"It is interesting," adds Stiles White, Snowden's husband and writing partner. "You may not think you're a superstitious person, but as soon as someone offers you the actual artifact...you realize your level of superstition."

Before flying off to the movie's premiere in Hollywood on August 28, Haxton agrees to make a special exception and open the dybbuk box once more for Riverfront Times.

Though he figures he knows almost everything there is to know about the mysterious container in his possession — he published his findings in a book called The Dibbuk Box that came out from Truman State University Press last year — having contact with it can still feel like tempting fate. (Haxton chose to spell the word "dibbuk" to keep consistent with how it appeared in its original eBay auction; the more common spelling is "dybbuk.")

The “real” dybbuk box — shown here inside its protective ark — is kept in a secret location somewhere in northeast Missouri.
The “real” dybbuk box — shown here inside its protective ark — is kept in a secret location somewhere in northeast Missouri.
Jason Haxton at the Laughlin family plot in Kirksville, where Harry Laughlin is buried.
Jessica Lussenhop
Jason Haxton at the Laughlin family plot in Kirksville, where Harry Laughlin is buried.

His son Ross regards the opening of the dybbuk box with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

"It's always an event to open the box," he says. "It doesn't like to be moved."

When Kevin Mannis sat down at his computer in Portland, Oregon, in June 2003 to write an eBay auction description, what came out read more like a distress call.

"All of the events that I am about to set forth in this listing," he wrote, "are accurate and may be verified by the winning bidder with the copies of hospital records and sworn affidavits."

Mannis, an antiques dealer and real estate broker, was then two years into ownership of a strange wine box he now believes was to blame for the loss of his business, his mother's failing health and his loosening grip on reality.

"Either I have some kind of weird haunted box," he recalls thinking, "Or I'm going crazy, and either way it's like I'm going crazy."

Searching for new and interesting items for his shop, Mannis says that in 2001 he attended an estate sale and bid on a pallet of items stacked in the lawn. It wasn't until he began loading the material that he discovered a small, slightly worn cabinet, with two doors, metal grape-bunch embellishments on either door face and a small drawer. Thinking the item might have been put there by mistake, he approached a young woman in charge of the sale.

"I see you got the dybbuk box," she said as Mannis approached.

Mannis says the young woman told him the item was a wine box, and belonged to her 103-year-old grandmother, Havela, who had just died. An immigrant from Poland, Havela was sent to the Nazi concentration camps along with her entire family — parents, siblings, a husband and three children — and emerged the sole survivor. She'd fled to Spain, where she bought the wine box, and eventually made her way to the United States with little else in her possession. But it wasn't a treasured keepsake — Havela warned her family never to open the box and spit through her fingers after she spoke of it. When Mannis offered to give the box back, the woman panicked.

"'No, no, you made a deal,'" he recalls her saying as she hurried away. "'Take it and get it out of here.'"

Ten minutes after dropping the box off at his shop in downtown Portland, Mannis says his store manager called in hysterics. Someone, she screamed, was ripping apart the basement and cursing. Mannis returned and found his manager cowering on the office floor. She pushed past him, never to return to work again.

In the basement Mannis says he found all the light bulbs smashed, heavy tools thrown from one end of the room to the other and the thick smell of cat urine hanging in the air. What he didn't find, however, was any intruder.

Two weeks later Mannis says he opened the box. The doors swung open simultaneously when he opened the drawer, and inside was a small gold wine goblet, a candleholder with decorative octopus legs, a dried rosebud, two U.S. wheat pennies minted in 1925 and 1928, a piece of stone with Hebrew characters for "shalom" engraved in it and two locks of hair — one jet black, the other frizzy and reddish. Setting the items aside, he gave the box a coat of polish then presented it to his mother when she visited the shop to take him to lunch on Halloween.

Within minutes of handing it over, Mannis says his mother suddenly began acting strangely.

"I said, 'Mom, you OK?' and she didn't respond," he recalls. "I could see her eyes were welling up with tears. She was just stonelike, and I realized she was having a stroke."

As his mother was being loaded into an ambulance, Mannis claims a team of law-enforcement agents raided his shop and began confiscating merchandise. Agents from the FBI, he says, told him he wasn't under arrest and that he could go to the hospital with his mother. Robbed of her ability to speak, Mannis says his mother tapped the words "NO GIFT" and "HATE GIFT" out on an alphabet card from her hospital bed.

The raid never resulted in charges, but it did tank the shop. (Portland FBI would not comment on whether any such raid took place.) All Mannis got back, initially, was the dybbuk box.

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