- 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
In time Pearl found a woman who wished to put her newborn daughter up for adoption, and mirabile dictu , the baby’s hair color and ancestry matched what Patience Worth had earlier given as her own. The Currans adopted the child, named it Patience Worth Curran, and clothed it, as instructed, “spinster prim” in the garb of the seventeenth century.
Until her death in 1937, Pearl Curran continued to amaze. A “distinguished historian” claimed one of her biblical narratives was “the greatest story of the life and times of Christ penned since the Gospels were finished. ” A New York Times review of one of her books attested to its “flashes of genius.”
Americans loved the Patience Worth story and endlessly debated whether Patience was real or just Pearl’s secondary personality. Others in the Midwest began to communicate with dead literary figures, notably Pearl’s friend Emily Hutchings, who as a professional journalist had been upstaged. She got back some of her own by publishing a book of her conversations with Mark Twain.
On the eve of World War I, the Ouija told William FuId, “Prepare for big business.” Sure enough, with sons and husbands called to fight, mothers and wives bought the boards in record numbers to keep in touch.
The craze survived the Armistice. The New York Tribune reported that at the University of Michigan the Ouija board “has succeeded the Bible and the prayerbook in fraternity houses and students’ rooms. ” As postwar fears of a Bolshevik revolution gripped some Americans, The New York Times Magazine condemned the invasion of Madame Ouija, “the Bolshevik of the psychic realm,” whose “Soviet of Ghosts threatens to fire all our Ephesian noodles and lay in ashes the little Swiss republics of our certainties.”
In 1920 one correspondent wrote that the Ouija had produced a “national industry which bids fair to rival that in chewing gum,” and the Baltimore Sun appointed a Ouija editor to keep up with the mail about the locally produced board. When a sailor in New York heard from his Ouija board that his friend had stolen a ring that the sailor’s wife had been missing, he assaulted the friend and was taken before a magistrate who informed him that the Ouija board was not considered a reliable witness. “It is the duty of all who know the facts as to Ouija boards,” noted The New York Times , “to make them known to others and to denounce the misuse of the thing as a crime against intelligence.”
Ouija boards often brought out the macabre. Ruth Townsend and her daughter Marion began to get sermons “from the beyond” via the Ouija. “Marion,” said Mrs. Townsend, “did not believe in spirits. I myself was doubtful. But after the Ouija board had been talking to us for days, we just had to believe.” Mrs. Townsend’s mother died in 1921. Under the order of the Ouija board, the two women kept the corpse in their home for fifteen days and then buried it in their garden.
The Ouija’s popularity sagged during the late 1920s, but on December 26,1933, news of the death of Ernest J. Turley ended the most bizarre single Ouija board tale in American history. A “young cowboy” had been diverting the attentions of Dorothea Irene Turley from her husband. A devotee of the Ouija board, Mrs. Turley said she was instructed by it to send her husband digging for buried treasure in cliffs near their Arizona home while she spent time with her cowboy.
In 1933 the board gave a grim order. As Mrs. Turley’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Mattie, related: “Mother asked the Ouija board to decide between father and her cowboy friend. As usual, the board moved around at first without meaning but suddenly it spelled out that I was to kill father. It was terrible. I shook all over. Mother asked the Ouija board if the shooting would be successful, and it said that it would. She asked if he would die outright, and it said no. We asked what should be used in the shooting, and it said a shotgun. We asked if we would have the ranch, and it said yes. We asked about the law, and it said not to fear the law, that everything would turn out all right. We asked how much the insurance would be, and it said five thousand dollars. I tried to kill Father the next day but I couldn’t. I lost my nerve. A few days later, though, I followed him to the corral. I raised the gun and took careful aim between the shoulders, but then I lost my nerve again. But I thought of dear mother and what all this would mean to her. I couldn’t fail. My hand was trembling awfully, but I raised the gun and fired.”
Mattie served six years in the Arizona State Industrial School; her mother was sentenced to from ten to twenty-five years in prison but was released after three years.