It sounds like a plot from a fictional Hollywood movie except it’s veridical (verifiably true). A man dies leaving all of his property to one of his four sons, excluding all his other sons. But one of the disinherited sons has a lucid dream in which the deceased father points the way to an unknown newer will which gives equal shares to all of his sons. The will is discovered exactly in the obscure location where the deceased father said it was located in the dream. The will is contested in probate; but the newer will of the deceased father wins in court. This case provides strong evidence in support of the Afterlife Hypothesis because of the obscure location of the newer will as referenced by the deceased father. This case is one of the more thoroughly researched and best attested indicating that the dead can sometimes return to correct an injustice. It is known in parapsychology circles as the “Chaffin Will Case.”
2. Where There Is A Will…
James L. Chaffin was a farmer in Davie County, North Carolina who had four sons. In November 1905, he made out a will leaving his farm and all assets to his third son, Marshall. He made no provision for his wife and three other sons, John, Pinkney and Abner.
In 1905, James wrote out and registered his will whereby:
“He gave his farm to his third son, Marshall, whom he appointed sole executor. The widow and the other three sons were left unprovided for.”
Why he wished to leave nothing to the rest of his family is not known. One theory is that Marshall’s wife, Susie, coerced James while he was staying with her and Marshall (as a result of a fire at his own home). Apparently Susie was a domineering person who terrified James. Then again, it could have been done out of a desire not to have his farm broken up. The existence of this document was known and recognized by all of the Chaffin family and, when James died suddenly in an accident from a fall in 1921, no one contested its validity.
That is, no one contested for four years; until it was challenged … by the ghost of James Chaffin himself!
How this happened is perhaps best told in the sworn testimony of the second son, Pinkney:
“In all my life I never heard my father mention having made a later will than the one dated in 1905. I think it was in June of 1925 that I began to have very vivid dreams that father appeared to me at my bedside but made no verbal communication. Some time later, I think it was the latter part of June, 1925, he appeared at my bedside again, dressed as I had often seen him dressed in life, wearing a black overcoat which I knew to be his own coat. This time my father’s spirit spoke to me, he took hold of his overcoat this way and pulled it back and said, ‘You will find my will in my overcoat pocket,’ and then disappeared. The next morning I arose fully convinced that my father’s spirit had visited me for the purpose of explaining some mistake. I went to mother’s and sought for the overcoat but found that it was gone. Mother stated that she had given the overcoat to my brother John who lives in Yadkin County about twenty miles northwest of my home.
“I think it was on the 6th of July, which was on Monday following the events stated in the last paragraph I went to my brother’s home in Yadkin County and found the coat. On examination of the inside pocket I found that the lining had been sewd together. I immediately cut the stitches and found a little roll of paper tied with a string which was in my father’s handwriting and contained only the following words: ‘Read the 27th chapter of Genesis in my daddie’s old Bible.’
“At this point I was so convinced that the mystery was to be cleared up I was unwilling to go to mother’s home to examine the old Bible without the presence of a witness and I induced a neighbour, Mr. Thomas Blackwelder to accompany me, also my daughter and Mr. Blackwelder’s daughter were present. Arriving at mother’s home we had a considerable search before we found the old Bible. At last we did find it in the top bureau drawer in an upstairs room. The book was so dilapidated that when we took it out it fell into three pieces. Mr. Blackwelder picked up the portion containing the Book of Genesis and turned the leaves until he came to the 27th chapter of Genesis and there we found two leaves folded together, the left hand page folded to the right and the right hand page folded to the left forming a pocket and in this pocket Mr. Blackwelder found the [new] will.”
This will was dated January 16, 1919, which was more than thirteen years after the previous will was written and almost three years before the father’s death. It read as follows:
“After reading the 27th chapter of Genesis, I, James L. Chaffin, do make my last and testament, and here it is. I want, after giving my body a decent burial, my little property to be equally divided between my four children, if they are living at my death, both personal and real estate divided equal if not living, give share to their children. And if she is living, you all must take care of your mammy. Now this is my last will and testament. Witness my hand and seal. James L. Chaffin. This January 16, 1919.”
Apparently Chaffin later had a change of heart after reading the Genesis 27 in the Bible where it tells how Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, into giving him the birthright intended for his older brother, Esau.
Chaffin then took the will and hid it in his father’s old Bible — placing it in Genesis 27 — folding pages to form a pocket to hold the paper. For reasons unknown, he said nothing to anyone of his new will. It is possible that he intended to do so at an appropriate moment but was unable to follow through. Chaffin did write a note, however, which said:
“Read the 27th Chapter of Genesis in my daddie’s old Bible.”
He rolled up the note, tied it with string and placed it in the inside pocket of his black overcoat. He stitched the pocket shut.
The cited section of the biblical book of Genesis concerns conflict between the two brothers over their inheritance from their father. Perhaps this is a clue as to why the new will was written, but no one can say for certain. As to why it was not simply announced when it was written perhaps James hoped to avoid a confrontation with Susie by postponing the revelation until he was on his deathbed. A hope dashed by his fatal accident.
On September 7, 1921 Chaffin died of injuries sustained in a fall. His 1905 will was probated, and the estate went to Marshall Chaffin. No one contested.
Four years later, in 1925, son Pinkney began having vivid dreams in which his father appeared at his bedside and stood in silence. In June 1925, the deceased Chaffin appeared by Pinkney’s bedside once again, dressed in his black overcoat. He took hold of his coat, pulled it back and said:
“You will find my will in my overcoat pocket.”
Then he vanished. The next morning, Pinkney awoke convinced that his father had communicated with him for the purpose of clearing up some mistake. He went to his mother’s home, where he found out that the overcoat was in the possession of his brother, John. On July 6, he visited John and found the coat. Upon examining it, James found the pocket that had been sewn shut. He opened it, found the note and read it.
Pinkney wisely found witnesses to accompany him back to his mother’s to retrieve the Bible in question. They included Thomas Blackwelder, a neighbor, Blackwelder’s daughter, and Pinkney’s own daughter. An eyewitness was needed, Pinkney said, because Pinkney’s father had told him he would find something very valuable hidden in an old family Bible. They found the Bible and discovered the will exactly where the deceased Chaffin said it would be.
Pinkney was elated. The document seemed to correct all the wrongs of the previous will, which had made provisions for only Marshall, who inherited all 102 acres of their father’s land, while the rest of the family was left out entirely.
3. A Ghost Goes To Court
About a week before the trial, the deceased Chaffin appeared again to Pinkney in an agitated state, saying:
“Where is my old will?”
Pinkney took this to be a sign that he would win the lawsuit.
In the fall of 1925, the will of James Chaffin was tendered for probate. A court would have to decide whether the newly-discovered will was valid. In court, Pinkney insisted that it was the ghost of his father who told him exactly where to find the document — with Blackwelder corroborating the fantastic tale.
Davie County Superior Court had never seen the likes of a probate case that had been spurred on by a ghost. Newspapers swarmed the courthouse and interviewed Pinkney, eager to hear details about how his father’s spirit had led him to the discovery of a second will.
Although he was willing to share stories of the visitations, Pinkney realized that pragmatism would win the day in court. He and his lawyers assembled ten former friends and associates of Chaffin’s, who could attest to the fact that the signature on the second will was legitimate. A jury wouldn’t necessarily need to believe in the afterlife if they took these witnesses at their word. But they wouldn’t even get that chance.
During a court recess, lawyers for both the Chaffin brothers and Susie agreed to a settlement. It’s likely Susie was advised that her chances of arguing against the validity of the second will were slim and that a jury ruling could leave her with nothing. (Even Susie agreed that the signature on the second will was legitimate.) Instead, she would accept one-quarter of the estate, leaving the rest to be divided equally among the brothers.
A judge made it official. The second will superseded the first.
The presence of Chaffin’s ghost in articles about the case led to attention from a number of outlets that had little or nothing to do with the judicial system. The following year, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) dispatched a lawyer to interview the Chaffins to try and discern their sincerity. He found no evidence they — nor Blackwelder — were being deceptive.
Although there were no witnesses, at that time in the State of North Carolina a will was considered valid if it was entirely written in a hand that was incontestably that of the signatory. Three lawyers represented the three plaintiffs and ten witnesses were prepared to testify that the will was written in the father’s handwriting.
The Chaffin Will Case, as it came to be known, was widely reported in the U.S. and even in Canada. A Canadian member of the Society for Psychical Research was so intrigued by the case that he hired a lawyer, Mr. J. M. Johnson of Aberdeen, North Carolina, to research the case. Johnson interviewed several principals in the case (including Pinkney’s wife, daughter, and mother) and obtained sworn statements from two of them (the one given above and a collaborating one from the neighbor, Mr. Blackwelder. In his conclusions, Johnson stated that he was:
“…much impressed with the evident sincerity of these people, who had the appearance of honest, honourable country people, in well-to-do circumstances.”
The collaborating statement from Mr. Blackwelder reads as follows:
“My name is Thomas A Blackwelder. I am 38 years old and the son of H. H. Blackwelder. My home is on a farm in Callihan township about one mile from the place where James L. Chaffin died in 1921. I think it was on July 6, 1925, that Mr. J. P. [Pinkney] Chaffin, the son of James L. Chaffin and a neighbour of mine came to my house and asked me to go with him to his mother’s home and at the same time stated that his father had appeared to him in a dream and instructed him how he could find his will. Mr. Chaffin told me at the same time that his father had been dead about four years and had appeared to him in a dream and made known to him that he should look in the breastpocket of his old overcoat and there he would find something of importance. Mr. Chaffin further stated that he had gone to this overcoat and found a strip of paper in his father’s handwriting and he wanted me to go with him to his mother’s and examine the old Bible. I went with him and we made a search for the Bible and after some time we found it in a bureau drawer in the second story of the house. We took out the Bible which was quite old and was in three different pieces. I took one of the three pieces of the book and Mr. Chaffin took the other two pieces but it happened that the piece I had contained the Book of Genesis. I turned the leaves until I came to the 27th chapter and there found two leaves folded inward and there was a paper writing folded in these two leaves which purported to be the last will of James L. Chaffin.”
“I was fully convinced,” Pinkney said in his statement, “that my father’s spirit had visited me for the purpose of explaining some mistake.” Having had his message received, Pinkney said he was never contacted by his father again.
The Chaffin Will case resembles a similar case that occurred near Ionia, Iowa, in 1891. That case, too, involved a farmer, Michael Conley, who was found dead in an outhouse. Upon hearing of his death, Conley’s daughter fell into a faint. Upon reviving, she said he had appeared to her and told her there was a large sum of money sewn inside a pocket inside the shirt he was wearing at the time of his death. She also described in detail his burial suit, including satin slippers that were of a new design, and which she could not have seen before. The clothes Conley had been wearing at the time of his death had been thrown away. They were recovered, and $35 (a large sum back then) were found sewn shut in an inside shirt pocket. This case also provides strong evidence of the Afterlife Hypothesis.
Allen, Miles Edward (2012). “Where There’s a Will,” in The Afterlife Confirmed, Survival Top 40 — Case #73.
“Case of the Will of James L. Chaffin,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 36, 1928, pp. 517-524.
“Chaffin Will Case,” Occult-World.com, Retrieved May 6, 2021.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen (2007). The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, Facts on File; 3rd ed. edition.
Roach, Mary (2006). Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition
Rossen, Jake (2017). “The Time a Ghost Had His Day in Court,” MentalFloss.com, Retrieved May 6, 2021.