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The Murder of John Gamble: Contempt of Corporeality - EsoterX

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“I enjoyed the courtroom as just another stage, but not so amusing as Broadway” – Mae West

Is the afterlife part of our jurisdiction?

So, you’re dead.  Murdered, in fact.  This is an unfortunate development, particularly if you had a certain fondness for living. Rather than checking in at the Pearly Gates, registering your harp, learning the hosannas, and claiming a comfortable cloud to recline on, you discover you’re a ghost.  This clearly sucks, but given your untimely demise and lack of direct witnesses to the homicide, there is evidently a celestial protocol that demands some spectral loitering in pursuit of justice from the temporal legal system.  Sadly, human jurisprudence is not always cooperative.  Just ask poor John Gamble (1814-1850).

John Gamble was a hard-working carpenter, originally from Beaver County, Pennsylvania.  In 1850, at the age of 36, Gamble bought a small farm in Wetzel County, West Virginia and industrious fellow that he was, set about the serious business of making his fortune.  Leaning on his carpentry background, he dived into the Ohio River trade, loading up his skiff, and floating lumber, wagon parts, and a variety of other marketable goods to Cincinnati.  Gamble’s farm had a small apple orchard, and as it turned out 1850 was a lucrative year for apple farmers in West Virginia, and rather than sell the apples outright, Gamble concluded the money was in apple cider, hired some help, and churned out a few barrels.  By November 1850, he ran out of barrels to store his cider (apparently the orchards were especially productive).

Gamble sold a wagon to his neighbors, the Whiteman brothers, for a $20 IOU, then headed off to New Martinsville to buy additional staves to make cider barrels.  On his way home from New Martinsville, Gamble stopped at the Whiteman’s house to collect on the IOU.  The Whiteman’s at the time were entertaining another local (who specialized in the cattle trade) named Leb Mercer, from whom Gamble had recently purchased a calf, on which he still owed a $2 balance.  Luckily, Gamble was flush with cash.  Unluckily, this is probably where things started to go very wrong.

Mercer asked him for the money, upon which Gamble drew from his pocket a five-dollar bill, and asked him if he had change for that, and Mercer replied that he had not. Mercer then asked him if that was all he had, and he said no. That he had something near two hundred dollars. It was now beginning to get dark, and Gamble started for home, and told Mercer to come to his house in a few days and he would pay him. Mercer then stood watching him, and after Gamble had got in his skiff and pushed it out into the river, Mercer started toward him. That night he came home about two o’clock, wet and muddy. The evidence was sorely against him, though he presented the note that the Whiteman brothers had given to Gamble for payment. The thing now laid over for a year, and in the Fall of 1851, there was a cornhusking near Point Pleasant Ridge, and a number of people from New Martinsville attended. Among them was one John Hindman. On their return home they decided to all go different routes and see who got there first. Hindman took over the hill, coming over what is now known as Gamble’s Run (so named from Gamble), and as he was walking along a path which was then on the river bank, he saw the form of a man, who remarked: “I am John Gamble; Leb Mercer killed me. Take him up and have justice done”, and suddenly disappeared from view. Hindman being very badly scared, walked rapidly toward town, and the next morning told what he had.  It was not believed by many people. Though he had never seen Gamble, he described his walk, clothes, etc. Mercer was arrested for murder in the first degree, which under the old law meant death or freedom, and he was released on the grounds that ghost evidence would not go in court. It was believed by many that he was guilty of the crime, and it is said that his lawyer had a very hard time to keep him from con fessing the crime. He is now living back of St. Mary’s, West Virginia where it is said he acts very strangely, often muttering to himself (McEldowney, 1901, p128-130).

Now, the legal wrangling regarding the phantom testimony was actually a little more complicated.  The case went to trial in 1854 and Mercer was charged with first degree murder, but since the deceased Gamble was the only witness, Mercer’s attorney argued that the ghost needed to be called to testify.  Oddly, the judge agreed.  When the undead Gamble failed to appear, his spirit was charged with contempt of court, and Mercer was acquitted (although likely haunted for the rest of his life given the description of his subsequent behavior).  Gamble did manage to get a little piece of land near Point Pleasant Ridge in Wetzel County named after him (and no geographical relation to Point Pleasant of Mothman fame – that’s further south).  In another odd twist, all the Wetzel County court documents on the case were either lost or destroyed before 1900.

After this, nobody ever saw the ghost of John Gamble again, as he likely moved on into a more relaxing afterlife.  Basically, he fled the jurisdiction.  Prudent, as were he to return, he would have to serve time for those contempt charges.  What’s a ghost to do?  As H.L. Mencken observed, “The only cure for contempt is counter-contempt”.


Kenny, Hamill Thomas, 1911-. West Virginia Place Names, Their Origin and Meaning, Including the Nomenclature of the Streams And Mountains. Piedmont, W.Va.: The Place name press, 1945. McEldowney, John C. History of Wetzel County, West Virginia. [United States: s.n.], 1901.

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