Ghost Writers?

Ghosts got a lot of attention in the U.S. from the end of the 19th through the first half of the 20th centuries. Seven hundred thousand men died in the Civil War, one hundred

Elijah Bond's Ouija Board Head stone

Elijah Bond’s Ouija Board Head stone

seventeen thousand Americans (out of 37,000,000 total casualties) died in WWI, and just when things were looking up, along came WWII. That one killed off 2.5% of the world’s population, including 420,000 Americans. Practically everybody had sons and nephews, fathers and uncles who were prematurely sent to the other side, and people wanted to stay in touch.

My mother’s family got its start in Spiritualism when my Great Grandmother visited France as part of the post WWI Gold Star Mother’s program. She bought flowers to put on her son’s grave but there were millions of war casualties and they’d been buried under

Elijah Bond

Elijah Bond, inventor of the Ouija Board

numbers in a disorganized field. She narrowed the graves down to two choices and divided her flowers between them. When she got back home she attended a séance and asked if she got it right. She had, according to her medium, and the other dead soldier appreciated the flowers too.

In the early days of American Spiritualism, ghosts communicated with knocks and bumps. It was extremely time consuming, especially when professional mediums weren’t around. To make things easier, Baltimore attorney and inventor Elijah Bond patented the Ouija Board. He “borrowed” the idea from a Chinese prototype developed in the 12th century.

Bond named his board by combining the French and German words for yes, Oui-Ja. The device was a flat rectangle marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9,

Ouija Board

Ouija Board

the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” (occasionally), and “goodbye”, along with various symbols and graphics. It came with a heart shaped planchette that would be guided by the spirits to spell out messages one letter at a time. Eventually Hasbro acquired all patent and trademark rights. About ten boards are sold today under various names.

The board’s popularity has faded in the 21st century, but it was widely use not so long ago.

In 1913, a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curan, was introduced to the Ouija Board by her friend Emily Grant Hutchings. At one of their frequent afternoon séances, the Ghost of Patience Worth (who lived in Dorsetshire England in either 1649 or 1694) spelled out, “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth is my name.” The message is

Ouija Board with circular alphabet

Ouija Board with circular alphabet

pretty typical of Ouija Board , experiences, but Patience went on to channel seven books, voluminous poetry, short stories, and plays. Her works are virtually forgotten today, but the prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation’s best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a “feat of literary composition.”

Pearl Curan’s friend, Emily Hutchings went her one better. She wrote Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board while the recently deceased Mark Twain dictated it using one of Elijah Bond’s Spirit Boards. The book received less than favorable reviews and was denounced by Samuel Clemens surviving daughter, Clara. Harper and Brothers publishing company, which had sole rights to publish Mark Twain’s works, sued to halt publication. Rather than face a court battle Ms. Hutchings and her publisher decided to stop distribution.

In 1982, James Merrill released a 560 page epic poem entitled The Changing Light at Sandover. According to Merrill, his book was written using a Ouija Board. It received the

Just Sayin'

Just Sayin’

National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Some of the poetry in Changing Light at Sandover had been previously published as part of a collection, Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Not bad for a ghost written book.

Ouija Boards have turned up in the news as recently as 1994. A convicted Murderer, Stephen Young, was granted a retrial after it was learned that four of his jurors had conducted a Ouija board séance and had “contacted” the murdered man, who confirmed Young was his killer. No literary connection here, but this would make an interesting detail in a novel.

I’ve written three novels so far—one published and two on the way—and numerous short stories. I admit to having my share of writers block on each and every one. The next time that happens to me, I think I’ll dust off the old Ouija Board and see if Earnest Hemingway has any advice.

If you’ve been meaning to buy a hard copy of Owl Dreams but haven’t gotten around to it, my publisher is running a 20% off sale for the remainder of this month on all their books. Or, spirits willing, you can pick up a Kindle copy on Amazon.

Spiritualists–Quirky but not Scary

Bodies are buried in the floors and walls of the old churches

Bodies are buried in the floors and walls of the old churches

Spiritualist services are quirky—no doubt about that—but they are nowhere near as macabre as the old churches in Europe. If you are fortunate enough to visit Westminster Abby or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you will find there are bodies buried in the walls and floors. You have to walk around elaborate marble sarcophaguses, and the cellars are crypts.

There’s no doubt what the old churches were all about—survival after death. There’s no doubt about the Spiritualists’

Sarcophagus in St. Paul's Cathedral

Sarcophagus in St. Paul’s Cathedral

theme either. No bodies are buried in the walls and floor of the old frame house that serves as the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City but the pastor wore a beaded necklace fashioned from funeral programs—and of course she talked to ghosts.

About ten people usually show up for a service, but last Sunday there were four. Not much of an audience but the spirits didn’t seem to mind. One ghost reminded an attendee of sharing a meal of polk salad. Another congregant was having car trouble and her spirit guide told her where to find a good mechanic. One lady was alerted to a problem in her grand th-3daughter’s chest. “Difficulty breathing, I think,” the pastor said. “It’s not anything serious but keep her in your prayers.”

It turns out there are spirit doctors and nurses who help us when we are sick. I guess there are spirit nutritionists and mechanics too—why not?

There were only four of us so the pastor couldn’t really leave me out. She looked at me for a moment and mentioned a name. “Do you know her? I don’t believe she’s in spirit.” I recognized the name immediately. She’s still very much alive so I’ll respect her privacy.

 

The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The thing about spontaneous messages from beyond the grave is: none of them are really all that spontaneous. The pastor says a name, or sometimes only a letter in a name, followed by a who, what, when, and where information exchange.  Then comes the message from the “other side.” Usually it’s something general, but this voice had some very specific things to say.

“This spirit feels like her mother or her grandmother. Your friend has suffered a loss and needs to know she’s loved.” The pastor kept her eyes closed through the first part of the message but now she opened them. “Tell her you care. Don’t forget about her and . . . This mother presence thinks she should get a dog.”

The mother spirit didn’t specify a breed but she thought an older dog might work out best. “One that’s not so full of energy.” A member of the Spirit ASPCA? I leave it up to you.

I promised I’d pass the word along.

The future of the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City is in question, because the pastor will be retiring soon. If you are interested in seeing what a spiritualist service is like, you can attend at 2:30 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of the month, at least through July. The address is 2348 NW 36th St.

This has nothing to do with spiritualism, but I want to mention that My Publisher is offering OWL DREAMS this month at 20% off.

 

Spiritualism—origins and experiments

Margaret, Kate and Leah Fox

Margaret, Kate and Leah Fox

Things have always gone bump in the night, and when that happens, people usually give a passing thought to the supernatural. Spirits are nothing new. They are found in the oral histories of every culture, in the scary stories children tell during sleepovers, even in the plays of William Shakespeare.

Ghosts (real or imaginary) have always been with us, but the Spiritualist Church got its start in Hydesville, NY on March 31, 1848 when Margaret and Kate Fox (ages 15 and 11 respectively) used “rappings” to convince their much older sister Leah that they were communicating with the spirit of a murdered peddler whose body was hidden in the cellar of the family’s recently acquired home.

There were already rumors the house was haunted. People heard groans, bumps, and even the sounds of furniture being moved. Those sounds might have been attributed to

The National Spiritualist Summit Magazine

The National Spiritualist Summit Magazine

settling noises that are common in old houses but when the Fox sisters asked questions, the noises answered—one “rap” for yes and two for no. After an elaborate game of twenty questions, the girls had the foundations of a new religion all laid out.

 A lot of religious movements took root in western New York in the early and mid 19th century. These included:

  • The Later Day Saints Movement. In 1823 Joseph Smith claimed he was led by an angel to a hill near his home in Manchester, NY where he found the golden plates that were his source for the Book of Mormon.
  • The Millerites. William Miller founded a church based on a vision of the end of the word that would take place on October 22, 1844. That obviously didn’t happen, but many of Miller’s concepts are still held by adherents of Adventism.
  • The Shakers were very active in that area, and established their first communal farm in central NY.
  • The Oneida Society established a temporary community in the region. They had a unique interpretation of group marriage with mates chosen by committee and children raised in common.

The Fox family was good friends with a radical Quaker couple who helped spread their fame through their religious community. You might be asking yourself, what constituted a radical in the 1840’s? These Quaker extremists believed in abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and temperance.

th-1Before long, the Margaret and Kate Fox were the central focus of the Spiritualist Church in America and Great Britain. Their sister Leah spent much of her life managing their careers. The sisters had many notable supporters including: James Fenimore Cooper, Sojourner Truth, Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, and William Lloyd Garrison. They could have probably maintained a socially respectable following if they hadn’t developed serious drinking problems.

As their alcohol dependency grew worse, Kate and Margaret quarreled with their older sister (and business manager) Leah. They denounced her and confessed that Spiritualism

seance

seance

was a fraud. In 1888, before an audience of 2,000, Margaret showed how she produced “rapping” by popping her toes. She told the crowd, “I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.”

A year later she—and her sister Kate—retracted their denouncement and tried to resume their careers. They never regained popularity and died penniless five years later.

The Spiritualist Church did not share the Fox sisters’ demise. It gained popularity in the U.S. after the Civil War and expanded even more in the U.S. and in the UK after WWI. Mary Todd Lincoln conducted séances in the White House. Alfred Conan Doyle (physician and author) joined the Ghost Club (Charles Dickens had been a member before him) and promoted Christian spiritualism.

 

Site of the Fox Sister's Cabin

Site of the Fox Sister’s Cabin

The town of Lily Dale, NY became renowned as a center for American Spiritualism when it purchased Margaret and Kate Fox’s house in 1927 and moved it into the town. The building is gone, but the site is now maintained as a small clearing in the woods where devotees can go to meditate.

Here’s an interesting bit of information for skeptics to consider. In 1904 (long after Margaret and Kate were “in spirit”) a false wall collapsed in the cellar of the Fox’s old home and revealed a man’s skeleton. A peddler’s tin box was also found. Here were two bits of physical evidence supporting the

Peddler's Box from the Fox's house

Peddler’s Box from the Fox’s house

validity of the sisters’ first séance. That box is on display in the Lily Dale Museum, but it isn’t clear what happened to the bones.

Skeptics and devotees of Spiritualism have continued to search for proof or refutation of communication with the dead.

In 1921, Thomas Lynn Bradford of Detroit, Michigan decided the only way to settle the controversy was to commit suicide and communicate an undeniable message through a medium. Unfortunately, the message was not all that undeniable. He told his co-investigator, Ruth Doran, “I am the professor who speaks to you from the Beyond. I have broken through the veil. The help of the living has greatly assisted me.” He had more to say but nothing specific enough to satisfy a non-believer.

Museum2014-640x532Harry Houdini was a famous spiritualist skeptic of his day. He promised to pass on a very specific message to his wife, Bess, from beyond the grave if such a thing was possible. The message was short, sweet, and specific: “Rosabelle Believe”. After ten years of consulting mediums and attending séances, Bess finally gave up.

By the way, Houdini died on Halloween, in 1926—coincidence?

 

Spiritualist Church / Visit 2 (A Message)

DSC01737On my second meeting at the Central Spiritualist Church, I received a message from a dead relative. In my typical skeptical—some might say devious—manner, I had laid the groundwork. I told the pastor my mother’s name. I expected to hear that name recited back to me, or at least hinted at when the spiritual communication part of the service rolled around. It didn’t go that way.

The atmosphere inside the little frame house didn’t change from the first meeting to the second. The congregation did. There were some repeat attendees, but most of the

Inside the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

Inside the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

people there were new to me. The minister, Juanita Oyer, knew most of them by name. It was a small group, ten mostly middle aged people, eight women and two men including me.

For a religion based on ghosts, the church is not a scary place. The religion is based on nine principals, two of which set it apart from more orthodox Christian churches: (4) We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death, (5) We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism.

The purpose of the “contact” portion of the service is to provide evidence that our departed loved ones survive “in spirit.” This evidence comes in the second half of the DSC01745service, when the pastor delivers messages from the other side.

Juanita Oyer makes firm eye contact with one person after another while she says something like, “I have someone here in a long black dress. I think her name begins with the letter L.” If she sees a spark of recognition she pursues the connection: “Something in your life is about to change—a career, money—something involving your name written on a contract . . .” She follows a line of thought until it runs dry and then she, “lets this spirit go.”

Many of the “spirits” in the room are repeat guests. “Genevieve is back again.”  Many of them attended the church in its salad days. They drop in with advice for continuing members who knew them in life. Most of the spirit visitors, like most members of the congregation are women.

The pastor looked at me several times during the communication part of the service IMG_0057but she never made a connection. She had fallen on her way to church, and wasn’t strong enough to maintain contact.

“I’ll have to stop right now,” she said. “Susan, would you like to try and bring someone through?”

In the early part of the service, we introduced ourselves. I didn’t remember anyone’s name (as usual), but Susan did. She sat in a chair in front of the congregation and had a message for everybody the pastor had missed. She had a different style. More direct, more specific,

Indian Spirit Guide

Indian Spirit Guide

more like Patrick Jane on The Mentalist.

One woman in the front row had a message from an unnamed spirit who wanted to tell her, “something about a man.”

“Does that sound right?” Susan asked.

It did.

“This might be one of your spirit guides,” Susan told her. “She has five words for you: Kick him to the curb.”

Susan asked my permission to focus on a spirit who was there for me.

“I think this is an aunt,” she said. “Someone who was important when you were a child.”

I only had one aunt. I know that sounds strange but my extended family was badly broken. She made reference to my lonely childhood. That was partially true. I had friends but no siblings.

She said, “Your aunt wants you to connect with more people.” I’m presuming she meant people who are still alive. My dead aunt had me pegged as an introvert. Not the kind of message I found convincing but it was a start.

th-1Susan continued: “You have a Native American spirit guide.”

According to spiritualists we all have spirits who stay close to us. They give us premonitions, keep us safe, whisper advice in our ears. Differences in language don’t seem to be a barrier. For some reason many of the spirit guides are Indians. Susan told me mine wore a feathered headdress—most Indian spirit guides apparently do that—and he was, “a giant of a man.”

I was intrigued if not convinced. I write fiction loaded with Native American mysticism. Maybe my muse is a giant Plains Indian Ghost.

My paranormal fiction-writing friends are missing out by not visiting the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City. It’s likely to be closing soon. Juanita Oyer is retiring and according to her, “Oklahoma hasn’t been very fertile ground for spiritualism.” Services begin at 2:30 p.m. on the first and third Sunday every month—for as long as the pastor is willing to continue. The address is 2348 NW 36th St.

Here are some links you might find interesting:

My Books: Owl Dreams / Southwest Gothic Tales (Free) / Messages / Publisher’s June Sale.

Spiritualist videos:

 Adrian Conan Doyle about his father’s belief in spiritualism.

Carol Lynne defines spiritualism.

Do spirits guide us—Carol Lynne.

Validation / John Edward.

The nine principles of spiritualism.

 

Ghosts

 When I saw The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City across the street from

The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

my grandson’s elementary school I wondered if a piece of my life had just re-emerged to haunt me.

My mother’s family was part of the spiritualist movement before I was born. Her father had a Native American spirit guide who showed up at séances and offered what amounted to family counseling. She had a couple of aunts who were semiprofessional mediums, and an uncle who was a psychic painter before he got serious about drinking.

 

The back door of the Centralist Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The back door of the Centralist Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

Ghosts were common fair in the 30’s and 40’s. Newspapers reported hauntings they way they reported political scandals. There were spiritualist camps, spiritualist libraries, spiritualist schools and plenty of spiritualist churches, where—according to Mom—services usually started with the pastor saying, “I have someone here with a message for . . .”

The spirit world had mostly gone out of fashion by the time I came along. Mom’s family (and I) attended the Baptist

Inside the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

Inside the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

church. The only messages came from a man in a suit standing behind a pulpit. Those messages were peppered with thees and thous and whosoevers—incomprehensible from my childish point of view. I drew pictures and daydreamed and waited almost patiently for the Sunday drive back home when Mom would entertain me with stories from her supernatural salad days.

She described table rapping séances and materialization séances. She’d seen spiritual possessions and touched ectoplasm—it’s slippery, if you’re wondering. One ghost (a friend of her father’s) interrupted a family picnic at a spiritualist retreat and announced he’d drowned that very day. Nothing that cool ever happened in the Baptist Church.

DSC01737 I believed everything Mom told me. Ghosts were no exception. I had confidence in her right up until an embarrassing episode in my life when I turned out to be the last person in the third grade who believed in Santa Clause. Then everything she said came into question.

My father wasn’t interested in spiritual matters of any kind. He never set foot in a church unless there was a wedding or a funeral. I asked him once if he believed in God. He thought about it for several seconds and finally said, “I guess so . . .sure.”

His disinterest didn’t stop him from seeing ghosts. Dad saw his grandmother during World War II when it looked like he was going to be killed. He saw his father-in-law shortly after the old man died, and he saw my mother—his wife—off and on for the ten years he lived after she, “had to go away.”

“Probably my imagination,” he told me. “But those ghosts look solid as a Cadillac.”

I complained that I’d never seen anything that faintly resembled a ghost.

“When I die,” he told me. “I’ll let you know if there’s anything to it if I can.”  He died six years ago and I’m still waiting.

IMG_0057The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City is a white frame wooden house, about 1,000 square feet. Too small for me to attend a service without being noticed. I write fiction. Some of it is horror. That little house looks like a perfect prop for a final scene where things go bad for the protagonist.

A Google search revealed an almost imperceptible digital footprint but I found a telephone number. I called the pastor, told her about my mother’s family, told her I was curious about the church and asked if I could come.

“Of course,” she said, without a hint of Stephen King in her voice. “Services are at 2:30 p.m. the first and third Sunday every month.”

I’ll let you know if Dad left any messages.