It’s not often that ghost stories get brought up in court, but what’s even rarer is when they’re cause to be there in the first place. Turns out, back in 17th Century England, you had to be a little more careful about telling ghost stories, especially if they involved the spirits of friends and neighbors, because they could land you at the wrong end of a slander case. In 1687, a merchant captain learned that the hard way when he reported seeing the ghost of his neighbor chased into hell by a black phantom. Booty v Barnaby ended up being one of the strangest historical paranormal court cases of all time.
Captain Barnaby, captain of a merchant vessel from Kent, England, was out on a shooting trip near the island of Stromboli, known for its active volcano, when he was shocked to the see his neighbor, Old Booty, running on the shore. Old Booty was well-known as the brewer in Barnaby’s hometown of Gravesend, but here he was, nearly two-thousand miles from his brewery, booking it down the sandy beach. When he scanned the landscape, Barnaby saw what he was running from: a black phantom running faster than any man. The captain watched in horror as the phantom chased Old Booty straight into the mouth of the volcano.
The sight was so bizarre that Captain Barnaby ordered his men, thirty of whom had also witnessed the event, to record the strange scene in the official ship logs. This turned out to be a smart move, because as soon as Barnaby returned to Gravesend and recounted the sight of Old Booty being “driven into hell”, Mrs. Booty took offense and sued him for slander. What followed was one of the weirdest court cases in history, one made stranger due to the fact that Barnaby’s sighting lined up almost perfectly with the time of Old Booty’s time of death.
The following account of Booty v Barnaby is taken from Dream Land and Ghost Land: Visits and Wanderings there in the Nineteenth Century by Edwin Paxton Hood, a book published in 1852.
An action in the Court of King’s Bench was brought by a Mrs Booty against Captain Barnaby to recover£1000 as damages for the scandal of his assertion that he had seen her deceased husband, Mr. Booty, a receiver, driven into hell.
The journal books of three different ships were produced in court and the following passages recorded in each submitted to the court by the defendant’s counsel.
“Thursday, May 14 ,1687. Saw the Island of Lipari and came to an anchor off the same island and then we were at WSW.”
“Friday, May 15. Captain Barnaby, Captain Bristow, Captain Brown I and a Mr. Ball, merchant, went on shore to shoot rabbits on Stromboli; and when we had done, we called our men together to us, and about three quarters past three o’clock we all saw two men running towards us with such swiftness that no living man could run half so fast; when all of us heard Captain Barnaby say, ‘Lord bless us; the foremost is old Booty, my next door neighbour;’ but he said he did not know the other who ran behind. He was in black clothes, and the foremost was in grey. Then Captain Barnaby desired all of us to take an account of the time and pen it in our pocket books; and when we got on board we wrote it in our journals, for we saw them run into the flames of fire, and there was a great noise, which greatly affrighted us all, for we none of us ever saw or heard the like before. Captain Barnaby said, ‘He was certain it was old Booty which he saw running over Stromboli, and into the flames of hell.'”
Then coming home to England, and lying at Gravesend, Captain Barnaby’s wife came on board, the 6th day of October 1687, at which time Captain Barnaby and Captain Brown sent for Captain Bristow and Mr. Ball, merchant, to congratulate with them; and after some discourse, Captain Barnaby’s wife started up, and said, ‘My dear old Booty is dead;’ and he directly made answer, ‘We all saw him run into hell.’ Afterwards Captain Barnaby’s wife told a gentleman of his acquaintance in London what her husband had said and he went and acquainted Mrs. Booty of the whole affair: upon that Mrs. Booty arrested Captain Barnaby in a £1000 action for what he had said of her husband. Captain Barnaby gave bail for it, and it came to a trial in the Court of King’s Bench and they had Mr. Booty’s wearing apparel brought into court, and the sexton of the parish, and the people that were with him when he died: and we swore to our journals, and it came to the same time within two minutes. Ten of our men swore to the buttons on his coat, and that they were covered with the same cloth his coat was made of, and so it proved.
The jury asked Mr. Spinks (whose handwriting in the journal that happened to be read appeared) if he knew Mr. Booty : he answered, ‘I never saw him till he ran by me on the burning mountains.’
The judge said, ‘Lord have mercy on me, and grant I may never see what you have seen. One, two, or three may be mistaken, but thirty never can’t be mistaken.
So the widow lost her cause. The defence set up was that the defendant had spoken no more than had been seen by a number of persons as well as himself.
Let this be a lesson to you. Next time you witness the ghost of a neighbor being chased by a black phantom, make sure everyone around you writes it down. It just might save your butt in court, or at least wind up being a fun historical paranormal court case for future weirdos to look back on.