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19th Century Ouija Board Stories / Early Ouijamania (Ouija Boards Part 4)

19th Century Ouija Board Stories / Early Ouijamania (Ouija Boards Part 4)

19th century Ouija board stories: Chris digs up some early stories of people getting waaay too obsessed with their Ouija boards.

Highlights include:
• a rare story of a 19th century black woman’s experience with Ouija
• a couple destroying their home to (supposedly) convert the world to Masonic principles
• Presidential talking boards
• petty society columns
• Ouija wrecking havoc on a wealthy Brooklyn family
• a man finding spiritual fulfillment through Ouija

Most of these stories take place during the Victorian era, but we also look at a few in the early 20th century, going up to the start of WWI, which is when Ouijamania really kicked off.

 

19th Century Ouija Board Stories / picture of a family at the Ouija board

Picture from the article “Ouija’s Seance.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) · Sun, Oct 11, 1896 · Page 23

 

Episode Script for 19th Century Ouija Board Stories / Early Ouijamania (Ouija Boards Part 4)

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“People want to believe. The need to believe that something else is out there is powerful. This thing is one of those things that allows them to express that belief.” -Ouija Expert Robert Murch, quoted in Smithsonian Magazine

 

First, something I wanted to add RE: the invention of the Ouija board. I happened to do a newspaper search of “witch board” because I realized I hadn’t searched that term, and I uncovered a pretty interesting story.

  • On June 2, 1886, President Grover Cleveland got married–he was the first president to marry while in office, and his new bride was the youngest first lady, at 21 years old.
    • Sidenote: both of them seemed like pretty bad people. Cleveland has some sexual assaults to his name, pretty predictably, and later on, during the 19teens, Frances Cleveland was a pro-war, anti-immigrant, anti-womens suffrage activist who once said “women aren’t intelligent enough to vote.”
  • So they sound like a charming couple.
  • Among their wedding gifts were a “witch board” sent by the Reed Toy Company, who was the company who manufactured the Espirito board that we talked about last week, which Fuld’s company ended up suing and then taking over the trademark for.
  • So, this does prove that the Reed Toy Company was making talking boards before Fuld’s company was, though I guess they must not have patented it.
    • I wanted to read a little bit from a Boston Globe article about the gift:
      • Should the president desire to settle any problematical questions, he can do so by calling upon his “witch board” for aid from the spirits. Should any of the giddy boys in the cabinet endeavor to flirt with the nation’s bride, it could not be done with impunity, as the tell-tale board would waft back the intelligence from the land beyond the portals to an unsuspecting public. No well-regulated family will now lack one of the articles which can glean information from a realm which even the telephone monopoly can’t reach . . . The following letter accompanied the piece of spiritualized lumber:
        • To the president of the United States, Grover Cleveland:
          • Honored Sir–we talk the liberty to send you by express today an article of our own manufacture, which is attracting a great deal of attention, called the “Witch Board.” When two persons of proper magnetism sit opposite each other, and place one finger of each hand on the edge of the small table, it will move around and answer questions asked by spelling out the word. The “Witch Board” discloses the past and foretells the future. Trusting that it may be of service to, I am very respecfully yours, Charles E. Dresser, Treasurer
    • There were some follow-up articles that showed Cleveland’s responses:
      • Dear Sir–I acknowledge with thanks the receipt of the witch board. I shall admire it, but I shall not at present test its power of disclosing the past or foretelling the future. Yours very truly, Grover Cleveland

 

Also, I was reading Occult America by Mitch Horowitz, and it gave a few extra details about some of the stuff we discussed last week that I hadn’t see written elsewhere:

  • So apparently there was at least one version of the Ouija box that said “It draws the two people using it into close companionship and weaves around them a feeling of mysterious isolation.” which really emphasizes what we were talking about RE: it being an excuse to be intimate with someone.
  • Then it had a little more info about William Fuld: apparently he started working as a  at the Kennard Novelty Company when he was a teenager–he worked as a varnisher and he did operational work.
    • It says that Kennard was removed from the company b/c of a financial dispute.

 

So let’s talk Ouijamania, or really what I’m calling pre-Ouijamania, the period from 1891-1914! In this episode, I want to focus on the period ranging from 1891 (when the Ouija board was first manufactured) to the start of World War I.

  • Ouijamania really started in earnest during WWI.
  • As far as I can tell, the term “Ouijamania” wasn’t actually coined until 1920, but I wanted to touch on some of the stories that came out of the early Ouija craze.
  • We talked a little bit about Spiritualism in an earlier episode; by 1893, two years after the official invention of the Ouija board, spiritualism became its own religious denomination. (Which, by the way, technically still exists.)
    • The reason why I bring up Spiritualists again is that if they didn’t exist, I really doubt the Ouija board would.
    • Spiritualists sound little like Unitarians? There was one famous Spiritualist writer, Andrew Jackson Davis, who said that he didn’t believe hell existed, and that instead all spirits go somewhere peaceful called “Summerland.” It sounds like Spiritualists were generally progressive, advocating for womens rights and abolition.

 

  • The earliest case of someone getting extremely obsessed with Ouija that I know of was reported in a Boston Daily Globe article called “CRAZED THROUGH OUIJA: Neglected by Her Lover She Seeks Comfort of a Fortune-Telling Device” from November 21, 1891.
    • 28-year old Eugenie Carpenter, “a fine looking woman” was found wandering around in public nearly naked. They couldn’t reason with her, and she kept saying “Ouija said so and I knew it was true.”
      • It turns out that her husband had left her, and for the past year, she’d had a new boyfriend. They’d argued over some small thing and split up.
      • When she heard that the Ouija board had magic powers, she got one and asked it if her husband would return. The board said no. Then she asked if her boyfriend would return, and the board said: “He has ceased to love you. He will never return.”
      • She grew pale when she got that message but soon regained her composure and seemed fine–until a few days later, her neighbor found her staggering around nearly naked, saying “Ouija said so and I knew it was so.”
    • Another article about this, published in the Buffalo Evening News on the same day, described her as a young divorced woman, and ends with the line “Catholic clergymen are waging a war upon Ouija boards as dangerous to the young.”

 

  • The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana) · Sun, Dec 6, 1891 · Page 14
    • There’s a short column in the society section that talks about ladies who consult ouija boards and schedule or cancel parties based on what they say. (And it casts it as a bad and foolish thing)

 

In April 1892, the society pages in the The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche reported:

  • The society folks of Little Rock are infatuated with the “Ouija” board. It must be so when the leading minister in the city preaches against it. When he uttered the words . . . There was a general shifting of positions in the pews and briefly whispered conversations which clearly showed the majority of the congregatation was personally affected by the remarks.
    • I guess some church members insisted the sermon wasn’t directed at them; they said it was RE: a formerly Christian family that had recently gotten into spiritualism, trying to communicate with their dead son. But the author of this article said that wasn’t the case; the sermon was obviously anti-Ouija.
    • The article then describes how Ouija became popular among society people; a well-connected woman who worked in the fire insurance business got into Ouija when her business partner was run over by a fire department truck and killed a few weeks before the article was written. She tried to communicate with him through the board, and the board told her about some business he’d been working on the day he died (there was a policy where the premium hadn’t been paid yet) and told her exactly where the papers were, etc. So then she located those papers and told everyone about it, said she couldn’t have gotten that info any other way, etc.
    • The article then goes through and calls ppl out by name; it’s a pretty funny list of people and what they’re using the board for. But my favorite bit is this:
  • Frank Paoli has become a victim of the craze and spends two hours every day and the entire afternoons and evenings on Sundays consulting friendly spooks. Nearly all the spirits with whom he holds communion are in hell.

 

Article in The National Tribune (Washington, District of Columbia) · Thu, Jul 28, 1892 · Page 5

  • The Ouija was simply meant to be a toy, and was gotten out for the last Christmas holidays. It was a surprise that it took as well as it did and that the demand for them kept up so long. However it finally did seem to die out, but then the spiritualists discovered that it was just what is needed for the spiritual communications, and that it is better for them plan the planchet, as the opportunities for fraud are less with the Ouija.
  • The article goes on to describe what a Ouija board looks like, then:
    • This is the toy that amuses the young folks and serves to express the thoughts of the friends of the spiritualists.

 

There was an interesting story in an article from the Sun on September 14, 1892:

  • It tells the tale of a party in England where they were playing with the Ouija board. One of the attendees was a skeptic, and someone suggested that the skeptic ask a question mentally and see if the board answered.
  • The skeptic did, and the board said “A French joke.”
  • The skeptic said that was no answer, but someone said they should ask the board to explain. The board replied “What is ‘joke’ in French?”
  • They looked up the french word for joke, which is “plaisanterie”
  •  At that, the skeptic leapt up in surprise, saying: “I asked this question in my mind, and not a soul in the room could possibly know what it was.” The question had been “What horse will win the Cambridgeshire?”
  • Plaisanterie was one of the horses favored to win that race.
  • Later, Plaisanterie did win the race. The article said that it’s unclear if anyone at the party won any money based on the prediction.

 

  • “SPIRIT MECHANISM. THE CRAZE FOR HAVING MESSAGES INDICATED BY THE OUIJA: Minds Upset by a Toy of Wonderful Possibilities if All Stories be True—The Ouija and the Planchette Compared—The Espirito Board.” June 28th 1892. Manitoba Daily Free Press, Winnipeg, Canada:
    • This article talks about how Ouija started as a fad toy for the 1891 holiday season but by 1892, it’d been adopted by spiritualists.
    • “According to some of the enthusiasts, the spirits have taken to the ouija with marvelous zeal. The planchette was utterly discarded.”
    • It talks about the differences between Ouija and planchette, and says:
      • “The planchette created a great furor, but the exposers of the unscrupulous operators destroyed the popular interest in it, although Spiritualists generally yet give it credence. . . .
      • Some say that there is less chance of fraud with the ouija than with the planchette, while others maintain the opposite. Those who have faith in it tell marvelous stories of the operations of the ouija. They say that intricate questions, prepared by strangers to the operators, and known only to the former, have been answered correctly and rapidly.
      • The intense excitement that accompanies many of the ouija demonstrations has resulted seriously in a number of instances. Reports from various parts of the country where the ouija has been taken up how that a number of believers have had their minds upset by the nervous excitement. A recent dispatch from Liberty, Ind., said that John Chapman and his wife, a prosperous couple of that town, had gone stark mad because the ouija demonstrations had overexcited them.”

 

I found this story on the museum of talking boards website:

  • Two Liberty residents, a Mr. John Chapman and his wife became “over excited” while participating in neighborhood Ouija demonstrations according to 1892 Indiana newspaper reports. Panicked, they locked the children in their rooms and destroyed nearly all the furniture in the house. Concerned police found Mrs. Chapman, a minister’s daughter, cutting circles on the walls of her room. Mr. Chapman was doing the same with a scythe. Carpets in the home had all been slashed into small strips and knives, hatchets and other “deadly weapons” were found lying about. Mrs. Chapman explained that Horace Greeley had contacted her during a Ouija session and commanded her to convert the world to Masonic principles. It was unclear how their actions were going to accomplish this.

 

  • From The Marion Times-Standard (Marion, Alabama) · Fri, Aug 17, 1894:
    • This is just nice:
      • One of the most enjoyable entertainments it has been our pleassure to attend was the moon “lit” picnic at the residence of Mrs. West’s on last Wednesday night. Ice cream and cake were served in the dining room at any hour you wished it, and altogether it was a most pleasant affair. One of the most prominent amusements of the evening was the Ouija board. It afforded much pleasure to young folks, especially your correspondent answering questions and most of them correct. It was a late hour when one and all began to seek refuge under the shelter of their own roofs with the thought lingering in their minds of the evening just past being one of the most pleasant ever spent in the annals of West Perry.

 

  • From a story The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) · Sun, Oct 11, 1896 · Page 23:
    • This is from a feature called “Ouija’s Séance”
      • The Ouija board is an innocent looking thing in itself, but the members of a certain Brooklyn family have reason to believe that, like many other innocent appearing things, it is an instrument of Mephistophelian ingenuity and consequence. Of course, the craze for this creaking three legged stool, with its alphabetical habit . . . Has almost died out, yet the particular board in question had only recently been bought before it was burned with appropriate ceremonies.
      • There are several references to Faust in this article.
      • The article’s about a well-off Brooklyn family who play with a Ouija board for the first time. It gives them some predictions about the upcoming presidential election, saying McKinley will win, and then their session’s interrupted by the doorbell.
      • They get a servant to get the door, and in the meantime, they ask the board who the visitor was. The board spelled out “WAJ”
      • The guest was a Mr. Johnson, and it turns out his initials were WAJ.
      • Though the family was impressed by the board, Mr Johnson declared the Ouija was a fraud.
      • The Ouija board spelled out “Mr. Johnson is an ass.”
      • Then, the board said that Mr. Johnson was in love with one of the daughters in the family.
      • There’s a great quote from this:
        • Now, as a matter of fact, any one who has ever possessed one of these boards will know as a love makrer it is irrepressible. A full moon, a babbling brook and all the other accessories of a short story writer are simply nothing compared to the Ouija as matchmaker.
      • The article reports that Mr. Johnson left the house muttering “Rot, superstition, fool board, etc.”
      • Then they went back to the board.
      • Two of the daughters were at the board, which said that one of them was sweet but too conceited. Then it said that the father drank too much, and the mother, who was watching but not at the board, got mad and accused the daughters of pushing the planchette.
      • So then the mother went and put her hands on the planchette, and the board quickly spelled out:
        • You are a gibbering old woman. It is you who drive your husband to drink. You are–“
      • Then, before it could finish the sentence, the table fell over, almost causing a fire when the lamp toppled off, but luckily the father caught it just in time.
      • The mother started yelling at the daughter and at the board. When she finally sat back down, as soon as she put her hand on the planchette, it zoomed to “Goodbye”–the article claimed that the mother’s hand was almost dislocated.
      • They kept trying to use it, but every time, it went straight to goodbye. They’d insulted the board.
      • So they went to bed, leaving the board out on the parlor table.
      • The daughters snuck out of bed a little before midnight and had what the article called “a sentimental séance” where they learned that basically all of their friends were in love with them and wanted to propose. The board even claimed that one young man, who’d disappeared, had killed himself because he couldn’t decide which of the two girls he loved more
      • Then, right at midnight, the board sped up and things got weird.
      • The board said “Shakespeare” and then the girls quoted a sililoquy from Hamlet about “graveyards yawning and graves doing queer things”
      • The girls asked if the board had anything important to tell them, and the board said yet.
      • Then the board gave a specific date when their mother would die. The girls both fainted, and their father heard the noise (I guess from them falling over?) and came down angrily.
      • The next morning, the decided to burn the board.
      • As the date that the board gave them approached, the mother fell ill, but didn’t die.
      • The girls thought that maybe they’d remembered the wrong date, so they bought another board and tried it again at midnight.
      • It turns out they had misremembered the date–they’d been a week off.
      • Their mother got sick again, but still didn’t die.
      • The article ends wondering if the prediction that McKinley would win was right, but notes that the neighbors’ board said that he wouldn’t win, so it was a draw for now.

 

 

  • A Singular Case of Dementia. St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri) · Thu, Apr 14, 1898 · Page 13
    • This article is subtitled: Miss Bella C. Thomas a Victim of Christian Science Study
      • It’s about a schoolteacher named Bella C. Thomas. The tone of this article is a little different to me, but I can’t quite figure out why. The tone is pretty reasonable, talks a lot about Bella C. Thomas’ family and past, etc. It might be that the woman is a devout Christian Scientist and has been studying it a lot?
      • One reason why I wanted to bring up this article is that it’s about a black woman–I really feel like I haven’t found many articles about anyone aside from (presumed) white people using the board (usually “silly white women.”) I wonder if there was a racial or class element to people who were into Ouija boards, or if black folks and POC were just totally erased and/or not covered? It could be that a lot of Ouija related articles are society columns and writeups of rich people’s parties, so that could be part of it.
        • I will say that the article is obviously racist, and says stuff like:
          • Miss Thomas belongs to the most exclusive set of her race in the city, and was distinguished for her refinement of manner and her interest in physical studies.
        • Yikes.
        • But also, would she have gotten any kind of writeup, and such a . . . Relatively charitable one, by the standards of the time . . . If she hadn’t been a respectable schoolteacher?
      • So the article starts:
        • A singular case of dementia attributed to a too intense study of Christian Science in connection with the revelations of a “talking table” or Ouija board, has just come to light.
      • It continues, talking about how she’d started studying Christian Science a few years before, and believed in it very much. She has two sisters, one who lives in Chicago and is also a Christian Scientist, and another who lives nearby and is also a teacher.
      • A year before, their mother died, and a little after that, a beloved aunt died. Bella C. Thomas had taken care of her aunt during her illness.
      • So after the two deaths, Bella C. Thomas became even more interested in Christian Science, and apparently bought a Ouija board “to aid her studies.”
      • There isn’t really much of an explanation of how that would help her learn about Christian Science, but the article goes on to say that she got some really impressive answers from the board, which really made her believe in it.
      • The article said she was getting messages from the spirit world, and she got some bad news. To read a bit more:
        • One message . . . Brought much sadness to her, and that was that she would not live long, and must prepare for her entry into the spirit world. Miss Thomas was never very robust at any time, and brooding over the thought of her early demise, given to her by the Ouija board, caused her to beocme still more delicate . . . And spoke of her early death as a certainty.
      • So the previous Monday, she taught her classes as usual and seemed fine, but started feeling realy bad when she got home.
        • A short time after getting home she was taken with delirium and talked of the Ouija’s message in a flighty way, which alarmed her friends.
      • Her sister who lived nearby took her to their other sister’s place in Chicago “for a change of scenery” and the article concludes:
        • It is not thought her trouble is more than a temporary indisposition, caused by study and overwork, and that a few week’s rest will restore her to her usual health and spirits.
      • So this article feels way more thoughtful than a lot of the others–despite its obvious issues. I also like that it gives you a slice of this woman’s life, and you get to see her family and friends supporting her. And she isn’t labeled a hysteric or anything, they’re basically just saying she’s burnt out and needs to recover.
    • As a sidenote, I did try to figure out what Ouija had to do with Christian Science, and I wasn’t super successful. I did find an essay called Psychoanalysis: Its Value and Its Dangers that was published by the Episcopal Church in 1922 that says:
      • Freud is the author of a new gospel, and all psuchologists before him but children in the science; and its bitter opponents, who indignantly renounce Freud and all his works, and regard psychoanalysis as a fad to be classed with Christian Science, ouija board reading, and spiritism.
      • So it seems like Christian Science and Ouija were thrown together often.
        • I also learned that Christian Science came out about the same time as spiritualism and the Ouija board. Christian Science was founded in 1879,  and for a while it was the fastest growing religion in the US: it went from 9,000 members in 1890, to 60,000 in 1906, and then to 260,000 at its height in the 1930s. But especially around the beginning of Christian Science, its founder was sometimes accused of spiritualism.

 

 

Kennebec Journal — Maine, October 2nd 1903–this seems kinda tongue in cheek to me:

  • “A young couple in Portland are about to be married as the result of the work of the wonderful ouija board. At least, the Advertiser figures it out that they may get married for the ouija board gave her his name as that of her future husband. At that time she had never heard of him. Since then she has inspected him from a distance, and the flutter of her heart tells her that the ouija board is a glorious institution. He has heard the story and is deeply interested. Mutual friends are now plotting to bring them together and Cupid may be trusted to arrange the minor details that will remain. Great is the ouija board.”

 

 One fun detail: apparently President Woodrow Wilson used the Ouija board, or at least said he did. Someone asked him in 1914 if he would be reelected, and he said “The Ouija board says yes.”

 

 

  • Customer letter from 1914 to William Fuld:
    • Dear Sir:
    • About a year ago I was given one of your Ouija boards by an old lady who had it for many years. I became very much interested in it. At first it required two persons to get any writing then I could get it alone. Now for a long time I have let no one touch it but myself. I simply lay it on a table and with one hand. It begins writing at once and and very rapidly just as fast as I can read it. To me it is a marvelous thing most wonderful. It has gone back over my life as the film of a moving picture would be unrolled and has explained so many things to me to me that I did not understand that have happened in my life. It tells me nothing of the future only that I must be patient, and all will come as I wish.
    • I am writing this to ask you if you could tell me any more about it confidentially of course. Does “Ouija” mean Jesus?
    • It seems to me that I went from plane to plane, each time I seemed to know was a better spirit writing until now I feel there is a most high one. I have had many friends buy them. But tell them to go to them in love and veneration as one would go in the presence of something most high and good. They all have found it most wonderful. Please pardon this long letter from a stranger and allow me to thank you for many hours of great peace and happiness brought to me though this Ouija.
    • Louise W. Ingram

 

And I thought that was a nice note to end it on. Next time, we’ll be talking Egyptomania, and then we’ll go onto actual Ouijamania, which started in earnest during World War I.

19th Century Ouija Board Sources

Websites about 19th Century Ouija Board Stories

Historical articles and advertisements about 19th Century Ouija Board Stories

  • Read the Witch Board. The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) · Sat, Jun 5, 1886 · Page 5
  • Cleveland’s Witch Board. The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · Wed, Jun 16, 1886 · Page 1
  • The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche (Memphis, Tennessee) · 3 Apr 1892, Sun · Page 10
  • A Novel Party. The Glen Elder Sentinel (Glen Elder, Kansas) · Sat, Mar 27, 1897 · Page 3
  • Communicating With The Dead. New-York tribune. [volume], November 03, 1907, Page 12, Image 36
  • County News. The Marion Times-Standard (Marion, Alabama) · Fri, Aug 17, 1894 · Page 1
  • Ouija’s Predictions. The sun. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]) 1833-1916, September 14, 1892, Page 5, Image 5
  • Ouija’s Seance. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) · Sun, Oct 11, 1896 · Page 23
  • The National Tribune (Washington, District of Columbia) · Thu, Jul 28, 1892 · Page 5
  • A Singular Case of Dementia. St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri) · Thu, Apr 14, 1898 · Page 13
  • Florence Bulletin (Florence, Kansas) · Fri, Jan 27, 1893 · Page 3
  • “SPIRIT MECHANISM. THE CRAZE FOR HAVING MESSAGES INDICATED BY THE OUIJA: Minds Upset by a Toy of Wonderful Possibilities if All Stories be True—The Ouija and the Planchette Compared—The Espirito Board.” June 28th 1892. Manitoba Daily Free Press, Winnipeg, Canada: https://www.williamfuld.com/ouija_articles_06281892.html
  • Fortune Telling Made Her Crazy. Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, New York) · Sat, Nov 21, 1891 · Page 1
  • CRAZED THROUGH “OUIJA”: Neglected by Her Lover She Seeks Comfort of a Fortune-Telling Device. November 21st 1891. Boston Daily Globe: https://www.williamfuld.com/ouija_articles_11211891.html
  • Kennebec Journal — Maine, October 2nd 1903: https://www.williamfuld.com/ouija_articles_10-02-1903.html

Books consulted RE: 19th Century Ouija Board Stories

  • “Psychoanalysis: Its Value and Its Dangers” by Jared S. Moore. The Influence of the Church on Modern Problems. Episcopal Church. Church Congress. Macmillan, 1922.
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (for some info on Christian Science and Ouija)

Check out the shownotes for the rest of the series to see all of the sources used.

Listen to the rest of the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes: