This is one of the strangest courtroom dramas ever fathomed… and it actually happened. Like the Greenbriar Ghost, John Gamble was murdered and it was said his ghost returned to seek legal vengeance upon the man who killed him.
John Gamble was born in 1814. He became a carpenter in adulthood, but also dabbled in a variety of other ventures. He purchased his final home in 1850. The land came with an entire apple orchard. By this point, Gamble was farming, dealing in livestock, and undertook the labors of making apple cider. He enjoyed a particularly plentiful crop of apples in 1853.
He had a spare wagon that he wanted to get rid of in the fall of 1853. He sold it to the Whiteman brothers for a $20 note. He then went into town to sell a few calves and returned to the brothers’ house on his way back home. He asked them if they could give him cash instead of a check.
By this point, Laban “Lem” Mercer stopped by to visit. Gamble owed Mercer $2 for an earlier calf purchase. Different sources offer conflicting information on who owed whom money for the calf. Some accounts state Gamble owed the money, while other accounts state Mercer did.
Gamble wanted to pay it in full, but had no change on him. Mercer asked him if the $20 note was really all he had on him. Gamble said it wasn’t, that he’d just received $200 for selling calves earlier in the week, but he had no small bills on him.
Gamble often used a small skiff in the river to come to the brothers’ farm, or to visit New Martinsville and that night was no different. Mercer left the Whiteman place with him and Gamble was never seen alive again.
He wasn’t seen for days, and then weeks. Finally, his body was discovered two weeks after he went missing. He was found 20 miles downstream in the river. His body showed all the signs of typical decomposition and most people assumed his boat overturned, or he fell in and drowned. As the authorities began examining the body, they found he’d been partially disrobed, but no animals could have done it. Everything he’d carried of value had been stripped from the body.
Many people had their suspicions that Mercer was to blame, but with no “smoking gun,” suspicions soon faded from memory. Several months later, they would remember anew.
There was a “cornhusking” festival near Point Pleasant. Most residents of New Martinsville attended. One of the attendees was a tavern owner named John Hindman. The group with him decided everyone would race on their favorite path to see who arrived home first. Hindman happened to take a route that went across a large hill and along a path by the river.
He stopped a moment to catch his breath when a figure and white appeared a few feet away. It came closer and Hindman froze. It clearly spoke, “I am John Gamble. Leb Mercer killed me. Take him up and have justice done.”
Hindman fled home and remained there until daylight. He told his friends what happened. He described the figure in detail and the place where he met it. He’d never known John Gamble, but those around him said he described him. He gathered a group of men to scour the area where the event occurred. They found many items towards the water that belonged to Gamble.
Mercer was arrested for first-degree murder several days later. The evidence was damning, even without the mention of what the spirit stated. Mercer didn’t come home until two in the morning, on the night Gamble disappeared. When he arrived, he was wet and muddy. He also possessed the $20 note Gamble had for the wagon. Locals also grew suspicious at the number of attorneys Mercer retained, as he wasn’t known to have that kind of money before the trial.
Unfortunately, the attention given to the spirit’s testimony had an adverse affect on the trial. Mercer was found not guilty, and one of the reasons given was that “ghost evidence” wasn’t admissible in court.
After the Trial
Many people in New Martinsville believed Mercer was guilty, including several officials, who didn’t believe Mercer when he said he just left Gamble standing there. Mercer moved soon after and tried to change his name. He eventually enlisted in the war.
Many spoke in hushed voices about how strangely Mercer behaved after the trial. Neighbors witnessed him talking to himself on many occasions. He died in the 1880s and his death brought a new wave of attention to the strange case, and the unsolved murder that seemed to haunt him for the rest of his life. Many said he had no friends at the time of his death. There are also rumors that he confessed to the murder on his deathbed.
Note: The Gamble Ghost is a particularly difficult topic to research. Most of the published stories ran in a time when it was in vogue to portray Appalachian residents in a derogatory light. In most accounts, not only was Gamble often labeled a “drunk,” but also Mercer, Hindman, and anyone else involved in the story.