The Time a Ghost Had His Day in Court
By Jake Rossen
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.
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.