Free Press Ghost Case — Manitoba justice said

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

On December 14, 1906, Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Justice Daniel Alexander Macdonald issued his ruling on what had become known to the public as the Free Press Ghost Case.

“This is an action unique in the annals of British courts of justice,” said Macdonald, “and a thorough research fails to disclose one of a parallel character.”

Macdonald refuted much of the testimony of the witnesses for Rachzel Nagy, the plaintiff, who sued the Manitoba Free Press Company for $10,000 in damages following the publication of the brief article, A Ghost in the North End of the City, which originally appeared in the morning edition of the Winnipeg newspaper on October 23, 1905, and was repeated in two later editions.

After reading the article, Nagy claimed people came to her St. John’s Avenue home near Main Street to seek out the alleged ghost, and in their enthusiasm damaged her property, smashing windows and doors and creating general mayhem in and around the premises. The article’s appearance in the newspaper significantly depreciated her property’s value, which she had been attempting to sell at the time, Nagy added.

“One can imagine in the days of conjurations, enchantments and witchcraft when these and like superstitions were rife,” said the justice, “actions founded on such a statement as contained in the article in question being in evidence, yet we find none, but in this enlightened age and generation and in this modern city of Winnipeg to find that such an article is a slander should be a calumny upon its people.

“Assuming, however, that the article in question is actionable, I find myself unable to saddle the damages upon the defendant company.

“People were attracted to the house in question for causes not explained, for some time previous to the entry in the Occurrence Book kept by the police, the house being left open as stated by Dr. Kelly, would be a convenient resort for vagabonds and tramps and the hour of night when people gathered would be the likely time for such a retreat being used.”

Following the reading of his statement, Macdonald dismissed the plaintiff’s suit.

But that wasn’t the end of the Free Press Ghost Case, as the plaintiff appealed Justice Macdonald’s ruling.

The appeal was heard in court on April 8, 1907, nearly two years after the original newspaper article had been published. By that time, it had become the “famous” Free Press Ghost Case.

Manitoba Court of Appeal justices J.A. Richards and Frank Hedley Phippen overturned Justice Macdonald’s earlier decision and ruled in favour of Nagy, awarding her $1,000 in damages as well as court costs. Justice William Perdue expressed a dissenting opinion, but by the rules of the court, the 2-1 decision was enough to award damages to the plaintiff.

Justice Richards said it was impossible to prove that the house was not haunted as claimed by the plaintiff.

“The very nature of a ghost, as understood by superstitious people, is that of a phantom appearing at rare intervals,” said Richards. “Unless, therefore, we hold that the courts should take judicial cognizance of the fact that ghosts do not exist, the falsity of the statement could never be absolutely proved. I think that the members of the court may, and as educated men should, assume that there are no such things as ghosts, and that therefore the statement is necessarily false.”

Richards said the reporter who wrote the story and the sub-editor who approved its publication must have known the story claiming the existence of a ghost was false, and ... “must be held to have done so without reasonable justification or excuse, and to render their employers, the defendant company, liable for the natural results of such publication, even though, as in this case, that result was unforeseen by those causing the publication, and no malice whatever existed.”

Richards said there had been physical damage to the property caused by  curious people after the newspaper story was published as well as the “cost incurred by the plaintiff in protecting the house from injury by excited superstitious people.

“The fact that superstitious people would be likely to assemble at the house, and when so assembling would likely make trouble, is something that would have occurred to the reporter and sub-editor had they taken time to remember that, while they themselves and other people of the educated class, would only treat such a report as jocular or harmlessly contemptuous, the more ignorant of humanity through reading it be naturally and readily aroused to commit such overt acts as happened in this case.”

The two justices agreed that the value of the house had been depreciated by the story, but they said the damage was not permanent, as the Free Press Ghost Case would soon be forgotten.

Here’s where the ruling becomes rather bizarre. After announcing the court’s 2-1 decision to award Nagy $1,000 in damages, Richards said that it was an “eminently proper case to be appealed to the supreme court, owing to so much that is involved being new to law.”

The Manitoba Free Press Company took the justice’s advice and shortly thereafter appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Once again A.B. Hudson was involved in the judicial process as an attorney for the defence, although this time he was assisted by lawyer John Ewart instead of J. Hilliard Leach. They based their appeal on seven points, which included no action could be brought for the slander of real property; the onus was on the plaintiff to prove the story was false; malice in the story had to be proven; there was a need for the plaintiff to prove special damage arising from the article; no reasonable person could apprehend any damage from such a story; the evidence showed the plaintiff was not the owner of the property; the Manitoba Court of Appeal had no jurisdiction to order damages; and the amount awarded was “a mere guess and cannot be upheld.”

J.E. O’Connor appeared on behalf of Nagy and argued that the falsity of the report had been proven and the defendants must have been aware the article was false, which gives rise to the presumption of malice and a careless disregard of the consequences of publishing the story.

“We might cite Aesop’s fable of the boys throwing stones at the frogs,” said O’Connor. “We suffered actual damages for their amusement (the newspaper’s), and they must be held responsible for the consequences of their reckless indifference, their neglect to verify the truth of the rumour before publication, their bad faith and unjustifiable, officious and unnecessary meddling in affairs that did not concern them.”

He called the article “an unwarranted and harmful intrusion into public affairs.”

In presenting their cases for their respective clients, the plaintiff and defendant lawyers cited a myriad of legal precedents to the supreme court justices. In turn, the justices cited their own legal precedents to uphold their judgement.

Whatever their arguments, the lawyers for the Free Press could not sway the supreme court justices, who upheld the Manitoba Court of Appeal ruling by 4-1. The only dissenting opinion came from Justice Sir Charles Fitzpatrick. 

The opinions expressed by the supreme court justices when upholding the earlier court of appeal decision were scathing toward the newspaper.

“In the recklessness and indifference these facts display,” said Justice John Idington, “I find abundant evidence of malice and hence a legal remedy for such a palpable wrong.”

The justice said the newspaper perverted the purpose of the entry in the police report, which was designed to dissuade crowds from gathering around the Nagy house. Idington said the newspaper had “dressed up the original entry in such a way as to distort the statements it contained, by making them positive instead of being colourless as they stood, and by expanding, and adding to them so as to render the publication more attractive, more sensational, and more damaging — and then published it.”

Justice Sir Henry Davies supported the decision, saying the plaintiff’s property had been proven to have depreciated in value.

“In the case at (the) bar I think the evidence only admits of one conclusion and that is that the article complained of was false and was published by defendant recklessly without regard to consequences, and that in this may be found the absence of good faith which imports the malice which is the condition of liability,” he added.

After suffering such scathing criticism one would have thought the Free Press and other newspapers would have desisted from printing other ghost stories, but this was far from the case. What newspapers learned from the Nagy suit was that they simply had to be a little more careful in their reporting. 

The original Manitoba Free Press article went astray from the beginning by leading with a statement of alleged fact: “There is a ghost in the north end of the city ...,” and continued the article in the same vein without citing sources of what can only be a “belief” that the house was haunted. Actually, the police entry contained the comment, the house was “believed by some people to be haunted at night between 11 and 12 midnight.” Citing the police as the source of the belief and why the entry was made in the first place would have been more than adequate to avoid future litigation. 

The newspaper could have also dug more deeply and found others who “didn’t believe” the house was haunted, including homeowner Nagy. 

An August 13, 1907, article, entitled Freak Libel Decisions, indicated the Free Press was not fully convinced it was at fault. The newspaper briefly remarked it had been “successfully prosecuted because of a humorous story  of a haunted house was held to have injured the landlord.” 

The newspaper claimed, “Some of the libel laws in this country are pretty bad ... A printed statement is libelous if it tends to provoke a breach of the peace, and in that case the libel is criminal. Or it may injure some person in reputation or estate, in which case the remedy is civil action. Further than that our laws, with all their faults, do not go.”

The Supreme Court of Canada judgement did nothing to hinder the continued reporting of ghost stories. In fact, Winnipeg soon after gained an international reputation as an alleged favoured haunting place for unearthly spirits. 

Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton’s delving into paranormal activity attracted the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes. The world-famous author arrived in Winnipeg on Canada Day 1923 to take part in a number of seances, including an attempt to contact the spirits of the deceased at the home of Dr. Hamilton on Henderson Highway.

At the Walker Theatre, 1,800 people gathered to hear Doyle present a discourse on spiritualism. In his book, Our Second Adventure to America, Doyle expressed enthusiasm about local psychic manifestations during the seances he attended. He wrote, Winnipeg “stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities. There are several Spiritualist churches and a number of local mediums of good repute.”

Spiritualism gained strength and more adherents with the end of the First World War, as aggreived relatives sought out a way to rekindle an association with their kin prematurely struck down on the battlefield. Mothers and fathers, such as Doyle and his wife, wanted to contact the spirits of the dearly departed in order to believe their sons and daughters had gone to a better place and their sacrifices were not in vain.

They were people who did not have to be persuaded to believe in spectres, but who wanted to be presented with an excuse to believe, which was satisfied by the proliferation of so-called mediums who professed to have the ability to contact the dead.

The problem, as discovered by famed illusionist and magician Harry Houdini — who wanted to believe in spiritualism to contact his beloved dead mother — was that he could easily duplicate all the “magic” tricks used by the mediums to trigger “spirit” bells, tip tables, sound horns, create “ectoplasmic” photos, etc. 

Houdini in the 1920s became the scourge of the best-known mediums, uncovering each one he investigated as a fraud.

The very nature of how ghosts or spirits are perceived to haunt the earth makes it impossible to prove their existence. In the end, acceptance of their presence is a reflection of an individual’s belief system, as all tales of alleged haunted houses or other paranormal activity are found in the realm of narration and anecdotal evidence.

Facts have no bearing on the existence of ghosts, which is why the justice originally involved in Nagy vs. Manitoba Free Press Company and the ensuing appeal court and supreme court justices avoided ruling on the subject when pronouncing their judgements.