Recently I was at an antique mall I spied a vintage Ouija board with the price tag of “FREE!” which I simply couldn’t pass up, despite owning multiple already. As I walked out with it, I heard one of the employees say “Don’t use it now!” Over the years I have heard and read a constant stream of negative attitudes toward spirit boards; how they are evil, used by Satanists, and those who use them risk becoming possessed. But what so few really know is the history behind spirit boards. Communicating with the dead through séances became immensely popular in America during the middle part of the 19th century and everyone from First Ladies to average middle class Americans was doing it, swept up in the wave of the American Spiritualism Movement. However today séances and the sometimes accompanying Ouija board are looked upon with fear and condemned by many. So just how did that happen?
Ouija boards, as we know them today, first hit the market in February of 1891, and they capitalized on the spiritualism craze that began in the mid-1800s. The Fox Sisters are almost single-handily responsible for starting the spiritualism movement after they were able to convince their family and neighbors of communicating with a spirit through “rappings” on the wall. On November 14th, 1849 the Fox Sisters held a séance before a paying public at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, the first of its kind. The event was so successful they were able to hold séances to the public daily at Barnum’s Hotel, where people paid $1 to speak with spirits, and eventually the sisters began touring the country. Years later, the sisters confessed that their displays of communicating with spirits was faked through a variety of forms, including making sounds happen by using an apple on a string, and moving their feet.
Today if we were to hear of a First Lady holding a séance in the White House, the country would be up in arms. However not one, but at least two First Ladies held séances in the White House. First was Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce. Jane lost all three of her children, all boys, all who were very young when they died. She lost her first child within just days of him being born and her second died of epidemic typhus when he was four. She lost her third son, Benjamin Pierce, who was 12 when he became the only victim of a train accident, happening just two months before Pierce’s inauguration. According to sources, Benjamin’s skull was crushed, and the image, many believe, lead Jane down a trail of depression and guilt. Soon she began to attempt to contact Benjamin. After the inauguration, Jane had the now famous Fox sisters visit the White House to hold a séance, and shortly afterward Jane confided in her sister that Benjamin had visited her in dreams, which gave her peace.
President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was also an avid spiritualist. Her second son, Edward, died prior to President Lincoln taking office, at age three of tuberculosis. Then, shortly after President Lincoln took office, they lost another child, William, to typhoid fever at age 11, and soon Mary began contacting mediums and having séances. For the most part Cranston Laurie was the medium of choice, and there is evidence that shows séances took place in the Red Room of the White House, with documentation that President Lincoln was in attendance at least once. Later Mary wrote to her sister that her two dead sons visited her as full bodied apparitions, “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he always had; he does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him,” she wrote. After President Lincoln’s assassination Mary continued to seek solace in spiritualism. She later posed for “spirit photographer” William Mumler, who created an image of Mary with President Lincoln behind her. It should be noted that Mumler’s works are now considered hoaxes.
The spiritualism movement had other prominent believers, including Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and master illusionist, Harry Houdini. Houdini greatly believed in spiritualism and was upset by the many frauds, so much so that he began a public campaign to expose fake mediums. Doyle’s wife, Jean, was a self-proclaimed medium, specializing in automatic writing, a process where a medium would have their hand “guided” by a spirit in order to convey messages. Doyle and Houdini were in fact friends, that is until a séance in Atlantic City in 1922. Houdini had continually sought contact with his departed mother, and Jean appeared to do so through automatic writing. However, the fact that her messages came through in perfect English made Houdini proclaim her as a fraud, as Houdini’s mother only spoke Yiddish. It should be noted that Doyle also believed in fairies, but that is a post for another time. Another spiritualist, Sarah Winchester, the daughter-in-law of Winchester Repeating Arms Company founder, became one of the richest women in the United States after her husband died in 1881. Like others, she sought solace and guidance with a medium. Legend states a medium told her she was cursed by the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester arms, and to remain safe she must build a house non-stop, day and night, 365 days a year. The result was the Winchester Mystery House, once again, a subject for post all its own.
As the spiritualism craze gained momentum there was a desire for an easier way to contact the dead. Perhaps without a medium? Even though there were more people than ever claiming to be mediums. The first real foray into this DIY/at home method was the “writing planchette,” a tool that replaced the need for a medium specializing in automatic writing. The writing planchette arrived in America in 1858, after much success in Europe. This version involved a thin piece of wood in a the shape of a shield or heart (very similar to the planchettes of current Ouija boards), wheels on the bottom, and a small hole for a pen or pencil.
In 1886 an Associated Press reporter wrote an article about spiritualists in Ohio who were using a different method, a “talking board” which was basically what we now know as a Ouija board – letters, numbers, and a planchette to point the way. By 1891 Charles Kennard of Baltimore, Maryland decided to begin making and marketing talking boards. A Smithsonian Magazine article mentions that Kennard was not a spiritualist, nor were his business associates, Elijah Bond and Col. Washington Bowie, but just keen businessmen who had discovered a niche within the spiritualism craze.
According to research by Ouija historian Robert Murch, Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters, who claimed to be a medium, provided the now iconic name “Ouija.” Reportedly the businessmen and Peters sat at a table with the new talking board and asked it what they should call it. The board responded with “Ouija.” Not knowing what that meant, they asked, it responded with “Good luck.”
In order to get the patent for the new novelty, they had to prove the board worked. Bond took Peters with him to apply for the patent. The chief patent officer insisted on a demonstration. He said the patent application would move forward only if the board could correctly spell his last name, which Peters and Bond claimed they did not know. All three sat down and used the board, which correctly spelled out the officer’s name, and on February 10th, 1891 Bond received the patent. Within the following year the Kennard Novelty Company expanded massively. It grew from just one factory to seven, including one across the pond in London. By 1893 though Kennard and Bond left, and William Fuld, an employee and stockholder, stepped in to run the company. By 1898 Fuld gained exclusive rights, buying out Bowie, and soon it became the Fuld Company.
During the spiritualism movement, average Americans and Christians believed there was nothing wrong with communicating with spirits, and in fact they believed it gave insight into the fate of souls and helped them to better understand the road to salvation. Additionally, the Civil War took a great toll on the country, with many who went off to war, never to return, and spiritualism allowed for them to have the possibility of closure. Ouija boards were marketed not only as a method of communicating for spiritualists, but also as family fun and parlor entertainment for couples. The only people who seemed upset over the new, readily available spirit boards were mediums, seeing themselves now out of a job as the bridge between this world and the next. The Ouija board was so common that classic American illustrator Normal Rockwell illustrated a man and woman using one for the cover of a 1920 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.
During their height, there was only a small handful of bizarre stories that Ouija boards were a part of. In 1927 Fuld fell to his death from the roof of one of his factories, one he claimed the Ouija board told him to build. In 1921, a woman in Chicago claimed spirits told her, via a Ouija board, to leave her dead mother’s body in the living room for 15 days prior to burying her in the backyard. In 1930 two women, Nancy Bowen and Lila Jimerson, used a Ouija board in an attempt to contact Bowen’s dead husband. They claimed the spirit of the husband said he was killed by a woman using black magic, and provided a description and address. Bowen then went to the location and murdered Clothilde Marchand using a hammer and chloroform. Additionally, many claimed to have written literary works with help from spirits by way of the Ouija board.
As the American Spiritualist Movement began to fade during the Great Depression, Ouija boards became less about seeking solace with or advice from the departed, and relegated to jokes or plain sources of amusement. It also began to be used in film and television, but mostly for laughs. In 1951 the Ouija board made an appearance in an I Love Lucy episode. In the episode Lucy, listening to Ricky’s horoscope, nixes a business deal for him, and Ricky takes her to the business man, Mr. Merriweather, to make amends. Mr. Merriweather is introduced to the audience in the middle trying to contact someone by the name of Tilly by way of a Ouija board. Lucy and Mr. Merriweather bond over horoscopes and numerology, and he laments about not being able to contact Tilly. Lucy comes up with the idea of have a séance to contact Tilly, but a fake one, to impress Mr. Merriweather, and help Ricky. Ethel plays as the medium, and the séance is of course fake and played for laughs. A Ouija board is not present in the séance scene.
Image Source: Screencap from I Love Lucy DVD.
While the Ouija board does not appear in the 1966 episode of I Dream of Jeannie “Bigger Than a Bread Box, Better Than a Genie” a medium does and a séance is held. However Major Nelson exposes the medium, Madam Zolta, as a con artist. Once again, the scene is played for laughs.
In the 1944 supernatural thriller The Uninvited (which happens to be a favorite of mine) three characters discuss having a séance as a way to help a daughter communicate with her deceased mother. One scoffs at the idea, then another states that “Many intelligent people believe in Spiritualism.” A homemade spirit board is used, the kind which uses anagram letters and an upside down wine glass as a planchette. Near the end of the séance the daughter falls into a trance, but awakes without harm, however later the maid claims that the spirit board is “A heathen device to call devils out of hell.”
Image Source: Screencap from The Uninvited DVD
In 1960 film director William Castle, known for his gimmicks in cinemas during screenings of his films, featured a Ouija board in 13 Ghosts. In the scene the board offers a warning to the family that one of them will be killed. However Castle’s films were known to be campy from the get-go, and not serious at all. The poster for 13 Ghosts even states that it has “13 times the Fun” therefore not a film you would take seriously.
Image Source: Screencap from 13 Ghosts DVD
It is during this hokey attitude toward spirit boards that the company producing Ouija boards changes hands, however the item remains immensely popular. In 1967 Parker Brothers bought the Fuld Company, and in that year alone it sold 2 million Ouija boards.
Up until this point, the spirit board has been used as a séance method of communicating to those who have passed on, and as a tool for comedy, but nothing sinister. All of that changed in 1973 with a little movie called The Exorcist.
In The Exorcist, the main character, Regan, admits to playing with a Ouija board and speaking to someone called Captain Howdy, and later she becomes possessed. The Ouija board appears only briefly in the film, and not in an extremely negative way, but the mere fact that it is stated as the source of possession was enough to turn the tables on the Ouija board. Virtually over night the film changed the outlook on Ouija boards. They went from being an easy method of communicating with the dead or a game to a way to summon demons, and risk becoming possessed, and to this day that is how they continue to be associated.
In recent years Pat Robertson on The 700 Club claimed that those using Ouija boards cannot communicate with the dead, but in fact only communicate with “demonic spirits” and Ouija boards have been burned along side Harry Potter books. However, the impact of The Exorcist and the resulting negative attitudes wasn’t enough for the Ouija board to disappear entirely. Just the attitude and audience has shifted. They are now icons of spooky and contemporary goth culture, instead of a religious movement, and a fun game with a slight edge and “risk.” With the advent of YouTube many people claim to capture video of possessions that have taken place as a result of using a Ouija board, and many movie studios have capitalized on possessions and demon summoning through the use of them. However, what I find so immensely interesting is that these ideas of possession were not described or documented at all during the Ouija board’s height of popularity, as it appears they simply didn’t occur. Fuld wasn’t possessed when he fell to his death, nor was Bowen when she killed Marchand. The Exorcist was a watershed moment for the Ouija board, as it changed the public’s outlook on them. Their reputation as tools of the devil has not changed in the 44 years since its release, despite the 82 years before its release where spirit boards enjoyed success as religious tools and harmless fun.
There is a unique, scientific twist to the use of Ouija boards that Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian article discusses in the later half of it, that I highly recommend checking out in the links below.
Ultimately, whether you believe in ghosts or not, I hope that this has shed some light on the Ouija board.