In most cases, ghost stories, #haunted houses, and paranormal activity are relegated to legend or lore. However, such a subjective (not to mention difficult to prove) topic has at least one lasting place in legal history. Across the Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River from Sleepy Hollow, the birthplace of Rip Van Winkle's Legend of the Headless Horsemen, lies the first legally haunted house in the United States.
Stambovsky v. Ackley, colloquially known as "The Ghostbusters Ruling", is a seminal trial that took place at 1 LaVeta Place in #Nyack, New York.
It is surprising that a Victorian home could be deemed "legally haunted" in the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow; the fact that it is near the legendary Sleepy Hollow is maybe less surprising. What makes this region particularly susceptible to otherworldly visitors, or is it just a coincidence? In order for a court to recognize a haunted house, how haunted must it be?
Lore of 1 LaVeta Place and the Ackley Family
One of #Nyack's most coveted cul-de-sacs is #LaVeta Place. The horizontal wood paneling on the three-story Victorian at number 1 dates back to 1890. Almost every room in the house has a gorgeous view of the river, which is set back behind a front lawn and elevated above it. A picturesque wraparound porch, a charming turret, and a fenced-in pool adorn this home. Four and a half bathrooms and eight bedrooms are inside. Despite the spaciousness, the home was designed to feel warm and cozy, carved out of larger rooms are small nooks and intimate spaces. Hardwood floors, elaborate moldings, and stained glass windows are some of the period details. In the 1960s, it went unoccupied for about a decade, and little is known about the early inhabitants. However, interviews with locals suggest it was likely home to a family still in the area. Why did things go so awry?
One LaVeta hasn't been the scene of any high-profile murders or tragedies. In the mid-1970s, Helen Ackley, wife of George Ackley and mother to four now adult children, wrote an article for Reader's Digest titled "Our Haunted House on the Hudson.". Her article described their many ghostly housemates during their happy time there.
Helen witnessed a man in Colonial or Revolutionary war attire emerge from the inside of the entryway as she was repainting it. George saw a pair of disembodied moccasin-clad feet walking above him from the hallway above the staircase he was standing in. As a high school student, Cynthia was regularly awakened by something shaking her bed, until she politely asked the room if she could sleep in her sleep in. The Ackleys welcomed what may seem alarming to most; they felt as if all the spirits were friendly, and they considered them family. Helen was greeted by children saying, "lady, you know you just purchased a haunted house, right?" when she first moved in.
Almost 25 years after the Ackleys moved to 1 LaVeta Place and 15 years after the article was published, documenting the haunted reputation of the house, Helen Ackley was ready to downsize. Thus, she decided to list the house with Richard Ellis of Ellis Realty. In a few days, Helen was delighted to receive an offer from Jeffrey and Patricia Stambovsky for just under $800,000.
Helen did disclose the haunted nature of the house in passing conversations (Ellis recalls her refusing to sign her contract until after talking to the Stambovskys about it), while the Stambovskys claim they found out about the local folklore through a contractor, and they wouldn't have bought the house. According to Jeffrey, he does not believe in ghosts, but he does believe in the market and that people who believe in ghosts can influence it.
'Ghostbusters Ruling': What Does It Mean?
Since these interactions weren't properly documented, we'll never know what the Stambovskys learned from Helen and Ellis. After Helen received the down payment, the Stambovskys notified her they wanted out, and a lawsuit was filed against her for fraud (i.e., not mentioning the ghosts). As well as Helen's haunted house stories, Stambovsky argued they devalued the property, but the court dismissed the complaint.
The state of New York operated under caveat emptor (which means "Buyer Beware" in Latin). Before purchasing a property, it is the buyer's responsibility to do their due diligence and ask any questions they may have. Adding a clairvoyant to the list of roadblocks and players in homeownership is just another challenge, according to the judge in that ruling.
After being dissatisfied with the decision, the Stambovskys appealed to the New York State Supreme Court. As a result, Justice Rubin and two other judges disagreed with the former dismissal and formed the majority opinion that "buyer beware" should be set aside in this case due to the fact that the defect isn't physical. As a result, the seller should disclose things like a crime or a reputation based on past events in the area that devalue the market value of the stigmatized property. Helen could not deny or change the folklore under oath since she openly promoted it to the press and the community. According to the court's decision, "[the ghosts'] existence was reported in two national publications as well as in the local press... so defendant cannot deny their existence."
The court did not set a precedent because, in Goldman's view, Helen owed the Stambovskys that same level of promotional effort because of her conduct prior to the litigation. "I think the judge looked at it as a one-time type of ruling," trying to come up with a solution that was fair and equitable for both parties. According to him, while the court interpreted the standard as if the house were haunted, that particular line in the court opinion is among the most remarkable statements I have ever heard from a court, since ghost stories are not typically heard in courtrooms, especially not as verifiable evidence.
Goldman said the new interpretation of property disclosure laws has been in effect for only a few months, but it appears in many of the courses he teaches at Santa Clara University, such as those on contract law, advertising law, and property law. As buyers have much more access to information about prospective properties in the digital age, things may shake out differently.
1 LaVeta Place has changed hands frequently in the past few years. Ellis believes it's because of the energy there. He believes it's not important to disclose the alleged haunting. However, none of the subsequent owners, including notable public figures, have reported ghosts. Adam Brooks, who co-wrote the screenplay for Practical Magic, lived in the house in the late 1990s. Ingrid Michaelson lived in it after him until she sold it in 2015 for $1.9 million. Ghosts weren't blamed for leaving, and she never mentioned anything paranormal. In addition to Matisyahu, another resident lived there for four years until 2019. Clearly, the home attracts some talented creatives, including Helen Ackley, a writer herself.