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Learn more about the Chaffin ghost story

By Kathy Chaffin

Special to the Enterprise

About 25 people turned out to watch the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” segment on the Chaffin ghost story Friday night at the Tanglewood Pizza Company in Bermuda Run.

Among them were Davie County Public Library Director Jane McAllister, whose interview with the film crew was interspersed throughout the eight-minute segment; several members of her staff; and Davie County Clerk of Court Ellen Drechsler, who recruited her friend, Alice Hanes, to help her search for James L. Chaffin’s wills in the courthouse basement one Saturday morning (it took two hours) and later arranged with the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in Raleigh to take them to the library for filming by the Mysteries at the Museum film crew.

The AOC required the Travel Channel to sign a License Use and Agreement with Drechsler before filming the wills.

Others in attendance at the Tanglewood Pizza Company included members of the newly-formed Renegade Writers Guild, which had just finished its monthly open mic at the nearby Corners Coffee and included two Chaffins, cousins Kathy and Sharon; and others interested in seeing a Davie County ghost story featured on national TV.

The closest living relatives of alleged ghost James L. Chaffin were interviewed by Mary Roach, a California author who visited Davie County in 2004 to research the Chaffin ghost story for her book, “SPOOK: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” which was published the following year. She talked with Lester Blackwelder and his younger brother, Lloyd, who is now deceased. Estelle Chaffin Blackwelder, the mother of Lester and Lloyd, was the daughter of James Pinkney Chaffin’s daughter and granddaughter of the alleged ghost.

A copy of Roach’s book is in the History Room of the Davie County Library.

Her chapter on the Chaffin ghost story – titled “In which the law finds for a ghost, and the author calls in an expert witness” – includes details not in other accounts. The eight-minute segment on “Mysteries at the Museum” included film footage of the Davie County Courthouse, segments of an interview with McAllister and actors portraying the ghost of James L. Chaffin and his three sons settling in the courtroom scene at the end.

When McAllister was shown in a promo for the segment on one of several large-screen TVs at the Tanglewood Pizza Company earlier in the evening, Deborah Colbert screamed in excitement, pointing to the library director.

Even though McAllister pronounced Chaffin correctly with a long “a,” Host Don Wildman pronounced it Chaffin with a short “a” as in chap.

To summarize the Chaffin ghost story, the family of James L. Chaffin, upon his death in 1921, was shocked to find that his will left all of his property to Marshall, the third of his four sons, without even any provision for his widow.

Though shocked by this unexpected turn of events, she and their other three sons decided not to contest the will.   

In June of 1925, James Pinkney Chaffin told his wife that his father had been appearing to him in dreams during which he stood at his bedside with “a sorrowful expression” on his face. The previous night, however, he said his father had appeared in a black overcoat like one he used to wear.

In the dream, James Pinkney said his father opened up one side of the overcoat, pointed to an inside pocket and said, “You will find something about my last will in my overcoat pocket.”

After some searching, James Pinkney finally located his father’s overcoat in the attic of the house belonging to his older brother, John, and found a roll of paper with his father’s handwriting on it and tied with a ribbon saying, “Read the 27th Chapter of Genesis in my daddie’s old Bible.”

With his daughter, Estelle, who was the mother to Lester and Lloyd, and his neighbor, Thom Blackwelder, as witnesses, Pink went to his mother’s house and found the old Bible in the attic.

There they found a second will, dated 1919, which divided the land equally among his four sons. At that point, the three brothers left out of the first will immediately contested it in a trial that gained widespread attention when word got out that James Pinkney had found the second will after seeing his father’s ghost at his bedside.

Marshall had died from a faulty heart valve less than a year after inheriting his father’s 102-acre farm, leaving everything to his wife, Susie. To the disappointment of reporters and locals alike, the three brothers and Susie apparently reached a deal during a lunch break called after the jury was selected to divide the estate equally.

Once court was reconvened, Susie stated that the signature on the will found in the Bible was genuine. She withdrew her opposition, thus ending the trial.

The Chaffin ghost story is also included in North Caroline author John Harden’s book, “Tar Heel Ghosts,” in a chapter titled “Ghost with a Mission.” The late James W. Wall, a respected Davie County historian and Davie High School history teacher dedicated three pages in his “History of Davie County,” first published in 1969.

Roach’s story of the account is quite an interesting read, offering the opinions of Grant Speery, a questioned document examiner and forensic handwriting expert based in Tennessee.

It’s worth a visit to the Davie County Library History Room to read the rest of the story.