The Order of the Occult Hand

Reese Cleghorn, the alleged founder of the secret society

Not every secret society involves mystical chants, blood-chilling rituals, and nefarious plots to take control of the world's banking institutions, and members of secret societies aren't always shadowy figures dressed in hooded cloaks. Sometimes, they're trusted local newspaper reporters.

The Order of the Occult Hand is a "secret society" of American journalists which dates back to 1965, when a crime reporter from a Charlotte newspaper decided to spice up a mundane account of a domestic squabble by writing: 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 reporter who had penned the colorful passage, had managed to amuse his journalist colleagues so much that they decided to form a secret society around this phrase, and it wasn't long before Charlotte News staff reporters attempted to slip the words "it was as if an occult hand" into their own writing.

This, of course, was no easy feat if you happened to be writing about finance, sports, or a local city council meeting, but journalists gladly took up the challenge. The fact that newspaper editors soon became aware of this inside joke did little to dissuade the members of this whimsical secret society; on the contrary-- it became a point of pride for a journalist to sneak this bit of purple prose past the copy editors.

Purple prose-- writing that is excessively extravagant merely for the sake of being extravagant-- was the sort of thing that a reader might expect to find in an amateurish Victorian Era romance novel. But in a legitimate newspaper? Not so much. The fact that Flanders had been able to get his flowery phrase into print demanded some sort of recognition, and thus the Order was created. Its original members even created their own banner out of a bedsheet, upon which was depicted a bloody hand rising out of a purple cloud.

The Order of the Occult Hand eventually spread, and it was as if an occult hand (sorry, couldn't resist) had permitted the phrase to work its way into papers throughout the country. While some journalists who used this passage were hip to the inside joke, many were not. The phrase became generic fluff-- a crutch for lazy writers similar to the phrase "the vast majority" (seriously, why does every majority need to be described as vast by journalists when there are so many other words that could be used instead?).

"The object of the game wasn't just to use the phrase but to use it with some subtlety. The clumsy types eventually exposed us all," wrote Paul Greenberg, Pulitzer prize-winning editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in 2006. Greenburg has been cited by several sources as the Order's progenitor.

Paul Greenberg

In 2004, because of the proliferation of print and online articles using the "occult hand" phrase, one in-the-know journalist decided to break his silence. James Janega, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote a piece entitled "A True Journalistic Conspiracy", which exposes the Order and tracks the migration of the purple passage from Charlotte to Bangkok.

There is, however, some debate over who actually originated the Order of the Occult Hand.

Paul Greenberg admitted to Janega in 2004 that he had used the phrase on at least six different occasions throughout his journalistic career. "It's a phrase that has that sense of journalese about it, sort of a campy phrase," Greenberg stated.

According to Greenberg, it had been an editorial writer at the Charlotte Observer named Reese Cleghorn who founded the secret society. Cleghorn, who was also a longtime journalism professor at the University of Maryland, was credited as the Order's founder by several other journalists, including Linton Weeks of the Washington Post.

Cleghorn, however, denied this claim. In Janega's 2004 Chicago Tribune article Cleghorn insisted that he'd never heard of the Order of the Occult Hand until the early 1970s, when he began working for the Charlotte Observer.

A few years after the existence of the secret society was made public, Greenberg decided that it was time for the Order to come up with a new secret phrase. In 2006 he stated that he called an after-hours meeting at the annual editorial writers' convention to select the replacement to the "occult hand".

"There were a number of nominations, and it wasn't easy picking a winner," wrote Greenberg. "Which did we pick? I'll never tell."