Haxton says he's tested the surface of the wood for any substance that might explain the effects, like ammonia or other toxins once used as wood polish, but tests came back negative.

The first time Haxton brought it home, he and his son, Ross, began noticing pockets of strange aromas in the house — cat pee, sometimes, or jasmine. The heat in the house conked out. Menacing shadows loomed in the corners.

"It's done enough for me that I believe it's supernatural," Ross recalls of these early days with the dybbuk. "The box is special."


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.

There is still a dent in Haxton's in-laws' kitchen table where a dome-shaped light fixture suddenly dropped from the ceiling, smashing the plates and cups laid out for lunch.

"It had a loose screw," says Joan, Haxton's mother-in-law, winking.

Haxton rolls his eyes.

"Whatever."

All agree, however, that they were discussing the dybbuk box when it happened.

"I don't believe in this stuff. I do believe in miracles, but I don't believe in a bunch of this hokom-pokum," says Joan. "And then we started in on that boat thing — why they wouldn't let those Jews in."

Haxton's description of the supposed original owner of the box, the Holocaust survivor Havela, reminded his mother-in-law of a story she'd heard when she was a girl about a ship called the S.S. St. Louis full of Jewish refugees who were denied asylum in the United States soon after the Night of Broken Glass in 1938. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where many of its passengers died in the concentration camps.

On a whim, Haxton looked into the matter further and came across a "special report" to Congress penned by Harry Hamilton Laughlin in the run-up to World War II.

"Offer no exceptional admission for Jewish refugees from Germany," Laughlin wrote. "Look upon the incoming immigrants not essentially as in offering asylum...[but as] sons-in-law to marry [our] own daughters."

Jewish refugees, he went on, were not suitable "breeding stock."

The Laughlins were well known to Haxton as a successful family of doctors and geneticists from Missouri whose former land is today part of the Truman State University Farm in Kirksville. But he was unaware of how one of the Laughlin brothers, Harry, had applied the family trade.

In the early 1900s Laughlin befriended the famed genetics researcher Charles Davenport, considered the father of the twentieth-century eugenics movement that the Nazis would later apply to the Jewish genocide. By 1910 Laughlin and Davenport were so close that Davenport asked Laughlin to join the Eugenics Record Office, a research institution funded by Andrew Carnegie, as a superintendent in New York State. Laughlin's greatest contribution was his "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law," which helped individual states pass constitutionally sound laws to forcibly sterilize the mentally ill, disabled and other "socially inadequate classes" such as "orphans, ne'er-do-wells, the homeless."

So influential was Laughlin in Germany that in 1936 the Nazi dean of the University of Heidelberg offered him an honorary degree, praising his papers that helped them craft the infamous Nuremberg Laws that sought to cure "hereditary sickness" through sterilization of Gypsies and Jews.

"To me this honor will be doubly valued because it will come from a nation which for many centuries nurtured the human seed-stock which later founded my own country," Laughlin wrote back in acceptance.

But as the atrocities in Germany worsened, eugenics quickly fell out of favor. Seen increasingly as a tool of fascism, Laughlin's work was discredited, and the Carnegie Institution pulled all financial support. He returned to Kirksville soon after and moved into a tall white mansion, which still stands today on the Truman campus.

Laughlin died in 1943, disgraced and friendless.

Standing on the lawn of Laughlin's mansion, Haxton says he thinks this is the key. The "Pirate House," where Joseph previously kept the box, is visible from the Laughlin mansion when the leaves drop from the trees in fall.

"If the dybbuk box had something to tell, it was about this Harry Laughlin, who, you know, set these laws in motion, caught the attention of Hitler," Haxton says. "At some point you keep saying, 'OK, it's just a coincidence, it's just a coincidence.' But at some point people start saying, 'There's too much to not say something isn't there.'"

Around the same time he began his research on Laughlin, Hollywood came knocking. The Los Angeles Times wrote an article on Haxton and the popularity of Joseph's eBay listing — the page had garnered 140,000 hits long after the auction was over — and the story ran in the same section of the newspaper as a piece on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2. In short order, Raimi snapped up the rights to the story and announced plans to make a movie based on the dybbuk box in October 2004. Various screenwriters, including the author of The Grudge, took a crack at the story. One version centered around the exploits of an academic trying to crack the case of the box, but ultimately the authors of The Possession decided to pivot off of Kevin Mannis' story of buying the box at an estate sale. They created a fictional family whose daughter opens the box — containing coins, locks of hair, a stone tablet — and is possessed by the demon inside. Matisyahu, the Jewish rapper, plays the exorcist rabbi.

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