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Ghosts, Spirits, and the Multistate Bar Examination

Matthew Paul Smith-Marin


  • This article addresses various legal cases involving supernatural or paranormal elements and their relevance to legal principles that law students may encounter on the Multistate Bar Exam.
  • These cases illustrate how the law navigates complex and unusual situations related to the supernatural and emotional distress, offering insights into legal principles and their application in unique circumstances.
Ghosts, Spirits, and the Multistate Bar Examination

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Many things can cause fear: the dark, ghosts, the future, and the unknown, to name a few. As a law student, especially one close to graduation, you may feel apprehension or terror because of the bar exam.

As with all fears, though, be proactive and confront them in the best way possible. Be prepared and master your craft. One of the best places to start is to know your opponent and one of them is the Multistate Bar Examination, used by all jurisdictions except Louisiana. The MBE comprises 175 scored multiple-choice questions from seven subject areas: civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, and torts.

To help conquer your fears of things that go bump in the night, check out these past cases that center around ghosts, spirits, and hauntings involving commonly tested MBE topics.

Jurisdiction over Satan

You should know that personal jurisdiction involves a court’s ability to exercise power over a particular defendant or item of property. There are three types: in personam (power over the person of a particular defendant), in rem (power over a particular item of property), and quasi in rem (power to determine whether particular individuals own property within the court’s control).

You may also remember that Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 23 states that the named representatives of a class will be allowed to sue or be sued on behalf of a class if four elements are met.

In United States ex rel. Mayo v. Satan and his Staff, Gerald Mayo filed a federal civil rights action against Satan and his minions. The court first questioned whether it had personal jurisdiction over the defendant—there was no allegation that Satan nor his staff resided in the district.

The court also noted that there was only one unofficial account of a trial in New Hampshire invoking Satan. It was a mortgage foreclosure action brought by Satan, but the defendant asserted that the plaintiff was a foreign prince with no standing to sue in an American court.

Regarding whether the action could be maintained as a class action, the court acknowledged that the class was numerous, there were questions of law and fact common to the class, and the claims of the representative party were typical of the claims of the class. However, the court couldn’t determine if the representative party would fairly protect the interests of the class.

Finally, in dismissing, the court also concluded that the plaintiff didn’t include the required instructions and directions for service on the devil and his minions.

Spiritual Readings as Religion

It’s key to remember that the First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing someone based on the person’s religious beliefs. In addition, the Tenth Amendment allows states to enact regulations and laws for their inhabitants' health, safety, morals, and general welfare.

In McMasters v. State, Mrs. McMasters provided an alleged spiritualistic reading during a trance. In exchange for $1, she told Bessie Jones that Bessie would receive a good job offer, take a trip, meet two men, and ultimately marry a wealthy man.

Subsequently, McMasters was prosecuted under an Oklahoma statute stating that it’s “unlawful . . . to tell fortunes . . . either by palmistry, clairvoyance or otherwise . . . to make any charge therefor either directly or indirectly . . . .” She defended asserting her First Amendment rights and claiming the state had no authority over her actions.

The court held that McMasters wasn’t practicing a religion but rather mere philosophy or metaphysical speculation. In addition, even if what McMasters was practicing were categorized as a religion, religious liberty doesn’t include the right to carry out every scheme a person sees fit—her actions would still be subject to laws and police regulations enacted for the general public welfare.

A promise to Heal by Conjuring

You must know how parties form a contract. There must be a valid offer, acceptance, and consideration. Consideration generally requires a bargained-for exchange, and consideration must have value in the eyes of the law. It has been held that love and affection and conjuring have no legal value.

In Cooper v. Livingston, John Roberts gave a $250 promissory note to Mrs. McGruder, a fortune teller, in exchange for doctoring by conjuring. After John’s passing, his widow, Louisa, sued for breach of the promissory note. At trial, Luisa testified that, during the last few weeks of her husband’s life, Mrs. McGruder wasn’t present as a doctor.

McGruder had come on her own accord, Luisa asserted, representing that she could cure John with conjuring and incantations. Louisa further testified that McGruder once gave John a dose of turpentine and oil Louisa provided, and McGruder never did anything else to nurse John.

When determining whether conjuring had value in the eyes of the law, the court stated, “[c]onjuration signifies a plot or compact made by persons combining by oath to do any public harm, [and] was more specially used for [] having personal influence with the devil or some evil spirit.” It further stated that a person who practiced conjuring pretends to know the secret art of the supernatural or extraordinary and is aided by superior powers—in other words, they’re imposters who pretend by unknown means.

Thus, the court held that conjuring over a sick man to make him well wasn’t a valid consideration for the $250 promissory note.

A Ghost as a Competent Witness

Common-law murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. You should also recall other types of homicide, including statutory homicide and the Model Penal Code definitions.

You may be surprised to know that there’s a case in which a ghost's testimony helped convict the murderer. Known as the Greenbrier Ghost, Zona Heaster Shue, in life, eloped and wed Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue. Subsequently, Zona was found dead.

Originally, no charges were brought against Erasmus until Zona appeared to her mother as a ghost and told the mother what happened. At trial, Zona’s mother testified that “[Zona] came back and told me that [Erasmus] was mad that she didn’t have no meat cooked for supper . . . but the second night she told me that her neck was squeezed off at the first joint and it was just as she told me.”

An hour after the close of arguments, the jury returned a first-degree murder verdict, and Erasmus was sentenced to life in prison.

A Witness Admits to Seeing Spirits

Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 601 states, “[e]very person is competent to be a witness unless these rules provide otherwise.” Be sure to know the four basic qualifications a witness must possess to be deemed competent to testify. If a witness is deficient in one or more of these categories, generally, that goes to the weight of their testimony or credibility.

How do ghosts and spirits play into a witness’s credibility? Take Bueno v. State, where Juan Medina Bueno was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. On appeal, one of his defenses was that the evidence to convict him was legally insufficient because the complainant believed she saw ghosts and spirits, implying that she couldn’t distinguish fiction from fact.

During the trial, the complainant’s therapist testified that she wasn’t concerned with the complainant admitting to seeing spirits because “the spirits ‘were not threatening to her, were not telling her to do things, [and] were not creating a scary environment.’”

The court noted that the trier of fact was the sole judge of credibility. Because it had found her credible, the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict.

Disclosing the Poltergeists

You’ve likely encountered the Latin phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). The doctrine requires that a buyer act prudently to assess the value and fitness of a property. Under the common law, the seller generally has no duty to disclose any information regarding the premises. However, nondisclosure of a fact can be the equivalent of an assertion if needed to prevent a prior assertion from being a misrepresentation, fraudulent, or material.

In the famous Ghostbusters ruling of Stambovsky v. Ackley, Helen Ackley publicly asserted that her Queen Anne Victorian in Nyack, New York, had poltergeists. She reported in both a national publication and the local press that ghosts slammed doors, walked the halls, and regularly shook beds.

Ackley sold the home to Jeffrey Stambovsky without disclosing that the house was haunted. When Stambovsky learned of the phantasmal reputation of the home, he sought rescission of the contract and return of his deposit.

The court noted that, generally, there’s no duty to disclose that a house is haunted. However, Ackley had deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed—in other words, she actively used the fact that the house was haunted as a marketing tool. Thus, Ackley’s nondisclosure to Stambovsky amounted to an assertion and a duty to disclose.

Emotional Distress by Publication

Make sure to review your intentional torts, one, of course, being intentional infliction of emotional distress. To prove the prima facie case, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant either had the intent to or was reckless in causing the plaintiff severe emotional distress. The plaintiff must also prove an act by the defendant that was extreme and outrageous conduct that caused the plaintiff severe emotional distress.

In Loft v. Fuller, Dorothy Loft and her children brought suit when Captain Loft (their late husband and father) was killed in the Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crash. Subsequently, Captain Loft was described as a ghost in The Ghost of Flight 401 by John Fuller.

The plaintiffs contended that they suffered emotional distress because the novel implied that they were the wife and children of a ghost. They further argued that the elements of the tort were met because Fuller didn’t attempt to secure permission from them, though he did receive permission from the widow of another crew member who also perished in the crash.

The court held that Fuller’s actions didn’t arise to conduct that exceeded all bounds that could be tolerated and weren’t calculated to cause serious mental damage.