Order of the Occult Hand

Order of the Occult Hand

The Order of the Occult Hand is a whimsical secret society of American journalists who have been able to slip the meaningless and telltale phrase "It was as if an occult hand had…" in print as a sort of a game and inside joke.



The magic phrase was introduced by Joseph Flanders, then a police reporter of The Charlotte News, in the fall of 1965, when he reported a millworker who was shot by his own family when he came back home late at night. He wrote:[1][2]

It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.

—Joseph Flanders, The Charlotte News

Amused by this purple passage, in a local bar, his colleagues decided to commemorate Flanders' achievement by forming the Order of the Occult Hand. They even showed Flanders a banner made of a bed sheet depicting a bloody hand reaching out of a purple cloud. Among the original members were R.C. Smith, an associate editor, Stewart Spencer, then an editorial writer, John Gin, the city editor, and several others, who vowed to get the words into print as soon as possible.[1] The editors were not happy about this mischief at all and ordered copy editors to be extremely vigilant, yet the phrase kept slipping into the paper and even into Down Beat, a jazz magazine, by Smith.[1] The News revealed this tradition of high spirits, how it started, in 1985, when it went out of circulation.[1]

Alternatively, Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, considers that Reese Cleghorn, then an editorial writer of The Charlotte Observer, was the one who originated the Order.[3] Cleghorn denied this claim.[4] The Boston Globe once reported that the Occult Hand Club was a replacement for the Defective Busbar Club, which was open to any journalist who used the words, such as, "the cause of the fire was attributed to a defective busbar, officials said."[5]

The occult-hand phrase did not stop in the Charlotte News and Observer, but has crept onto other media.[1] The use of the phrase has spread to newspaper media around the world like "a cough in a classroom" and "a pox".[6] The Order was occasionally endangered by reckless and artless users of the phrase,[3] but it retained overall secrecy until 2004, when James Janega of the Chicago Tribune published a thorough investigation about the Order.[6] Upon exposure to the public, Greenberg made a full confession.[3]

In 2006, Greenberg announced that the Order had chosen a new secret phrase at an annual editorial writers' convention and resumed a stealth operation,[7] rumoured to be "fetid ointment".[citation needed]


The New York Times in 1974 by Paul Hofmann and in 1998 by Tim Race
The Los Angeles Times from 1983 to 1999 by Deborah Caulfield, Jay Sharbutt, Dennis McDougal, Charles Champlin, Nancy Wride, and Stephen Braun
The Boston Globe from 1987 to 2000 by John Powers, M. R. Montgomery, Paul Hirshson, David Mehegan
The Associated Press from 1991 to 2006 by Jay Sharbutt, Scott Williams, Eric Fidler, John Skoyles, and Joann Loviglio
  • Jay Sharbutt (26 September 1991). "FBI's Untold Stories Told, James Earl Jones Seeks A Few Laughs". The Associated Press. 
    "As the show wears on, your eyelids may slam shut, as if tugged by an occult hand.
  • Scott Williams (26 January 1996). "Bruce Greenwood and the Picture that Put 'Nowhere Man' on the Run". The Associated Press. 
    "Veil became the pawn of a conspiracy so vast it's as if an occult hand had plucked him out of our reality and dropped him into a private nightmare."
  • Fidler, Eric (23 March 1998), "Sound Bites: Audio Reviews: "Pilgrim" (Reprise) - Eric Clapton", Associated Press Newswires 
    "When he plays the blues, it is as if some occult hand is guiding his hand over the guitar, channeling the essence of the blues through Clapton."
  • John Skoyles (21 April 2003). "The 'hermit' emerges in Calvino's writings". The Associated Press. 
    "It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities."
  • Joann Loviglio (26 June 2006). "Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child collaboration continues with new novel". The Associated Press. 
    "After venturing through museum catacombs and rooms that held everything from whale eyeballs to flesh-eating beetles feasting on animal carcasses, it was as if an occult hand led them to the hall of Cretaceous dinosaurs.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from 1993 to 2004 by Paul Greenberg and Kane Webb
  • Greenberg, Paul (28 May 1993), "Warren G. Clinton's Bad Week", Tulsa World: p. A12 
    "It was as if an occult hand was at work, or maybe a screenwriter for one of Mel Brooks' slapstick comedies."
  • Paul Greenberg (28 September 1994). "The anarchists' convention". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
    "It's as if an occult hand had reached into newspaper offices across the country and assembled a whole menagerie of opinionators, from the ring-tailed roarers to the loyal meeks."
  • Paul Greenberg (13 February 2000). "Hillary: The latest production". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
    "Then there's the care Hillary Clinton, Esq. took with those disappearing billing records, which had the strangest way of appearing years later in the White House--as if an occult hand were moving them about."
  • Paul Greenberg (3 October 2001). "COLUMNISTS: Advice from the past For a still new president". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
    "As if by an occult hand, the following correspondence was delivered to the White House mail room yesterday:"
  • "EDITORIALS : Harry Potter goes free A federal case for muggles". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 28 April 2003. 
    "And now, as if by an occult hand, Harry himself has been freed."
  • Paul Greenberg (16 June 2004). "No harm, no foul". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
    "The Dan Ryan and Eisenhower Expressways would be overrun with stalled vehicles, as if an occult hand had just emptied the Loop.
  • Kane Webb (20 June 2004). "COLUMNISTS One helluva trailer". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
    "As if by an occult hand, they appear-mama, papa, and baby."
The Washington Times from 1996 to 1998 by Rex Bowman, Sean Scully, Ronald J. Hansen, and Jim Keary
  • Bowman, Rex (7 November 1996), "The winner is ... or is it? Miscount makes pair sweat it out", The Washington Times: p. C5 
    "And on Tuesday, as if an occult hand were meting out justice to the senator, Mark Warner seemed poised to make the same comeback."
  • Scully, Sean (7 November 1997), "Barry vs. Plotkin", The Washington Times: p. C8 
    "It was as if an occult hand had reached down to throw beleaguered Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. a wee crumb on an otherwise bleak night."
  • Ronald J. Hansen (20 February 1998). "Meter running out on free parking in the District Contractor installs first new machines". The Washington Times. 
    "It was as if an occult hand had delivered a cold slap of reality to the efforts of D.C. Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett, who hopes to make the parking system work again."
  • Keary, Jim (2 April 1998), "Cops corner shotgun-toting man on his way to register with police", The Washington Times: p. C5 
    "But even with that explanation, it was as if an occult hand swept him away - into handcuffs and into the back seat of a police cruiser."
The Virginian-Pilot in 1997 by Larry Maddry
  • {cite news|title=Amazing new fabric fits notoriously messy eater|author=Larry Maddry|date=19 March 1997}}
    "The fact is a food item which seems inert in a glass container - cocktail sauce for shrimp is a good example - has been known to sail as far as 15 feet to where I stand and hit the sleeve of my coat as though tossed by an occult hand."
The Washington Post in 1997 by Linton Weeks
  • Weeks, Linton (5 June 1997), "Spares and Strikes", The Washington Post: p. C05 
    "It was as if an occult hand had guided the black sphere down the narrow lane and into the triangle of pins."
The Post-Standard in 2000 by an anonymous author
  • "Look out for another emu roaming Oswego county". The (Syracuse) Post-Standard. 12 October 2000. 
    "As if moved by an occult hand, phantom emus keep popping up in Oswego County."
Star-Tribune in 2001 and 2002 by Eric Hanson and Kristin Tillotson
  • Hanson, Eric (15 July 2001), "These books rock `Fargo Rock City' lauds metal as refuge for teens", Star Tribune: p. 15F 
    "It was as if an occult hand had taken Chuck Klosterman's radio, tuned away from the Top 40 ear candy of Duran Duran and the Stray Cats, and tuned into the satanic debauchery of Motley Crue."
  • Kristin Tillotson (3 February 2002). "Women who get too much ; Is "Sex and the City" bashed because it's a bad show, or because its characters behave badly?". Start-Tribune. 
    "It was as if an occult hand had reached down and given the nation's television critics a pinch on the tush."
The Bangkok Post from 2002 to 2007 by Wanda Sloan
  • "HOME REVIEW - CAT ready to do the amazing digital divide". The Bangkok Post. 27 February 2002. 
    "Mr Charoen said he never interfered in such a minor business venture, but it was as if an occult hand had touched the plaza and every vendor suddenly promised to sell only legal software, movies and music."
  • Wanda Sloan (25 February 2004). "THE SLOAN RANGER; The battle to keep updated". The Bangkok Post. 
    "A curious and concerned reader named Joe clicked on "Tools" and then "Windows Update" and found himself transported as if by an occult hand to WindowsUpdate.Microsoft.com -- where he was confronted by a staggering 22 update packages for Windows XP and a staggering lack of instructions on what to do about it."
  • "HOME REVIEW; Plaza to get high-tech dust-off". 11 August 2004. 
    "Greenpeace campaigner Patwajee Sri-suwan denied removing anything from the centre; by incredible coincidence, as if by an occult hand, Greenpeace found a papaya tree 60km from the research site, no idea how it got there."
  • "HOME REVIEW; TOT Corp shows a lust for loot". The Bangkok Post. 18 August 2008. 
    "Finally, as if by an occult hand, there it was out on the table, your TOT Corp coming clean;"
  • "HOME REVIEW; A head rolls at TOT". The Bangkok Post. 4 July 2007. 
    "it was almost as if some occult hand had guided the convenient contract issuance."
  • H. E. (1 January 1990), "Dying Data", Byte 15 (1): p. 42 
    "It's as if an occult hand had reached out and intentionally destroyed your data."
  • Rogers, Dennis (3 August 1993), "Snug fat clothes and other realities of pre-boomers", The News & Observer: p. B2 
    "One morning last week, while pondering the daily question of khakis vs. jeans, it was as if an occult hand reached down and plucked the baggy green pants from the hanger and thrust them at me."
  • Shinkle, Florence (14 February 1994), "Fated attractions: How our minds (and our glands) make us fall in love", St. Louis Post-Dispatch: p. 1E 
    "It was as if an occult hand had pointed you out to each other."
  • Crawford, Hal (27 January 1998), "Addiction To Gaming Still A Sordid Secret For Many", The West Australian: p. 10 
    "As if an occult hand had slipped over his shoulder to assist, the little plastic shelf slides back into the machine and begins to whirr."


  1. ^ a b c d e John Vaughan (1 November 1985), "Occult hand 'grabbed staffers' imaginations", Charlotte Observer: p. 9A 
  2. ^ Maddry, Larry (2005). "Secret Society". Hampton Roads Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-10-31. http://web.archive.org/web/20071031015937/http://www.hamptonroadsmagazine.com/issues/0905/secretsociety.php. Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
  3. ^ a b c Paul Greenberg (16 June 2004). "COLUMNISTS A full confession". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
  4. ^ Paul Greenberg (8 April 2009). "COLUMNISTS True confessions". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 
  5. ^ "Ask The Globe", The Boston Globe: p. B8, 8 November 1999, Factiva bstngb0020010825dvb8013h3 
  6. ^ a b c Janega, James (25 July 2004), "A True Journalistic Conspiracy:When a secret society held writers in thrall", Chicago Tribune, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2004-07-25/news/0407250346_1_phrase-editorial-page-editor-journalism, retrieved 25 October 2011 
  7. ^ Greenberg, Paul (2006), "Occult hand strikes back", Jewish World Review, http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/greenberg120606.php3, retrieved 2008-02-20 

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