A secret society of journalists

An occult hand playing chess

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

“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. 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. The News revealed this tradition of high spirits, how it started, in 1985, when it went out of circulation.

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. Cleghorn denied this claim.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.”

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

In 2006, Greenberg announced that the Order had chosen a new secret phrase at an annual editorial writers’ convention and resumed a stealth operation. (…)

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