February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
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.
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.”
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.
Two years after the Turley murder the Ouija was again implicated in a crime. In Kansas City, Nellie Kurd’s Ouija board told her that her husband, Herbert, a seventyseven-year-old railroad worker, was playing around with another woman to whom he had given fifteen thousand dollars from a secret fortune. When Herbert denied it, Nellie hired a private detective. According to Herbert, Nellie “beat me and burned me and tortured me into confessing all those lies.” He could not shake her from believing the Ouija. “So finally,” Herbert said, “I had to kill her.”
Isolated Ouija stories popped up between the two World Wars, but after Pearl Harbor another mass Ouija vogue began. John Geotis, a Madison, New Jersey, service-station attendant, refused to enter the armed services unless he could take his board with him. When the recruiting sergeant allowed him to test the board, it predicted that the Nazis would be defeated and the Greeks would hold out against the Axis. Although it later proved merely half correct, the Ouija accompanied Geotis to his Georgia base.
By 1944 Macy’s was selling thousands of them. “Turning to spiritualism for a feeling of security is not new to this war,” said R. S. Woodworth, professor emeritus of psychology at Columbia University. He predicted that the craze would end by 1945. It did.
The Ouija reappeared in 1956 when the will of Helen Dow Peck was read. To the outrage of nine nieces and nephews, Mrs. Peck left most of her $180,000 estate to John Gale Forbes, a man whose name her Ouija board had given her in 1919. To the relief of Mrs. Peck’s relatives, the elusive Forbes could not be located in this world, and a judge invalidated the will.
The Ouija gained new converts in the mass occult explosion of the 1960s; in 1967 it outsold Monopoly. Once again it aroused its opponents. Louisa Rhine, wife of J. B. Rhine, the lifelong researcher in extrasensory perception, wrote that Ouija boards should not be thought to bring messages from the spirit world, but as “automatisms can be considered as a method of tapping the unconscious.” If the Ouija is used by those who are suggestible and “also quite naive about the implications,” she warned, “the results can be upsetting.”
In doing the research for this article, I met many people who feared the Ouija. One librarian refused to discuss with me the research materials he unshelved lest he be entrapped by some occult force. In his 1975 book The Ouija Board: Doorway to the Occult , Edmund Gruss solemnly told how a board had predicted a series of disasters that eventually came true. When asked where it got its information, the Ouija spelled, “S-A-T-A-N.”
Is this device that grew from the rappings of the Fox sisters indeed only a game? In her complaint to Parker Brothers one user may have revealed more about the board’s workings than she intended. Her Ouija, she wrote, “gives very good answers early in the day and very dirty answers at night.”