Hallowed Halls: Haunted Courthouses

Courtrooms are a traditional venue of judgment; is it really so surprising that they might be places of final judgment as well?  For the believers who feel “those who linger on” are among us, locations historically associated with the law present fertile ground for ghostly hauntings.  After all, in life, the law affects people in poignant, life-changing ways—even ending the lives of some—and this connection may remain strong even in death.

We call them “ghosts.”  Most agree that they are the disembodied spirits of the deceased, while some cultures get more detailed, explaining that ghosts are persons trapped within their “subtle” bodies after being forced out of their material bodies.  Many also say that ghosts cling to places which affected them significantly in life, and courtrooms would seem to fulfill this description well.  Courthouses are often attached to great historic significance, and this means they are often preserved while other buildings get torn down, perhaps providing the disembodied soul with a familiar place to hold on to.  They are also locales of great emotion, heavy choices and heavy burdens, and these ties may fasten a ghostly being to that site.

This theory is supported by spectral sightings that have been reported in courthouses around the country.

Ghostly figure with handlebar moustache who is also probably fond of throwing orange peels at visitors.

19th century Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the famous Dred Scott decision, is speculated to be lingering in the Baltimore Courthouse. One person, a self-described skeptic, reported feeling suddenly and inexplicably ice-cold, so intensely that he had to leave the courtroom. The Lake George Courthouse in New York reports ghostly forms in the cells, eerie calls in the courtroom, a radio playing music with no batteries, and chairs in the library filled with water where no pipes run above them. Paranormal events were also experienced at the Porter County Courthouse, Indiana, where a large amount of unexplained electromagnetic energy was detected.  In Corales, New Mexico, a historical building from the 1860s that was once used as a courthouse is reported to be haunted by the ghost of an elderly bald man with a handlebar moustache.  His footsteps tramp around the building, and he is apparently fond of throwing orange peels at visitors.

San Diego residents need not look far for their own historical building with a reputation for haunting.  California State Historic Landmark #65, the famous Whaley House, has overlooked San Diego Avenue in the Old Town area since 1856 when Thomas Whaley commenced the building.  In 1869, the Whaleys rented part of the house to the county for use as one of San Diego’s earliest courthouses.  The Whaley House was rated by Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted as the number one most haunted house in the country, and at least six different apparitions have been identified among the numerous sightings over the years.  The earliest is speculated as being “Yankee Jim,” a grand larceny convict who was judged and hanged on the property in 1852.  The Whaleys themselves reported heavy footsteps attributed to him.  An unidentified woman has also been seen by visitors in the preserved courtroom. Other ghosts, including Thomas Whaley and even a small dog, are associated with other rooms of the house.  Today, the house remains open to the public and is a fascinating visit for ghost-lore enthusiasts and history aficionados alike.

Ghosts or not, it cannot be denied that places like the Whaley House, with so much history, have a mysterious way of reminding us of people and times long buried in the past.  Seated in the spectator gallery in the Whaley House courtroom, you may pause, observing a phantom jury sitting to one side of the judge as the memory of a courtroom drama whispers through the room and echoes faintly in your ear before fading into the walls again.

For more information on the Whaley House go to www.whaleyhouse.org

The Whaley House in Old Town, San Diego. 1890.


Ghosts themselves have had brushes with the law.  In Stambovsky v. Ackley, the court ruled that the house in question was haunted for legal purposes.  See Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (N.Y. App. Div. 1991).

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