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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Man Who Knows: Alexander's Luminous Ouiji

Readers will recognize the "Man Who Knows" byline as a reference to the famous magician Claude Alexander Conlin, better known as just "Alexander" or "the Crystal Seer."  My website has a page dedicated to him, and I've long been on the search for his publishing company's long-lost product, the "Alexander's Original Luminous Ouiji Divining Board."

Alexander produced a number of spirit-related items, including spirit trumpets, spirit slates, a rapping hand, and his aforementioned "ouiji" board. We knew about the item from contemporary advertisements--predominantly a sales sheet--and from it, we knew we actually weren't looking for a true talking board per se: we were looking for a writing planchette, with a talking board accessory.

We looked. And looked. I even remember how collectors' hearts jumped when a poorly-considered fake once popped up at auction. That sparked me to post a more reasonable facsimile to try to get the right kind of exposure to the item, which, in the end, helped significantly.  Because now--finally--we have it! I am the man who knows. That is, I know what Alexander's lost product, the rare and elusive Luminous Ouiji, looks like. And now, so will you.

The family that owns this incredible device recently contacted me to share it. It has been a treasured heirloom for 3 generations, and it has an amazing story to tell. For matters of privacy and at the request of the family, I've changed all their names, but they know who they are, and I want to take the opportunity to thank them publicly for all of their help and kind assistance--without people like them willing to share their history, that history becomes lost, and I'm so glad this story was entrusted to me. A thousand times "Thank you."

Given the mythological implications, I think it fitting that we owe the planchette's survival to three sisters. The trio lived in Nampa, Idaho--a religious community called "New Jerusalem" by its early settlers, who were mostly farmers. Nampa wasn't a metropolis by any stretch of the imagination, but it became an important railroad town when multiple lines converged in the area beginning in the 1880s. With the railroad came money--particularly from the gold and silver mining boom of nearby Silver City, Idaho--and the influx justified the building of Nampa's famously-fancy train depot as well as the extravagant Dewey Palace Hotel, built in 1902.

The family homestead, built around the turn of the century, which hosted decades of talking board séances.
Newly prosperous communities attract new settlers, of course, and as the clock turned on a new century, a young woman--Anya--traveled to Nampa, where her family wintered their sheep herd. There, she met her soon-to-be husband, a young farm laborer named Roy, recently transplanted from Iowa. They married and settled in what would become the family's multi-generational homestead, with Roy building the house with the help of his father and 2 brothers. Nan, their eldest sister, was born first in 1904. She was followed by Margaret two years later and, finally, the youngest, Gran, in 1912. Anya left Roy when little Gran was only 3 weeks old, and from then on would have only an intermittent presence in the young girls' lives. With their father working as a carpenter and mail carrier for the US government, the trio largely raised themselves, with 6-year-old Margaret calling little Gran her "baby." The resulting bonds that grew between the sisters were understandably strong.

The Sisters: Nan, Margaret, and Gran.
From family accounts and the historical record, the sisters seem both fiercely independent for the age, and unswervingly devoted to their larger family demesne. It was a different age, and the close-knit sisters did not ever stray long or far from the homestead, which through the decades remained the epicenter of the sister's lives. The house was conveniently-located, after all. Except for Gran's stint as a clerk at a dry-goods store, the trio even worked together just a few blocks from the home at the local telephone exchange beginning in the late 1920s, which was notably housed in the Dewey Palace Hotel. In burgeoning Nampa, the sisters walked everywhere from that house, so much so that Nan wouldn't even bother with a driver's license until 1957! When Gran married in the 1930s, her husband moved in with her into the home, though they eventually relocated to begin their own family. Around the same time, the middle sister, Margaret, married briefly, and while she lived with her husband's family for a short time on their nearby farm, she eventually returned to the family homestead with her daughter. Like Margaret, Nan married only briefly but had no children, and she would herself live in the house until she passed away in the 1980s.

And at some point between those walls, intermingled with life's trials and tribulations, an interest in communicating with the other side took hold.

The sisters had a knack for communications of all kinds--here they are among the crew of the telephone exchange housed in the Dewey Palace Hotel, just a few blocks from their home, about 1929 or 1930. That's Nan standing far left, Margaret standing center, and Gran seated second from left. The family claimed two of those chairs when the exchange disposed of them, and, like Alexander's Ouiji, they became treasured heirlooms and the favored bar seats in the family home!
It is unknown exactly when the three sisters turned toward Spiritualism, though according to family lore, their interest in séances began in the 1920s, and it is thought they were attending a group or circle that sparked their home explorations into conversations with the other side. The sisters were all coming of age then--Nan and Margaret were teenagers in 1920--and were likely were swept up by the national upsurge of interest in fortune-telling and the supernatural (Nan also owned tarot, for example) following the Great War. The period marked a spike in the popularity of Ouija boards, most famously manifested by Rockwell's zeitgeist-capturing moment featured on the May 1, 1920 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It certainly follows a regional pattern--in nearby Boise, in particular, the newspaper record shows séances became quite popular in the early 1890s with the Ouija's first craze, and interest in the supernatural in the area seems to conform to national ebb-and-flow right up through the 1960s.

It is similarly unknown where the sisters acquired their distinctive (and now quite rare) Alexander Luminous Ouiji Divining Board. At the very least, it seems an obscure choice. But if the sisters' interest in séances waxed in the 1920s, it was during the height of Alexander's touring career, and the family speculates that one sister or another may have even attended one of his shows, though it is unknown if the board might have been acquired there or if they were even offered for sale as part of his touring set. But it is known that beginning in 1919, Alexander had his C. Alexander Publishing Company in Los Angeles, which sold all manner of Spiritualist, New Thought, astrological, and esoteric texts through both his storefront and mail order. His offerings included, of course, his "Luminous Ouiji Divining Board," and the sisters are equally as likely to have purchased the device through mail order.

Alexander's ad for his "Original Luminous Ouiji Divining Board"
Image courtesy http://vintagemagician.blogspot.com
However the sisters acquired the set, it was a cherished item, and the three took up its enthusiastic use. The planchette was said to have responded best to the youngest sister, Gran, who appears to also have been the most enthusiastic user. Her older sister Nan kept "5-year" journals that included accounts of séances and the messages they received, which unfortunately have not survived. The board's use was not equated with diabolism in any way, but rather spiritualism, and family members recall the communicators identifying themselves as deceased ancestors.Then as now, the family had an ease and matter-of-factness with use of the board very hard to find in post-Exorcist days when the Ouija has taken on a more complicated persona.

The talking board was no passing fad, either. The sisters continued using the board enthusiastically for decades, and even the next generation took on the board's use, with its current owner (Gran's daughter) and her cousins fondly recalling talking board sessions under her mother's watchful eye, where it was "around their whole lives." Gran's daughter was the most talented user of the new generation, and shared with me that her very unique name was even given to her mother when she asked the ouiji board what her new daughter should be named! And when she was older--particularly in her high school years--she sat with Gran to consult the Ouiji on matters of life and love. As the family grew larger and more spread out, the board stayed with Nan in the family home, and when she passed away 40 years ago, the board was inherited by her niece--Gran's daughter--who occasionally indulged in its use with her own family, and says her eldest daughter works it well herself. Of course, such generational details are a rare treat for us talking board historians, and I appreciate the family sharing their family's history with the device so openly.


I've been engaging in a bit of self-debate of the device's classification. Alexander's ads emphasize the automatic-writing properties of the planchette, with the main focus being on that part of the device, and the included alphabet card being the secondary or backup use of the item. Even a casual reading of original advertisements shows that the device referred to as the "luminous ouiji divining board" or just "board" is always the planchette itself. The planchette holds the luminous component (earlier assumptions were that the alphabet sheet held the dot), the planchette does the divining, and, well, it is a board, after all, but not in the sense that we've come to assume with the focus of ouija and talking boards being the alphabet component itself, and not the index or pointer. The talking board component is only referred to as the "diagram" in the ads, which downplays its significance. In that sense, Alexander's product is more akin to the British planchettes like Weyers Bros, Two Worlds, and Glevum Games' "Mysterious Planchette," all of which were marketed and sold as planchettes, but included fold-out alphabet or message sheets and removable indexes to replace the pencil when pointing was preferred.

Semantics? Only slightly, and I think in this case, Alexander's plain intention and the focus of the planchette over the alphabet board, not to mention its assumed use, put it fairly in both talking board and planchette camps, but inarguably tilted toward the side of automatic writing. However, whatever the manufacturer's intention as to their product's main mode of use, the sisters' use was quite the opposite, and no family members recall any sort of automatic writing attempts with the board. So there's that.

All that remains: the complete Alexander set.
Which goes a long way toward explaining the set's current condition. Even well-used talking boards tend to stay in relatively fair shape throughout the years, suffering, at most, warping or wood separation from humidity or lacquer wear.  But despite the board's wooden tray, the overlaid card itself is only heavy paper, and the years have understandably not been kind. Many of the letters--and all of the numbers--have worn away with the passing of the planchette for decades, and tape was added over the years to repair tears and other damage, and now obscures much of the board.

Even in its heavily-damaged state, the alphabet card reveals its secrets. Its layout is typical of most talking boards: a double rowed of arched letters (plus an ampersand), with a straight line of numerals beneath. Below that, there's the misspelled "Good-By" just above the board's full name in small font. The upper left corner has Alexander's famous turbaned headshot, while the upper right has a nice crescent moon. And the lower corners contain some unique messages: "Lucky Star" and "Misfortune Brewing." All in all, a fairly typical talking board design.

The tray's backside
The tray is an interesting inclusion. The ads do not directly describe it, and its mentions of the "board" refer instead to the luminous planchette which was Alexander's focus with the set. Alexander calling the alphabet component a "diagram" in the ads didn't seem to indicate the inclusion of a "hard" item like the frame. We surmised at first that the tray might have been built by the sister's father to frame the diagram card, though the family was quick to say that was an impossibility--Roy was very superstitious of the board and did not approve of its use, so was unlikely to have built such a tray. In addition, the advertisements do show a similar tray in the illustrations as a bed for sheets of automatic writing, so it seems more likely that the tray was part of the original set, which could have come with interchangeable blank sheets and the alphabet card.


The core of the set--the planchette itself--is full of surprises. The lithographed top is pretty much what was expected from the ad's description and illustration. It turns out the luminous dot is not on the alphabet diagram as had been previously assumed, but instead right there where Alexander's turban's crystal is, though the family reports it has not glowed in quite a number of years. This is a characteristic of long-faded radium paint, of which this dot is most likely painted. The same substance shows up on many of the luminous bands of period spirit trumpets, and was popular for the characteristic glow that helped illuminate the objects in darkened seance chambers. The care and storage of such devices with our modern knowledge of radioactive substances is something we should take seriously in these cases (and reflect precautions we've taken here in the Mysterious Planchette archives with some of our luminous bands), though there are no reports of any of the sisters glowing like the famed Radium Girls, so that's good to hear. Be careful around that stuff, folks.

What's underneath is even more revealing. There is no pencil aperture, but rather an ingenious design that incorporated a pencil in the hollow of the leading leg. Like the alphabet card, the planchette has suffered significant damage. Years of use on the papered top have worn the lithograph significantly, and the luminous dot glob is held on by tape. An unfortunate chew-toy session by the family puppy in the 1970s destroyed one leg and damaged the others, though the family recalls an important facet of the device now lost to too much puppy-love: there was a removable "foot" that plugged into the front leg to even it up with the others when the pencil was removed, and that plug, along with the rear feet, once had those all-important felt coverings.


So that solved the mystery of the illustration's lack of pencil aperture protruding from the planchette's top, and the only notable inaccuracy of the facsimile I'd posted on my page a few years ago--though it turned out to be an important facet in confirming the planchette's identity and bringing the family to me. 

Castor leg detail
Overall, it's an amazing--and amazingly rare--find. As of right now, and until other discoveries come to light, it's the sole survivor. The fact that it has such an incredible and treasured provenance makes its rediscovery all the more satisfying, and I wish I could reach back through the ages to ask those three vivacious sisters all about what the items said to them, even as I thank their daughter and grandson for all of their help in telling their story. It's a fantastic find, and I'm glad to hear it's treasured status as an heirloom. It couldn't be a more special or loved device, and that's rare for a talking board these days. Thank you, thank you.

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