In all began in February of 1891 when advertisements for a new parlor board game began to appear in
newspapers around the country. It was called "The Talking Board" and it was presented as a magical device
that would answer whatever questions were posed to it about the past, present and future with remarkable
accuracy. It would be a mystical link to the unknown that could be brought into the comfort and privacy of
your own home for the princely sum of $1.50.
The board that was produced back then was essentially the same as sold in toy and novelty stores today.
The numbers 0-9, the letters of the alphabet and the words "yes", "no" and "goodbye". The placement has
not deviated much over the years with the letters arranged in a semi-circle, the numbers in a row
underneath that, the words "yes" and "no" in the uppermost corners and "goodbye" at the bottom. The first
boards and planchettes were made of wood, but in the modern design of mass production, affordability and
profit margin, the more common models are made of cardboard and the planchette of plastic.
A triangular or heart-shaped device known as a "planchette" - French for "little plank" - accompanies the
game and it used as a vehicle to maneuver around the board. The designed method of operation is for one
or more people to place their fingers on the planchette, ask a question and then observe as the planchette
moves independently and of its own volition from letter to letter spelling out a word or name or to the yes/no
areas in response to the query.
The First Patented Board Typical Board Today
The board was reported to have been tested and proven to work as advertised inside the Patent Office
before the copyright was issued. One can only speculate and envision what the testing entailed and what
enigmatic details were revealed to those present on that fateful day. But what were the origins of this object
and what served as the catalyst for its creation?
From the mid to late 19th century and the early 20th century, Spiritualism in the United States originated
in the western and central regions of New York state. By the 1840s, it was where free thinkers and those
who were disillusioned with the constraints of their own religious upbringing relocated to bond with like-
minded people in establishing new religious sects. This era is commonly known as the Second Great
Awakening, a Protestant movement that in essence was a response to the escalating application of science
and rational thinking in ascertaining mankind's origins and its greater purpose. Like Millerism and
Mormonism before it, Spiritualism was born out of this region and centered around the belief that those
residing in the spirit realm were willing and able to speak with the living and should be solicited and
encouraged to do so.
In 1848, Spiritualism found its springboard with the discovery and subsequent celebrity bestowed upon
the Fox sisters of Hydesville, NY. In March of that year, Margareta "Maggie " Fox and her 11-year-old sister
Kate excitedly insisted a neighbor come into their home to bear witness to a strange phenomena that took
place every night at bedtime. They claimed to be in communication with a willing, intelligent entity who
responded to their questions with a series of knocks or raps on the walls and furniture. When it came time
for a demonstration to prove the veracity of this bizarre claim, it appeared to all present (and subsequently
all who would pay for the privilege of marveling at this phenomenon) that the young girls were telling the
truth. It was then, that Spiritualism as a recognized religious movement was born.
Eventually Maggie, under some duress and while estranged from her sister Kate and an older sibling
Leah, renounced their act as nothing more than a "common deception".
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie said. “At
night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing
the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it
would rebound.” The sisters graduated from apple dropping to manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes
to make rapping sounds. “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits
are touching them,” she explained. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see
me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit
rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that
was pure imagination.”
She offered a demonstration, removing her shoe and placing her right foot upon a wooden stool. The
room fell silent and still, and all bore witness to a number of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed,
sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was
in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment
it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were
fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she
was able to expose Spiritualism.
A year later, she recanted this expose by saying she was compelled by her spirit guide to do so and in
fact, everything the Fox sisters came to be known for was totally legitimate. This prompted even more
anger from Spiritualists who then denounced her as someone who turned against the movement only for
personal gain and the accompanying attention. Eventually Maggie would for all intents and purposes, drink
herself to death by 1893.
The Fox sisters - Maggie, Katie and Leah
Fueled by the exploits of the Fox sisters, Spiritualists jumped into the spirit communication pool with
both feet. Rappings and knockings eventually evolved into séances, automatic writing and table tipping.
Parties were held that revolved around these activities. By the early 20th century, Spiritualists numbered
over 8 million in the U.S. alone. The notion of contacting the dead filled a very emotional and personal void
in people's lives in a day and age where the average lifespan was less than 50 years old and medical
practices and essentials were still evolving. This was also a time of war and the bloodiest conflict in our
The loss of sons, brothers, husbands and fiancées to the Civil War was for most, all-too-sudden and
emotionally devastating. Males lost their lives at tragically young ages, struck down before adulthood had
even begun. For their survivors, any existence of a method and support system to communicate with lost
loved ones and the potential access to those who claimed to facilitate this process was a siren call that
prevailed over rationality. The prospect of communication with the spirit realm even reached the highest
levels of government as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was known to host séances inside the White House
in an attempt to contact her 11-year-old son William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln who succumbed to typhoid
fever in 1862. There are also rumors - unsubstantiated - that even President Lincoln consulted mediums
and clairvoyants to glean some spiritual "insight" when faced with crucial executive decisions, especially
during the War Between The States. It was in this period that Spiritualism saw its largest spike in advocacy.
Before the more nefarious started to indulge themselves in Spiritualism (and people's wallets), the public
actually went about the business of contacting the dead with sincerity and good faith. The problem was, the
departed were so reluctant to respond and patience be damned, the whole process was getting pretty
tedious. The world had entered into an age of discovery and long distance communication was now a
reality, so surely there must be a more expedient method in which to send and receive messages to the
other side. The occasional bang on a wall or floor was fine, but somebody had to put their minds to this.
So let's stop here and get something clear in our heads. At this point in time there were millions of
practicing spiritualists in the U.S. It was taking the country by storm and where there are millions wanting,
there is a demand. Where there is a demand, there are capitalists more than willing to meet that demand. A
device was needed to bring instant gratification at relatively small manufacturing costs. Electricity wasn't an
option. Hey....how about this...
By 1886, wire services were reporting the advent of a new craze that was all the rage in spiritualist
assemblies in the state of Ohio. It was called The Talking Board. The original prototypes looked very much
like what would be manufactured by the Kennard Novelty Company in 1892. It should be noted that none of
the original investors were spiritualists or for all we know, even entertained or accepted the idea of speaking
to the dead, but they were shrewd businessmen and they knew an opportunity when they saw one.
"One gentleman of my acquaintance told me that he got a communication about a title to some property
from his dead brother, which was of great value to him. It is curious, according to those who have worked
most with the new mystery, that while two persons are holding the table a third person, sitting in the same
room some distance away, may ask the questions without even speaking them aloud, and the answers will
show they are intended for him. Again, answers will be returned to the inquiries of one of the persons
operating when the other can get no answers at all. In Youngstown, Canton, Warren, Tiffin, Mansfield,
Akron, Elyria, and a number of other places in Ohio I heard that there was a perfect craze over the new
planchette. Its use and operation have taken the place of card parties. Attempts are made to verify
statements that are made about living persons, and in some instances they have succeeded so well as to
make the inquirers still more awe-stricken."—New York Tribune.
— Carrier Dove (Oakland) July, 1886: 171. Reprinted from the New York Daily Tribune, March 28, 1886:
page 9, column 6. "The New 'Planchette.' A Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which Northern Ohio
The Ouija board was intended to be nothing more than the latest addition to the spiritual toolbox. It was
not specifically designed to be a conduit to the afterlife or a portal to torment and misery as much as it was
an amusement that would generate profits. The first boards were the brainchild of the Kennard Novelty
Company of Baltimore, Maryland. Charles Kennard had a failing fertilizer business housed in a building that
he served up as corporate headquarters. He and his partner William Maupin were granted a patent for the
invention with Col. Washington Bowie putting up most of the cash for the initial production. Harry Wells
Rusk was named president (his brother Jefferson would be the lawyer involved in the patent appeal) and on
February 3, 1891, they were in business.
Eventually the thriving business expanded and a second factory was opened in Baltimore to satisfy the
demand for this new phenomenon. By this time, there was a great deal of internal turmoil surrounding the
company (mainly a dispute over the distribution of growing profits) and as the result, by 1893 Kennard and
the other partners had been ousted by Bowie and Rusk and a branch factory was opened in Chicago, Ill. A
young, industrious man who was a favorite of Bowie and Rusk named William Fuld was installed at the top
of the company and it was renamed Ouija Novelty Company to reflect the popularity of its singular
The usual corporate intrigue found its way into the picture as the original head honcho, Charles
Kennard, purchased the eventually-defunct building in Chicago and created the Northwestern Toy and
Manufacturing Company of Chicago, Illinois. There he produced the "Volo" board as a direct competitor to
the now wildly popular Ouija. Although the board's design shared some aesthetic characteristics with its
more popular predecessor, its layout (probably to avoid legal infringements) displayed its own unique look.
The Volo Board
To no one's surprise, the Ouija Novelty Company launched a preemptive legal strike
against this interloper and in less than three months, manufacture of the Volo board
ceased. To rub salt in Kennard's wounds, they acquired the rights to the Volo board as part
of the settlement and printed a copy of that board on the back of the Ouija. Essentially
customers got two boards for the price of one.
There were others who attempted to jump on the talking board bandwagon such as the
W.S. Reed Toy Company of Leominster, Ma. who designed the "Espirito Talking Board" in
1892. (Ed: There is actually some debate regarding the Reed Toy Co. as to whether or not
it was they and not the Kennard Company who developed the prototype). To wit:
(Regarding the development of a new product developed by the Reed Company:) "Upon the
four corners of the board are respectively "Yes," "No," "Good-by" and "Good-day," while the
alphabet occupies the centre of the board. A miniature standard, which rests upon four
legs, stand upon the "witch board," upon which the hands are placed, and then the spirits
begin their work. Should an answer be "Yes" or "No," the small table will travel to the
respective corner, et cetera. Communications are spelled out by the diminutive table resting
over such letters as may be wanted to spell out the message.—Boston Globe June 5, 1886
Alas, the populace deemed the Espirito inferior to the "real article" and the company
ceased production a mere four months later. Undeterred, Kennard again jumped into the
fray by establishing the American Toy Company in 1897 which was located right next to the
original Kennard Novelty Company in Baltimore. The new board was christened "Igili, The
Marvelous Talking Board". By 1899, Kennard's fourth attempt at the talking board business
mirrored that of the first three. Epic failure.
"Igili, The Marvelous Talking Board"
There were other attempts to tap into the talking board market like the "Nirvana Talking
Board" (which, in the interest of clarity, predated the Seattle grunge band by some 90
years) which was offered up by the unfortunately named Swastika Manufacturing Company.
By this time there was no doubt that nothing said "communing with spirits" like the Ouija.
Eventually, William Fuld and his brother Isaac would take over the manufacturing of the
Ouija board as Col. Bowie and Harry Rusk enjoyed the benefits of retirement and residuals.
In time, William and Isaac would have a falling out, leaving William with the exclusive
rights to manufacture the Ouija Board. By 1919 he became sole owner of the company. He
went on to patent many novelties beyond the board and held 33 different patents and
trademarks. In subsequent years, he would also have to deflect much continuing
controversy as the deposed partners maintained their struggle for residuals and credit for
the invention of the board.
William Fuld met a tragic end when he died from injuries suffered in a fall from the roof
of his factory. While overseeing the replacement of a flagpole, a support gave way and he
plummeted three stories. While he lay on his deathbed, he implored that his children never
sell the Ouija board company. The business remained in the family, run by his son William
A. Fuld, until his own age and health issues led to the sale of the business and the rights to
the Ouija board to Parker Brothers in 1966 - on the 39th anniversary of their father's death.
So we have the talking board being utilized by spiritualists in a camp in Ohio, but where
did they get the name "Ouija" from? Many people have accepted the incorrect assertion
that it is a combination of the French word for "yes", oui and the German version, ja.
Robert Murch, one of the leading Ouija researchers in the country and the closest thing to
an expert on the subject claims that according to letters written by the founders, Elijah
Bond, one of the original partners in the Kennard group and the man who actually received
the patent for the board, had a sister-in-law named Helen Peters. Helen was a spirit
medium according to Bond and while sitting around a table thinking of a name for the new
product, they decided to ask the board to name itself. The name "Ouija" was spelled out
and the question of what it meant was asked. The words "Good luck" were then spelled out.
It was also claimed that "ouija" was an Egyptian word (no doubt adding to its air of
mystery). Now before we get too excited about all this, Peters admitted she was wearing a
locket that bore the picture of a woman that appeared to have the name "Ouija" over her
head. Murch asserts it is a distinct possibility that the woman pictured in the locket was
author Maria Louise Ramé who wrote under the pseudonym Ouida. Peters had a great
fondness for her work, so perhaps that name was misread or mispronounced by her or
someone else present. Sorry to spoil the fun.
Now this is where the story takes a weird turn. The tale goes that a demonstration of
the board was necessary in order to prove its authenticity and to secure the patent. The
patent clerk asked Bond and Peters (who was attending at her brother-in-law's request) to
have the board spell out his name. The idea being that neither Bond or Peters knew who he
was at that point in time and if the board proved correct, the patent would be granted.
They sat down at the board and the planchette indeed spelled out the astonished clerk's
name. Patent granted. It is in the spirit of full disclosure that we note that Bond was a
patent lawyer and perhaps already knew the man's name, but that can only be considered
The gambit paid off in a big way as the board game became an overnight success story.
To meet the growing demand, additional factories were opened in New York and London and
business was booming. At the heart of the Ouija phenomenon the key question remained,
"How does it work?" The manufacturers, perhaps intentionally creating an air of mystery
and ambiguity, never properly answered that query and in fact went out of their way not to
tender an explanation. Perhaps only because they had no idea or interest in really knowing.
If sales were good and cash was flowing in, then leave others to their own devices to
explain the ways and measures of the darned thing.
By the early 1900s, the Ouija craze was at its peak throughout the country. For many, it
developed into a very mainstream and acceptable way to spend one's spare time. For
others, it bordered on an obsession as more pervasive things tend to do in our popular
Even Norman Rockwell had a take on the phenomenon
Along with the mostly positive reviews of the game, there was also the occasional
bizarre story associated with its use, some of which found their way into national
publications. These included the Chicago woman who stored her deceased mother's body in
the house for 15 days after her death before burying her in the backyard. Before being
committed for psychiatric evaluation, she explained to authorities she was merely carrying
out the instructions relayed to her by spirits she had contacted via the Ouija board. Not
only was the board an accomplice to committing crimes, it was also occasionally consulted
in attempts to solve them. In perhaps the most peculiar claim, Mrs. Helen Dow Peck of
Bethel, CT. left the sum of $152,000 in her Last Will and Testament to one John Gale Forbes
who - apparently like Mrs. Peck - was neither of sound mind or body as he was an entity
who contacted Mrs. Peck through her Ouija board.
These were not just isolated cases involving a certain fringe element of society, either. A
housewife from St. Louis, Missouri named Pearl Curran who otherwise claimed to have no
particular interest in the occult, began to dabble with the board over afternoon tea with her
mother and a neighbor. One day to their astonishment, the board spelled out the following
message from someone who identified themselves as a 17th century female. This was the
"Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth is my name. Wait, I would speak
with thee. If thou shalt live, then so shall I. I make my bread at thy hearth. Good friends,
let us be merrie. The time for work is past. Let the tabby drowse and blink her wisdom to
This was particularly shocking because previous sessions had yielded nothing other than
nonsensical and random groupings of letters. Patience would go on to share her background
with Pearl and claimed she was born in England and came to America where she was
eventually killed by Native Americans in a raid on the island of Nantucket. Over time, Pearl
asserted she no longer even required the board as the messages from Patience were simply
channeled through her. Many of these sessions yielded poems and entire plays being
transcribed by Pearl's obliging husband John who would write all of it down while Pearl
dictated to him. One of the more unusual and intriguing elements of this collaboration were
specific words, places, names and phraseology from another era which Pearl - presumably -
should not have been aware of. The end of this mystical literary venture coincided with
Pearl's pregnancy at the age of 39 and with the passing of her husband and her mother. Her
"contact" with Patience began to wane over this period until it ended entirely.
Now, this all took place in 1916 and while it is a gripping tale considering Mrs. Curran's
muse was the spirit of a woman who lived in the 17th century and her own educational
level and background casting reasonable doubt she had any knowledge of an archaic
language, there may be more here than meets the eye. For example, the name Patience
Worth was a familiar one, as she was a character in a novel written by Mary Johnston titled,
"To Have and To Hold" based on Colonial life published in 1900. The phrase "many moons
ago" in her initial message is distinctly Native American and most likely not a phrase
commonly used by anyone from 17th century England. The absence of any other such
colloquialisms in further messages speaks to that inconsistency. While perhaps not
completely relavent to any arguments against her experience, Pearl did have a mental
breakdown at age 13 and in the estimation of some family members was something of a
hypochondriac. She also briefly lived with an uncle in Chicago who ran a spiritualist church
out of a storefront, so while she claimed to have no particular interest in the supernatural,
she nonetheless was exposed to it at an early age. The idea of channeling or spirit
communication then was not totally foreign to her. In fairness, perhaps this was not a hoax
planned as a means to fame and fortune (although she did eventually take to the stage to
"perform" for money), but merely as a way to express herself on an intellectual level that
simply snowballed. The only mystery that remains is whether Pearl Curran was indeed in
spirit contact with a woman from the 1600s named Patience Worth or she perpetuated a
hoax not worth our patience.
Interestingly, the "neighbor" mentioned in regards to Pearl Curran's first afternoon Ouija
sessions was a woman named Emily Grant Hutchings and is generally credited with
introducing Pearl to the wonders of the Ouija. One year after Pearl's literary debut,
Hutchings also published a book titled Jap Herron that she claimed was co-authored by
Samuel Clements, aka Mark Twain. The key component to this is the fact that Clements had
passed away seven years earlier in 1910. Much like Patience Worth did with Pearl Curran,
he made his contributions to his own living collaborator via the Ouija board. Did these
afternoon Ouija sessions really bring forth spiritual associates for both women?
Perhaps the most celebrated piece of channeled literature is the epic poem, The
Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill. The 560-page sonnet was the result of a
twenty-year transcription of messages received through a Ouija board by Merrill and his
partner, David Jackson. The massive work is actually a compilation, with 1976's Book of
Ephriam (which appeared in the collection Divine Comedies that won the Pulitzer Prize for
poetry in 1977), Mirabell: Books of Number (National Book Award for Poetry) in 1978 and
Scripts for the Pageant in 1980 being combined into one volume. Sandover would go on to
win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983. Merrill actually acknowledges his muses
in the credits: Ephraim, said to be a first century Jew and; Mirabell, a ouija board guide
David Jackson, left and James Merrill
So obviously while there were some strange and eccentric behaviors associated with the
Ouija board in people's lives, for most of the population the game remained a favorable
time-killer and the preferred method of foretelling the romantic involvements of teenaged
girls on sleepovers. Despite the atypical reports of emotionally and psychologically fragile
souls being "compelled" to perform some unthinkable and absurd acts, it was mainly
regarded as a harmless diversion. For the more spiritually devoted, the board was
considered an influential link to the spirit world whose rejoinders were to be taken very
seriously and utilized with the utmost respect and caution. Regardless of what side of the
fence you were on, the Ouija lived a fairly benign existence. This all changed (as the entire
paranormal paradigm would) with the release of a motion picture in 1973. It was titled "The
It wasn't until five years after its release that I finally acquiesced - at the urging of my
then-girlfriend and her deeply religious mother (gulp) - to seeing the movie. Even as a 22-
year-old strapping young male trying his best to convey an air of indifference to impress
and calm his girl and her increasingly-hysterical mother, the film disturbed the living
beejeebus out of me just as it did millions of others. Mission accomplished, Kubrick. As a
plot device, it plays on the deepest and most elemental fears in many of us. With the
spectacle of its graphic violence aside, at its foundation it comes down to two basic
elements: (1) Is this real? and; (2) could it happen to me? Exacerbating that situation was
the declaration that the movie was based on a "true incident" (it's generally accepted that a
case involving a young boy in St. Louis is the basis) as well as the notion that most major
religions accept possession and the rite of exorcism in some form as reality, albeit rare.
The film portrays young Regan McNeil (played by 12 year old Linda Blair) as an innocent
child who becomes possessed by a demon. Her facial features become grotesquely distorted
and her body is ravaged by the intruder. Worse, early in the film and prior to her ordeal she
reveals to her mother Chris that she has been fooling around with - that's right - a Ouija
board. She further claims she has summoned an entity named "Captain Howdy". This was
the public's first exposure to the idea that a demonic entity can masquerade as something
seemingly harmless and benevolent to ingratiate themselves with their target and
ultimately gain access to a human soul. It was at this seminal point in our popular culture
that the Ouija board went from an object of humor, entertainment and pseudo-mystery to
something to be feared and avoided lest one tempt the fates and open a portal to Hell.
Having a 70s flashback
Hollywood and television being copycat industries, when anything is considered a hot
commodity capable of generating millions of dollars from consumers who are eager for
more, a spate of imitators sprung up almost overnight. Movies like Alison's Birthday, The
Devil's Gift, Spookies and the best of that terrible bunch, Witchboard played on the growing
and highly-manufactured uneasiness bordering on abject fear of the Ouija board and we
couldn't seem to get enough. So another wave of movies starring Satan and his minions
popped up in an attempt to take advantage of the Exorcist's popularity. The Omen and The
Amityville Horror immediately spring to mind, but the list is longer and for the most part,
undistinguished. Just as the late John F. Kennedy was the first President to understand the
power of television, film studio executives were starting to realize the power of movies to
influence and manipulate popular culture through the attitudes and emotions of the
American public. This was the true beginning of the "franchise" film with interminable
sequels waiting in the wings. The kind of publicity they were about to receive because of
this latest trend toward the demonic could not have been totally foreseen (even with a
Ouija board), but they were not about to abandon a good thing, either way. People don't
mind being artificially frightened, especially if they know after two hours of shocks and
startles they can safely return home none the worse for wear.
Because of the growing association between the Ouija board and the forces of evil
(aided in no small part by the media portrayal of that partnership to the multitudes),
fundamentalist religious groups took up the mantle of morality and decency by means of
public protest, condemnation and boycott of theaters indulging in such blasphemy. There
were public burnings of boards and the citing of scripture prohibiting communication with
the spirit world, effectively issuing a denouncement of any attempt to do so by any means
lest one tempt fate and annoy God by summoning The Dark Lord himself. As we have since
become increasingly aware of in this new era of political correctness, public protest is also a
great way to draw some attention to yourself and your cause. Back then, however...these
folks were serious!
In a short span of time, the simple amalgamation of plastic, cardboard and ink into the
Ouija board had become an unwelcome interloper and had to be dealt with in the strongest
terms possible. Naturally, there were some grumblings, rolling of eyes and a shaking of
heads by more reasonable citizens who understood that the game had been around for
about 100 years before The Exorcist was released. But because of the current notoriety and
negative attention surrounding the game, it was as if the genie only now was out of its
bottle and had to be put back. The delicious irony was that religious opponents had now
been manipulated by fictional portrayals just as powerfully as were the unwashed masses
they now swore to protect and enlighten. The battle lines were now drawn. The spiritual
relevance, entertainment value and casual curiosity once linked to this 19th century parlor
game had been replaced by a concoction of equal parts inappropriateness and apprehension
with a dash of mass hysteria thrown in. The Hasbro Toy Company of Pawtucket, R.I. would
acquire Parker Brothers in 1991 and sales of the board remained respectable, but the
grounds for purchase now reflected more nefarious and superficially dangerous elements.