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Ouija after World War I (Ouija Boards Part 6)

Ouija after World War I (Ouija Boards Part 6)

Ouija after World War I: We tried talking about 1920s Ouijamania but there was too much good stuff in the late 19teens.

Highlights include:
• Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini playing with a Ouija board in an Atlantic City hotel room
• The pope hiring a former psychical researcher to denounce Ouija
• Possible connections between remote viewing and successful Ouija board use
• The solar plexus chakra and ouija
• Racism in 1920s America

 

 
Ouija after World War I: a 1918 newspaper with a drawing of a ghost emerging from a Ouija board

“Can The Dead Talk To Us?” The San Francisco Examiner. Sun, May 26 , 1918.

 

Episode Script for Ouija after World War I (Ouija Boards Part 6)

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. 

“It is a most difficult and sometimes quite a hopeless task to reason with a mind under spirit-control and which, by reason of that control, has lost the power of judging fairly and squarely.”

–The New Black Magic and the Truth about the Ouija Board, published in 1919

 

So I thought this episode was going to be like our Australian Ghost Hoaxers episode, just a funny set of stories about some people doing and saying weird stuff, and journalists writing comical articles about it.

  • But when I really started digging in, I realized this was a way bigger topic, and that there’s a lot to talk about not just about people getting really into Ouija boards, but also about post-WWI society. Since you can’t really separate any story from the time period it’s set in.
  • I know there’s a tendency to think of the 1920s as a fun time of flappers and prohibition. But there’s a lot of ugliness there as well, especially when you look at the United States in the 1920s.
  • So this will be a two-part episode (I hope) this week we’ll talking about the years between the beginning of WWI and the end of the 19teens.
  • We’ll talk about one article from 1920, but aside from that, we’ll really be looking closely at stories from the 1920s–and in particular, the year 1920, when the majority of the articles that I found were from–next week.

 

The week before last, we talked about some weird 19th century Ouija stories. A  new Ouija fervor started during WWI.

  • If you listeners remember from the 19th century Ouija stories episode, there were a lot of stories in the late 19th century, but things got quiet in the early 20th. But a combination of factors, including WWI , made Ouija popular again, though the craze didn’t really kick off until the 1920s.

 

  • I found one article in The Salina Evening Journal (Salina, Kansas) · Fri, Aug 18, 1916 that references how Ouija wasn’t so popular anymore:
    • “The ouija board that several years ago was more popular than motor car riding, is presumed to be connected with the unseen world. . . During the ouija board craze the chap who couldn’t spell his sweetheart’s name not only felt like a pill himself, but the girl thought he did not care for her.”
    • So as late as 1916, people really saw the Ouija board as a has-been. How wrong they were.

 

  • There’s a recent article on history.com that argues that the Spanish Flu, which hit the US between 1918 and 1920, caused a huge resurgence in Spiritualism. That’s interesting to me because in most places, I’ve read that WWI was responsible.
    • But of course we’re all really focused on how pandemics influence society right now, so it make sense that people are now looking at the Spanish Flu and seeing how it changed the world. That’s the closest we can get to predicting the future right now, as far as I’m concerned.
    • So to talk about that:
    • 20 million people died in World War I (worldwide)
    • The Spanish Flu killed 50 million people
      • though the first wave mostly killed people with prexisting conditions and older people, the much deadlier second wave hit relatively young people the hardest, with people between 20 and 40 dying most frequently
      • Just a sidenote about the Spanish flu, it didn’t really hit me till just now because I’m used to it being called the 1918 flu pandemic, etc, but the Spanish flu had four waves that went on through April 1920.
      • I never really consider how long that is, or how it ended it 1920, and then COVID-19 started making headlines in 2020, an even 100 years later.

 

  • So, two famous people who advocated for spiritualism around this time were Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a respected physicist named Sir Oliver Lodge
    • Both of them had been interested in the supernatural for a while, and both of them had sons who died in the war.
    • Both of them wrote and spoke a lot about how they communicated with their sons via seances, automatic writing, etc.
    • Lodge wrote a book in 1916 called Raymond, or Life and Death, all about it his many communications with his son. Doyle claims to have communicated with his son many times, and said that as of 1919, he knew of 24 mothers who had spoken to their dead sons.
      • I’ve already started gathering sources for an episode about the two of them, someday once we’re done talking about Ouija boards.
    • Meanwhile, Harry Houdini saw all of the fake mediums springing up during and after the war, and started traveling around debunking spiritualism.
    • As Ouija became more and more popular in the years from 1917-1922, Houdini called it “the first step towards insanity.” And he wasn’t the only one–a bit later we’ll get to more accounts of literal Ouija madness.
    • I just wanted to tell one funny story about Houdini and Doyle, who seemed to be friendly at first, but then got understandably less friendly.
      • Doyle’s wife, Jean, was supposedly a medium.
      • In 1922, the three of them were at a hotel room in Atlantic City playing with a Ouija board, and Jean said that she’d made contact with Houdini’s mother, who said a few things to Houdini, including “Merry Christmas.”
      • The only problem is that Houdini’s mom was Jewish and she’d only spoken Yiddish, so there’s no way she’d say Merry Christmas to him.

 

As usual, I’ve pulled a bunch of stories, and we’ll go through them generally in chronological order so you can see how Ouijamania developed.

 

  • But looking at newspaper articles, it seemed like the craze started innocently enough. One article from The Weekly Tribune (Cape Girardeau, Missouri) published on  Nov 23, 1917  said that a local man had consulted the Ouija board about WWI. The board claimed that the war would end in January 1919.
    • It was wrong by 2 months; the war ended in November 1918
    • The board also said that the Romanovs (the ruling family of Russia, of Anastasia fame), who had been exiled to Siberia in August 1917, would not be coming back. The board was right about that: The Romanovs were executed in summer 1918.
    • So you could maybe say that the board was sorta right? (At least half right)
    • But this is the kind of article that was getting printed about Ouija at the time–puff pieces about nice local dudes playing Ouija to learn about world events. But that was about to really change.

 

  • In May 1918, the San Francisco Examiner published a piece called “Can The Dead Talk To Us?”, which was a full page feature with a beautiful illustration of a couple playing with a Ouija board on a beautiful moonlit terrace, and a huge creepy ghost coming out of the board.
    •  The subject of the piece was a writer named Ella Wheeler Wilcox who claimed to communicate with her dead husband through a Ouija board.
    • There was a poem from her,  a letter to the editor describing her experience, and then an editorial from the newspaper saying that they don’t believe in Ouija but are glad that it gives people comfort.
    • Ella Wheeler Wilcox had been publishing poems about communicating with the dead and had gotten so many questions about it that she felt that she had to write the letter about how she had definitive proof that you can communicate with the dead.
    • She didn’t go into her proof, but I looked up her memoir, which was published in 1918, and it sounds like she got this message from her dead husband while at the Ouija board:
      • Brave one, keep up your courage. Love is all there is. I am with you always. I await your arrival.
      • She continued communicating with her husband via Ouija, and some of the proofs of it really being him are complicated. But for example, while using the board with her friend, there was an unprompted reference to the Quinnipiac Club when the friend’s husband walked in. It turns out that the last time the dead husband had gone to the club, he’d played a game at the club with the friend’s husband. So Ella Wheeler Wilcox said it couldn’t have been her subconcious acting, since she hadn’t known about the game.
    • Her memoir, The Worlds and I, goes into a decent amount of detail, and I’ll link to it in the shownotes. But I wanted to read this little snippet of the letter she wrote for the San Francisco Examiner:
      • These experiences have changed the earth for me from a barren desert of appalling loneliness to a glorious anteroom to realms of glory. It has robbed death of its terror and the grave of its sting. Just as electricity came by patient research into God’s real of wonders, so will this great spiritual truth come to be known to the whole world in the next century. We are on the eve of the most glorious scientific discoveries of all time. Let us be expectant.

 

  • I found a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen from January 1919, where the tone shifted:
    • To people who know nothing of psychic phenomena and the laws governing it, especially persons of a nervous temperament, the Ouija board presents very real dangers, especially when it serves as a medium for seeking information regarding the future, as the person interested is not usually in possession of any facts which can be arrayed against the predictions obtained through the medium of the board. There is always a certain fascination in prying into the future and any satisfaction obtained in this direction is usually a menace to the peace of mind of the subject.
    • The article also argues that science can explain the Ouija phenomenon, and that the board operates by tapping into the operators’ minds, or in instances where the operators don’t know something but someone else in the room does, it operates by the law of suggestion. It likens that to hypnotism. (Though I don’t totally understand that comparison.)

 

  • In January 1919, Teddy Roosevelt died, and by March there were multiple reports of people making contact with him via the Ouija board. Those articles were still pretty lighthearted, but not really interesting enough to go into here.

 

  • I found a letter to the editor in a Catholic publication in Brooklyn called The Tablet: “Ouija Board Devilry.”· Sat, Dec 13, 1919 · Page 7
    • References a recent New York Tribune article saying that there’s been a big increase in Ouija board purchases.
    • It calls Ouija boards evil, and it talks about how Christians, God, and his saints were on one side, and quote:
      • The evil nation not included in this holy alliance, Satan and his “legion,” the Bolsheviki of that other world, alone remains for the war dance on the Ouija board. . .
      • The shopping spirit is upon us and “the spirit” [by this, the letter writer means the spirit residing in the Ouija board] orders the sale of the Ouija board as a novelty. The command of “the spirit” has been heard, and his obedient servants hasten to obey. One store reports sales of the Ouija board at the rate of twenty a day. Others cannot supply the demand. Surely, the bottomless pit has opened into a dark age all its own.
      • Much of this article was totally incomprehensible to me, despite having been raised Catholic and having read the Bible several times–it was kinda a mishmash of bible verses and references to religious stuff that didn’t really make sense to me. But it’s clear that this person thought that Ouija was the tool of the devil, and that its popularity signaled something sinister.

 

  • In 1919, a former spiritualist and member of the British Society for Psychical Research turned devout Catholic, J. Godfrey Raupert, wrote a book called The new black magic and the truth about the ouija-board. Apparently Pope Pius X had actually specifically asked Raupert to warn Catholics against the Ouija board.
    • In the book, he says that Ouija board use begins by borrowing from the user’s subconscious, but as they continue using it, it can go beyond that and take on supernatural, or as he calls it “preternatural” form. Suddenly, you might get real information.
      • From the book:
      • As these experiments are continued and as the mind becomes more passive and lethargic, the phenomenon begins to change its character and pass from the natural into the preternatural. . . . Disclosures are made respecting the character and doings and intimate personal affairs of persons not known to the experimenter. Messages are given, clearly and conclusively indicating knowledge and information wholly beyond the reach of the writer’s own mind. And they are conveyed in a form and manner suggesting the presence of a critical and observant mind and of a judgement quite at variance with that of the experimenter.
    • That, to me, sounds an AWFUL lot like remote viewing.
      • Through remote viewing techniques, people have been able peer into classified documents that were very far away, locate secret NSA bases, and more.
      • There’s a documentary about remote viewing called Third Eye Spies, and there’s also a book by remote viewing pioneer (and the inventor of lasers) Russell Targ, called The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities. To read a snippet of the book:
        • This ability is about learning how to quiet your mind and separate the visual images of the psychic signal from the uncontrolled chatter of the mind.
      • It wouldn’t surprise me if finding real information on the Ouija board and getting intel through remote viewing were basically the same technique. This is a big topic, but I wanted to flag the parallel there because it was so striking to me.
    • To get back to the Ouija book we were talking about:
      • The tone grows increasingly alarmist:
        • After a while instruction is generally given how a greater degree of passivity can be attained and how this mode of intercourse between the world seen and unseen can be made much more perfect and profitable. The experimenter, fascinated by these communications, and convinced that he has come upon a great and valuable discovery, readily adopts the advice given and resorts to the ouija-board habitually and systematically.
      • He says that the person often believes that they’re talking to a deceased loved one. However, he warns that “it has never been found possible to conclusively identify the particular spirit communicating.”
        • Basically, if someone recognizes a detail about a loved one, then that means that detail could have come from the experimenter themself rather than from the spirit. (Because if they didn’t know the detail, how would they recognize it?)
        • It also said that:
          • There is abundant proof . . . To show that [the spirits] can, under given conditions, extract information from distant mind, with whom the experimenter is in some kind of rapport, and from books and letters and other extant sources of information.
        • Which again, sounds like remote viewing.
        • It said that it’s often obvious that the spirits aren’t the person they’re pretending to be, because they’ll get the details right but then some obvious stuff wrong (like confusing the life story of a wife for the experimenter’s mother’s life), or contradict themselves
        • Spirits have even admitted their trickery, and say that they’ve been able to “mind tap” people
        • He also said that the messages are often frivolous or pointless, and they don’t really say much about the afterlife. Often, the spirits speaking through the board insinuate bad things about friends and family, causing discord like divorces, major falling outs.
        • The spirits will also flatter the person consulting the board, pretending to be Catholic when talking to Catholics, Unitarian when talking to Unitarians, Anarchist when talking to Anarchists. And then, he claims, it’ll start undermining the faith of any Christians using the board.
        • He also describes how the Ouija board basically sucks the energy out of the person using it habitually:
          • “In order to obtain the movements of the board, vital or nerve-energy is withdrawn from he organism of the experimenter, often out of all proportion to the physical health and constitution.”
        • He talks about 3 cases he recently learned about where Ouija board users were sent to the asylum because the doctor claimed that “the use of the ouija-board has brought about a state of dementia”
        • He also cautions readers against any kind of automatic writing, including the planchette.
        • He warns that the Ouija board shouldn’t be in any Christian household, and that children should be kept away from it.

 

 

  • I read a really tongue in cheek article from February 1920 called “An Interview With Ouija” printed in the The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina)
    • One interesting thing that the article mentioned was that when using the Ouija board, they consulted with a book about Ouija that said that “the solar plexus–that never sleeping brain of the individual–is the switchboard or receiving station for the messages . . . The great secret why some individuals can successfully use the board and some cannot is that the successful person must have, so to speak, a diseasedly sensitive solar plexus.”
      • The reason why I call this bit out is that it immediately made me think of the solar plexus chakra, which is the third chakra.
        • My chakra knowledge is limited to doing chakra meditations, so I’m always forgetting which chakra does what. But I looked it up and the solar plexus is associated with fire and transformation, and in the body it controls digestion and metabolism.
        • When the solar plexus is unbalanced–which I wonder if that’s what they mean by “diseasedly sensitive” solar plexus–then apparently it can cause a number of issues. Those include low self-esteem, trouble setting and maintaining boundaries, codependency, trouble with self-control and addiction, and depression and anxiety.
        • One of the symptoms of excessive Ouija board use that was mentioned in The New Black Magic and the Truth About the Ouija Board was “a particular condition of lassitude and exhaustion–in many instances accompanies by severe pain at the top of the spine and gradually spreading over the entire brain.”
        • Supposedly one physical symptom of solar plexus chakra issues can be nerve pain. I did look it up, and apparently the solar plexus is literally just a network of nerves.
        • I’m not really trying to put forth a strong argument about ouija and the solar plexus chakra, but the reference was too interesting for me not to mention, especially because I haven’t read anything mentioning the solar plexus and Ouija before this.

 

  • So I wanted to talk about the tidbit from that newspaper article, but I also need to talk about the newspaper this came from. I’m in North Carolina for most of the summer, and I’ve been reading up on North Carolina history. I guess that this is my first actual experience of spending an extended amount of time in the south, since Texas is kind of its own thing, and I’m Cajun but have never lived in Louisiana.
    • So I’ve been working to understand more of the history of the south, and the legacy of racism here. For example, my sister was telling me the other day that it’s technically illegal to wear masks in North Carolina, and that was a law that had to be on the books because of the KKK. So they’ve had to temporarily suspend that law because of COVID.
    • So while this digression doesn’t have to do with Ouija, it does have to do with forgotten history, and I definitely can’t reference this newspaper without telling this story:
    • I’m currently reading a book called Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino
    • It’s an extremely good book, and I recommend reading it. It’s also extremely upsetting. But it tells the story of white supremacy in the south in a way that I, hadn’t ever quite learned the details of.
    • It turns out that there’s only been one successful coup in American history, and it happened in Wilmington, NC.
    • During the Reconstruction, Wilmington was a relatively good place for black people to live. The population was majority black, and Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina. Black people held many highly skilled jobs; many were craftsman, and there was even a black-owned newspaper called the Wilmington Daily Record. White supremicits basically spurred white people to become more and more racist, and  that led to a coup overthrowing the duly elected government there, and the massacre of between 60 and more than 300 black people. After that, much of the black population had to leave Wilmington.
    • As horrific as that was, it had a huge ripple effect beyond the people of Wilmington–it really ushered in racist Jim Crow laws, and this new southern system of white supremacy. It was kind of the beginning of the end of what was supposed to be a period of black people gaining equal rights in the US after the Civil War.
    • Also, the massacre was depicted in the press as a “race riot” and the white killers were painted as innocent victims. That false narrative was perpetuated by newspapers of the time, just as much of the white supremacist sentiment that caused the riots was engineered by the white-owned newspapers in the area. One of those newspapers was the Wilmington Morning Star, which was run by a former confederate officer.
  • A little more context that has bearing on the actual topic of the episode: So one thing that I’m very mindful of when reading historic newspaper articles is that no newspaper is a truly reliable source. I find inconsistencies from article to article in basic facts, but there’re much larger issues and a context that may not be obvious from reading an article or two in a newspaper. I pulled this newspaper article in late May, but didn’t know the hateful story behind it until last weekend, when I started reading Wilmington’s Lie.
    • The massacre and coup happened in 1898. The KKK had been started shortly after the civil war, but was shut down by federal agents. However, in 1915, filmmaker DW Griffith released his pioneering–and hateful–film The Birth of a Nation. If you’ve ever taken a film class, you’re familiar with The Birth of a Nation, because it was groundbreaking in a lot of technical ways.
      • However, the movie was a glorification of the KKK. It featured racist portrayals of black people (played by white people in blackface, in many case) and showed the KKK as heroes who were just protecting American values.
      • It was an enormous commercial success.
      • It also inspired a rebirth of the KKK, which had a major resurgence in the early 1920s.
  • So why am I going into all of this detail about the history of the KKK?
    • It’s because as I’ve been going through all of these articles from the early 20s, I’m encountering a lot of references and things that I don’t really understand. (Like I’m less confused by articles from the mid-19th century.) Some of the stuff I’m seeing might be random 1920s slang, but I’ve also been seeing a lot of dialog written weirdly, as if it’s in a dialect (or like a fake dialect.) For example, in the article I quoted from in the Wilmington Morning Star, there’s a bit where it quotes a patent clerk. It’s extremely obvious that it’s a racist caricature of what white supremacists thought black people talked like. (It reminds me of the way that screenwriters wrote lines for black actors in early talkies.)
    • During my Ouija board research, I’ve also come across huge newspaper ads for The Birth of a Nation, featuring quotes from educators saying that all southern children should see it, that if you’re a good southerner you’d see this film, etc.
    • I know that I could pick through these accounts and just pull out the fun and weird occult stuff, and never mention racist things that came up–but I think that if we’re talking about America in the 1920s, we can’t not at least talk about what was happening in the country at the time. Because nothing happens in a vacuum.

 

Sources consulted in researched Ouija after World War I

Websites consulted about Ouija after World War I

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Execution_of_the_Romanov_family
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Romanov
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Wheeler_Wilcox
  • https://www.history.com/news/flu-pandemic-wwi-ouija-boards-spiritualism
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dangers_of_Spiritualism
  • https://www.independent.co.uk/news/conan-doyles-very-suspicious-seance-with-harry-houdini-1191847.html
  • https://www.williamfuld.com/ouija_letters.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manipura
  • https://www.chakras.info/solar-plexus-chakra/
  • https://www.chakras.info/solar-plexus-chakra-blockage/
  • https://lonerwolf.com/solar-plexus-chakra-healing/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celiac_plexus
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klanhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star-News
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilmington_insurrection_of_1898
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Manly

Historical articles and advertisements consulted about Ouija after World War I

  • “Dementia Ouija.” The Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) · Thu, Oct 14, 1920 · Page 4
  • “War Will End in Jan. 1919, Says the Ouija Board.” The Weekly Tribune (Cape Girardeau, Missouri) · Fri, Nov 23, 1917 · Page 6
  • The Salina Evening Journal (Salina, Kansas) · Fri, Aug 18, 1916
  • “Can The Dead Talk To Us?” The San Francisco Examiner, Sun, May 26, 1918
  • “Are You Superstitious?” El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas) · Sat, May 31, 1919 · Page 6
  • “Letter To The Editor: The Ouija Board.” The Ottawa Citizen, Wed, Jan 22, 1919
  • TR Sends A Message Via The Ouija Board. The Wichita Daily Eagle. Sun, Mar 23, 1919. 
  • Oh Look What TR Said Ouija Board. Evansville Press. Mon, Apr 14, 1919. 
  • “Ouija Board Devilry.” The Tablet (Brooklyn, New York) · Sat, Dec 13, 1919 · Page 7
  • “Among Us Mortals.” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) · Sun, Feb 15, 1920 · Page 23
  • “Haskin’s Daily Letter: An Interview With Ouija.” The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina) · Thu, Feb 26, 1920 · Page 4

Books consulted about Ouija after World War I

  • The Worlds and I by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Worlds_and_I.html?id=BBJIU0v_gyUC
  • The new black magic and the truth about the ouija-board by J. Godfrey Raupert: https://archive.org/details/newblackmagictru00raup/page/214/mode/2up
  • The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities by Russell Targ
  • THE PROBLEMS OF PSYCHICAL RESEARCH by Hereward Carrington (1921) : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/23660/23660-h/23660-h.htm#Page_247
  • Raymond, or Life After Death:
    https://archive.org/details/raymondorlifeand032030mbp
  • Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino

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

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