Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ghosts in court

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On a lovely day back in June, I spent a few minutes wandering the beautifully ornate old library of the Iowa State Capitol . . . and there, with nothing but summer on my mind, I found an odd little ghost story.

It appears in Henry Spicer’s Judicial Dramas, or The Romance of French Criminal Law (1872), whose opening chapter is, unexpectedly, titled, “Ghosts in Court.” The opening lines give a good sense of Spicer’s rather florid style:
Whether or not the defective ventilation of our courts of law be inimical to the subtle fluid of which phantoms are composed, or whether these sensitive essences, oppressed with the absurdities of forensic costume and manners, take fright at the first glimmer of a counsellor's wig, or at the titter that follows a counsellor's joke, there can be no question of the extreme difficulty that has always been experienced in bringing a spectre fairly to judicial book.
The ghost I want to tell you about today comes from the French courts, where, Spicer explains,
questions of ghost or no ghost—and, if the former, what might be the worth of the ghost's testimony—seem to have been permitted a wider range. Counsel has been freely heard on either part.
The back-and-forth of the case can be a bit involved and confusing, especially in the hands of Spicer, who loves digression, but it’s worth working through at least an abridged version in order to get to the punch line.

Spicer’s story concerns a French laborer, Honore Mirabel, who claimed that late one night a ghost alerted him to the presence of a buried treasure of more than one thousand Portuguese gold pieces. And as any fan of crime novels could tell you, that’s when the complications began: unsure what he ought to do with the treasure in order to stay right with the law, Mirabel consulted a local tradesman, Auguier, who said
that the secret should be rigorously confined to those who already knew it, while he himself (Auguier) was prepared to devote himself, heart and soul, to his friend's best interests, lend him any cash he needed (so as to obviate the necessity of changing the foreign money), attend him whithersoever he went, and, in fine, become his perpetual solace, monitor, and guard.

To prevent the possibility of his motives being misinterpreted, the worthy Auguier took occasion to exhibit to his friend a casket, in which was visible much gold and silver coin, besides a jewel or two of some value.
Things, as they do, fell apart, and soon Mirabel was hauling Auguier into court, charging that Auguier had stolen the treasure entrusted to him; for his part, Auguier claimed to know nothing of the treasure and less of the ghost.

Auguier’s lawyer, sensibly fixing on the ghost as his opponent’s weak point, argued against its very existence:
Is it credible (he asked) that a spirit should quit the repose of another world expressly to inform Mons. de Mirabel, a gentleman with whose existence it seems to have had no previous acquaintance, of the hiding-place of this treasure? How officious must be the nature of that ghost which should select, in a caprice, a man it did not personally know, to enrich him with a treasure, for the due enjoyment of which his social position made him so unfit? How slight must be the prescience of a spirit that could not foresee that Mirabel would be deprived of his treasure by the first knave he had the misfortune to trust! There could be no such spirit, be assured.

If there were no spectre, there was, according to all human probability, no gold ; and, if no gold, no ground for the accusation of Auguier.
But the other, more supernaturally inclined advocate got his say, too:
Turning on the court the night-side of nature, the spectre's advocate pointed out that the gist of Auguier's defence consisted of a narrow and senseless satire upon supernatural visitations, involving a most unauthorized assumption that such things did never occur. "Was it intended to contradict holy writ? To deny a truth attested by Scripture, by the Fathers of the Church, by very wide experience and testimony, finally, by the Faculty of Theology of Paris ? The speaker here adduced the appearance of the prophet Samuel at Endor (of which Le Brun remarked that it was, past question, a work commenced by the power of evil, but taken from his hand and completed by a stronger than he); that of the bodies of buried saints after our Lord's resurrection; and that of Saint Felix, who, according to Saint Augustine,' appeared to the besieged inhabitants of Nola. But, say that any doubts could rationally exist, were they not completely set at rest by a recent decision of the Faculty of Theology? "Desiring," says this enlightened decree, " to satisfy pious scruples, we have, after a very careful consideration of the subject, resolved that the spirits of the departed may and do, by supernatural power and divine licence, reappear unto the living." And this opinion was in conformity with that pronounced at Sorbonne two centuries before.
So the courtroom see-saw continued. Mirabel produced witnesses who had heard him speak of the ghost, and the gold, but none could definitively speak to Auguier’s involvement.

But, Spicer explains, the consensus seemed ever more that there had been a treasure--and “the scale was inclining, slowly and steadily, to the spectral side”--when things got, well, silly. Auguier discovered a new witness, who testified
that subsequently to the alleged delivery of the treasure into his hands, Mirabel had declared that it was still concealed in the ground, and had invited his two brothers-in-law from Pertuis to see it. Placing them at a little distance from the haunted spot, he made pretence of digging.but suddenly raising a white shirt, which he had attached to sticks placed crosswise, he rushed towards them, crying out, "The ghost! the ghost!" One of these unlucky persons died from the impressions engendered by this piece of pleasantry. The survivor delivered this testimony.
After which Mirabel’s case--and the law’s belief in this particular ghost--rapidly fell apart.

According to Spicer, as of his writing, that was the last case in which the existence of a ghost was the subject of legal and judicial inquiry.


  1. Congratulations on the Blog of Note! I love reading books, though I am more into non-fiction stuff.

  2. First time checking out your page. Great posts. I've recently began dabbling in fiction, have a story in the works and was wondering if you might be interested in taking a peak and letting me know what you think as a dedicated reader. Thanks.

  3. Hello Levi. What a fascinating obscurity. I found an amusing rave review of this book by the New York Times in 1872, where much of the book's 'stranger than fiction' appeal is attributed to the unique qualities of the French - "the combination of impulse and imagination".
    Very interesting blog, glad I came across it.

  4. Congrats on being a blog of note! Keep up the good reviews.

  5. I love that library, used to spend hours there just looking at the architecture :)

  6. I like reading book too

    ED Hardy


  7. CONGRATS on being chosen a BON!

    I like your blog!!

    Link Exchange?
    Common Cents

  8. I do so love a good ghost story and this one is particularly delicious! Keep up the good work! Jane x

  9. Anonymous8:44 AM

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  11. Franklin,
    Thanks for the pointer to that NYT review--it's great fun. I smiled when they also ascribed to that combination of impulse and imagination the "commission of a greater number of what may be called dramatic crimes in France than anywhere else."

    One thing I enjoyed about Spicer's book is that he just dives right into his cases--starting with the ghosts--with no preamble, no explanatory or introductory framework. He just has all these stories he's collected over the years that he's sure you'll enjoy, so he gets right down to it.

    Franchise, thanks for the comment, but I'm afraid I can't offer to look at your work. I'm swamped right now. But best of luck with your writing.