- Historic Sites
In 1913 the Ouija board dictated a novel. Twenty years later it commanded a murder. It is most popular in times of national catastrophe, and it’s selling pretty briskly just now.
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
American Ouija boards sprang from the first native spiritualist craze. In 1847 in Hydesville, New York, the two teen-aged Fox sisters claimed that mysterious rappings emanated from their bodies. The source of these rappings, they said, was the ghost of a peddler thought to have been murdered and buried in their cellar. The two girls decoded the rappings and built a lucrative spiritualist business.
Under pressure they at last admitted that they were cracking their knee joints, but hundreds of mediums had opened shop, and the wish to communicate with the dead soon led to the creation of tables that answered questions by rapping when individual letters were indicated.
In the 1850s Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a complex table that converted movements into letters automatically by means of pulleys and a circular alphabet dial. Hare claimed messages from “Geo. Washington” and “J. Q. Adams,” only to see his device supplanted by a simpler tabletop ” spiritoscope.”
In the meantime French spiritualists were producing automatic writing with a planchette —a tiny, heart-shaped board supported by two short wooden legs—and a pencil. When the user rested his fingers lightly on the board, the pencil moved about the paper below it; two Marylanders, E. C. Reichie and C.W.Kennard, each claimed to have created the modern Ouija board by combining the alphabet board and the planchette . Calling his products Witch Boards, Kennard sold them through the Kennard Novelty Company. William FuId, a foreman in the firm, bought the rights and recorded a patent in 1892. His brother Isaac created the Southern Novelty Company, which marketed the Oriole Talking Board. Though Kennard later claimed the word Ouija was Egyptian for “good luck,” William FuId said that he merely took oui , the French word for “yes,” and combined it with ja , the German affirmative. Both men maintained that the board itself gave them the name.
The Fuld brothers, who had amused themselves with “spirit boards” as youths, designed their small, heart-shaped, three-legged table or pointer to move on a three-ply, eighteen by twelve-inch pine board. On it were printed the alphabet, the numbers zero through nine, the words yes, no, hello , and good-bye . Seated with knees together and the board atop their combined laps, the two players placed their fingers on the pointer, which spelled out words by traveling on the board and pointing to letters.
In response to a steadily increasing demand, in 1899 the Fulds opened a small Ouija factory in Baltimore. As sales mounted, the public became curious about the brothers themselves. Did they believe in the board’s power? “Believe in the Ouija board?” William responded, “I’m no spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian—been one ever since I was so high.” But this quiet, onetime customs collector knew a meal ticket when he saw one: the board was on its way to earning him over $1 million. He was thinking of expanding his plant when one of the boards he had already sold brought his device national fame.
On an airless, muggy night in July 1913, three St. Louis, Missouri, women sat over the Ouija board. Pearl Curran, the hostess, was working it with Emily Hutchings, while Pearl’s mother sat beside them to write down any messages from the board. The Ouija was about to begin the most famous of its revelations. “M-A-N-Y,” spelled the pointer as Mrs. Pollard took notes.
“Many moons ago I lived,” continued the board, “again I come. Patience Worth my name. ”
The women started.
“Wait,” said the board, “I would speak with thee.”
Over the next weeks Patience Worth revealed herself to Pearl Curran as a Puritan writer born in Dorsetshire, England, who migrated to America. Slain by a New England Indian before she could begin her literary career, she would speak through Mrs. Curran for over twenty years, producing some four million words. Pearl, who claimed no literary talent, had left school during the eighth grade, after a nervous collapse. As a medium for Patience, she eventually gave birth to a novel called The Sorry Tale , followed by six more books and thousands of poems and epigrams. In 1916 Patience asked Pearl to adopt a child: “Look, look, a time a-later the purse shall fatten and ye shall seek ye a one, a wee bit, one who hath not.”