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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Helen Ackley's Haunted House on the Hudson


By Robin M. Strom-Mackey

“’Ackley is estopped to deny their existence and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted (The Honorable Israel Rubin, N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 1991)(Trull, Kachuba).’” 

 The Ackley’s Haunted House on the Hudson

When George and Helen Ackley purchased a rambling 18 room Victorian on the end of a dead-end street in Nyack, New York, they undoubtedly knew that they would have a challenge on their hands.  The ramshackle mansion measuring some 5000 square feet, not including full attic and basement, which afforded a view of the Hudson River, had been standing vacant for seven years.  The old house, which sits 20 miles north of New York City, must have seemed like a wonderful place to bring up the family’s several children. Granted, pesky neighborhood children warned the family as they were moving in that their house was reputedly haunted.  That didn’t stop the family from taking up residence.  And it was soon after moving in, according to Helen Ackley, that the family realized the house was inhabited by a host of rambunctious spirits whose acquaintance the Ackley’s were soon to make.

During her tenure there, Helen Ackley made no secret that she believed the house to be haunted by “poltergeists.”  She even went so far as to write and submit her own article to Readers’ Digest describing the haunting experiences.  Unfortunately, the 1977 article by Helen Ackley entitled “My Haunted House on the Hudson” is difficult to locate, as the library system in Delaware only retained magazines starting from the 1980’s..  However, an article by Helen Ackley’s son-in-law is still available online.

The second husband of the Ackley’s daughter, Cynthia, recounts second-hand sources and describes his own experiences in the house in the article entitled, “The Ghost of Nyack.”   Mark Kavanagh, makes no excuses for the area’s haunted history noting that Tarrytown is directly across the river.   Just outside of Tarrytown is the famous Sleepy Hollow, the area made famous by the Washington Irving story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Kavanagh notes that many of Irving’s stories were based on legends originating around the lower Hudson Valley, an area of reputed paranormal activity.

The Ackley’s Unseen Guests

Even before the family moved in, according to Ackley, a plumber working in the basement reported hearing footsteps on the floor above him when no one else was in the house. On windless days light cords would swing for no apparent reason, and then stop in mid-swing, defying gravity.  Apparently a set of French doors was also known to burst open for no apparent reason. Guests of the family were often surprised when windows would slide up on their own.  And, of course, the ubiquitous voices and ghostly footsteps were reported. Helen Ackley enjoyed telling the story about seeing a ghost who looked on with approval, as she painted the living room. The spirit, she felt, approved of the color choice.

Cynthia Ackley, Kavanagh’s wife, reported that her bed would often shake on school days seconds before the bedside alarm was set to go off.  When spring break arrived, Cynthia informed the ghost before going to bed that tomorrow was spring break and she did not have to get up early.  Reportedly, the bed did not shake that morning, allowing the young student to sleep in.

Helen Ackley told stories of “gifts” that appeared and then disappeared. Cynthia Ackley apparently received a pair of silver sugar tongs.  The grandchildren received baby rings. An older brother’s wife received coins.

Ackley went on the say that three ghosts had from time to time been observed about the house.  The trio included a woman in a red cloak who was often witnessed descending the stairs, a sailor in a powdered wig and an elderly man who was often seen levitating four feet off the floor in the living room. Ackley believed all three spirits were from the Revolutionary War era. She went on to describe one of the ghosts as being, “cheerful” and “apple cheeked,” noting he reminded her of Santa Claus.

The family took their houseguests in stride.  Ackley is quoted in the Reader’s Digest Story as saying, the ghosts have always been, “’gracious, thoughtful – only occasionally frightening – and thoroughly entertaining…Our ghosts have continued to delight us (Perkins, 2003).’”

Apparently the sprawling structure became somewhat of a family compound, with adult children moving in with their spouses and children.  Kavanagh reports that he moved into the house with his fiancé several months before their marriage.  Supposedly the spirits were concerned with Kavanagh’s fitness for marriage to Cynthia, and decided to check him out.  He recounts the first instance on Christmas Eve. He had been left alone in the house to put together toys for the younger children.  According to Kavanagh, “…I kept hearing muffled conversation coming from the dining room,” which was around the wall from the living room. He reports that he got up and inspected the dining room several times, finding no one.  Beyond the muffled conversation he also felt a compelling sensation that he was being watched.  In response he turned on every available light, but to no effect. The low sound of talking continued, unnerving the poor man, until his future brother-in-law started pounding on the front door; a resounding sound that nearly sent young Kavanagh out of his skin in alarm (Kavanagh, 2010).

The second encounter for Kavanagh occurred in the bedroom he shared with his fiancé Cynthia.  Apparently Cynthia was already asleep. Kavanagh, who was drifting, was lying on his side with his back to the door. He recounts hearing the door creek as if opening and then hearing the floor boards squeaking as if someone was approaching the bed. Rather abruptly he felt the bed depress near his trunk as if someone had suddenly sat down; and then a pressure as if that same someone was leaning against his torso. He tried to turn his head around to see who had come in. He reports seeing, “a womanly figure in a soft dress through the moonlight of the bay windows. I felt she was looking straight at me. After about a minute the presence got up and walked back out of the room (Kavanagh, 2010).” Not being acquainted with such nocturnal visitors, he reports then shaking his fiancé awake and acting like a toddler who, “just had a nightmare (Kavanagh).”

Taxes, Spooks and New York City Buyers

According to Kavanagh’s article, in the late 1980’s property taxes rose in Rockland County egregiously, making keeping the family home on a fixed income inconceivable.  George Ackley had passed away several years before and the widow, Helen, began to dream of warm winters spent in Florida.  Ackley put up the old estate on the market at an asking price of $650,000 and a New York City buyer decided to nibble.  Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky put in an accepted offer, and paid Helen Ackley $32,500 as a down payment.  Unfortunately, the Stambovsky’s were from New York City where Jeffrey was a bond trader.  Not being up on local lore, they had no prior knowledge of the property’s haunted reputation.

A local architect was the “nosy neighbor” in this case, telling the Stambovsky’s that they were buying the “haunted house.”  According to later court documents, Jeffrey Stambovsky told the court that he himself didn’t believe in such things, but felt his pregnant wife would not be comfortable in the home. The Stambovsky’s did not appear at the house closing making the agreement null and void.  However, that also meant that Helen Ackley would retain the earnest money.  Ackley refused to return the money and the Stambovsky’s took her to court. 

Historic Courtroom Decision: Stambovsky vs. Ackley

The first court decision sided with Ackley citing caveat emptor (or buyer beware) as just cause for not returning the deposit.  Stambovsky then appealed the case to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court where a panel of five judges heard the case.

Stambovsky told the justices "My feeling is that Mrs. Ackley is a very neat old lady who likes to spin tales. But if my wife is influenced enough by that stuff to feel uncomfortable, that's a good enough reason not to sink our life savings into the place."  He concluded that they had been the victims of “ectoplasmic fraud (Maull, 1991).”

A narrow 3 to 2 decision sided with the Stambovsky’s. Justice Israel Rubin who wrote the majority decision whimsically declared that Helen Ackley had promised the Stambovsky’s that the property would be vacant when they took possession, which was obviously not true. Caveat Emptor did not apply, reasoned Rubin, as he speculated that all potential buyers would have to call in the Ghostbusters along with home inspectors before buying a property.

"’[A] very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of 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.’”

He reasoned that Helen Ackley had gone out of her way to promote the house’s haunted reputation.  The house had been featured in two articles in the local paper, Nyack News and Views, and in the Reader’s Digest article already mentioned.  It had even been featured in the Haunted Nyack walking tour.  Apparently Ackley had told everyone that the house was haunted, except the Stambovsky’s.  Rubin concluded, “Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by Ackley are parapsychic or psychogenic, having reported their presence in both a national publication (Reader's Digest) and the local press (in 1977 and 1982, respectively), Ackley is estopped to deny their existence and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted (Trull, Kachuba).”  He concluded that he was moved, “by the spirit of equity,” into deciding with the Stambovskys.  (Rubin apparently has a spirited sense of humor.)

The Stambovsky’s eventually got most of their deposit, although different sources give differing amounts.  According to Kavanagh, Helen Ackley retained $5000 of the original amount, while another source noted Ackley retained $15,000.  Helen Ackley eventually found another buyer and moved to Florida. Cynthia Ackley Kavanagh and husband Mark relocated to Oregon.  Two owners have owned and inhabited the property at 1 LaVeta Street in Nyack, New York since Helen left, and neither report ghostly activity.

Helen Ackley has the Last Word

Helen eventually found a buyer for the home and moved to Florida in 1991.  Ackley must have felt life in Florida somewhat dull without her unseen houseguests, or perhaps she missed the notoriety of being the woman who owned the haunted house.  Around 1993 Ackley was contacted by Portland, Oregon paranormal researcher, Bill Merrill, who was interested in meeting her regarding her Nyack friends. Merrill indicated that he worked with a medium, Glenn Johnson, who had purportedly already made contact with her spirits, and asked Ackley to meet with them.  Ackley was more than willing as she could visit with Cynthia and Mark at the same time. 

Apparently the material produced at these meetings  was extensive enough for  Johnson and Merrill  to  publish a book in 1995 entitled, Sir George, The Ghost of Nyack (Deer Publishing, Beaverton, Oregon) – still available on Amazon.  Johnson was purportedly able to make contact with two of the spirits who identified themselves as Sir George and his wife the Lady Margaret who had lived in the region prior to the Revolutionary War.  According to Mark Kavanagh Sir George and Margaret divulged many otherwise obscure facts about the area along Rockland County between Nyack and a region called Upper Nyack and Hook Mountain.  Unspecified Rockland County local historians were asked to confirm the presented information. And again, according to Kavanagh, much of the historical information was determined accurate; and other obscure facts deemed highly possible.

The spirits complained to Ackley that they were not as fond of the new owners, and indeed they were rather bored with the whole arrangement and thinking of moving on.  Ackley herself moved on in 2003, and her former son-in-law speculates she is probably back at 1 LaVeta Place in Nyack with her friends. 

The True Significance of Stambovsky vs. Ackley

The enduring significance of the Ackley story is the landmark decision for the Stambovsky’s that would thereafter be on every property law student’s freshman syllabus.  What lost Ackley the case was that she consciously and repeatedly promoted the house’s reputation, sometimes for monetary gain, to everyone but the buyers.  Rubin determined that Ackley could not say it was haunted and then deny the haunting to the buyers, thereby Ackley was estopped from denying that the house was haunted.   He further speculated that promoting the house’s haunted reputation would attract every thrill seeker and would-be ghost hunter to invade the Stambovsky’s privacy, and decrease the house’s value overall. 

 A shallow interpretation of the court decision would be that those selling haunted houses need to make full disclosure (reporting) of such reputed haunts to prospective buyers.   But that couldn’t be further from the truth.  In a surprising twist of fate, the haunted house case, as well as other landmark court decisions in the late 80’s and early 90’s prompted many states to reconsider their state laws in regards to stigmatized property – properties with a dark past.  While the courts tended to side with the buyers of such properties, lawmakers came out solidly on the side of the sellers and especially the sellers’ agents. 

Shortly after the Stambovsky vs. Ackley court decision the state of New York passed what came to be known as the “Haunted House” statute.  It was the lawmakers’ attempt to clarify what information should be disclosed (presented) to a prospective buyer.  While the law was called the “Haunted House’ statute, it actually never mentioned haunted houses.  Rather New York, as did the majority of states that also passed statutes on stigmatized property (property that has a dark history for one reason or another), determined that information about a house’s ghastly past need not be disclosed to potential buyers, and that sellers and their agents were under no obligation to do so, nor could have causes of action (law suits) brought against them for non-disclosure. The only provision New York property law made to possibly worried buyers was that they could make a inquiry in writing which asked the seller about a property’s history.  Sellers could choose to respond or not to such an inquiry..(Interested in reading more about the history and writing of stigmatized property laws? See The Shore’s article entitled “3 bedrooms, 2.5 Baths and 1 Ghost) (N.Y. REAL PROP. LAW § 443-a (1)(a)).)

Resources

Kavanagh, Mark (2010). The Ghost of Nyack. Kavanagh Transit System. Retrieved July 28, 2015 from http://www.ktransit.com/Kavanagh/Ghost/ghost-background.htm

Kachuba, John B. (2007) Ghosthunters: On the Trail of Mediums, Dousers, Spirit Seekers and Other Investigators of America’s Paranormal. Pg. 128.

Maull, Samuel (1991). “Spirit of Law Recognizes 'Haunted House”   Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. Retrieved July 14, 2015 from

Rubin, Israel (1991) Stambovsky v. Ackley 572 N.Y.S.2d 672 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 1991) as appears at MHeducation.com Retrieved July 28, 2015 from http://highered.mheducation.com/sites/dl/free/0072933992/336388/ch13_Stambovsky_vs_Ackley.html

Tull, D. Enigma Editor “Ex Ghost Facto.”  dtrull@parascope.com. Reprinted without permission by Kavanagh, Mark at www.ktransit.com.

 

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