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Millions would mourn the loss of the dying man, but as far as he was concerned, death was one twist in a much longer journey. Lyman Frank Baum — Frank to friends and L. Frank Baum to fans of his fourteen published books about Dorothy and the land of Oz — shrugged off most of the Protestant traditions with which he grew up in upstate New York. He and his wife Maud had been loyal members of a spiritualist society. They believed people lived multiple times through reincarnation, and that they had known each other across existences.
Frank Baum’s death would come as no surprise by this point, certainly not to Maud nor to Frank himself, as the sixty-two year had been bedridden for months. He had come full circle from being an oft-sickly boy who took refuge in fantastic stories to now being a fantastic storyteller reduced one last time to fragile health. The bushy walrus mustache that gave him the look of a hearty jungle explorer now dwarfed a gaunt face. Even in such a weak state, he still tried to write a new Oz story, though not with anything like the speed with which he had first completed The Wonderful Wizard of Oz twenty years earlier. Back then, the words seemed to arrive from outside himself and the best he could do was grab for any scrap of paper, even envelopes, on which to transcribe them.
Now he mostly slept, watched over by family in the mansion he and Maud had built in Hollywood, California.
Maud, by contrast, was the picture of sturdiness, standing over her husband with her square shoulders and jawline. She reassured Frank at every turn that she would stay strong after he was gone. One evening, he stirred awake.
“Can I get you something?” Maud asked.
“No, dear,” he replied, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to slip away in a few hours. I feel this is my last farewell.”
Baum was correct that he did not have much time left, although he would offer one final mysterious statement the next morning. At first his lips moved without emitting any words that could be understood.
“What is it, Frank?” Maud urged.
The nurse insisted Frank was not strong enough to speak anymore. But Maud knew if Frank had something to say, he would find a way. If these were her final moments with him, he could offer clues about the afterlife. She continued to listen carefully.
Finally Frank said: “Now we cross the Shifting Sands.” Then he died. It was May 6, 1919.
In Baum’s books, the Shifting Sands referred to one area of a vast desert that separated the land of Oz from the “ordinary” part of the world. Maud shared her husband’s spiritualist tendencies, but his proclamation would have thrown her for a curve. It was as though Baum was projecting himself with his last drop of energy toward the fantastical terrain he had spent so many years mapping and constructing with his powerful imagination. But the particular landscape he specified crossing was hardly peaceful — a desert that could be deadly. Did Frank see a chance finally to leave Oz behind, or to reach it? Had Frank given her that much-needed clue about how to find him beyond death? A sign, according to his Oz books, cautioned in Dantesque terms against trying to enter the locale:
ALL PERSONS ARE WARNED NOT TO VENTURE UPON THIS DESERT
For the Deadly Sands Will Turn Any Living Flesh to Dust in an Instant.
Beyond This Barrier is the
LAND OF OZ
But no one can Reach that Beautiful Country because of these Destroying Sands.
“No one” except maybe L. Frank Baum.
A few weeks later, more than two thousand miles away from Hollywood, amid the hurry and hustle at South Carolina College, two students stood out from the hundreds overrunning the campus, if for no other reason than one was in seventh grade and the other was in fourth grade.
Virginia, 14, and Bob, 9, lived in a three-story house smack in the middle of the more-than-a-century old tree-lined campus known as the Horseshoe. Their father, George Wauchope, 57, was a prominent English professor at the college. Their mother, Bess, 47, was a dark-haired woman with glowing skin and big dark eyes. She had attended the University of Iowa before marrying George, and had become a quiet fixture around the SCC campus.
This community still grasped for a sense of normalcy after the turbulent war years. Ongoing military training for freshmen and sophomores angered many as being “inconsistent with the traditions of the University.” In the shadow of world war, a fear crept in that the nation’s youth would be militarized from now on.
The war had also depleted the college’s student population and financial resources, deepening fault lines that already existed and leading to an attempt to oust the university’s president. Though Virginia and Bob could not grasp the nuances, they could understand this college, the only home they ever knew, teetered.
If South Carolina College faced decline, another college in the region clawed its way back from oblivion. Anderson College, an all-girls school, had previously shuttered after its own bevvy of problems. Then Anderson’s trustees lured Dr. John Ellington White from Atlanta to become pastor and president of the resurrected Baptist college. The stocky, former rugby player, the son of a prominent officer in the so-called Hampton’s Legion of the Confederate Army, Dr. White arrived at the college with a mandate to straighten out its finances and operations. He was seen as a “savior” for the institution. Dr. White sought to spread his influence and the reputation of Anderson College by delivering sermons throughout the state on Christian morality and behavior. Anderson College represented a challenger to SCC in the fight for the state’s financial resources, turning Dr. White into a thorn in SCC’s side.
As the academic year wound down, South Carolina’s college campuses turned lazy and humid. So the Wauchope family performed an annual tradition of draping their furniture with sheets and headed for the mountains of North Carolina. A pair of trains brought the family up one of the steepest railroad climbs in the country (some say the steepest) to the town of Saluda. Their summer house was rustic and quaint, with vast clouds filling the sky during the day and brilliant starscapes at night. Many decades later, Virginia’s son, Robert Bass, would write about his memories during his own childhood of staying at this house, which had hardly changed from Virginia and Bob’s youths: “At breakfast in a screened back porch, a stream of men and women passed by, selling their berries, melons, and even fish… We kept such things, along with milk and butter, cold by lowering them down in buckets into a deep well behind the house.”
Bob, a strapping boy with dark wavy hair, didn’t always want to do what his big sister wanted to, but facts were facts; at the ripe age of fourteen, the petite Virginia, with her striking eyes and light curly hair, was in charge of their itinerary.
Storms were ferocious, with flooding across the state submerging roads and washing out bridges. News spread of lightning strikes leaving barns and wagons in flames. The strange weather had arrived with a vengeance, seemingly out of nowhere, putting everyone on edge. The storms could not fail to strike even the professorial patriarch of the family as ominous. The brewing conflicts back on campus would remain on George’s mind. For Bess’s part, the feeling of being pent in and buffeted by external forces had become all too familiar. She was active in various women’s clubs and societies. But Bess was in the position of being embedded in the South Carolina College community without having any official voice in its direction, particularly in the long fight for coeducation.
For the children, the stormy summer forced them into indoor activities. One activity was to sit with a talking board, also known as a moving board, planchette or ouija (in this era there were many types, styles, and manufacturers). Nobody recalled where their particular board had come from, or if anyone recalled it, nobody ever recorded it.
Variations of such boards had been around from time immemorial, but had grown particularly popular in America during World War I, when practitioners sought to communicate with the spirits of lost loved ones and swore the devices could work in the right hands. Virginia and Bob did not have any such grand ambitions, but they were intrigued by the belief that the board could reach an unseen world around them.
The practice was supposed to work best at night. Virginia and Bob rested their hands lightly on a heart-shaped pointer, which then, in theory, could be moved by spiritual forces to letters in the alphabet that might signify a greeting or simple message — yes or no, for example — or even spell out part of an answer to a question.
This time, as their hands rested on it, the pointer circled the board to four letters in a row.
Lost. Was someone or something out there lost? Then the pointer glided over to other letters in a rapid, smooth motion. The siblings had used the board before, and nothing like this had happened. Bob was sure his sister was playing a prank and moving the pointer herself. She said she was not — “I know I was not,” she’d insist later — and so they kept at it. It wasn’t just a jumble of letters or even random words. “Suddenly,” Virginia recounted in a radio interview years later, “it started to tell a story.”
Maud Baum had a decision to make whether to remain in Hollywood, this place that had in many ways matched her late husband’s dreamlike imagination. But Hollywood proved to be far more focused on business and money than suited Frank, who preferred a purer immersion in his writing and his spiritual philosophies. She had faced forks in the road of life brought on by honoring Frank’s choices in years past. After attending college at Cornell, she had received an offer to attend Columbia Law School, but decided instead to follow Frank in support of his early, largely unsuccessful professional pursuits.
Maud had encouraged him to write his first Oz story. “I heard you make up stories for years now,” she had said, “but that one about the cyclone sounded really interesting.” After that, he never removed his mind from Oz, even when he wished he could.
Maud ultimately decided to remain in the house at the corner of Cahuenga and Yucca streets and, with Frank gone, she poured energies into maintaining Oz’s legacy. Young readers around the world mourned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz mastermind — the event bringing “sorrow to child hearts everywhere,” as the Los Angeles Times had reported. Some headlines blared “The Wizard Is Dead” — which would have struck Maud as outright cruel. Children knew better that the characters and stories and imaginary places they loved lived on forever, as would Neverland and Wonderland. Countless children expressed the inspiration they received from Baum’s stories and from the bravery of the characters who faced a world that was unpredictable and often irrational. No, children would never give up on Oz, any more than Maud would give up on finding that hint of contact from Baum from beyond the grave.
In their family cottage nestled in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia couldn’t believe her eyes as she and her brother stared at the talking board’s pointer. She paused to write down words after the first few, trying to decipher what it was trying to tell them. The talking board’s references included a cry of distress, stolen books, and a magic room. The pointer “flew along very fast,” Virginia later recounted in a letter. This made it even more challenging to comprehend. “I had to stop after every sentence to write it down.” The work was tedious and Bob had trouble sitting still.
Clues began to emerge about what the story was about, and even about where it could be coming from. One clue was: Princess Dorothy. Then another: the Wizard. This wasn’t just any story, it was a story about the Land of Oz. Virginia had read all 14 Oz books Baum wrote, and Bob had read many, though Baum’s death meant they would never again have the thrill of finding a new chapter of Oz waiting in a Christmas stocking.
They tried to make sense of this shocking reveal: A story about Dorothy and the Wizard and Oz was being told by a talking board shortly after Baum died. They could only come to one conclusion, and admittedly it sounded pretty outlandish. Was what they were thinking was happening really possible?
There began, as Virginia later reflected, “one of the most unusual experiences of my life.” For her part, Virginia did not know much about magic, if that was the category into which this fell. Sure, she collected trinkets and charms here and there that she thought were lucky, such as white stones. She set aside certain lucky pencils for school, too. She needed these more than ever as she was scribbling down the words from the talking board in as organized a fashion as possible. But it was a slow process as she tried her best to make sure she did not miss anything.
The routine continued to challenge Bob’s attention. The nine-year-old boy, who always had a smile playing on his face, liked to run and dig and explore outside, and here he was, stuck in place. “It was hard for him to sit still for very long at a time,” Virginia later wrote to a correspondent. But the talking board only appeared to respond with both siblings present, and for some reason — their faith in Baum and Oz, maybe, and their faith in the transcendent power of literature passed on by their English professor father — it seemed they had been chosen for this. On a more basic level, Virginia was in suspense about what would happen next in the dramatic story, and soon Bob was on the edge of his seat, too, which overcame his restlessness.
In the story, Dorothy, the irrepressible young girl around Virginia’s age who had come from Kansas and now lived full time in Oz, discovers that magic books belonging to Glinda, the good sorceress, have been stolen. The only book in Glinda’s palace library left behind is the Book of Records, because it is chained to a desk. This isn’t just any book. It’s an enchanted book that spontaneously fills its own pages with the history of Oz as it happens. Those pages begin to reveal the identity of the culprit who has stolen the other books: a tyrannical ruler in Munchkin country named Kuik Blackbab. In Kuik’s greedy hands, the magic powers could lead to the destruction of Oz. Dorothy must form a search party along with the Scarecrow and the Wizard, while the brave ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma, scrambles to help.
The process of “transcribing” this tale from the talking board letter-by-letter, word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence necessitated months of work. However their parents might have felt about them occasionally fooling with the board to kill time, the unusual nature of their current experience counseled keeping it hidden from the family. Besides, talking board sessions were said to require complete privacy to properly invite in spiritual energy.
With the waning days of summer, the Wauchopes headed back to the campus in Columbia. The stifling South Carolina heat now gave way to pleasant sunshine-filled days and temperate evenings on campus, as the usual buzz of young men, faculty, and football games revived. The faculty house where Virginia and Bob lived provided a refuge readymade for childhood, separated by an iron fence from the rest of the campus. The siblings had cows and chickens on which to dote. They had wooden swings hanging on ropes from giant tree branches, though a fourteen year old would try to convince everyone she had outgrown these, and a nine-year-boy would try to convince himself that he had. The vacant two-story brick building behind the house — used for storage of odds and ends — gave them more spaces to explore, with a history that stretched long before the Civil War. Porches encircled the house, as did a wide selection of rockers in both chair and glider varieties, encouraging a leisurely, rocking rhythm that often let down children looking for excitement.
But Virginia and Bob had struck a geyser of excitement by sitting across from each other at their talking board. They set aside time every single day for their task, though they also had to take care of more routine obligations. They’d walk to school, and Virginia would tote her violin across the Horseshoe to lessons with the colorful Madame de Horvath of the college’s music department. But at home the travails and triumphs of Oz became the priorities.
The Wauchope house was a labyrinth of books. Even loaded with bookshelves, volumes spilled out into every corner. Any unfamiliar reference encountered in the talking board’s story could be cross-referenced somewhere in the Wauchope library. In addition to the mass of books, the interior of the house was really all about the stairs — massive, winding, open stairs that stretched to the third floor. Looking from the top or bottom, the stairs seemed to go on indefinitely. Following the stairs up brought the kids to the most removed part of the house — the third floor’s dark bedrooms. Virginia and Bob had to choose out-of-sight spaces like this for their project, just as Dorothy and her friends had to navigate through Oz and the Emerald City without being spotted by Kuik Blackbab.
Two hard earned chapters became three, four, five and more, as they met more characters and the adventure mounted. From his early days as an Oz trickster, the Wizard had returned to dedicate himself to learning real magic and using his smarts for good, and now was a time he was sorely needed. Here is an Oz at war with itself. The little traveling party on the hunt for Glinda’s stolen books search for clues as they cross through the lively Musicton, where signs urge travelers to “Buy your violins from D. Major,” before they continue on to Flattown, where everything from people to wagons to chickens are flat (a flat artist grumbles about Dorothy, “I cannot get her shape. She is so thick — so round!”). They end up finding themselves face to face with a structure in the shape of a crouching lion — the nefarious Kuik Blackbab’s castle.
Virginia’s pencils wore down to nubs as she tried to keep pace with the quick-moving talking board, and their dedication went beyond a desire to honor the spiritual voice of Frank Baum seemingly conducted by their board; it went beyond their desire to find out what would happen next, too. Their undertaking was infused with a feeling of deepening responsibility and empathy, as though the characters counted on them.
And the Wauchope siblings faced formidable obstacles of their own. In South Carolina, as Virginia later wrote in a private letter, there was “extreme prejudice” against magic. In their community the talking board, Virginia explained, “was considered either a tool of the devil and evil spirits or a silly toy of no significance.” A court case dragged on in another part of the country to determine whether talking boards should be treated by tax authorities as a game or an instrument of legitimate spiritual communication. Among people who saw in it a use of magic — genuine or otherwise — an increasing number railed against it.
Some municipalities banned or debated banning the sale of talking boards. A professor of psychology observed that “conditions are no worse now than in the days of witchcraft. Of course, they didn’t have the ouija board back then, but they had other devices.” A professor of religion weighed into the debate with a condescending comment about who might effectively use a talking board: “I cannot say it does or does not communicate with the spirit world… If the spirits do communicate, to my knowledge it would take clever people, not persons with undeveloped minds, to bring their messages to us.” This professor also saw profound dangers. “To the untutored person unable to reason for himself, too much thought bearing on the supernatural is fatal.” A letter from a reader published in the Ottawa Journal commented on a man who was an adherent of the talking board: “I have no doubt he is correct when he says he receives messages from spirits… I believe they are, and I have good authority for saying so, messages from the Evil One who impersonate the people who are called.” Pastors, preachers and ministers similarly declared that a talking board was “the devil’s machine.”
One clergyman who jumped into the fray was John E. White, the ambitious president of rival Anderson College, the girls-only institution competing for a share of regional funds. “An eloquent preacher,” an observer at the time wrote of White, “he has been concerned primarily with inspiring the cultured audiences… with his own sense of responsibility for the education and enlightenment of the masses of people.” In the process, Dr. White gained a “Southwide influence.” White publicly condemned the “cult of spiritualism” and the “dupes and devotees” of talking boards.
One of South Carolina College’s many internal battles involved the legitimacy of female students. Some years earlier, measures were approved to allow for coeducation at SCC. But fears rose about women as distractions and female college students weakening traditional gender roles and morals. “Our people still believe in manly men and womanly women,” the News and Courier of Charleston opined. The resources to actually accommodate women at the college — such as dormitories — had been withheld, making any technical allowance for women on campus all but meaningless.
Dr. White’s girls-only college set itself as a model for keeping education of the sexes separate. If White got a whiff of a SCC professor’s children claiming to communicate with a spirit, it could serve as fodder for depicting SCC as no place for women. Virginia and Bob could become convenient scapegoats. In light of the firestorm surrounding practices of magic, Virginia and Bob also had their parents’ personal reputations to worry about. George Wauchope was a serious, highly respected English professor who had published a definitive literary history of the state, The Writers of South Carolina. Bess Wauchope, for her part, was president of an exclusive social group called the New Century Club.
Then there was the siblings’ own safety to think about. A police officer in San Francisco reportedly went crazy from using a “moving board.” Four women in California were likewise committed to an insane asylum after allegedly losing their minds during a 24-hour séance using a talking board. The siblings raced the clock to finish before they could put their parents, the college, and their health at risk. The family considered the siblings sheltered, but Virginia and Bob knew what they were capable of. They did not just have a mission now, they had a secret to keep at all costs.
Prying eyes abounded on the South Carolina College campus during these years, with now-prohibited fraternities being convened surreptitiously. Informants who tipped off the administration about this were threatened and attacked by those underground societies. The old guard did not give up easily.
Meanwhile, a new movement around SCC had grown to support female enrollment, which in turn rejuvenated opposition groups. Like the hush-hush fraternities, this anti-women movement generated additional cabals plotting on campus in secret. All the while, the seventh- and fourth-graders hurried through the shaded lanes on the way to their own cloak-and-dagger club.
With students going in and out of their house freely to meet with Professor Wauchope, any false move could turn the siblings’ activity into campus gossip and the jig would be up. Danger could pop up anywhere. (So it was with Dorothy and friends’ journey as narrated by the talking board, when at one moment while walking they suddenly face a “long line of glistening knives” pointing at them, which the Wizard promptly dissolves with a spell.)
Spending time on the third floor sanctuary of the Wauchope house provided secrecy but came with a cost. Virginia suffered from recurring nightmares of falling three floors down the stairs. Given the reports of demonic forces speaking through talking boards, the children also had to hold onto their faith in Baum and hope they were not dealing with what in Oz would have been known as black magic.
As the respective heroes on campus and in the story progressed deeper into their journeys, Dorothy, the Wizard, Scarecrow and their friends entered Kuik Blackbab’s lion-shaped castle to face down their ultimate enemy. Kuik stood before them, “small, piercing eyes darted here and there, taking in every detail. The ugly mouth looked more like an animal’s than a man’s when he snarled.” Aren’t you afraid? Dorothy asks her mentor, as reported by the talking board. No, my dear, answers the old Wizard, we must never falter.
As the two lives in Columbia and Oz came into alignment like a solar eclipse of fantasy and reality, Kuik Blackbab echoed Dr. White of Anderson College — and his ilk — plotting against magic (or beliefs) that seemed to threaten his own power. Kuik had nabbed Glinda’s magic books just as the officious Dr. White posed a threat to the story that the Wauchope children were trying to liberate through the talking board. Ozma, ruler of Oz, watches as the Book of Records is automatically “printing down rapidly the account of the adventurers’ plight.” The page materializes, spelling out the capture of Dorothy and her friends in Kuik’s castle. Determined to save her friends, Ozma sets out at once with a small army.
Multiple characters offered the Wauchope siblings chances to channel their own personal fears and ambitions. Such immersion in literary stories, what we sometimes call getting “lost in a book,” has been backed by modern science.
A study of human development at the University of Toronto researched how we use stories as “the mind’s flight simulator.” Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis performed MRIs on readers and found the brain activated areas that corresponded to the actions characters were performing, as though the readers were doing those things. Some readers have extra capacity to do this. A neurological study out of Berlin confirmed the brain engaged in an “increasing involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy the more readers immersed in the text,” especially when processing children’s books. Dr. Geoff Kaufman of Dartmouth and Dr. Lisa Libby of Ohio State University studied what they called “experience-taking,” which they described as “the imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one’s own.”
The Wauchopes’ singular experience set up an even higher intensity exchange. This fit with Virginia’s overall feeling about the transportive quality of Baum’s books. As she later recalled: “I practically lived in the enchanted land of Oz.” The siblings were not reading per se, they were receiving the story through a kind of portal they had opened — whether interpreted through a spiritual or a psychological lens. Following along with the minute cues of the talking board, the process was also dramatically more time- and energy-intensive than conventional reading. The membrane separating the siblings and the characters became porous, setting up Virginia and Bob for the ultimate “experience-taking” that blended identities and activities. Even the phenomena of the talking board itself was best illustrated by something within the story being told to them — the magical, self-writing Book of Records in Oz in which words and stories appeared on their own.
The character of Ozma gave Virginia a role of leadership, strength and bravery even while the teenage girl was ensconced on a campus not offering that same opportunity to women. In this way, Oz seemed ahead of South Carolina. As Ozma reaches the path leading to her friends who are in jeopardy, a dragon appears. The monster blocks them, breathing out flames of blue fire.
“I am Ozma of Oz, Ruler of this land,” cries out the princess without so much as flinching. “I command you to let us pass.”
The general who commands Ozma’s little army laid out an ideal character to merge with Bob’s role in the siblings’ quest. Bob had been struggling to stay on task with the strange and intense work involved in transcribing from the talking board; the general, for his part, also wavers at his strong female leader’s signal to charge ahead.
Forward, my brave men! Ozma commands.
“I-er-I-I believe I forgot my sword!” the general stammers.
But then Ozma gently encourages the general to move beyond his limitations, and he responds to the call for action. He picks up a rock. Perhaps he does not have the right weapon, but he will fight with whatever he can. He charges the dragon.
Back inside the enemy’s castle, stepping into the Scarecrow’s journey would provide Bob a turn to grab the mantle of leadership. It is the Scarecrow who hears the voice calling herself the “Invisible Inzi,” who wants to help them. Dorothy — another role with which Virginia could meld — follows Scarecrow’s lead. The Inzi’s voice directs them to a certain spot where the floor gives way, sending them falling down just as Virginia dreamt about tumbling from the third floor in their house on the SCC campus.
The Wizard, meanwhile, provides guidance and advice throughout. If Baum himself infused any of the characters, it had to be the Wizard. So different from the manipulator and profiteer he had been in his early days in Oz, the shrunken little Wizard has transformed in his current iteration. He has become a protector and sage. After Dorothy, Scarecrow and the others find an underground passage and make progress in their escape, the Wizard notes, “Somebody is evidently looking after us, so I suppose we need not worry.” The so-called Invisible Inzi appears to be their secret guardian. “I wonder who she is, anyway,” says Dorothy.
Once the adventurers retrieve Glinda’s stolen books from Kuik, they finally learn more about this Invisible Inzi who has provided life-saving assistance. Inzi explains that she had once been a great sorceress herself until Kuik Blackbab, jealous of her powers, cast her out of her human form before he seized her castle. The true essence of the long story that Virginia and Bob transcribed in hurried pencil strokes was this tale of Inzi breaking free from Kuik’s control. The clear analog in South Carolina for untiring Inzi, too, may have struck the children, especially the slightly older Virginia. Their mother, Bess Wauchope. Bess’s interests and accomplishments were largely obscured by the renown of her husband and the male dominated southern campus on which they lived. Bess had quietly tried to help women to study at SCC for years, her own secret mission.
Kuik is left deprived of the magic books but still in possession of his castle. With the heroes taking an enchanted mirror that had been the source of his powers, Kuik faces a future in which he must find his own way to win followers without siphoning off his rivals’ magic.
As the talking board spells out END, the Inzi is freed from Kuik’s control and looks forward to a happier existence. All that had been “lost” was found again. Yet the Inzi remains invisible — a sad chord on which to close out the tale. Also bittersweet was the siblings’ very act of finishing the story, leaving a question of whether their special excursions into Oz were over forever.
If there had been any doubt with whom to share the story once completed, the answer was in front of them the whole time: Bess Wauchope. Virginia may have come right out and described their experience to her mother as bluntly as she did later to a correspondent: “The ouija board dictated to us an entire Oz story.” Bess immediately embraced her children’s project, which added up to fifteen untitled chapters. Bess even promised she would undertake the task of typing out the 50 handwritten pages, promising not to change the manuscript other than to fix spelling errors, insert the occasional missing word, and add punctuation not provided to the siblings by the singular process.
Life went on for the Wauchopes. As it turned out, tireless advocates including Bess finally succeeded in eroding the resistance to women enrolling in the college. It was just a few years later that Virginia herself started her freshman year. Not long after, Dr. White ended up stepping aside from Anderson College, handpicking a woman, Annie Dove Denmark, as his successor, the first female college president in the state.
Around the same time that South Carolina College appointed their first female professor in 1924, Virginia and then-teenage Bob decided to write a letter to Maud Baum and enclosed the Oz story. They hesitated to tell Maud about the talking board, and decided it best not to suggest the story was dictated by Frank Baum, though they did dedicate it to him. The Wauchopes were likely unaware of the fact that the Baums’ belief system revolved around spiritualism.
Letters from admirers of Oz continued to flood in from readers of all ages, sometimes in bundles of a hundred at a time, to Ozcot, the Baums’ Hollywood home. But out of the thick piles one caught Maud Baum’s eye. True-believer Maud would have been waiting for Frank to communicate with her from the other side or even — as he seemed to promise in his final words — from Oz itself. Maud’s letter in reply to the siblings has been lost, and it remains unclear if she ever learned of the story’s purported supernatural origins. But she clearly saw something special in the work. While she was a savvy businesswoman who protected the interests of her husband’s estate at every turn, there was something different this time. Maybe here, at last, was a message from Oz, appropriately delivered through children. She wrote back to the Wauchopes with her blessing and encouragement for the story to be published.
Bess Wauchope then submitted the Oz story to a Northern California-based children’s magazine called A Child’s Garden. Remarkably, the editor had just been deprived of some never-published L. Frank Baum stories.
“We had the misfortune,” editor Francis Wigmore explained, “to be in the path of the terrible fire which swept part of Berkeley last September, and lost three stories by Mr. Baum which Mrs. Baum had sent to us. The sad part about this was that she had no copies so they can never be replaced.” Wigmore saw something divine in the appearance of the Wauchopes’ story, or more specifically his daughter did. “Now comes this story by your children which my little girl thinks God must have known we wanted!”
The siblings eventually styled the story as “The Invisible Inzi of Oz by L. Frank Baum, as told to Robert and Virginia Wauchope,” and never sought copyright, another sign that they did not view themselves as owning the tale in a traditional sense. With a serialized publication in the children’s magazine, however obscure, Inzi very likely marked the first Oz sequel to be published that was not commissioned by the Baum estate, a veritable cottage industry of books in later years. (Interestingly, the final Oz story written by Baum, published for the first time more than a year after his death, involved the Land of Oz being overtaken with military hostilities, as happened in Inzi, and included a mountain community of Flatheads, who could have been near cousins to those in Flattown in Inzi.) Virginia and Bob never wavered in their insistence on the talking board’s role in the story, with both siblings providing notarized affidavits attesting to it.
Bess Wauchope ended up chairing an organization devoted to supporting young businesswomen in Columbia, South Carolina. Virginia met her future husband, a fellow student at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), and got married on the front porch of that same house in the middle of the Horseshoe where she grew up. Her husband, Robert, became an English professor there. (Their childhood home later wound up as a woman’s dormitory for a period of time.) Bob Wauchope, meanwhile, became a trailblazing archeologist. It is hard not to think of that mysterious bonding adventure with his sister in the summer and fall of 1919 when studying Bob’s professional escapades, like the time he dangled above a Mayan burial chamber in the Guatemalan jungle after digging into a hidden entrance. (Picture Scarecrow falling through the earth into a tunnel.) Archeology, at its core, is the exploration of the unseen, something they had committed to when unearthing Inzi.
Not that it had been easy; it had been intense, disorienting and, perhaps at times, a bit frightening. When reminded by a correspondent of Inzi many years later, Bob called it a voice from the past to haunt me. Though Bob largely left the experience behind, Virginia always strived to get a better grasp on it. She corresponded with Baum historians as well as parapsychology experts at Duke University, trying to understand whether it had been some form of “automatic writing,” an unconscious triggering of children’s imagination, a dream-like delusion (as Dorothy’s Uncle Henry had believed of Dorothy’s journey to Oz), or whether they really had been chosen — somehow, some way — to deliver a new Baum story to the world from beyond the grave. What she could say for certain was that neither she nor Bob had ever written any stories before Inzi, and certain lines in the text convey a level of sophistication, such as a final poignant gesture toward the disembodied woman: “so it is that sometimes strangers in the palace are startled by an unknown peal of laughter in their ears.”
Virginia passed her love for Oz onto her children, who spent time in the same houses she and Bob grew up in. Her son George, named for her father, became obsessed with Oz. Young George also came to his mother one day to tell her about a recurring nightmare he had involving falling from the third floor through the house, and she explained she used to have identical dreams. (George Bass became an explorer like his uncle, with a specialization in underwater archaeology, including important work on the Titanic.) After not possessing any copies of Inzi for years, Virginia was able to retrieve the story and introduce her five grandchildren to her journey.
It is hard to trace what happened to that fateful talking board or to determine if it was kept in the family, though clues suggest it may have been. Later in Virginia’s life, a well-known Oz illustrator wrote to her wanting to know more about those special times in her youth. “I suppose if you don’t know for certain where Inzi came from, we never will,” he wrote. “But that is what makes Inzi so intriguing. Have you ever considered hauling out the Ouija board again and seeing if anything like a sequel to Inzi would develop? I can hardly believe you wouldn’t have tried it.” Virginia enjoyed this idea, and into old age she admitted she still might try.
MATTHEW PEARL is a New York Times Bestselling author whose nonfiction writing has appeared in the Vanity Fair, the Boston Globe, and The Atavist Magazine, and his longform narrative “K Troop” was Slate’s most-read article of 2016. Matthew’s currently at work on a narrative nonfiction book for HarperCollins. He is a co-founder with Greg Nichols of Truly*Adventurous.
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