A Poetic Mystery via the Ouija Board

Last week I wrote about the dark side of Ouija Boards — today I want to tell a love story.  On April 18, 1949, J. B. Rhine wrote the following in a letter to Mrs. Goodrich C. White, the wife of the president of Emory University:

“I was up in New York last week, talking to the staff of the Veterans Administration Hospital at Lyons, N. J.  I drove back down with Florence Anspacher, wife of the author of The Challenge of the Unknown.  She is a delightful person, and as I may have told you, she has become very deeply interested in the survival problem.  I think it will be better to say that she is especially interested in what she believes to be communications with Dr. Anspacher [her late husband].  She has accumulated quite a collection of very beautiful poetry, that has come by way of the Ouija Board, manipulated by two poets, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Auslander.  She is now planning to publish a book presenting this poetry with some of the dialogue.”

Dr. Anspacher was Louis K. Anspacher, a playwright and a poet who died on May 10, 1947.  Rhine had only recently met Dr. Anspacher when he came to the lab in December, 1946.  Anspacher’s book, Challenge of the Unknown: Exploring the Psychic World, would actually come out a month after he died.  Waldemar Kaempffert, a New York Times science writer and friend of Rhine’s, supplied the introduction.

The Times said it was “an admirably clear-headed book on a very difficult subject …”  Rhine said it was, “interesting but not very profound … however it is done in good taste and I think it will help the cause rather than hurt it.”

A couple of months after her husband died, Mrs. Anspacher wrote Rhine.  “I rather hesitate to write you … However, as you knew Louis and know me, I thought you might be interested in the following.  I have been using a Ouija board, and have been receiving messages purporting to come from Louis and my parents and other people.”

She and her husband had tried the Ouija board before she said, and had always been “rather skeptical and very much puzzled … by these manifestations,” although some of the suggestions that came from Dr. Hyslop (a Columbia University professor who was interested in psychical research) were incorporated in Anspacher’s book.  She was writing because she wanted to know if Rhine knew anyone who doing research into Ouija Board communications.

Rhine, as usual, was friendly and very diplomatic, although skeptical.  The fact that she was aided by two poets, Joseph Auslander (taught at Columbia) and Audrey Wurdemann (won a Pulitzer and was the great-great-granddaughter of Percy Bysshe Shelley), did not escape him.

Rhine suggested covering the face of the person working the Ouija Board with a black cloth (very clever). But Florence wrote back that her friend did not like to do that, “as she seems to feel that she cannot breathe and seems to be very uncomfortable.  Perhaps that is the reason we do not get messages that way.”  Ah.  Clearly they tried it and the results were not what they would have hoped.  Rhine also suggested “cutting out the alphabet and scattering the letters under a glass,” and Florence wrote that messages still came through when they did this, although more slowly.

Rhine did not accuse the couple of fraud and instead wrote, “I find myself toying mentally with the alternative of a synthetic creative mind made up of the Auslanders, yourself, and something of Louis, and goodness knows what more, all functioning in a transcendent order of composition that constitutes genius [that’s laying it on a little thick].  Central to the organization is the Louis-personality.  How much of a separate and continued existence this personality maintains is another question.”

He then proposed a new control which addressed the complaint about being uncomfortable with wearing a black cloth. Why don’t they trying hanging “up a heavy black cloth between the subject and the table.” (I don’t have a record of whether or not they tried this.)

Not surprisingly, Florence held on to the hope that the poems might be coming from her husband and Rhine diplomatically started calling them a “literary mystery.”  When she published the poems in 1953, it was clear that she had adopted his position somewhat when she titled the book, Enigma,: A poetic mystery presented by Mrs. Louis K. Anspacher.

Rhine maintained a friendly relationship with all of them, and Florence made several contributions to the lab over the years.  She established a Louis K. Anspacher Fellowship, and Bill Roll (who I’ve written about here) was a Louis K. Anspacher Fellow.  Florence was also a regular and generous contributor to the New York City theatre scene, and made a key contribution to Joseph Papp and the Public Theatre, allowing them to provide Shakespeare in the Park, a program which continues today.  Papp named a theatre after her, The Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater, and Hair was their first production!  (I just saw the play and had a marvelous time, I posted all about it on my other blog.)

Like many others, Florence expressed frustration that the Rhines weren’t doing more work on the survival question, and Rhine was honest when he responded.  The case for survival was getting weaker and weaker he wrote, and the communications she received via the Ouija Board were suggestive but not evidence.

However in 1954 he wrote to let her know that, “Tomorrow we will have a day devoted to mediumship.  This is somewhat unusual as you know.  Mr. Thorogood, Director of the Franklin Institute in Boston [Brackett K. Thorogood], who was Margery’s last scientific investigator, is coming down to try to convince us that Margery had something.  We are going to be open-mined and try to learn anything we can.”

Florence Anspacher died on July 21, 1971.

[The first picture is Louis Anspacher, the second is Joseph Auslander, and the third is Florence. ]

15 thoughts on “A Poetic Mystery via the Ouija Board

  1. One should also consider the poems written with a ouija board by the Poet James Merrill; the book, of course, is THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER.

  2. Yes! Thank you for mentioning them. Someone else pointed me to them, I had never heard of them before and I wanted to do a post about them as well!

  3. Describing James Hyslop as “a Columbia University professor who was interested in psychical research” rather understates the case. He was one of the gods of American psychical research.

    And, of course, Patience Worth is the ultimate Ouija board literary mystery. Not all communications were by Ouija board, but many were. Patience Worth is one of the absolutely undeniable mysteries.

  4. It’s true, I was trying to be brief, I hate when posts get too long, but yes. I WAY WAY WAY understated who he was.

    And yes, Patience Worth! I forgot about that story, I loved that one. A great, fun mystery, yes!

  5. And then there’s “Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board”, purporting to be a novel written by Mark Twain via Emily Grant Hutchings.

  6. Check out spiritwritings.com for on-line texts of “Jap Herron” and other 19th & 20th century spirit writings both fiction & non-fiction- so many it’ll make your head spin. Ms. Horn, loved “Unbelievable” a great read & an important contribution to the history of American psychical research.

    Just a little trivia, William Romaine Newbold a minor character in the early history of the ASPR was my 3x great Uncle.

  7. A Ouija board-used by two others without my knowledge-told them of my wife’s impending death. It spelled her name and then said she was “going home”. We (my wife and I) ran into these two people by chance and the guy told us about their experience. The woman with him clearly did not want the story told to us. My wife asked them “will I be going home in a body bag?” nervous laughs all around and nothing more was said but my wife died a week later and did in fact return home in a body bag.

  8. Thank you so much for pointing that out. I must have looked at it a billion times and never caught it.

  9. J. Thomas, I am very sorry about your wife. My god.

    Mark and Steve,, thanks for the pointers. Who knew there was all this out there! (Well, you guys did.)

  10. interesting report../ i suggest u read a book by chelsea quinn yarbro//it is titled Messages from Michael//from berkley books// about the board//very fascinating ed.

  11. I met Mrs. Anspacher a couple of years before her death, when I was a young playwright with Joe Papp. We talked for several hours in her apartment, and she told me of the poem she received from her late husband over the Ouija Board. I have not the slightest doubt of her veracity. She was a remarkable woman of great spiritual beauty. She also remarked that even though in her eighties she was having a hard time getting out of a chair, she still felt 16 years old inside. Meeting and talking with her that day was one of the great experiences of my life.

  12. Oh wow, thank you so much for sharing that story! (I can relate to the 16 year old inside, although for me it’s my 30’s mostly, but still.)

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