"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 15, 2016

Where There's a Will, There's a Ghost; Or, A Guide to Post-Mortem Estate Planning

Tombstone of James Chaffin and his wife, via Davie County Public Library

As is well-known to the two or three regular readers of this blog, I like ghosts, especially the ones with an ax to grind. I have also made clear my predilection for Weird Wills. Hand me a story that combines both these topics, and Strange Company is off to the races.

The central figure in our little tale is one James L. Chaffin, who was a farmer in Davie County, North Carolina. His family consisted of a wife, Rachel, and four sons, John, James "Pink" Pinkney, Marshall, and Abner. On November 16, 1905, James made out a will--signed by two witnesses--leaving his farm and all his other goods to his third son, Marshall, who was also appointed executor. His wife and the other sons were left nothing.  James' reasons for disinheriting them are unknown.

In the summer of 1921, James Chaffin suffered a serious fall, which led to his death on September 7 of that year. On September 24, Marshall obtained probate of his father's will. Although Mrs. Chaffin and the other boys were naturally displeased by the ungenerous terms of James' will, they saw no grounds for contesting the document.

Life for the Chaffin family was uneventful until June 1925. "Pink" Chaffin began having unusually vivid dreams about his father. In these visions, old James would suddenly appear by his bedside. At first, the spirit said nothing. Then, Pink dreamed he saw his father standing by his bed, wearing an old black overcoat James often wore in life. The wraith pulled back his overcoat and told him, "You will find my will in my overcoat pocket." James then vanished.

The next morning, Pink went to his mother's house in search of that coat. She told him she had given it to his brother John. Shortly afterwards, Pink visited John and retrieved the garment. He saw that the lining of an inside pocket had been sewn up. After cutting it open, he found a small roll of paper. On this was written, in old James' handwriting, "Read the 27th chapter of Genesis in my daddie's old Bible."

Genesis XXVII featured the story of Jacob deceiving his father Isaac and fraudulently obtaining Isaac's blessing which had been meant for the first-born son Esau. Pink immediately understood the significance of his discovery, as well as his need to document the find as thoroughly as possible. He accordingly went to a neighbor, Thomas Blackwelder. Pink told him the whole story, and asked Blackwelder to accompany him to his mother's house, as an objective witness.

When the two men arrived at Mrs. Chaffin's home, they found the old Bible, and turned the pages to Genesis. You may not be terribly surprised to learn that they found a second will of James Chaffin's, dated January 10, 1919. Old Chaffin wrote that he had been inspired to write this new testament after reading Genesis XXVII. The document divided his property equally among his four children, along with a request that the sons provide for their mother.

This will was not witnessed, and James--while he was alive, at least--had never mentioned its existence to anyone. However, under North Carolina law it would still be valid, providing that the courts were convinced that it was in James' handwriting. By the time this second will was discovered, Marshall Chaffin had died of heart disease. He left a widow, Susie, and young son, R.M. Chaffin, who were eager to contest this--to them--very inconvenient testament.

In December 1925, the case was scheduled to be heard at the Superior Court of Davie County. However, on the first day of the hearing, Susie Chaffin inspected the second will for the first time. She reluctantly had to admit that it was indeed in James Chaffin's handwriting. Ten other witnesses unhesitatingly agreed. With that, the dispute was immediately resolved with the second will being admitted to probate.

Two years later, a representative of the Society for Psychical Research, J. McN. Johnson, interviewed Pink Chaffin and his family. Johnson wrote afterwards that he was "much impressed with the evident sincerity of these people, who had the appearance of honest, honourable country people, in well-to-do circumstances." When Johnson suggested that perhaps one of the Chaffins had had prior "subconscious knowledge" of the second will, they responded that "Such an explanation is impossible. We never heard of the existence of the will till the visitation from my father's spirit."

So. Were the Chaffins lying about having no previous knowledge of this new will? If so, why did Pink wait four years before revealing its existence? Could he or one of his equally disenfranchised brothers have forged the will? If such was the case, it is remarkable that these unsophisticated farmers did a good enough job for Marshall's widow to concede it was genuine, when she had every incentive to argue otherwise.  And if the will was fake, why invent the implausible and unnecessary details about old James' ghost?

Or maybe this is just a lesson to us all: Before you die, be sure you have all your affairs in order if you wish to avoid having to make a return appearance among the living.


  1. It is strange that the second will was four years in coming, if it was a forgery - and a very good forgery at that. And, if it was a fake, then the perpetrator was certainly not vindictive. Even Marshall, who initially received everything, was given a share. If it was genuine but found accidentally by one of the sons, then why concoct a ghost story to explain its discovery? Would that have been less suspicious than merely finding a new will?

    A rather benevolent ghost story, really, and remarkable for the almost passive appearance of the spirit. Still, bad feelings seemed to have been avoided, so perhaps more ghosts should intervene in such cases.

  2. I can't help but believe this is exactly how it went down!

  3. It all works out rather too well, I think. It sounds like a story edited by a spiritualist to increase the size of his congregation. How cynical I've become!

  4. This reminds me of the Greenbrier Ghost. People are normally very scrutinizing and sceptical when it comes to people having ghostly visitations, but in both of these instances they are easily believed to be true.

  5. If they did fake the signature, they had four years to practice getting it right. (And this was before the distractions of TV and blog-reading.) I'd rather believe in the ghost, but I too have become cynical.


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