Mark Twain has been busy since he died in 1910.
In October 2006, “From the Shadows” brought you the story of Emily Grant Hutchings, a struggling novelist, teacher and writer for St. Louis newspapers, and Spiritualist medium Lola V. Hays. The women claimed Twain dictated a novel, “The Coming of Jap Herron,” and two short stories, “Daughter of Mars” and “Up the Furrow to Fortune,” to them one letter at a time between 1915 and 1917 through a Ouija board.
Through an out-of-court settlement with the publisher Harper & Brothers, owners of the copyright on the pen name “Mark Twain,” the copies of “Jap Herron” were destroyed.*
But in the late 1960s in Independence, Mo., Twain paid the living another visit. Marcene Boothe remembers those visits – they were in her neighborhood.
“We had a next door neighbor that talked to Mark Twain with a ‘Nona Board,’” she said. The “Nona Board” was a type of Ouija board created by her neighbors, John and Mildred Swanson.
Mildred Swanson once wrote she and John created the board since the word Ouija means “yes-yes” (Oui: French, Ja: German) and “there is also need for a ‘no-no’ reaction.” The word “Nona,” she explained, came from an Egyptian seeress from “an earlier time.” And with it, they, and other members of the Swanson’s Midwest Society of Psychic Research, conducted séances.
“They regularly talked to Mark Twain and other deceased people,” Boothe said. “She eventually wrote a book regarding these conversations (with Twain) and entitled it ‘God Bless U, Daughter**,’ as that is how Twain ended each conversation with her.”
But Boothe, a conservative Missouri housewife, was never invited into the Swanson home for one of these séances.
“Present? No. Oh, no,” she said. “I was never asked to join in. I think that they knew we probably wouldn’t have gone along with it. She would talk about it.”
Mildred liked to talk. A full lot stretched between the Swanson and Boothe homes, and that’s where Mildred kept her garden, a garden sectioned off by a fence the Boothe children were afraid to hop to retrieve baseballs.
“I wouldn’t call them normal neighbors,” Boothe said. “They didn’t socialize with people around the neighborhood. The only time we talked was because she’d be out working in the garden.”
But the Boothes became close enough to the Swansons they received a copy of “God Bless U, Daughter.” Because the name Mark Twain was on the cover, the Swansons found the book hard to publish.
“It was by Mildred Burris Swanson and Mark Twain,” Boothe said. “She could not get a publisher to publish a book that was written by a deceased person as she claimed the authors to be her and Mark Twain, so she published it herself.”
Only the Swansons, who are now deceased, know the number of copies sold. However, Mildred Swanson left behind a reason for seeking out Twain and writing the book.
“I spent years asking a question that no living person could answer. ‘Where do we go when we die?’ It was important that I know because a controversy, created for me at an early age, has never been resolved,” she wrote. “Mark Twain, from his home on the astral plane, with love and patience, finally restored my ordered world so that I came full circle to the origin of my problems.”
The book, unlike “The Coming of Jap Herron,” is not a novel; it is a diary of the conversations the Swansons claim they had with Twain. Swanson claimed Twain told her of incidents before they happened, such as her mother being injured in a fall, and that other famous authors were watching her, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
A medium from Independence, Mo., Margie Kay, said both cases are legitimate.
“Emily and Lola are telling the truth,” she said of the Jap Herron readings. “They did communicate via the Ouija board. I think this one is real … and I’d take the writings seriously.”
The Swanson case, Kay said, is a bit more complicated.
“I see them talking about the previous case – they read about it, and may even have the book in hand,” Kay said. “They were talking about how they could attract more people to join their group and thought about trying to contact Twain themselves using the same method. At first, they are not in contact with him – it may have been another spirit or no spirit at all, but later on he does come in and he is angry and amused at their shenanigans.”
Despite the 1920 Supreme Court ruling on Ouija boards, in some circles these boards aren’t toys. According to Dawn Newlan, a medium with the Ozark Paranormal Society, these boards are a dangerous gateway to the spirit world.
“A Ouija board, until you experience it, is a fascination,” Newlan said. “Your common sense tells you you really shouldn’t be doing it, but your curiosity pushes you. Once it scares the hell out of you, you’ll quit.”
So beware, you may conjure something a little more dangerous than a humorist from Hannibal.
*Not all copies were destroyed. One is in the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal. You can also find “Jap Herron” online at www.spiritwritings.com/JapHerronTwain.pdf#search=’jap%20herron’.
** A copy of “God Bless U, Daughter,” outside of a private collection, can be found for sale at www.rogercoybooks.com.
Copyright 2008 by Jason Offutt
Got a scary story? Ever played with a Ouija board, heard voices, seen a ghost, UFO or a creature you couldn’t identify? Let Jason know about it: Jason Offutt c/o The Examiner, 410 S. Liberty, Independence, Mo. 64050, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Your story might make an upcoming installment of “From the Shadows.”
Jason’s book of ghost stories, “Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to Missouri’s Most Spirited Spots,” is here. Order online at: tsup.truman.edu, www.amazon.com, or visit Jason’s Web site at www.jasonoffutt.com.