Tales of haunted houses are generally found in collections of ghost stories, journals devoted to psychic phenomena, and Gothic novels. Finding one enshrined in legal history is a rare treat. Such was the unusual honor given to the Nyack, New York home of Helen Ackley.
From the time when Ackley first moved into her 18-room Victorian estate overlooking the Hudson River, she knew it was inhabited by ghosts. Light fixtures would mysteriously sway back and forth. Spectral footsteps could be heard throughout the estate. These unusually generous poltergeists would sometimes even leave little items dating from the Victorian era for the Ackley family, such as a silver ring and sugar tongs. In the mornings, the ghosts would act as alarm clocks, shaking the beds of the Ackley children when it was time for them to get up. (On one occasion, Helen's daughter Cynthia loudly informed the ghosts that she was on spring break, so she did not need to get up early. The bed-shaking stopped.)
"It is an ongoing thing," Ackley said in 1982. "After 15 years here, I'm not afraid. They are very friendly, and I have no desire to get rid of them. After all, they've probably been here a lot longer than I have." Ackley came to think of the ghosts almost as family. "I feel that they are very good friends," she commented. "It's very comforting to have them around when you are by yourself." She believed that the ghosts consisted of a young Revolutionary-era naval lieutenant, a young woman, and an older man in Colonial-era clothing. Ackley took a certain pride in living in a haunted house. In May 1977, she even wrote a "Reader's Digest" article about her friends the spooks.
Life went on very pleasantly for the Ackleys and their ghost tenants until August 1989, when the family put the house up for sale. It quickly found a buyer in one Jeffrey Stambovsky, who made a down payment of $32, 500 for the $650,000 house. It was only then that Stambovsky learned he was also buying a trio of ghosts.
Stambovsky, sadly, did not share Ackley's affection for poltergeists. He had a narrow-minded aversion against being haunted. In short, while he had no general prejudice against houseguests, he insisted that they all be very much alive. The disgruntled buyer, declaring that he was the victim of "ectoplasmic fraud," filed suit asking that his contract to purchase the house be canceled. For good measure, he sued Ackley and her realtor for fraudulent representation. After all, as one of Stambovsky's lawyers pointed out, others might not share Ackley's harmonious relations with the ghosts. "They might not like it if she moves." Another of the plaintiff's attorneys added, "Would you want to bump into George Washington in the middle of the night?"
In March 1990, State Supreme Court Justice Edward Lehner sided with the defendants. He ruled that Ackley was under no legal obligation to tell Stambovsky the house was haunted. Lehner stated that Stambovsky, in trying to get out of his contract, was in default and not entitled to the return of his down payment. "It is clear that in New York the doctrine of caveat emptor still holds sway in real estate transactions," Lehner said. Although he acknowledged that a house's reputation could affect its market value, Ackley was not required to disclose "her beliefs with respect to supernatural inhabitants, nor to disclose the articles written about her house." Ackley, who planned to move to Florida, told reporters that she would be happy to take the ghosts off Stambovsky's hands. "If they want to come with me, I'd be glad to have them," she said cheerfully.
Stambovsky appealed the decision. The Appellate Division of New York's Supreme Court agreed with him. In July 1991, they ruled that Stambovsky could sue to recover his deposit. The court said that Ackley "had deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed," and had "no less a duty" to tell buyers about the ghosts. The court pointed out that although the doctrine of "caveat emptor" would normally apply, ghosts were not a condition that any potential buyer could be expected to ascertain upon normal inspection of the property. "The most meticulous inspection and the search would not reveal the presence of poltergeists at the premises or unearth the property's ghoulish reputation in the community." Additionally, Ackley had obviously not delivered on her promise to leave the premises "vacant." "As a matter of law," the court sternly ruled, "the house is haunted." Stambovsky eventually got back half his deposit.
Ackley, who had since sold the home to another buyer and was now living in Orlando, sadly told reporters that her pet ghosts had not followed her to Florida. "I guess they decided to stay where they were," she sighed. "They did seem pretty put out when we left." After Helen died in 2003, her son-in-law predicted that her spirit would return to Nyack and her ghost friends. Unfortunately, the subsequent owners of the house have not reported any spirit activity. It is unrecorded if they are relieved or disappointed.
The lesson to be learned here is obvious: as the state of New York has ruled that ghosts legally exist, if your house is haunted, make sure any potential buyers know about it well in advance. Do not be shy about your ghosts. Proudly shout the news about this extra added attraction from the rooftops.
Helen Ackley learned the hard way that there is one thing much scarier than any phantom: Lawyers.