by Bill Batson
“As a matter of law, the house is haunted.” This sentence in a ruling by the New York Supreme Court in July, 1991 generated international headlines for a real estate dispute surrounding the sale of 1 La Veta Place. That a court entertained the notion that a house could be haunted has kept the debate alive, especially on full moons and All Hallows’ Eves. I recently collected the opinions of an informal jury of residents on La Veta , local realtors and Rockland’s own ghost investigator, Linda Zimmermann. Their unanimous verdict might surprise you.
Helen Ackley moved into the house at the end of La Veta Place in the early1960s. The imposing Victorian was built around 1900 and had been used as both a single family residence and a boarding house. Ackley, who shared the house with her children and grandchildren, reported to neighbors that her home was haunted. She described phantom footsteps, slamming doors and beds being violently shaken. Even though the stories that she told were unnerving, the Ackleys described a peaceful co-existence with the spirits, who reportedly left gifts. According to Ackley, the disembodied visitors were a Revolutionary War era couple, Sir George and Lady Margaret.
A neighbor who moved in a few doors down from 1 La Veta in the mid eighties was aware of the stories, but was always unconvinced. Any hint of skepticism did not stop Ackley from pitching her story to the media. Like any urban legend, the story grew with the oxygen of repetition and random events that seemed to buttress the original occult claim. When a relatively young and healthy guest at a dinner party at the Ackley home collapsed and died of a brain aneurysm, the story gained some creepy credence.
When Ackley decided to sell her home to Jeffrey Stambovsky in 1989, her ghost stories sank the sale. After making a deposit, Stambovsky learned 1 La Veta Place was on a tour of haunted properties. It was as fact that Ackley failed to mention to the prospective buyer. In Stambovsky v. Ackley, New York’s Supreme Court agreed with the buyer that he had the right to back out of the deal because Ackley didn’t disclose any of the ghostly details.
The first person I approached to determine if the alleged apparitions existed was a former research chemist who has spent the last 15 years pursuing poltergeists as the Ghost Investigator. Linda Zimmermann came to ghost hunting by accident. “Local history was a hobby. But at the end of my lectures, people started asking about ghosts and inviting me to visit their homes.”
I asked Zimmermann why La Veta Place had not made it on to her recently published list of the top 13 haunted sites in Hudson Valley. You might think it would be in her interest as a ghost hunter to keep the legend of La Veta place alive, but she was unimpressed. She told me that subsequent owners have reported no spectral sightings, something that current residents affirm.
She does however assert that Nyack is the most haunted village in the most haunted county in New York State. She attributes the ghoulish gridlock to the upheaval that has beset a region where an indigenous population with thousands of years of habitation was displaced by waves of Dutch and British settlers, and the military campaigns and practice of African slavery that they conducted. To Zimmerman, a haunting occurs when “a spirit is trapped due to some tragedy or an unresolved issue that is preventing them from letting go and moving on.” Our rich history of conflict makes Rockland ripe for incorporeal infestation. Among those places that make her list of local haunts are: Oak Hill Cemetery, Hook Mountain, Nyack Library, and nearby Mount Moor Cemetery, a final resting place for African Americans that was unceremoniously disinterred to make way for the Palisades Mall.
The monsters that once lurked in our psyche have become a potent force in our media. An A-list star whispers to ghosts; vampires are an adult and tween obsession and an ironic zombie is featured in a commercial for Starburst chewing gum. Thanks to Zimmermann, the walking dead are at our doorstep in her most recent novel, Hudson Valley Zombie Apocalypse. But before Twilight, True Blood and Frankenweenie became franchises, there was the international publicity surrounding 1 La Veta Place.
After losing the court judgment, a disgusted Ackley moved to Florida. She was heard to declare that she was taking the ghosts with her. But the haunting of our popular culture creeps on. You might not believe in things that go bump in the night, but mere rumors of paranormal neighbors have created a genre that combines story telling, history and primordial fear, producing profits that are down right spooky.
For an excellent description of the Laveta Place controversy from the perspective of a realtor, read John Patrick Schutz’s post on his At Home in Nyack blog Nyack’s “Legally” Haunted House.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “1 Poltergeist Place?” © 2012 Bill Batson.