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5 Books Dictated From Beyond the Grave

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It’s really hard to write a book; it’s even harder to sell one. Add a dead author into the mix (it's pretty difficult to outline plot points and dictate precise punctuation from six feet under) and you’ve got a real publishing challenge. Enter the Ouija Board. Here are a few of the most famous instances of two frustrated creatives—one dead and one living—coming together to make literature happen.

1. The Sorry Tale, Pearl Lenore Curran and Patience Worth

Starting in the early 1910s, Pearl Lenore Curran and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings worked the Ouija board together twice a week, mostly to keep themselves amused while their husbands played pinochle. For almost a year, the planchette moved around the board but pointed to mostly random letters that didn’t form words, let alone sentences. Then, on July 8, 1913, Patience Worth made her presence known.

According to the frantic spelling across the Ouija board, Patience was born in either 1649 or 1694 “across the sea” and was killed in an Indian raid. Don’t ask which tribe, though. “Would ye with a blade at thy throat seek the [affiliation] of thine assassin?” she once responded to the question.

When really inspired, the Patience-Pearl duo could spell out about 1500 words an hour, which is how she came to be the author of books including The Sorry Tale and Hope Trueblood. Even spirits have their critics, though: Atlantic Monthly essayist Agnes Repplier declared the Worth pieces “as silly as they are dull.”

Curran may have hinted about the true origins of Patience Worth when she wrote a short story for The Saturday Evening Post in 1919 under her own name. The plot went something like this: A girl named Mayme believed she had a “spirit guide” named Rosa. After a bunch of hoopla about the whole supernatural affair, Mayme confessed to a friend that it had all been fabricated. “Oh Gwen, I love [Rosa]!” she admitted. “She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

“Patience Worth,” by the way, also happens to be the name of a character in a popular novel of the day that probably had some 1900s version of Fabio on the cover. Coincidence (or not): it was set in Colonial times. Pearl Curran said she hadn’t so much as flipped through the bodice-ripper before her own Patience started writing.

2. Jap Herron, Emily Grant Hutchings and Mark Twain

Emily Grant Hutchings, Pearl Curran's bestie, also claimed to receive prose via spectral author. Unlike Curran, though, Hutchings' ghostwriter already had a bunch of bestsellers under his belt. Hutchings, a one-time resident of Hannibal, Missouri, said that a spirit identified himself as “Sam L. Clemens, lazy Sam,” during a routine Ouija Board session, and requested help getting his final literary vision published so he could rest peacefully. “Every scribe here wants a pencil on earth,” Twain spelled out on the board. Not wanting to disappoint one of the greatest authors in history, Hutchings agreed. Throughout the course of writing Jap Herron, Twain offered his opinion on the homemade board (“That apostrophe is too far down. I am in danger of falling off the board every time I make a run for it”), the editing (“Will you two ladies stop speculating? I am going to take care of this story. Don’t try to dictate”), and the tobacco being used by Hutchings’ husband (“In the other world they don’t know Walter Raleigh’s weed and I have not found Walter yet to make complaint”).

Maybe being dead dulled Mr. Clemens’ gift for words and timing, because the end result was roundly panned. “If this is the best that 'Mark Twain' can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary,” The New York Times declared in 1917.

The “co-authored” book had another major critic: Clara Clemens, Samuel’s daughter and the executor of his estate. She sued and was successful in getting Hutchings to cease production of the books and destroy any remaining stock. That means you won’t find Jap Herron next to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in bookstores, but it is available under Hutchings' byline. You can also read it online if you like.

3. God Bless U, Daughter, Mildred Swanson and Mark Twain

Apparently unwilling to let his deceased status slow him down, Samuel Clemens allegedly contacted Mildred Swanson of Independence, Missouri, decades after his dictation to Hutchings. In the late 1960s, Swanson wrote a book called God Bless U, Daughter, a diary of her planchette conversations with Clemens. The title came from the way Clemens signed out of each session. The author, Swanson said, was able to accurately predict events like her mother getting injured in a fall and told her that authors Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson were also watching over her.

4. The Seth Materials, Jane Roberts and “Seth”

In 1963, a “personality energy essence” calling itself “Seth” contacted Jane Roberts via the Ouija board, which she was using for research on a book about ESP. He wasn’t interested in parlor tricks or delivering messages from long-gone relatives, however. No, Seth preferred to divulge details about reincarnation, free will, telepathy, physical matter, anti-matter, and the subconscious.

As the sessions with Seth went on, Roberts became so comfortable with Seth’s thoughts that she no longer needed the Ouija Board and could simply dictate the messages he was sending through her brain. Together, Roberts and Seth developed enough material for 10 books from more than 1800 sessions.

Here’s Jane in a Seth session from 1974.

5. A View From the Other Side, Mary Maracek and Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts died in 1984 at the age of 55. Naturally, she took it upon herself to channel her writings through someone else just as Seth had done through her. The result is Jane Roberts’ A View from the Other Side, a brief booklet about Jane’s own experiences since her death. Most of Jane’s fans denounce the work as utter fabrication, saying that not only does it not sound like her tone of voice, but it also expresses views that Jane never would have agreed with.

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Supermarket Employees to Compete in National Bagging Competition
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In today’s busy world, efficiency is king—especially at grocery stores, where long checkout lines can turn even the most patient shopper into a petulant purchaser. It only makes sense, then, that a nationwide competition exists among supermarket employees to determine the country’s best bagger.

As the Associated Press reports, Alysha Orrok, a teacher from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recently won her state’s Best Bagger competition. She’s now headed to the U.S. finals, which will take place in Las Vegas in February 2018 and is sponsored by the National Grocers Association (NGA).

In Las Vegas, finalists from more than a dozen states—ranging from Washington to Florida—will duke it out onstage to see who’s truly king or queen of the checkout line. Competitors will be judged on weight distribution, appearance, speed, and technique (no smushed bread or bruised fruits allowed).

Orrok, who works evenings and weekends at a local grocery store, says she was initially clumsy on the job. “My first day as a bagger I dropped a soda and it exploded everywhere,” she told NBC Boston.

Over time, though, Orrok got so good at her side gig that she decided to compete in the New Hampshire state bagging competition earlier this month. At the tournament, "I was like 10 seconds faster than the next person," Orrok said. "I feel like I get in the zone and I just fly."

Competitors heading to 2018’s Best Bagger competition will face off to see who can achieve the best customer service in the shortest time span. The grand prize is $10,000, which will be awarded to a deserving grocery store employee “with infectious company pride and an enthusiastic commitment to customer service,” according to the NGA.

[h/t NBC Boston]

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The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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