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The Ghost of Nyack
The Court Case

Taxes in Rockland County started going out of control, as had the property values. Helen decided to sell the house in 1989. She wanted to move to a warmer climate of Texas or Florida. It was a soft real estate market, especially for expensive houses. The house sat on the market for a while. 

I moved my family out to Oregon in the middle of 1990. It had seemed that Helen had a buyer. But the buyer later backed out. This made national headlines in mid-1991 with a New York Supreme Court Case. The court case involved a couple who put money into escrow to purchase the house ($32,000). Later the couple backed out of the contract when they discovered the house was haunted. The money in escrow than came into play. It took a couples of year in the courts, but later the courts decided to split the money. The court stated Buyer Beware and that hauntings qualify as a pre-existing condition therefore must be disclosed to potential buyers. 

The following article was found on the internet and has been posted here without the authors permission, however the copyright and credits were left in tack. This article deals with the sale of the house in Nyack and the court case that surrounded it. If you want to find an update about the house, turn to the next page.

Ex Ghost Facto

by D. Trull
Enigma Editor
dtrull@parascope.com

In the course of studying the paranormal, you hear a lot about the improbable overlapping of unexplained phenomena and the law, particularly from people grasping to justify their weird beliefs by appealing to legal authority. "A psychic detective helped police catch a killer -- that proves psychics are real!" Or "There's a law saying that Bigfoot is an endangered species -- that means Bigfoot is real!"

Most of these statutory stories of strangeness turn out to be strictly hearsay and hogwash. But there is at least one case of paranormal jurisprudence that's absolutely bona fide, although it takes a bit of explaining to get to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: the New York State Appellate Court has ruled that it is illegal to sell a haunted house without disclosing to the buyer that it is haunted.

The dubious decision stems from the 1990 contested sale of an old Victorian mansion in Nyack, New York. Buyers Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky paid Helen Ackley a down payment of $32,500 on her asking price of $650,000 for the house, which is said to resemble the Munsters' home at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Despite its mysterious and spooky appearance, the Stambovskys were altogether unaware of the house's supernatural ill repute until a local architect happened to say, "Oh, you're buying the haunted house."

This turned out to be much more than a superstitious rumor spread by neighborhood kids. Mrs. Ackley herself claimed her home was haunted, and had spent years actively promoting it as one of the top ghost hangouts in the country. She described the multitude of spirits dwelling in the house for a number of articles in local and nationwide publications including Reader's Digest, discussing at length a "cheerful, apple-cheeked" ghost she had seen, as well as others "dressed in Revolutionary period clothing." Ackley even had the premises featured as one of five homes in a "haunted house" walking tour of Nyack. It seems she never was shy toward anyone about how haunted the place was, until she decided to put it up for sale and move to Florida.

Jeffrey Stambovsky was not terribly disturbed to learn of the alleged disturbances in his prospective new home, but Patrice was completely spooked. She was unwilling to live in a haunted house, and the couple tried to back out of the unreal real estate deal. Refusing to admit any negligence or wrongdoing on her part, Ackley would not cancel the sale or return the deposit.

"We were the victims of ectoplasmic fraud," Mr. Stambovsky said. Heeding the sage advice of Doug Llewellyn, the couple didn't take the metaphysical law into their own hands -- they took it to court. As might be expected, the Stambovskys lost the first round, with the court citing their caveat emptor responsibility to uncover defects in the property before committing to a sale.

But they persevered with an appeal to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, and this time, in a narrow 3-2 decision, they won.

The court found that Ackley "had deliberately fostered the belief that her home was possessed by ghosts," as Justice Israel Rubin wrote for the majority, and she was therefore at fault for not telling the buyers about this attribute of the house. "Not being a 'local,'" Rubin continued, "plaintiff could not readily learn that the home he had contracted to purchase is haunted."

The court considered the difficulties involved with supposing that a buyer should have to make such determinations for himself prior to purchase. Delineating this conundrum, Justice Rubin was moved to dazzling heights of tongue-in-cheek legalspeak:

"[A] very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: 'Who you gonna call?' as a title song to the movie Ghostbusters asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineers and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest."

The court's decision also took into account the very tangible impact of the house's "hauntedness" upon its property value. Because of Ackley's avid publicizing, ghost hunters from across the country would be seeking it out for years to come, and even creeping around in the yard on package tours. Not exactly conditions for maximum resale appreciation.

"Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller are parapsychic or psychogenic," Justice Rubin wrote, "having reported their presence in both a national publication and the local press, defendant is estopped to deny their existence, and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted."

Ooh! Ahh! Look, look, a perfect soundbite from an important legal dude, juicy and ripe for plucking out of context! In the end, the buyers got their deposit back, and the seller successfully unloaded the dump on someone else, despite (or possibly because of?) being forced to make its spectral residents manifestly known. But the greater legacy of Stambovsky v. Ackley will ever be its unending citation in ghost stories and urban legends, a twisted precedent writ large in the pages of haunting lore. "A judge said some house was haunted -- that means hauntings are real!"

A discouraging thought... although, perhaps more to the point, anyone who believes the legal system bears much meaningful connection to reality has got more serious issues of delusion to deal with.


Source: "Caveat Specter" by Tim Madigan, CSICOP Skeptical Briefs, June 1995.

(c) Copyright 1997 ParaScope, Inc.

For an update about the house, turn to the next page.

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Ghost of Nyack: Background; Court Case; Update
Page last edited on: 12/24/09
 

 

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