Law is a serious profession, but as anyone who has ever picked up a wacky laws book would know, law can occasionally be a source of humor. We’ve discussed unusual laws from foreign jurisdictions in the past. Today, we return to the United States to discuss the unusual case of Nickerson v. Hodges.
Nickerson frequently appears in law school torts casebooks because it is important to the development of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Black’s Law Dictionary defines the intentional infliction of emotional distress as “the tort of intentionally or recklessly causing another person severe emotional distress through one’s extreme or outrageous acts.” The intentional infliction of emotional distress that occurred in Nickerson was the result of an elaborate practical joke at the expense of Miss Carrie Nickerson.
Miss Nickerson was related to two men named Burton and Lawson Deck, and she believed a family tradition that held these men had buried a cache of gold coins on the property of John W. Smith. Miss Nickerson visited a fortune teller in Shreveport, Louisiana, who confirmed that her relatives had indeed buried gold on the property of John Smith, and the soothsayer even gave her a map directing her to it. Mr. Smith welcomed Miss Nickerson on to his property, allowing her and a few of her relatives to dig for the treasure for months on end. And dig they did, pulling up roots, even looking under the pillars of a house.
Eventually, Minnie Smith, William (Bud) Baker, and H.R. Hayes decided they would provide a “pot of gold” for the treasure hunters to find. They took a container, filled it with rocks, and buried it. They then placed a lid on the container, and attached a note to it. The note directed whoever found the pot to wait three days before opening it, and to notify all heirs as soon as it was opened. Though the goal was to have Miss Nickerson and company open the pot on April Fool’s Day, they did not locate the “treasure” until April 14th.
Several of those in on the joke were present at the time the “treasure” was located. These persons reportedly played along, acting as excited as the rest. Soon the note was discovered, and H.R. Hayes, one of the alleged pranksters, told Miss Nickerson that he thought she should follow the directions and deposit the treasure in a nearby bank for safe keeping. The pot was deposited at the bank, though the cashier refused to provide a receipt for a “pot of gold” since it had not been opened, and they did not know what it contained. After it was deposited, the vice president of the bank and the cashier decided to peer into the container to see what it contained, and they found it contained only dirt. Nevertheless, they decided to keep quiet about the matter.
In the days that followed, rumors spread that the whole situation amounted to an elaborate practical joke. Miss Nickerson remained oblivious, and even asked a local judge to accompany her to the bank to act as a master of ceremonies for the grand opening. The Judge later claimed that he had heard the matter was a joke and had told Miss Nickerson as much, but he still agreed to accompany her. The heirs of Burton and Lawson Deck, the men thought to have originally buried the treasure, were also notified and arrived at the bank for the grand unveiling. All assembled, the pot was brought out.
The accounts of what happened next vary. Either Miss Nickerson immediately noticed that the string tied around the container had moved and screamed that she had been robbed, or she remained calm until the lid was opened. Regardless, it is agreed that she quickly flew into a rage, threw the lid of the container at the bank cashier, and then attacked Mr. Hayes until she could be restrained.
At the time of the incident, Miss Nickerson was forty-five years old, and she passed away only two years later. While the Court recognized that the entire incident was a practical joke and there was no serious, malicious intent, it also recognized that the defendants knew Miss Nickerson had at one time been an inmate in an insane asylum, and the joke had severely humiliated her. The Court ultimately awarded Miss Nickerson’s estate $500.
Nickerson v. Hodges, 146 La. 735, 84 So. 37 (La. 1920)
Update: This was originally posted as a guest post by Robert Brammer. The author information has been updated to reflect that Robert is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.