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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!

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