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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Planchette in Scientology: The Apsel Contributions

Your truant curator is returned from his recent foray into the lecture circuit of the paranormal conference world, having attended as a special guest at Phenomenology 105 in Gettysburg. And what a treat it was! Between the always-appreciated companionship (and ever-enduring patience) of my friend and collaborator Bob Murch and the host of great new friends and acquaintances, I could not have asked for a better weekend. My new pals and I had dinner with Michael Myers himself (that's Tony bottom right) and met some Walking Dead zombie cast members. None other than 30-Odd-Minutes host Jeff Belanger himself escorted me on my very first ghost hunt, and I recorded a whopping 1.5 hour interview with Devon and Angie of Mysterious World TV. Let's hope they are enthusiastic and unsentimental editors. The fruits of those labors should bloom shortly, so stay tuned to...errr...stay tuned.

One of my favorite people is Nicholas Antolick of Nick is not only a master craftsman in wood and brass, but has a passion for his work that I've never seen equaled. His creations are beautiful, which is not surprising given the high level of personal scrutiny he gives each of his planchettes. Admiring them at his dealer table, attendees very quickly found most were for display only, and not for sale, usually for some minor imperceptible flaw or another which Nick simply could not forgive himself. But he's nearly ready to reveal his next wave of product...sooooon. He is knowledgeable with a fantastic eye, and that's what brings him into the fold this morning.

I first met Nick at the October opening soiree for our talking board exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. At that time, he showed me a few treasures he had acquired over the years, via grainy-yet-enticing cell phone pictures. After months of correspondence and friendship, I had not only the opportunity to hold and document the items, but also add two of them to the personal collection after some mutually-beneficial horse trading. I can't thank you enough, Nick.

The subject of today's blog is one of these items. Not since discerning the nearly imperceptible "Wanda Tipping Table" logo on an old film still has the bank broken open so completely on an item whose identity was previously so concealed. Back in October, Nick showed me a simple triangular planchette with a slightly shiny finish, with a few words I could just barely make out: "The Planchette by Absel(?) Jacob Rosa (?)." That's what it looked like to me, anyway. Google didn't offer the slightest bit of help. It wasn't until the planchette was in hand that the faded, worn letters of "Absel" turned the "b" upside down into a "p," and the assumed "a" of "Rosa" morphed into the "e" of Rose. That's...ummm...much different.

So, I'm proud to introduce you to a fascinating little automatic writer with a great little history: The Planchette by Jacob & Rose Apsel.

 As far as can be determined, the Apsel planchette was offered for sale exclusively in the pages of one of Scientology's earliest "fan-zines": The Aberree. The Aberree is a funny little newsletter, published 10 times a year from 1954-1964 by Alphia and Agnes Hart. The 'zine was billed as "the non-serious voice of Scientology" and covered a wide range of metaphysical curiosities in a loose, often humorous format, largely absent from the strict totalitarian tenets of the modern church's public facade. Fortunately for us, archivist Kristi Wachter has compiled the total run of the Aberree on her site, providing us not only a fascinating insight into the community voice of Scientology in its earlier days, but also the only existing clues to the creators and creation of the Apsel planchette.    

Perusal of the volumes shows us that Jacob Absel's first appearance within the pages of the Aberree came in 1955, where he reveals he was already a subscriber in a letter to the editor, and reveals himself as a free seeker for his own truths when he writes: "As one who has been fleeced by experts in the Metaphysical field and also in Dianetics, I wish to loudly state that Rev. James W. Welgos is like a breath of pure fresh air. Twice in two months I spent a week at Fairhope, Ala., along with others who came to study and solve problems in living. The phenomenal manner in which he dissolves problems is sweet to witness." By this time, Jacob is nearing 60, and possibly by now in his second marriage, to Rose, herself in her early 40s. Both make frequent appearances in subsequent years and enthusiastic supporters of the newsletter and various metaphysical subjects.

The first revelations of automatic writing and talking board use come a few years later, in a September 1859 Article by B.E. Roessling, a high school teacher of psychology and biology. The article's headline read:

 The article outlines a cursory description of several "electro-magnetic" devices meant to tap into the human body's "mysterious phenomena," including some sort of automatic writer consisting of a stylus and a rotating drum covered in vellum. According to the article, the author is able to have more success with these sorts of homemade devices over writing planchettes, which, she reveals later in the article, others in the community are using to greater success than she, which can only beg the question of possible ties to England's Metaphysical Research Group or Venture Bookshop, who, by this time, are the only purveyors of metaphysical ephemera producing writing planchettes.

But that would soon change, and from within the Scientology community itself. Shortly thereafter, there appears in the pages of the April 1960 edition of Aberree an ad from aforementioned frequent contributor Jacob Apsel, selling, for the first time, a planchette based on some precepts of Scientology.

 The following month, the ad expands into more depth--and more promises of results:

Similar ads continue throughout the early 60s, with Rose signing on as partner as early as November 1962, which may or may not signal their marriage around this time. Whether or not earlier planchettes carried both spouses' names is unknown.

The instructions likely survive with another existing specimen, but until then, we can only surmise at their contents from Frederic Hand's article that almost serves as an expanded review of Apsel's planchette, in the March 1963 edition of the Aberree. Mr. Hand had apparently set up a correspondence with the Apsels in regards to an acquired planchette's use, and the article reveals that the instructions included with the planchettes may have promoted a belief in specific "entities" believed by the Apsels to communicate with users. As Hand puts it: "It's a nice piece of work, but hasn't worked for me quite the expected way. When I tried it out, instead of getting a manuscript of some kind, I got a few painfully-scrawled words, followed by a series of full-scale interviews with a bunch of entities.These entities were very congenial and we had a barrel of fun doing cultural anthropology on each other, exchanging opinions, and having "bull sessions" generally."

Hand takes the communications in stride, even if they are not what was expicitly promised in the planchette's promotional materials. He goes on to write: "As far as I'm concerned, the Apselian entities exist all right, but they're not nearly the sort of beings the Spiritualists describe. And I think I know why. These entities are curious, imaginative, comparatively irresponsible, have a complicated and irrepressible sense of humor, and are as friendly as a wet puppy. If you want metaphysics, predictions, prehistory, theology, or whatever, they'll provide it. Of course, they improvise most of it as they go along, but they're not trying to fool you; they're just trying to be agreeable."

Hand's article is fascinating and humorous for the light touch he gives the subject and his communications, and, fortunately for us, opens up the book on the subjects the missing instructions might have provided. I haven't had a chance to talk to any entities hardwired to my specimen, but I'll let you know if I get the distinctive whiff of wet puppy.


As for the planchette itself, it is obviously a handmade affair, and, despite my earlier hopes that it would match up with Bliss's similarly-triangular-shaped planchette of an earlier era, it was obviously made of a more modern linoleum-ply material of some sort--perhaps counter-top material--with glued-on balls for castors, and likely garage-assembled. Claims of "untouched by machinery" in the ads is incredibly dubious, however, given the angled-drilling of the pencil aperture that could only come from a modern drill press. But that's OK. It opened up a whole new train of thought on planchette use in the 1960s that I'm only just beginning to explore, and I hope to have more for you soon, including more information on the Apsels and the sources of their beliefs. Stay clear, true believers, and hope I don't become fair game for the mere mention!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unveiling the Ouija: MysteriousPlanchette on ParanormalReview

Things have been incredibly busy for your host as he prepares for his upcoming lecture at the Phenomenology 105 conference next week, all in the midst of a crazy SxSW and Spring Break season here in Austin. Lots of news discoveries to share, of course, but in the meantime they must yield to preparations and anticipation of larger events and a visit back to Gettyburg, which I haven't seen since high school.

Last evening your host had the opportunity to sit down with his partner-in-crime and frequent collaborator Robert Murch of as we chatted about our research into the history of talking boards with the delightful hosts--Luci Leibfried and Anthony Agate--of Paranormal Review Radio. Murch and I spent just over an hour discussing where it all started, what's become of it, and where it might be going with a new generation of pop-culture paranormal fans and ghost hunters. Tune in and enjoy!

Listen to internet radio with ParanormalReview on Blog Talk Radio

Friday, March 8, 2013

Mysteries at the Museum

Your esteemed host had the privilege to act as the on-air consultant for talking boards, the history of Pearl Curran, and the ouija board-influenced writings of her spirit guide Patience Worth on last night's episode of Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum." The web version is, as one might expect, a significantly edited version of the original airing, which was over twice as long with a lot more information and screen time.

Of course, check your local listings for Season 3, Episode 12, for the full version!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Planchette Polka: The 'Little Plank' in Popular Music

In the days before phonographs and record sales, the music industry was dominated by sheet music printers. As the popularity of blackface minstrel shows--vaudeville's immediate precursor--rose to the forefront of popular entertainment in America, and pianos, organs, and melodeons became fixtures in the middle-class parlors of the country, so too did the demand for transcripts of the songs and melodies made popular by the traveling theater shows. Stationers and booksellers, in this sense, were the only 'record stores' of their day.

By the time of the First Great Craze of the planchette's popularity, the invention of the phonograph is still 9 years away, and the sheet music business not yet dominated by the music producers of New York's infamous "Tin Pan Alley," which will not rise to supremacy for another two decades. Copyright laws on songs and melody were less strict than in modern terms, and there is a proliferation of sheet music based on popular melodies--with the lyrics changed, of course--that, with the advantage of historical retrospect, track the prevailing zeitgeist of previous ages. 

As such, Spiritualism already had a long history in sheet music. Among many others, it begins, appropriately enough, with the Fox Family-endorsed "The Haunted Ground" in 1851, with the interesting notation that the title was changed "from the original word 'haunted' by the suggestion of the spirit of Mrs. Hemans to 'hallowed'" (it should also be noted that the lyrics were also credited to the disembodied soul of Mrs. Hemans). There was 1851's "Spirit Polka" and its 'spiritual' successor, 1853's "Mysterious Rappings Polka," the you-know-that's-not-actually-a-seance-trumpet-on-the-cover-right? "What the Spirits Did in a Horn" in 1858, and 1863's "Spirit Rappings" (with their rapping/and their tapping/rap-tap-tap/to wake our napping).

*Note there is some dispute on the dating of the last listed item, with one archive listing it as 1853, which seems more appropriate, and the JScholarship archives listing it as 1863. Though we believe the former is likely more accurate than the latter, we'll defer to the dating of the archive from which the image is borrowed.

Assorted Spiritualism-inspired sheet music, 1851-1863, courtesy of
In 1868, the planchette hit American parlors in a way not seen since the popularity of table tipping in the previous decade. Consequently, sheet music publishers rushed to capitalize on the amusement in the same way that booksellers across the country began their mad scramble to produce the items. To date, we have discovered 4 such songs, beginning with Lee & Walker's 1868 Planchette: Song & Chorus with music by Eastburn and lyrics by Elmer Coates.
Set in 2/4 time, the song is a quick and snappy turnaround of wordplay and rhyme, with 9 short verses and a catchy chorus that sings "Planchette, planchette, oh! let me see/What luck you have in store for me. Planchette, planchette, thou wonder great/Oh! Quickly tell my fate..."

The first verse recognizes the planchette for what it was at the time: a bonifide sensation, claiming it is "all the rage" and "the talk of youth and age" that is "played from morning until night." Subsequent verses turn their attention to users of various ages and occupations, all consulting planchette for advice in love, law, medicine, and well, love. It begins with a lawyer consulting on a case in the second verse, and the others cover the love affairs of a widow, a physician, a 17 year old girl, a "dandy bach," a spinster, another spinster, and a preacher.  

Verse 1: Planchette is all the rage/The wonder of the nation/the talk of youth and age/Of poverty and station/the game is played from morning until night. To see what “fate” the “little plank” will write!

Verse 2: A lawyer wants a point/before he'd go-to pleading; He says “I wish the truth/Ere I am interceding:”/He's told “there'll be no harm and no one hung/If he'll leave court and only hold his tongue”

Verse 3: A widow “in her prime”/Says “trouble don't neglect her”/and wants to know “the time/to hunt a new protector;”/when promptly told most any time will do/She cries “Hurra! Dear Ike, I'm in for you.”

Verse 4: A doctor wants to know/the fate of one he's tending/”When will the fever go”/or “when will he be mending?”/The pencile moves and he is clearly shown/”The man will rise when he is let alone.”

Verse 5: A girl of seventeen/who bears the name of Hannah/would like to know about/the “running off of mamma;”/when told that girls must never leave the right,/she says “then Jo, I'll marry you tonight.”

Verse 6: A dandy bach appears/Al whiskers and potatum/“Oid loike if I/can marry Sallie Tatem.”/When told he “can't” he sinks upon a chair/And says “Aw woman thou art false as fair.”

Verse 7: A lass of forty four/would learn about her lover/She faints upon the floor/when told he likes another/She says ah!me, a terrible mishap/and shales till wig and teeth fall in her lap.

Verse 8: Up comes a number two/who rather long has tarried/and with a much adoo/says she “will I be married?”/When she is told there is another chance/She hires a fiddle and begins to dance.

Verse 9: A preacher very proud/and fond of elevation/Would know “but not too loud”/Of richer congregation;/He's told to try the famous church Saint Paul/and he begins to plan himself a call.

The songs is entertaining and, in the paradox I've often observed with planchettes, as opposed to their latter-day replacements in the Ouija, innocent and non-threatening, with even a preacher depicted as consulting to device for heavenly advice. The characterizations are fun and, one would think, fairly entertaining given the parlor atmosphere of the day, and for which it was intended.

 The second selection is our most lavishly illustrated, but unfortunately only known through its cover, discovered among the photo archives of an Etsy user who had unfortunately long-ago sold the document. Again dating to the first year of the craze in 1868, Planchette Polka by C.Y. Fonda of Cincinati, Ohio, sought to not only capitalize on the planchette craze itself, but ride on the coattails of the dominant manufacturer of the devices: none other that Kirby & Co of Boston. The cover illustration is an accurate depiction of a Kirby planchette, with its distinctive "bitten heart" shape, and the song is not only dedicated to the company, but their address is provided. Whether or not Kirby & Co., themselves stationers and publishers, were partners in this enterprise is unknown. Unfortunately, what the song's lyrics may reveal (if, of course, there were lyrics, given that La Motte is only given a composition credit), is unknown until a existing copy can be relocated.

Advertisement from the Western Rural, April 22-July 15, 1868

There is at least one other song that dates from the era of the First Great Craze: "Planchette Song: Set the Truth Echoes Humming published by the J. O. Barrett company of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, with lyrics by J.O. Barrett and music Stephen W. Foster (not to be confused, unfortunately, with Stephen F. Foster, the "father of American music."). Though notated "con allegrezza" ("with joy"), its lyrical content seems almost hymnal, and quite heavy in content compared to the upbeat stylings of the other featured songs and, well, the polka.

 The lyrics are serious and heavy, more befitting a church hymnal, with verse 1 singing:

"Oh wand of thought/by angel taught/To playful give the fairy story/How birdlike glides dreamy tides/Life's mystic bark to realms of glory"

"The compass drifts/on music rifts/Across the clear immortal river/'Neath summer skies of rainbow dyes/that lofty span the bright forever."

The two successive verses are similarly heady, and only once the chorus breaks into a four-part accompaniment between bass, alto, soprano, and tenor, do we truly get a breakthrough of the song's dreamy subject matter:

"Write, write, canny Planchette!/Set the truth echoes humming/Write, write, canny Planchette/angels coming, coming/angels coming."
The final selection again lightens things up in "Planchette: the Celebrated Comic Song," published in 1870 by Oliver Ditson & Co of Boston, with words and music by G.A. Meazie Jr, and, apparently, as popularized by the "Intimitable" Barnabee, the popular Boston-based opera singer. The song seemed to be popular and, on at least one occassion, a financial lifesaver for the singer, for of the song Barnabee wrote in his autobiography:

"When I sang my Planchette song--so named after the little pseudo-psychic machine, a fad of the hours, which was supposed to answer questions--I asked how much the members of the Barnabee Concert Company would be enabled to salt down in the real estate out of the proceeds of that evening's entertainment. The slim house roared with merriment, and made us feel that they heartily appreciated our trick of extracting pleasure out of adversity."

The song is quite entertaining, even today, giving a account of the romantic foibles of a group on a romantic mountain outing. With a chorus that shows that not only do modern pop stars like Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons resort to annoying-but-catchy nonsense song-words as stand-ins for actual meaningful verse, the song does catch the frontal lobe and hang there for a bit:

"Ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, Ka-boo, ka-boo-zle-bom/Ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, Ka-boo, ka-boo-zle-bom/She loves a foo, a foo, a foo/a foozle, foozle fum/It wrote it out very plainly/She loves a foozle fum."

Ya know?

The first verse sets up the uncomfortable circumstance of the sitters who gather around planchette in the fresh mountain air, and segues into the chorus with a spoken piece directed with a wink and a nod to the audience:

"We were up among the mountains/drinking in the country air
Riding, walking, laughing, talking/with not a sigh of care
We had use up ev'ry method:/plann'd to kill the time, my dear
When lo! There one day came to us Planchette, that toy so queer
They told us it would answer true/such questions as we asked it
O'erjoyed at having something new,/when evening came we tasked it
By lot I was the first to try/ the pow-ers of this wonder
I tried 'till ev'ry finger ached/and wished the thing to-- 

*spoken* Said I in my most pervasive tones: Will planchette be kind enough to inform the company present, when the good time coming may be expected? I assure you we were all very much astonished when Planchette wrote out quite plainly:" *chorus*

There are 3 more verses, each entertaining in their own right. In the second, a cockney English dandy character with the wholly improbable name of Fitz Augustus Romberg draws his "spotless kids off" to confidently work the device, only to stand their motionless for minute after minute, trying the patience of the assembled group until he finally asks about the weather, to which planchette replies with its nonsense "ka-boo, ka-boo, foozle-fum" chorus.

The 3rd and last verses concern a tense love affair between a spinster, Miss Galusha Spriggins and another sitter and her love interest whose-names-just-happens-to-comfortably-rhyme-with-her-own, "Old Squire Wiggins." Among them, however, is "a maiden  with wavy golden hair" who "looked so sweet and pert," on which both men of the table (the squire and the singer) have their eye: the "charming little flirt" and, if her transcribed accent is to be believed, the Russian "Zelia."

As the planchette finally begins to race across the table to the questions posed, in verse 2 by Galusha as she attempts to trap Old Squire Wiggins, first into romance, then into jealously revealing the crush by for whom he is rebuffing her advances. Wiggins takes control at that point, trying to hint to the beautiful Zelia that his affections are reserved for her, only for both to be rebuffed as Zelia herself reveals her true love to be:


That's right. She loves foozle-fum. They all do.That, and ka-boo ka-boo. That's all they can get planchette to write. The implication seems to be that the singer himself will be rewarded with the affections of dearest Zelia.

But all he gets is foozle-fum.

Which is better than I've ever done.