She received about 152 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, coming in fourth place for the party.

9. The campaign trail was full of challenges.

Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Polly Shulman

Chisholm likely expected challenges during her campaign, and she certainly encountered a fair amount. She received multiple threats against her life, including assassination attempts, and was granted Secret Service protection to ensure her safety. Chisholm also had to sue to be included in televised debates.

There was even controversy where there could have been encouragement. Her decision to run for the Democratic nomination caught many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) off-guard, and they weren’t happy that she acted before a formal and unified decision could be made. But Chisholm was done with waiting; when the subject of the CBC came up on the night she announced her campaign, she told the crowd, “While they’re rapping and snapping, I’m mapping.”

10. She had an unlikely supporter in George Wallace.

Chisholm was well aware that her biggest source of support came from women and minorities and often advocated on their behalf, so it shocked many of her supporters and constituents when she visited political rival George Wallace after an assassination attempt sent him to the hospital—and ultimately left him paralyzed—in 1972. Wallace, who was governor of Alabama, was known for his racist comments and segregationist views, but Chisholm checked on him. She said she never wanted what happened to him to happen to anybody else.

Ultimately, their friendship benefited the public when Wallace came through for Chisholm on an important piece of legislation in 1974. She was working on a bill that would give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage. Wallace convinced enough of his fellow Southern congressmen to vote in favor of the bill, moving it through the House.

11. Following retirement, Chisholm didn’t slow down.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982, but leaving the political arena didn’t mean she was done making a difference. Although she planned on spending more time with her second husband, Arthur Hardwick Jr., she also returned to teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and continued to speak at colleges across the country.

Chisholm passed away on January 1, 2005 at age 80 in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is buried in Buffalo, New York, and the inscription on the mausoleum vault in which she is buried reads “Unbought and Unbossed.”

12. She continues to garner accolades for her trailblazing work.

Chisholm was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service debuted the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp as part of the Black Heritage Series. A year later, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and now Viola Davis will star in a movie about her life. But Chisholm never doubted what legacy she wanted to leave behind, once saying, “I want history to remember me ... not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2017.

Guess Which Language These Words Likely Originated In

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