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English Common Law MOOC (University of London with Coursera)

Of the Common Law 15: Professor Gearey reads Dickens' The Lawyer and the Ghost

Professor Gearey reads Dickens' The Lawyer and the Ghost

It is indeed interesting how often ghosts, indeed the supernatural, appear in law. In the future, I think I want to talk about the very strange case called The Crown v. Duncan, a case that concerned a modern prosecution for conjuring spirits under Section Four of the Witchcraft Act of 1735. There's also a case about the intellectual property that might lie in spirit writing received during a seance. And, I've often wondered whether or not you should declare the fact that your house is haunted if you're trying to sell it. However, sit back, light a candle, throw another log on the fire, and I'll read you what I think to be an austerity ghost story. This is the story of The Lawyer and the Ghost by Charles Dickens:

I knew a man - forty years ago - who took an old, damp and rotten set of chambers, in one of the most ancient Inns, that had been shut up and empty for years and years before. There were lots of stories about the place, and it was certainly far from being a cheerful one; but he was poor, and the rooms were cheap, and that would have been quite a sufficient reason, if they had been ten times worse than they really were.

The man was obliged to take some mouldering fixtures, and, among the rest, was a great lumbering wooden press for papers, with large glass doors, and a green curtain inside; a pretty useless thing, for he had no papers to put in it; and as to his clothes, he carried them about with him, and that wasn't very hard work either.

Well, he moved in all his furniture - it wasn't quite a truck full - and had sprinkled it about the rooms, so as to make the four chairs look as much like a dozen as possible, and was sitting down before the fire at night, drinking the first glass of two gallons of whisky he had ordered on credit, wondering whether it would ever be paid for, if so, in how many years' time, when his eyes encountered the glass doors of the wooden press.

"Ah," says he, speaking aloud to the press, having nothing else to speak to; " if it wouldn't cost more to break up your old carcass, than it would ever be worth afterwards, I'd have a fire out of you in less than no time."

He had hardly spoken the words, when a sound resembling a faint groan appeared to issue form the interior of the case; it startled him at first, but thinking that it must be some young fellow in the next chamber who had been dining out, he put his feet on the fender and raised the poker to stir the fire.

At that moment, the sound was repeated: and one of the glass doors slowly opening, disclosed a pale figure in soiled and worn apparel, standing erect in the press. The figure was tall and thin, and the countenance expressive of care and anxiety, but there was something in the hue of the skin, and gaunt and unearthly appearance of the whole form, which no being of this world was ever seen to wear.

"Who are you?" said the new tenant, turning very pale, poising the poker in his hand, however, and taking a very decent aim at the countenance of the figure. "Who are you?"

"Don't throw the poker at me" replied the form: " If you hurled it with ever so sure an aim, it would pass through me, without resistance, and expend its force on the wood behind. I am a spirit!"

"And, pray, what do you want here?" faltered the tenant.

"In this room," replied the apparition, "my worldly ruin was worked and I and my children beggared. In this room, when I had died of grief, and long-deferred hope, two wily harpies divided the wealth for which I had contested during a wretched existence, and of which, at last, not one farthing was left for my unhappy descendants. I terrified them from the spot, and since have prowled by night - the only period at which I can revisit the earth - about the scenes of my long misery. This apartment is mine: leave it to me."

"If you insist on making your appearance here", said the tenant, who had had time to collect his presence of mind, "I shall give up possession with the greatest pleasure, but I should like to ask you one question if you will allow me."

"Say on," said the apparition sternly.

"Well", said the tenant, "it does appear to me somewhat inconsistent, that when you have an opportunity of visiting the fairest spots of earth - for I suppose space is nothing to you - you should always return to the place where you have been most miserable."

"Egad, that's very true; I never thought of that before", said the ghost.

"You see, sir," pursued the tenant, "this is a very uncomfortable room. From the appearance of that press, I should be disposed to say not wholly free from bugs; and I really think you might find more comfortable quarters, to say nothing of the climate of London, which is extremely disagreeable."

"You are very right, sir," said the ghost politely, " it had never struck me till now; I'll try a change of air directly."

In fact, he began to vanish as he spoke: his legs, indeed, had quite disappeared!

" And if sir, " said the tenant calling after him " if you would have the goodness to suggest to other ladies and gentlemen who are now engaged in haunting old empty houses, that they might be much more comfortable elsewhere, you will confer a very great benefit on society."

"I will", replied the ghost, "we must be dull fellows, very dull fellows, indeed; I can't imagine how we can have been so stupid."

With these words, the spirit disappeared, and what is rather remarkable, he never came back again.

Happy Christmas, everybody


  • Of the Common Law ( is copyrighted to the creators: Adam Gearey, Wayne Morrison and Rob Jago, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-NC-SA).
  • Professor Gearey reads Dickens' The Lawyer and the Ghost (2014). Retrieved from
  • The Lawyer and the Ghost by Charles Dickens resides in the Public Domain.
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