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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7 comments
kevinmannis
kevinmannis

Please know that the comment below was left with a great deal of affection and not intended to be offensive in any regard.

 

Jason Haxton is an outstanding writer, a true scholar, and someone I am privileged to call my friend.

kevinmannis
kevinmannis

Over the past 8 years, or so, I have come to know Jason Haxton as a fine upstanding citizen, an intrepid investigator, and someone, in my who has made great efforts, great strides, and found success as an academic achiever.

 

In the article Devil's Wine Box: Missouri's tie to The Possession, it was reported that Jason doesn’t like my “un-academic” approach when I’m interviewed about the box. The article goes on to say that Jason’s irritation stems from my repeated statements that the box contains a “Dybbuk”, and “Kesem”, which Jason asserts is a “…totally incorrect term for a spirit or magical object.”

 

I just wanted to chime in by saying that the word “unacademic” is not a hyphenated word according to the Oxford dictionary, Webster’s, or Dictionary.com, and while Jason may not like, approve, or consider my approach to interviews we have done as being academic, the fact of the matter is that I approach every interview from the position of being the only person who has been allowed to maintain contact with the family of the original creator of the object. The fact of the matter is that I have never claimed that the box contained anything called “Kesem”. I have always used the correct term, “Kesselim”, which is a Hebrew word for what is translated as the term, “fooling spirits”.  One of the best descriptions of these entities may be found in Gershom Sholem’s book, “Kabbalah”, which is considered to be a definitive primer on the subject.

 

To be certain, I approach interviews and the subject of the Dibbuk Box as someone who began learning Hebrew at birth; began studying the contents of the Hebrew works such as the Mishnah at the age of 10; studied the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Torah, the first five books of Moses-the first five books of the Old Testament, and the verses of the Haftarah, from the books of the Prophets on a daily basis in “shiurim” classes, “chavrutas” pairs and private tutored study 3 hours per day, from the age of 10, through the date of my Bar Mitva at the age of 13.

 

Upon my Bar Mitva I became eligible to lead religious services, and read from the Torah as well as participate as a member of a minion. I was expected as I continued my daily studies of the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch, and Halakha. Halakha has been developed throughout the generations since before 500 BCE. It is a constantly expanding collection of commentaries consolidated in the Talmud. It is the amalgamation of intricate judicial opinions, legislation, customs, and recommendations, passed down over the centuries, and taught to successive generations from the moment a child begins to speak. It is the subject of study in yeshivot. Yeshiva is a Hebrew word   I was also expected to have learned and responsible for keeping the 613 commandments contained in the Old Testament. Known as the Taryag mitzvot תרי"ג מצוות, there are 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot given in the Torah.

 

I have read and studied in Hebrew, Aramaic, and English, ancient Kabbalistic texts such as the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), the Zohar, the Sefer Ha-Bahir (the Book of Illumination), and scores of other works contained as part of Aggada – always keeping in step with Parashat HaShavuah, or the weekly portion of the Torah, Ketuvim, Navi, and the blessings of the works of Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and even the radical works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

 

Eventually, I ended up also taking the regular courses I completed in college for my A.A. in Real Estate, and the licensing requirements of my state, and my B.S. in Business/Advertising too.

 

I’m sure it is obvious that due to the fact that I am a Jew, aside from my regular American education, I have had no other option but to receive my education in exactly, and identically, the same manner as people such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Jesus.

 

On his website, under the heading of research, Jason lists two books:

 

 Sepher Ha-Razim (the Book of Mysteries) Jason states that the book contains actual Hebrew “incantations” written phonetically in English that instruct a user on how to call upon angels.

 

Jewish Magic and Superstition, by an author named Trachtenberg. Jason offers this book as the best book on Jewish Mysticism in the last 2000 years up until 1939.

 

Having said all of this, let me just give my apology for the unacademic way I have approached the subject of the Dibbuk Box, derived from my original Ebay posting, and the subsequent interviews I have participated in over the last 8 years. I have been trying to do the best I can with the resources I have had.

 

Steven Butler once commented,

 

"Academic and aristocratic people live in such an uncommon atmosphere that common sense can rarely reach them."

 

Happy Rosh Hashana, everyone!

 

kyda40
kyda40

@rbdragonrider You should research and learn the difference between "then" and "than" as well as how the space goes after the comma instead of before and a period ends a sentence, not a comma.

rbdragonrider
rbdragonrider

that is Qaballa, and Madonna is one celebrity ,among many, who practice the spiritualism and self empowerment, before quoting it u should learn to spell it and study it, I have studied the Qaballa for years and even applied it to precepts of wica,for self  healing and power, and i have never had  any disease since adolescence,more serious then a cold

rbdragonrider
rbdragonrider

 @kyda40  @rbdragonrider actually i probably know better then u how to punctuate since i have had several published essays in Missouri Youth Writes,from Mizzou press, but my typing is atrocious so a few typos are inevitable, hence editors

kevinmannis
kevinmannis

 @rbdragonrider The word is spelled Kabbalah, when it isn't spelled in Hebrew, and Madonna's practice of Kabbalah is similar to a penguin's practice of rug crochet. I am glad, however that you have been blessed with good health and a hearty faith.

 

rbdragonrider
rbdragonrider

 @kevinmannis like i said the correct spelling is Qaballa go to ur local library and check the card index I have the the book. published in 1934 by Random house

 
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