Order of the Occult Hand

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The Order of the Occult Hand is a secret society of American journalists who slip the meaningless and telltale phrase "It was as if an occult hand had…" in print as an 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.[1][2]

— Joseph Flanders, The Charlotte News

Amused by this purple passage, in a local bar, his colleagues decided to commemorate Flanders's 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.[1] 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.[1] The News revealed this tradition of high spirits, how it started, in 1985, when it went out of circulation.[1]

Alternatively, Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, claimed that Reese Cleghorn, then an editorial writer of The Charlotte Observer, was the one who originated the Order.[3] Cleghorn denied this claim.[4] 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 word, such as in "the cause of the fire was attributed to a defective busbar, officials said."[5]

The occult-hand phrase did not stop in the Charlotte News and Observer, but has crept onto other media.[1] The use of the phrase has spread to newspaper media around the world like "a cough in a classroom" and "a pox".[6] The Order was occasionally endangered by reckless and artless users of the phrase,[3] but it retained overall secrecy until 2004, when James Janega of the Chicago Tribune published a thorough investigation about the Order.[6] Upon exposure to the public, Greenberg made a full confession.[3]

In 2006, Greenberg announced that the Order had chosen a new secret phrase at an annual editorial writers' convention and resumed a stealth operation.[7]

In 2020, the Fourth Estate announced an "Order of the Occult Hand" journalism challenge. The goal of the contest is to “encourage and recognize" the best use of a meaningless telltale phrase in a published news article within a specified time frame.  The phrase and parameters vary from challenge to challenge.[1]


The New York Times in 1974 by Paul Hofmann and in 1998 by Tim Race
  • Paul Hofmann (18 September 1974). "UN Gen Assembly 29th session opens on Sept 17. Algerian Foreign Min Abdelaziz". The New York Times (Abstracts).
    "Wonders if Cyprus events might have been 'organized by some occult hand' as part of W Eur global strategy."
  • Tim Race (26 February 1998). "INCOMING; Well Versed in E-Mail Subject Lines". Retrieved 31 October 2011.
    "Even worse, with some E-mail systems, if the writer doesn't fill in the subject line, the occult hand of artificial intelligence will enter No Subject."
The Los Angeles Times–Washington Post News Service in 1976 and 1984 by unknown
  • "'Fer Shur, fer shur,' CB airwaves become a jungle". Los Angeles Times – Washington Post News Service. February 25, 1976.
    "...the patrol car appeared behind him as if deposited there by an occult hand."[8]
  • "NBC Chief Tinker finds it a slow trip to programming high road". Los Angeles Times – Washington Post News Service. January 9, 1984.
    " 'Now let's say we do that in time, if through some occult hand that occurs...' " [putatively a quote from Grant Tinker][8]
The Los Angeles Times from 1983 to 1999 by Deborah Caulfield, Jay Sharbutt, Dennis McDougal, Charles Champlin, Nancy Wride, and Stephen Braun
The Boston Globe from 1987 to 2000 by John Powers, M. R. Montgomery, Paul Hirshson, David Mehegan
The Associated Press from 1978 to 2006 by Jay Sharbutt, Scott Williams, Eric Fidler, John Skoyles, and Joann Loviglio
  • Jay Sharbutt (October 6, 1978). "Premiere of CBS 'Flying High' a dull, tasteless, low-level bomb". The Associated Press.[8]
  • Jay Sharbutt (26 September 1991). "FBI's Untold Stories Told, James Earl Jones Seeks A Few Laughs". The Associated Press.
    "As the show wears on, your eyelids may slam shut, as if tugged by an occult hand.
  • Scott Williams (26 January 1996). "Bruce Greenwood and the Picture that Put 'Nowhere Man' on the Run". The Associated Press.
    "Veil became the pawn of a conspiracy so vast it's as if an occult hand had plucked him out of our reality and dropped him into a private nightmare."
  • Fidler, Eric (23 March 1998), "Sound Bites: Audio Reviews: "Pilgrim" (Reprise) - Eric Clapton", Associated Press Newswires
    "When he plays the blues, it is as if some occult hand is guiding his hand over the guitar, channeling the essence of the blues through Clapton."
  • John Skoyles (21 April 2003). "The 'hermit' emerges in Calvino's writings". The Associated Press.
    "It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities."
  • Joann Loviglio (26 June 2006). "Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child collaboration continues with new novel". The Associated Press.
    "After venturing through museum catacombs and rooms that held everything from whale eyeballs to flesh-eating beetles feasting on animal carcasses, it was as if an occult hand led them to the hall of Cretaceous dinosaurs.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from 1993 to 2004 by Paul Greenberg and Kane Webb
  • Greenberg, Paul (28 May 1993), "Warren G. Clinton's Bad Week", Tulsa World, p. A12
    "It was as if an occult hand was at work, or maybe a screenwriter for one of Mel Brooks' slapstick comedies."
  • Paul Greenberg (28 September 1994). "The anarchists' convention". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
    "It's as if an occult hand had reached into newspaper offices across the country and assembled a whole menagerie of opinionators, from the ring-tailed roarers to the loyal meeks."
  • Paul Greenberg (13 February 2000). "Hillary: The latest production". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
    "Then there's the care Hillary Clinton, Esq. took with those disappearing billing records, which had the strangest way of appearing years later in the White House--as if an occult hand were moving them about."
  • Paul Greenberg (3 October 2001). "COLUMNISTS: Advice from the past For a still new president". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
    "As if by an occult hand, the following correspondence was delivered to the White House mail room yesterday:"
  • "EDITORIALS : Harry Potter goes free A federal case for muggles". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 28 April 2003.
    "And now, as if by an occult hand, Harry himself has been freed."
  • Paul Greenberg (16 June 2004). "No harm, no foul". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
    "The Dan Ryan and Eisenhower Expressways would be overrun with stalled vehicles, as if an occult hand had just emptied the Loop.
  • Kane Webb (20 June 2004). "COLUMNISTS One helluva trailer". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
    "As if by an occult hand, they appear-mama, papa, and baby."
The Washington Times from 1996 to 1998 by Rex Bowman, Sean Scully, Ronald J. Hansen, and Jim Keary
  • Bowman, Rex (7 November 1996), "The winner is ... or is it? Miscount makes pair sweat it out", The Washington Times, p. C5
    "And on Tuesday, as if an occult hand were meting out justice to the senator, Mark Warner seemed poised to make the same comeback."
  • Scully, Sean (7 November 1997), "Barry vs. Plotkin", The Washington Times, p. C8
    "It was as if an occult hand had reached down to throw beleaguered Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. a wee crumb on an otherwise bleak night."
  • Ronald J. Hansen (20 February 1998). "Meter running out on free parking in the District Contractor installs first new machines". The Washington Times.
    "It was as if an occult hand had delivered a cold slap of reality to the efforts of D.C. Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett, who hopes to make the parking system work again."
  • Keary, Jim (2 April 1998), "Cops corner shotgun-toting man on his way to register with police", The Washington Times, p. C5
    "But even with that explanation, it was as if an occult hand swept him away - into handcuffs and into the back seat of a police cruiser."
Stars and Stripes March 28, 2002 by David Allen
  • David Allen (28 March 2002), Rain-hungry Okinawa may face water rationing if dry weather continues :"It was if an occult hand swept rain clouds Okinawa's way."
The Virginian-Pilot in 1997 by Larry Maddry
  • Larry Maddry (19 March 1997). "Amazing new fabric fits notoriously messy eater".
    "The fact is a food item which seems inert in a glass container - cocktail sauce for shrimp is a good example - has been known to sail as far as 15 feet to where I stand and hit the sleeve of my coat as though tossed by an occult hand."
The Washington Post in 1997 by Linton Weeks
  • Weeks, Linton (5 June 1997), "Spares and Strikes", The Washington Post, p. C05
    "It was as if an occult hand had guided the black sphere down the narrow lane and into the triangle of pins."
The Post-Standard in 2000 by an anonymous author
  • "Look out for another emu roaming Oswego county". The (Syracuse) Post-Standard. 12 October 2000.
    "As if moved by an occult hand, phantom emus keep popping up in Oswego County."
Star-Tribune in 2001 and 2002 by Eric Hanson and Kristin Tillotson
  • Hanson, Eric (15 July 2001), "These books rock 'Fargo Rock City' lauds metal as refuge for teens", Star Tribune, p. 15F
    "It was as if an occult hand had taken Chuck Klosterman's radio, tuned away from the Top 40 ear candy of Duran Duran and the Stray Cats, and tuned into the satanic debauchery of Motley Crue."
  • Kristin Tillotson (3 February 2002). "Women who get too much ; Is "Sex and the City" bashed because it's a bad show, or because its characters behave badly?". Start-Tribune.
    "It was as if an occult hand had reached down and given the nation's television critics a pinch on the tush."
The Bangkok Post from 2002 to 2007 by Wanda Sloan
  • "HOME REVIEW - CAT ready to do the amazing digital divide". The Bangkok Post. 27 February 2002.
    "Mr Charoen said he never interfered in such a minor business venture, but it was as if an occult hand had touched the plaza and every vendor suddenly promised to sell only legal software, movies and music."
  • Wanda Sloan (25 February 2004). "THE SLOAN RANGER; The battle to keep updated". The Bangkok Post.
    "A curious and concerned reader named Joe clicked on "Tools" and then "Windows Update" and found himself transported as if by an occult hand to WindowsUpdate.Microsoft.com—where he was confronted by a staggering 22 update packages for Windows XP and a staggering lack of instructions on what to do about it."
  • "HOME REVIEW; Plaza to get high-tech dust-off". The Bangkok Post. 11 August 2004.
    "Greenpeace campaigner Patwajee Sri-suwan denied removing anything from the centre; by incredible coincidence, as if by an occult hand, Greenpeace found a papaya tree 60km from the research site, no idea how it got there."
  • "HOME REVIEW; TOT Corp shows a lust for loot". The Bangkok Post. 18 August 2008.
    "Finally, as if by an occult hand, there it was out on the table, your TOT Corp coming clean;"
  • "HOME REVIEW; A head rolls at TOT". The Bangkok Post. 4 July 2007.
    "it was almost as if some occult hand had guided the convenient contract issuance."
  • Flanders, Patrick (10 September 2018), "Privilege Escalation and a Proposal for Acceptable Exclusion", Lacework Blog
    "Privilege escalation acts as if an occult hand had reached down and simply placed an unwarranted person in the midst of juicy storehouses of data."
  • Hongoltz-Hetling, Matt (28 August 2016), "Irene's Impact Still Felt Five Years Later", Valley News
    "looked like an occult hand had reached down and scrambled the lives of the park’s residents into a sodden and mud-coated shambles."
  • Eglowstein, Howard (1 January 1990), "Dying Data", BYTE, vol. 15, no. 1, p. 42
    "It's as if an occult hand had reached out and intentionally destroyed your data."
  • Rogers, Dennis (3 August 1993), "Snug fat clothes and other realities of pre-boomers", The News & Observer, p. B2
    "One morning last week, while pondering the daily question of khakis vs. jeans, it was as if an occult hand reached down and plucked the baggy green pants from the hanger and thrust them at me."
  • Shinkle, Florence (14 February 1994), "Fated attractions: How our minds (and our glands) make us fall in love", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 1E
    "It was as if an occult hand had pointed you out to each other."
  • Crawford, Hal (27 January 1998), "Addiction To Gaming Still A Sordid Secret For Many", The West Australian, p. 10
    "As if an occult hand had slipped over his shoulder to assist, the little plastic shelf slides back into the machine and begins to whirr."
  • Zachmeier, Aaron (28 June 2002), "Lake St. John Flotilla", The Natchez Democrat
    "It’s as though an occult hand has dug a channel to the Mississippi River, allowing its raucous current to flow through the lake once again after centuries of separation."
  • Sparber, Max (11 January 2012), "Should I stay or should I go?: The question that plagues Minnesota artists", MinnPost
    "It is as if some occult hand were at work, discouraging the arts market."
  • Marmorstein, Donna (6 January 2013), "Soliloquy: What's That Buzzing Sound", Aberdeen American News
    "As if an occult hand moved her to action, she discovered the intercom worked both ways."
  • Morgan, Thomas (14 June 2013), "2 guys in R.I. growing fungi for profit", Providence Journal
    "DiPietro picked up a small instrument that monitored the CO2 level. “Getting up there,” he noted. A few minutes later, as if by the wave of an occult hand, an alarm rang."
  • Purdy, Chase (29 June 2013), "Roanoke Co. Democrats in turmoil", The Roanoke Times, p. A1
    "In Evans' recounting, it was as if an occult hand had swept him aside, replacing him with new leadership, in which Lang had been tapped to call the shots."
  • Gonzalez, Tony (20 October 2013), "Offbeat appeal helps drive Lane Motor Museum", The Tennessean
    "But as Lane began to apologize, the engine kicked in with a puff, as if an occult hand had turned the crank, and the crowd cheered."
  • Murrieta, Ed (24 December 2013), "Performance at The Kitchen worth price of admission", The Sacramento Business Journal
    "Servers work the room gracefully. Empty plates are removed and empty glasses are refilled as if by an occult hand; certainly beyond my notice and I tend to notice such things."
  • Ward, Terence (January 14, 2016). "Communication Breakdown In Rochester: Systems Go Down While Town Addresses Snow Protocols". Shawangunk Journal. No. Vol. IX No. 2. Electric Valley Media, LLC. p. 6. Retrieved 25 January 2016. Perhaps it was because Mercury is in retrograde, but it was as if an occult hand had scrambled all the communication in Rochester town offices on the very day that official business was to begin for the year.
  • Weiss, Herb (January 8, 2018). "Time to Hang Up on Phone Scammers for Good". Pawtucket Times. RISN Operations Inc. p. A,3. Retrieved 23 January 2018. Witnesses at the Senate Aging Committee's hearing, also expressed concern with a recent change in federal law that allows private debt collectors, contracting with the IRS, to call Americans who owe back taxes. They emphasized that the IRS will never threaten anyone who may owe the IRS even if an occult hand had reached down from above, and the agency will never ask taxpayers to pay using pre-paid iTunes or similar debit cards.
  • Ellison, Garret (19 September 2019). "Why won't Wolverine engage with EPA-formed citizen group?". The Grand Rapids Press
    "Wolverine’s absence hung over the gathering like an occult hand; simultaneously central to the matter, yet apart and of concern to the citizen board."
The Seattle Times in 2016 by Jennifer McDermott from The Associated Press


  1. ^ a b c d e John Vaughan (1 November 1985), "Occult hand 'grabbed staffers' imaginations", Charlotte Observer, p. 9A
  2. ^ Maddry, Larry (2005). "Secret Society". Hampton Roads Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-10-31. Retrieved 2008-02-20.
  3. ^ a b c Paul Greenberg (16 June 2004). "COLUMNISTS A full confession". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Archived from the original on 2023-03-22. Retrieved 22 March 2023.
  4. ^ Paul Greenberg (8 April 2009). "COLUMNISTS True confessions". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Archived from the original on 2023-03-22. Retrieved 22 March 2023.
  5. ^ "Ask The Globe", The Boston Globe, p. B8, 8 November 1999, Factiva bstngb0020010825dvb8013h3
  6. ^ a b c Janega, James (25 July 2004), "A True Journalistic Conspiracy:When a secret society held writers in thrall", Chicago Tribune, retrieved 22 March 2023
  7. ^ Greenberg, Paul (2006), "Occult hand strikes back", Jewish World Review, retrieved 2008-02-20
  8. ^ a b c Smith, Daniel (May 1, 2018). "History Lesson: 'It was as if an occult hand had'". Courier & Press. Evansville, Indiana. Retrieved September 9, 2021.

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