VINTAGE TRUE CRIME: The Law’s Zombies (3/3/1947)

zombie artboard

 Waving to his wife, the man swam out to sea and disappeared until a few weeks after the courts declared him dead. And the ruling till stands. (ART: Ed Vebell)

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Sunday Mirror Magazine, March 3, 1947

First appeared in ReMIND Magazine issue 4.6

By JOSEPH JOHNSTON

“The Zombie is a human corpse, still dead but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with mechanical semblance of life.”

Thus the late W.H. Seabrook, greatest of all authorities on voodoo, is quoted by Webster’s International Dictionary on the fascinating subject of the reanimated dead.

The law courts of the United States have created many a legal zombie — by the simple process of pronouncing missing persons legally dead. This is usually done on the application of some relative or other interested party to facilitate settlement of estates. There are, of course, minimum time limits that vary from seven to twelve years in different states. But once a person has legally been declared dead,  legally coming back to life presents many more difficulties.

Where life insurance payoffs are involved, the companies usually oppose court action in declaring missing persons dead. They hire legal batteries for this purpose, and staffs of private investigators to track down the suspected living dead. Although they will publicly deny it, insurance company executives privately admit that there are thousands of such legal zombies walking around, many of whom don’t even know they’ve been interred by the courts.

About ten years ago, a young New York couple went for a day’s outing to a resort on the New Jersey shore. As his spouse sunned herself with their small child on the beach, the husband plunged into the surf and swam out to sea. He turned once, smiled, waved, then continued plowing powerfully through the waves until he was no more than a speck to those on shore. A number of bathers commented that he was dangerously far out. But his wife smiled confidently and remarked that her husband was a strong swimmer and was accustomed to going out a mile or more.

After a reasonable time, when he didn’t return, his wife became alarmed. By nightfall, the Coast Guard patrol was searching for his body, but no trace of the missing swimmer could be found.

Last year, the widow finally won her court battle to have the missing husband declared dead. The insurance companies, which stood to pay out $50,000, contested. But the verdict of the New Jersey court was that the husband had drowned.

A few months after the widow had collected the money, two unsavory characters appeared, demanding half the take. Their attempted shakedown was based upon a threat to reveal that her husband was actually alive. The woman, who wanted no part of either fraud or blackmail, notified the insurance people. The racketeers were jailed. But the resulting investigation turned up proof that reports of the husband’s death had been greatly exaggerated.

He had, it was learned, decided that he hadn’t loved his wife, and had just swum away from it all. Furthermore, he considered any attempt to resurrect him was an invasion to his right to privacy, for which he would sue the insurance companies if they tried. Before any court action could be brought, he again disappeared. You can’t, it seems, legally restore life unless you produce the body. So the court has created a zombie who prefers whatever hereafter he has found to the used-to-be he left.

On evidence of the War Department’s report that a certain G.I. was killed in action in the Pacific, two insurance companies paid a bereaved widow’s claim for policies totaling $27,000. Two days after payment had been received, investigators, making a routine check, learned that the woman had sold her house and disappeared with her two children.

They traced the woman to San Francisco, to Honolulu, and from there to an island in the Pacific. Further work by sleuths attached to the Hawaiian office of one of the companies produced proof that the “widow” had joined her legally deceased husband on a tiny atoll they had bought and over which the United States has no jurisdiction.

Every so often, an insurance man stops to call socially, and tries to sell this War Department’s legal zombie on the idea of returning to the States, where he can be sued for the return of the money. But the deadbeat prefers to sit on his island veranda—drinking, no doubt, double zombies.

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Filed under Beach Party, Vintage True Crime

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