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Monday, January 28, 2013

Three Theodores: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Theodore H. White

This one's a doozy. It may require more than one cup of coffee. And I have some friends on both sides of the research fence who are going to be very thrilled, assuming they can make it all the way through this voluminous blog post.

Sometimes as researchers we cling to thoughts and theories for no real reason other than it feels right. Usually, you hope that if you park the idea deep enough in the back of your brain, and carry the baggage around long enough, eventually you'll run across some snippet that makes the space it takes up all worthwhile. It's like having a pocketful of puzzle pieces you found on the floor, and having no idea if they all fit together until you find another one in your couch cushion years later and decide to pull them out and try fitting them together.

And many times for collectors those puzzle pieces are picked up in the patent archives. Since my earliest days printing up copies of talking board patent drawings on tea-stained newsprint to hang up in my college apartment, I've been fascinated by the materials contained in patents, if the's patent archives were enough evidence of that. Which is how we discovered the conundrum of Theodore H. White. For years ouija board collectors have known of two T.H. Whites—maybe even three—mainly through the patent and copyright archives and a couple of chance discoveries. First, there was the strange dial plate board of 1900, which to date only exists on paper, unnamed and unrealized, as this patent drawing, with its bizarre captured pointers and weird sectional board, from a Theodore H. White of Baltimore:

"Magic Game Apparatus" patent, Theodore H. White, Baltimore, MD, 1900

Then, 19 years later, another strange dial plate shows up on the record—this time on the opposite side of the country and in a design patent of 1919—and again from a T.H. White, only this time based in Los Angeles. There are few similarities in the boards, but the signatures that seem to be fairly divergent, and our brain trust stood firm that we didn't have a match. Too much time and distance and wishful thinking was the reasoning. I remained in a singular minority that we were still looking at the same guy.

"Improvement on Planchette" design patent, Theodore H. White, Los Angeles, CA, 1919

Just two years after this patent, we have another, slightly more traditional talking board patent from the Los Angeles T.H. White. Approved in 1921, this board relies on the old fortune-telling playing card trope for its divinations, itself very similar to the recently-discovered Lillian Kinleyside Mystic Board out of Atlantic City at around the same period. Adding more confusion to the increasing blur of T.H. Whites we were juggling, this patent was absent a proper signature, and it was signed, in print, by proxy, by White's lawyers, who also differed from the firm representing the previous patent, robbing us of any signature or commercial comparisons.

"Psychic Game" patent, Theodore H. White, Los Angeles, CA, 1921

Collectors agreed, however, that though they were unlikely related to the earlier White, these two West Coast T.H. Whites were no doubt the same person working in the talking board trade, especially considering the physical evidence uncovered years previously by our friend Gene Orlando of

“I-D-O PSY-CHO-I-D-E-O-GRAPH” board, Theodore H. White, Los Angeles, CA, 1919
photo courtesy

The tongue-twisting “I-D-O PSY-CHO-I-D-E-O-GRAPH” board is a beauty of a talking board, and I covet it though it falls outside my usual pre-1901-only collecting cap. It is only one of two known specimens ever discovered. Which is no surprise, really, given its “soft construction” and an easily-damaged paper lithograph that is unlikely to have survived intact in great numbers. But identification was easy for us here: besides having its inventor's name printed right on it, which is a rare gift to collectors, we also have a “artistic work” copyright on file awarded for its name to Theodore H. White, again of Los Angeles, in 1919, the same year as the second White dial plate patent. And it does have some intriguing similarities to the 1919 patent drawing, only with a LOT more symbols.

So there we stood. And despite my conviction that we had the same T.H. White here, working from different coasts after a 20-year gap, most collector/researchers were unconvinced that West Coast White of the 1920s had anything to do with East Coast White from talking boards' earlier days. There just wasn't any measurable proof, wishful thinking does us no good, and my case wasn't helped by apparently mis-matched signatures on the patent drawings, either. And I didn't have anything else to back up my theory.

Fast forward to's design phase. Early 2012 was an amazing period of productivity and groundbreaking research as I rushed to get the site live. Clues and hints and tidbits I had been filing away for years suddenly began falling into place as my collection had grown and I had physical evidence to bridge the gap between theory and reality. As I designed the patent page, I carefully recorded all the information I needed to caption each picture, and did some quick online research of every patentee just to log for future reference, in hopes of uncovering some clue that any of these patent drawings might have been made into actual physical products. Sometime during all the confusion, an eBay query revealed an interesting envelope for a "T.H. White and Wife: Spiritualist Mediums and Planet Readers" outfit, which sparked my interest to see if there was any connection to the patent holder. Which is when I stumbled into newspaper accounts of the 1906 T.H. White trial in Baltimore.

What was this? In-depth research at that time was out of the question, as the larger project of a completed website was more important. I brought it up to my fellows: “I just found this crazy story of this occult swindler named T.H. White. Could this be the same guy as our 1900 patent-holder?” I quickly perused the detailed accounts of his arrest and the evidence presented later in court against him. Not a single talking board mention among them, which, given the proliferation of talking boards in Baltimore, I was sure would be noteworthy. Nothing. And my collaborators weren't convinced it was the lead I thought it was, the name being not uncommon and myself with a predilection for jumping, Office Space-like, at conclusions. So, dirty and dust-covered, the puzzle pieces were shoved into my pocket for later perusal. Which just so happens to have been this past weekend.

So, I started fresh with an assumed THIRD Theodore H. White. This one was a rascal if there ever was one. At various times he claimed to have been born in the West Indies and even claimed in the 1930s that he'd immigrated from Jamaica as a one-year-old toddler in 1877, but all evidence points to a more mundane birth and upbringing in Easton, Maryland, where he was born Thomas H. White, and 5 years earlier than his later claims, in 1872. His early life remains a mystery given his inflated self-portrayal and unreliable testimony in later years, but we do know that prior to 1898 he kept an office on Gay Street in Baltimore, where he practiced holistic medicine unlicensed and without higher education under the name “Dr. White's Herb Medicine Company.” By 1898, at the likely age of 26, he was entrenched in the Baltimore Spiritualist scene, now going by “Theodore,” and is listed in the city directory as a practicing medium working from an office at 1537 E. Pratt Street. He is again listed identically the next year in notable bold print—a more expensive paid listing—than other listed mediums, but has now moved into an expansive 3-story brownstone at 1917 E. Pratt Street.

List of Spirit Mediums, Baltimore City Directory, 1901

One year later—1900—we have the first Theodore H. White talking board patent, applied for in April and awarded in November. While the medium and the patentee certainly have the same name and city, we aren't able to jump to the conclusion that they are the same man until the following year, when Theodore H. White changes his advertisement in the Baltimore City Directory—this time to include the designation that's he's the inventor of the “Algomire Magic Cabinet.” Collectors have never given serious thought that White ever actually produced this fanciful board, as so many patents fail to materialize. But given the dates and the advertisements that persisted for the next two years, it seems we now have another board to add to our list of undiscovered treasures. And given the “magic cabinet” syntax present both in the advertisement and the patent itself, there is little doubt that this item refers to the patented product.

Theodore H. White advertisement for services and "Algomire Magic Cabinet," Baltimore City Directory, 1903

The talking board craze was well-established by this time in Baltimore. Kennard Novelty Company had already made a huge impact as the Ouija board became a pop culture phenomenon starting in 1891, and the company itself had discarded its founder, been taken over by the Fuld Brothers, Isaac and William, and changed its name to the Ouija Novelty Company. Factories sprouted up all over Baltimore to keep up with ever-growing demand, and the company's lawyers were busy staving off copycat threats from both within and without, in particular Kennard's new American Toy Company, set up right in the original location of his first company's factory, to produce the short-lived rival in the “Igili” board around this time. In nearby Connecticut, WM.W. Wheeler was doing a brisk trade in his Wireless=Messenger boards. And there were others. Fortunately for White, his board was divergent enough in design to sidestep any potential lawsuit from his litigious neighbors, and some additional protection was no doubt afforded by the distraction of an extremely contentious split between Isaac and William Fuld that led to a 20-year competition and a family feud that endured for 97 years.

During this time, “Dr.” Theodore White seems to have prospered, but not without controversy. His public front as a spiritual healer and quack medicine purveyor came under scrutiny in 1902, when an African-American man by the name of William T. Finley—who himself had once been arrested for purveying quack cures—threatened to murder White after the latter charged Finley $10 for a dubious cure that consisted of wearing a “plaster badge” and drinking “half a pint of water from a creek where the sun never shines.” White refused a refund, and instead offered Finley a job as his “lieutenant,” in which capacity he would travel in White's name to cast spells and undo bad magic. In exchange for the offer, Finley accused White of being a murderer, reasoning that if he did the kind of magic work he claimed that he'd be responsible for people's lives, and in returned threatened to murder White himself, as he later admitted in court testimony.

But a new scheme was brewing for Dr. White. By now he had a lovely wife, Cornelia, and both were well established in Baltimore's Spiritualism scene, where it was later claimed he'd given many public table-tipping séances in halls with as many as 250 guests. He also worked in the classic Mesmerist vein, and painlessly plunging of hat pins through the cheeks of his hypnotized subjects seemed to be a popular display of his abilities. And he continued with quack medicine, including the production of the Sammonia hair tonic. While the impetus that sparked his grandest scheme is lost, we do know that some two months before the Great Fire of Baltimore, in December 1903, the Whites established a new enterprise and began running ads in magazines all over the country. They dubbed this new pursuit “Dr. White's College of Science.”

It was a massive undertaking, and one amazingly modern in its meticulous organization and marketing ruthlessness. Whether funded by his séance fees, the sales success of his Algomire Magic Cabinets, or the exhortation rates White charged for instructing minorities to drink dirty creek water, the investment and risk was significant, but there is no indication of outside investors beyond White and his spouse. Given the printing and advertisement fees just to get started, his earlier endeavors must have been profitable indeed.

The “College of Science” was designed as a correspondence course in occult studies. It began with fanciful advertisements promising the “secrets of the universe.” Through Baltimore's Milbourne Ad Agency, White spent exactly $15,859.50 on advertisements between September 1904 and May 1906 in as many as 51 magazines—mostly “cheap” regional periodicals, such as this example from a 1904 edition of the Colored American:

White was hardly shy about the abilities of he and his wife, or about what he promised to impart to his prospective clients, proclaiming he and his wife Cornelia “the greatest workers and mediums in the world.” Among other assurances, he promised to remove evil influences, grant wealth and power, reunite lost lovers, find buried treasure, cure any disease both natural and “unnatural,” and ultimately bring “Health, Wealth, Happiness and Power” to those taking him up on his offer for his free “Great Charm of Mysteries”—an “Egyptian” breastplate that consisted of a cheap goatskin backing bordered by satin ribbons and filled with a strange powder and printed paper prayers.

College of Science Ad, Colored American, May 19, 1904

The free offer was the snare that entrapped tens of thousands. And the organization of the correspondence was astoundingly modern. The College of Science received approximately 100 responses every couple of days, or, as Ms. Bessie Travers, Dr. White's bookkeeper later revealed, “some days 10, and some days 50.”

The responses provided the college with the name and address of an interested and gullible party lured in by the offer of the free breastplate charm that could solve all of life's problems and grant untold power. With the information attained, a student card would be indexed in a large wooden filing cabinet. What followed was an amazing marketing scheme that could net anywhere from $1-$10—if not much, much more in some cases—from marks for various levels of participation and purchases.

The first reply to the prospective client was not a fulfillment of the charm offer, as careful reading of the ad's promised intention will reveal. Instead, respondents received what was known in White's organization as “Letter One,” a blank application to the college, and a short pamphlet called “Blessings of All Mankind” containing the pitch for the real product Dr. White was offering—his College of Science correspondence course. The book containing the course was entitled the mind-numbingly grandiose “Dr. Theodore H. White's Higher Courses and Complete System of Occult Science a Correspondence Course in Spiritualism Hypnotism Personal Magnetism Mental Healing Magnetic Healing Planetary Readings and White and Black Art.” Letter One continued the pitch, extolling the virtues of Dr. White's abilities and teachings, and offering the correspondence course...and the previously-promised Egyptian Breastplate charm, for $7.

College of Science "Red Book, " 1905

Many took Dr. White up on this initial offer, sending in their $7 and receiving a 208-page book, known as the “Red Book” due to its attractively-illustrated monotone cover, and the goatskin Egyptian Breastplate/Charm of Mysteries. A $9 “installment plan” was also offered. The book itself was everything it promised: a catch-all smorgasbord of Spiritualism, mesmerism, quackery, animal magnetism, magic, spells, and dubious charms. Enrollment entitled the student to some limited correspondence—usually responses to their requests arrived via a generic form letter—as well as a diploma or, for an additional charge, a higher-level “Phd.” In some cases, “graduates” were able to receive their diplomas, on request and without any examination whatsoever, in as little as 12 days from receiving the Red Book.

As for the free “Egyptian Breastplate,” its claims were equally bloated:


If your love affairs go wrong this great work will make them right and cause your sweetheart, husband, or wife to return to you. If there is a certain one you desire to draw to you and cause them to do as you desire, this Charm will positively bring them to you. If your business is in bad shape this Charm will cause it to better, and make you prosperous. If yourself or loved ones are in bad health, it will give you power to heal them. It will enable you to heal all unnatural diseases. It will help you to get money and save it. It will draw to you great forces and enable you to gain many of your greatest desires. It will give you good luck and guide you to success. It will lead you to the greatest secrets. It will cause you to learn all secrets. It gives you magical power. It will cause you to gain friends and also enable you to gain money from all parts of the country.

Your purse will be fuller.

Your life will be brighter.

Your home more happy.

Your desires will be granted.

Bad will turn to good.


But the enterprise gets so much more interesting for those who failed to take up Dr. White on his initial $7 offer, and this is where the real genius of the marketing lay. In approximately 10-day intervals, those who neglected to respond were sent additional solicitations—the turn-of-the-century equivalent to those harassing, debt-collecting telemarketer robocalls. This solicitation involved a series of 6 additional letters, known as Letters Two through Seven, aptly enough. They contained such personal appeals as “We are personally interested in your case because we know that you can become wonderfully successful with our work” and “We cannot believe it is your intention to let this grand opportunity pass you by. If you could see the scores of enthusiastic letters we are getting from others***if you could only realize what we can do for you***We want you to feel we have your interest at heart.” There was even the shaming we-gave-you-a-huge-discount-offer-don't-be-an-idiot: “It isn't like we are charging you the full amount, or that we are inexperienced strangers; if we were, then it would be different.” Letter Two also invited the reader to feel free to write to Miss Bettie Abernathy, a public school teacher at 640 Stevens Avenue, Memphis, TN, and ask her for a testimonial of the result of her graduating from the course. But more on her later.

Dr. T.H. White & Wife trade envelope

If this letter or Abernathy's testimonial didn't get the responder's attention, the appeals continued in subsequent letters, sent out like clockwork every 10 days. Letter Three was printed to appear hand-typed, and included a flattering handwriting analysis that was a typical cold-reading. This letter asked for $1 to reserve a course to be set aside for the correspondent before he courses sold out, but also offered a reduced price of the course and breastplate to $5 if they paid in cash immediately. Letters Four and Five seem to have been removed from the sequence by 1906, but were much in this form—printed to seem as if the receiver was getting personal attention, their initial response having been plucked from the pile due to its high “magnetism.” One of these letters may have been an “our mistake” letter, later described as leading the reader to believe that the previous letter they received was a good deal actually meant for another student, perhaps then offering them the same deal as compensation for the confusion and embarrassment.

Finally, Letter Six marked the price of the course down to $3, with a 30-day deadline to reply. And, finally, Letter Seven offered the course for $2 cash plus $1 due in 90 days and promise of refund if not satisfied—still a highly profitable offer for Dr. White given that the printing costs of the Red Book were only .23 cents each! Only after this point could the uninterested be assured of relief from the barrage of solicitations.

For those who entered the correspondence course at whatever price-point, their fleece was not yet fully sheared. A similarly aggressive campaign was undertaken to upsell the “student” on all manner of amenities. About a month following receipt of the Red Book, the student would receive a letter saying the good doctor felt from afar that they were feeling ill, and offered to sell them the $1 "prayer parchment" package to cure whatever was bothering them, instructing the user on how to inscribe prayers on the parchment and properly distribute them on their property. This parchment was claimed to be made of deerskin, and sold for $1 per yard. It was, in reality, “Herculese” brand tracing paper purchased from Weber & Company paper suppliers for $3.20 per 20 yards. Other schemes followed. There was a card known as a “Symptom Blank” that may have triggered this offer, and contained a health-insurance-like questionnaire on yellow paper, with disturbing questions such as the what-are-you-on-meth-invoking: “Do you feel at times as though there were something alive crawling between your flesh and skin?”

In late 1905 a $1 “Life Readings” option was added for students. In one month 2,400 people reportedly took the deal and sent in locks of their hair, which the doctor was said to press to his temple to receive the reading. The responses were later proved to all be form letters with identical content—a classic cold read—and husbands and wives were often surprised to find that their life readings matched exactly. Additionally, these generic life readings always revealed that the subject was having trouble with their scalp, and conveniently recommended Sammonia's Hair Tonic—a hair loss treatment that “guaranteed to make hair grow on the baldest pate.”—which just so happened to be a side concern of Theodore White's Sammonia Chemical Company from his earlier medical establishment. Similarly, a $1 horoscope reading was added to the course in February of 1906, with the only difference between responses being the horoscope symbol on the letter.

Dr. White's Sammonia Chemical Company Hair Tonic Ad, Colored American, June 20, 1903

The college sold “Adam & Eve root” to cure ails. Each specimen sold for $5 and was said to be able to reunite persons who had been separated, or vice-versa. Similarly, “cauls” were offered. And Dr. White had a clever way to prevent his work from being shared or passed around to neighbors, forcing them to buy their own copies. When a student received their Red Book, they were told they were each “magnetized” specifically for the person ordering it, and if anyone else touched it, that magnetic force would be broken, thus voiding any assurance of miracles working and the teachings from taking proper effect. This, of course, discouraged loaning.

To maintain this enterprise, Dr. White employed approximately 20 “attractive young women” ranging in age from 17-20, all working busily to sort student correspondence, sew the Egyptian breastplates, mix White's “love powder” for the charms, type responses, and stuff envelopes with the pre-printed matter and prayer parchments. The employment of such a fine flock seems to have brought trouble, or, more likely, success brought hubris, as Dr. White and Cornelia divorced in the summer of 1905, approximately 1 year since the enterprise got into full swing. White was said to have been caught kissing one of the typists, and given that the attractive girls lived on the premises—from the bookkeepers to the mail clerks—and were said to be forbidden to leave, it seems indeed that Dr. White had built himself up quite the harem.

But it was a busy harem, and the organization of the enterprise staggering. The meticulous files were coded for each correspondent to track where they were either in the solicitation process or the course itself, with timed intervals breaking up the various offers and solicitations like clockwork in an amazingly efficient sorting system. And it seems White thought of everything. Though the earliest offers asked the respondent to mention the paper in which they'd seen the ad, later advertisements added different “department” lines to the address in each magazine, which worked as a code for Dr. White's staff to identify the source of the response and gauge the worthiness of running future ads in the various periodicals and focus their attention on particularly receptive regions. There were even plans to kickstart a door-to-door solicitation process in Baltimore and Washington DC.

And it was all amazingly facilitated by a remarkably cheap overhead: the one-cent postage stamp. With the relatively small investment of envelopes, cheap “parchment,” mass-printed letters, and a few thousand solicitation circulars promising miracles, Dr. White was able to turn an incredible profit—his biggest expense being the advertising that made it all possible to sell a .23-cent book for anywhere between $3-9, among the other incredibly-profitable “benefits” of the college that cost pennies to produce and a cent to mail, but gained dollars in sales.

But the cheap postage stamp that made it all possible proved to be White's undoing. The local postal inspector Major S.T. Hooten noticed the gigantic volume of mail traveling back and forth between his station and White's Pratt Street home, all carried by White's horse-and-buggy carriage specifically purchased for the work. In the earliest days of his enterprise, White responded freely to requests for inspection of the materials, and seems to have thought any objections settled. But suspicions grew as evidence was gathered, and White could not have known that the innocent inquiry sent by a N. Nolley of 217 High St, Holyoke, MA, nestled as it was amongst dozens of other identical letters of interest solicited by his advertisements, was a trap set by the inspector. With the receipt of a reply promising undeliverable miracles, Dr. White had committed mail fraud.

March 31, 1906 headline, Baltimore American

Dr. White was enjoying breakfast in the basement of his Pratt Street home and headquarters, and his harem of attractive young workers were already busy at their sewing machines and typewriters, when US Marshall John F. Langhammer knocked on the front door. Despite initial protests from White's housekeeper that he was not in, federal agents and deputies—including Secret Service agent Charles E. Wright, swarmed the headquarters. Much of what we know of White's operation as already described comes from this raid, as they infiltrated it in the middle of an already busy day, catching the enterprise in its normal mode of activity.

In the upper floors they discovered White's 17 “attractive young women” busily engaged in typewriting correspondence. On the next floor, 3 employees were discovered mixing “love powder” in a large tray. Others were discovered making the breastplates, described by the agents as “dainty green red and velvet cases” which were square, and contained a small paper prayer inside, bordered on each side with a narrow satin ribbon, and a small satin loop. Copies of his “large books” are mentioned in the deposition, as well as descriptions of the diplomas, complete with recognition seals and ribbon streamers, 10-12 bushels of incoming mail, form letters, envelopes, and all the ephemera that made White's enterprise possible. Rolls of cash were found in a safe in $5-$50 bills totaling $12, 800. White himself was calmly arrested as he dined, and for two hours a stream of evidence poured from the home as the premises was emptied of all the offending materials in preparation for White's eventual trial. Shortly after noon, White was brought to Langhammer's office and summoned the attorney Robert Leach to represent him, and no less a personage that the former Baltimore Mayor Thomas G. Hayes soon signed on to represent him as well. Opposite was District Attorney John C. Rose and Morris A. Soper, representing the US.

June 5, 1906 Baltimore American

The account of the trial is sensational, salacious, and incredibly detailed, and reveals almost all we know of the inner workings of Dr. White's College of Science. It also paints an incredible picture of the life of a fraud Spiritualist and Mesmerist of the age, and at the top of his game. In preparation for the trial, the post office issued a fraud order and immediately confiscated all incoming mail for Dr. White, and it took four postal workers working full-time for 4-5 days to send back the incoming correspondence, processing some 10,000-12,000 letters that were estimated to have been received, though the numbers had been in steady decline since publication of Dr. White's arrest. A number of the letters contained money or stamps. Meanwhile, the attorneys representing the US gathered some 158 witnesses—most of whom were direct victims of Dr. White's fraud. Former students, early rivals, and disgruntled—and often very poor—marks all traveled from diverse parts of the country and 37 states to testify against Dr. White, including witnesses from New Jersey, West Virginia, Texas, Indiana, Virginia, and Alabama.

Their testimony revealed more of White's secrets for reaping the rich rewards of his enterprise. Madame Mary E. Winder, a Baltimore medium that often advertised in the same venues as White, testified at first that she had paid White $700 for a pair of “spirit mirrors” that had failed to manifest any spirits. But on cross examination, she instead claimed to have paid White $250 for private instructions in mediumship, and an additional $450 to cure her bad eyesight, and that the mirrors were a gift in this period from White.

June 1, 1906 Baltimore American

But most of the testimony is what one would expect: the promises were paid for and the dissatisfied pupil didn't achieve the desired miracles. Some caught on to the generic “life reading” scam when they compared their result to their spouses. Others testified that the “Charm of Mysteries” didn't produce the desired results despite it being worn as instructed, and complained at the $2 they had been coerced into paying to “recharge” the breastplates, or the upsell of a $10 “special” breastplate said to be much more effective. Much testimony sought to focus on the mail fraud aspects of the company, such as failure to refund money in the event of students not achieving desired results, which was the defense White had long relied on in his previous encounters with the postal inspector. Testimony showed, however, that getting one's money back was exceedingly difficult, and if anything, only opened the disgruntled student up to more upsells and solicitations, with only the most hotly contested charges receiving relief.

There was, of course, liberal testimony questioning the veracity of Dr. White's many miraculous claims. Jokes were made at the expense of bald men who had failed to be cured by Dr. White's Sammonia hair tonic. The artists who illustrated the Red Book testified that all the miracles depicted were fantasy either of their own imagining or drawn as instructed by Dr. White, and that some negatives were tampered with to insert miraculous effects. Testimony revealed bills that White had paid to doctors to treat himself and his young son, despite his claims that he could cure any ailment with the power of his mind. A paralyzed black man that had sent White $11 of his $25 quarterly income was hauled to the witnessed stand by a friend, and testified that he had obviously failed to be cured. Others testified that when they followed instructions to contact the spirits of the dead and were unsuccessful, appeals for refunds were met with claims that they'd failed to follow instructions properly, and were told to insulate their floors with sheets of rubber, or other bizarre instructions that dodged their requests for refunds.

June 1, 1906 Baltimore Sun

Such testimony dismantled Dr. White's defense. His own employees were called to show to the jury how the filing and indexing system—which had been wheeled into the court—worked, and were convinced by the prosecution to expose the whole nature of the fraudulent business, though most were careful to plead ignorance of the Dr.'s claims or incriminate themselves in the scheme. Experts were brought to court to testify to the chemical makeup of the “love powder” federal agents had caught employees making for the breastplates (a combination of “sulphur, ochre, plumbago, and lead oxide.” ). Printers and paper suppliers were brought in to discuss the nature of White's $1-per-yard prayer parchment—claimed to be of the same type used by ancient rabbis to write divorces on—and reveal it as nothing but cheap tracing paper. It was an airtight case.

And there were other later exposures. The prosecution produced a surprise witness in the form of Mrs. Bettie T. Mullins, a black woman otherwise known as Bettie Abernathy before her marriage—the Memphis “school teacher” to whom aspirants were asked to write for a testimonial. On the stand, she maintained that her testimonial was true. But the prosecution then revealed details more salacious, and produced evidence of White and Ms. Abernathy, listed as his “wife,” staying at a hotel near her home, the Hotel Dixon in Cambridge, MD, and similar evidence that Ms. Abernathy was his guest in the stateroom of the steamer Avalon (again signed “Dr. TH White and wife”), implying he was traveling with the woman—decidedly NOT his wife—to wine, dine, and sleep with her. The prosecution also revealed White's arrest at a house of ill-repute the previous Christmas morning for being drunk and yelling at the house's matron.

Even his poor ex-wife was brought to the stand to testify against him, and while the majority of her testimony claimed she knew little of the enterprise despite signing diplomas as the vice president of the company, Dr. White very nearly opened her up to perjury charges when he instead insisted the following that she was the REAL power behind the enterprise.

June 22, 1906 San Jose Mercury

It was Dr. White's own testimony that drove the final nail in the coffin of his conviction. It is astounding. He recanted nothing. He stood behind each of his claims as they were called out by the prosecution, and obstinately argued in defense of the true power he wielded, even as the federal attorneys joked that his spirit guides had failed to warn him of his impending arrest. His ducked and dodged each accusation. When questioned about his claims that he and his wife had “visited the crowned heads of Europe” he said he had done so “in spirit.” He made similar astral visitation defenses for his claims that he had been to “every country on Earth.” He revealed the tricks he would play on mesmerized subjects, including inducing them to eat candy as soap and drinking air from empty glasses. He admitted nothing, but continued with the same grandiose claims he always had, even if he couldn't recall the names of his influential “Hindoo philosophers” from whom he had learned his art, and even when faced with insurmountable evidence—such as his own handwritten replies and letters—he denied everything, or would defer to the excuse that someone else had written the incriminating part of the letter. But JUST that part.

But his defense was doomed from the start, and on June 15th, Theodore H. White was convicted of mail fraud. On June 23rd, he was sentenced to 3 years in the state penitentiary and fined $1,500. White even hired his own carriage to drive him to the penitentiary, and there was assigned prisoner number 17858. By 2 pm that same day he was within the penitentiary gates and under the control of Warden Weyler. White's one concern on sentencing was the fate of his young son, Delmore, and was quoted as saying “Oh that I could be spared this disgrace for the boy's sake.”

So fell one of the great Spiritualist con-men of his age. And it didn't really stop there, either, as he was subsequently sued by creditors after his jail time and lack of income from his enterprise caught up to him.

But it wasn't the end for Theodore H. White. Not for any of them.

There is, of course, that pesky matter of the talking board manufacturers whose investigations sparked this whole mess. One T.H. White was the patent record in Baltimore just prior to the period during which Dr. White's College flourished. There was the nefarious Dr. White himself. And of course the West Coast double-patent and copyright holder that produced the “I-D-O PSY-CHO-I-D-E-O-GRAPH” board.

Are they all the same man?

The Baltimore Whites became easier to correlate as research progressed, particularly when the advertisement giving his 1917 E. Pratt Street address came to light, which included his moniker as the inventor of the “Algomire Magic Cabinet.” Given the language used in the patent, there is no remaining doubt that the talking board patent holder and Dr. T.H. White of Baltimore are one and the same. But could it be that after his release from prison, and after disappearing from the record for 10 years, that Dr. White resurfaces on the West Coast—again producing talking boards—a facet of his incredibly detailed endeavors never once mentioned at trial?

The evidence seems to point to “yes.”

And it all comes down to those pesky mis-matched signatures after all:

The comparison diagram above perhaps shows it best. For years collectors looked at the first two signatures and thought them too different, too divergent, to be the same man. The capital letters were all wrong and of two totally different styles, and those letters had no real similarities. But as I scrutinized them more and more, staring at them and superimposing them on one another in photoshop, it seemed like the remainder of the signatures—everything BUT the capital letters we were using as markers—was just too similar.

It was my long-suffering wife who spotted it. The key was White's use of the letter “E.” In all three specimens, gathered from the 1900 Baltimore patent, the 1919 Los Angeles patent, and White's 1930 census listing, the "e" that ends his first name, “Theodore,” is essentially in the style of a backward “3.” But the final “e” of his signature, the one that ends “White,” is instead a looped “e.” While the style of his signature changed greatly over the years, this telling aspect apparently did not, as the diagram seems to show. And there is other compelling evidence as well. The 1920s census in LA lists White as a toy manufacturer and immigrant from none other than the West Indies, where White had claimed to be born during his trial, though it was proved otherwise. The 1930s census refines this to Jamaica, and list his as a "sycology" teacher. With so many points of comparison, these three men are likely the same man.

For all his powers and miraculous claims, Dr. White may have a hard time ultimately avoiding the scrutiny of a determined collector, in love with a talking board he doesn't even own. Now, at least, and at last, we call tell his singular story, and dismiss our formerly plural assumptions. And what a story it turned out to be...the story of one incredibly fascinating man: Theodore H. White.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Get-Up and Go That Got Up and Went

Having just had the pleasure of meeting and collaborating with the esteemed Marc Demarest of the Chasing Down Emma blog, I promised to reciprocate the promises of future favors with a response to his September 12, 2012 post: 1893: What Makes It Go?

When I revealed to Marc the answer to some of the questions posed in his post, which included the revelation of the only known surviving specimen of a W.H. Bach Psyche board in my personal collection, he in turn told me if I posted pics to my own blog, he'd just link to that, rather than us sparking a lengthy-yet-informative comment thread lost in last-year's blog posts. Given that I didn't have one at the time, or really a means of trumpeting news and updates for, it suddenly became high-time to create one. So here we are. Thank you for the encouragement, Marc. As if I didn't have enough going on.

Psyche ad from the January 20, 1894 Progressive Thinker
By his own account, W.H. Bach was a devout student of psychic phenomenon, mesmerism, and Spiritualism, who pursued their study in the name of scientific investigation. He claimed to have stumbled into his talents for mediumship "unmasked and not wanted" in 1880, at the age of seventeen. From there he claims to have run the typical gauntlet of psychic phenomenon of the era: table tipping, spirit rapping, and hypnotism, though he is unusually disdainful of "planchette parties," dismissing them as fads even as late as 1893, after a 40-year run, which isn't bad for a fad, all things considered. From there he fell under the tutelage of J.W. Cadwell (a spurious name for a mesmerist if there ever was one), and is said then to have made the connection between mesmerism and Spiritualism, and from that point on "commenced to the use of the powers in conjunction" to pursue mediumship professionally full-time. He apparently put these powers to the development of others' mediumistic abilities—no doubt for a price—and claimed at one point to have nurtured the gifts of some some 30 mediums in a year's time. 

Bach's 1893 pamphlet, entitled "Mediumship and Its Development, and How to Mesmerize to Assist Development," melded these two philosophies and made them available to all who purchased the book, as it contained instructions on both the gamut of spirit-communication phenomenon and mesmerism, including the aforementioned table-tipping and spirit rapping, as well as automatic writing and full-form manifestation. Oddly dismissed are, again, the use of the by-this-time-well-established planchette, and the Kennard Novelty Company's recently-introduced Ouija board, which at this time has swept the nation in a fervor of excitement. But that's no surprise, considering that Bach, following the form of the most classic occult business models, had his own infallible product to sell that promised that you, and you, and YOU, could develop your very own mediumistic abilities in the comfort of your own home. This item was, of course, the Psyche.

Psyche Ad, August 21, 1897 Banner of Light
After Bach's pamphlet exhausts the other forms of mediumship-without-tools, he includes a chapter on his recently-introduced Psyche: The Medium's Cabinet, whose manufacture undoubtedly had nothing to do with the Ouija fad sweeping the nation just one year previously. It is admittedly unique, and for that reason seems to have sidestepped the rash of litigation and cease-and-desist orders that followed from the Ouija's manufacturers in the wake of their product's success, as it was still being advertised some 4 years after its introduction, long after most of Ouija's early competitors had been sued or threatened to oblivion.

Bach claimed the design was dictated to him in November 1892 by a spirit guide, and describes its construction as "made of basswood and put together with wooden pegs and glue, not a particle of metal being used in its construction." This is certainly reminiscent of Thomas Welton's adamant claims that the materials make the medium's tool, and Bach was no less enthusiastic about the cabinet's results, claiming that even those uninterested in Spiritualism were able to develop their spirit-communication talents in as little as 2 weeks (or your money back, right?)

Bach was lucky that the uniqueness of the design set his board apart from others, and far enough away from the Ouija to avoid litigation. But the brilliance of the design is how it seeks to combine—just as Bach himself had—the worlds of mesmerism and mediumship, and the box-like design called to mind the cabinets in use by the Davenports and the curtained, off-limits areas of professional manifesting mediums. Of course, its instructions classically reference the wooden device's magnetically-charged properties, free with every order. What purpose the hand held beneath the main table is still a mystery, but no doubt served as some sort of guidance or spirit influence. Or the more simple matter of stabilizing the light, basswood cabinet not much bigger or heavier than a cigar box.'s Psyche: The Medium's Cabinet board.

The sole known surviving specimen rests in the collections, and is a favorite. It is in unfortunately bad shape, with the lower box portions completely missing, though with the tell-tale holes and pegs and glue marks still visible where they were once attached, which provided us an early clue that there was more to this little board than met the eye, and which was confirmed with the discovery of the 1897 advertisement posted above, discovered by the esteemed Bob Murch of The terribly faded letters were gone over in felt pen at some point with great care and attention, but the would-be savior didn't account for the bleeding ink which has left the stencils bold yet absent of their former crispness. Free of varnish, undoubtedly due to supposed interference with the board's "magnetism," it is a wonder any stencil survives at all between the wear and fingertip-oil, but it is at least indicative of the board's use.

Amazingly, the planchette is still intact with the board, and both carry the distinctive and lovely Psyche stamp, which includes the same intricate whorls as the ad picture in what has to be the most amazingly-detailed stencil of any talking board then or now. And, lastly, an interesting testament was left for perpetuity on the back of the board, from one whose experiences did not fulfill the spirit-communication potential promised by Bach in his books and ads, and is left for us scrawled, in a small, educated script:
                                                       "Aug 10—'02: Don't talk for me." 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Irish Planchette, or, Last Night a Land Deal Saved My Life

Trying to unravel the mysteries of 110-year-old political satire can be trying at best, daring you, as it does, to enter the mindset of the common man of letters of a previous age to solicit the briefest chuckle of long-forgotten parliamentary machinations. Such is the case with this cartoon, published in the March 11, 1903 edition of Punch

The three men are, left to right, George Wyndham, the Chief Secretary for Ireland in the UK Parliament, John Redmond, an Irish Nationalist in the House of Commons, and Colonel Sanders, a member of the North Armagh parliament constituency, and disappointingly not the goatee-coiffed fried chicken magnate.

The cartoon satirizes the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903. The act brought an end to contentious land wars waged between landlords and tenants in Ireland starting with the poor yields of the 1877 harvest. Exacerbated by falling produce prices and decreased demand, successive years saw tenant farmers seeking more control of their resources through boycotts, protests, no-rent campaigns, and legal action against their landlords. Attempts were made to quell the situation in a series of "Land Conferences," but it was finally Wyndham's legislation that led to Ireland's most important land reforms that allowed farmers to purchase their lands en masse from their landlords with government loans modeled to split the difference between what the farmers were willing to pay and what the landlords were willing to accept.

The humor is derived from the influence of Redmond and Sanders in the earlier land conferences leading up to Wyndham's act. Apparently their influence weighed heavily on the government-assistance scheme in favor of farmers, and yet with Wyndham's name ultimately being on the bill, some political machination must have occurred in which the Chief Secretary was credited for ideas largely springing from the pressure of other influential Parliament members, the implication being that the surprised and enlightened Wyndham is wielding the future-forecasting planchette, but his premonitions are influenced by the hands of other men.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

As for the planchette, which is the real focus of our interests, there isn't any information beyond what we can surmise. As anyone familiar with British boards from the galleries knows, most planchettes of the UK-persuasion carry the classic shape first illustrated in the 1867 "Once a Week" article, with a round nose and flat back. This item is decidedly clover-shaped, and brings to mind a later American plank, the ill-timed Psycho Planchette from 1914. And given the period accounts of the plethora of offered shapes as stationers sought to differentiate themselves in a highly-competitive market, it is quite possible that the depiction is of an actual planchette. Once the collector's heart stops pounding, however, it becomes increasingly likely that the shape is an homage to the Irish themselves, and the clover shape a clever nod toward that classic Irish heritage, though one would think that 4-leaves would have been more appropriate given the concessions to the nation's lucky farmers.

Irregardless of this being a realistic depiction or not, shapes were important to early planchette users, and many believed that the shape determined the personality of the board. The December 1, 1868 edition of the Spiritual Magazine even told in its "Planchette in the United States" article that a user had saw fit to deviate from the typical heart-shaped of American planchettes, and constructed himself a triangular planchette. This proved to be a mistake for, as the article claimed, "would write nothing but hearts strung together in every possible shape, as if protesting against the indignity put upon it for making it in any other form."

One can only hope the clover shape's "land purchase" revelations proved more worthwhile in the long run, with a board full of less protestations to its form.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Welcome to Mysterious Planchette!

Welcome to Mysterious Planchette, the blog site for! Stay tuned for new discoveries and groundbreaking research on the enigmatic devices that I've made a mission of unearthing from the depths of their nearly-forgotten history.