16 min read

More 1920s Ouija Board Stories (Ouija Boards Part 8)

More 1920s Ouija Board Stories (Ouija Boards Part 8)

We take a look at more 1920s Ouija board stories, including more tales of Ouijamania.

Highlights include:
• The ghost of Marie Antoinette
• A supposedly Ouija-crazed cop who hijacked a car at gunpoint and proceeded to disrobe
• A doomed treasure hunter
• Queerness in 1920s San Francisco
• The ghosts who haunted European aristocrats
• Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany

 

 

Episode Script for More 1920s Ouija Board Stories (Ouija Boards Part 8)

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. 

  • So I wanted to keep talking about what we left off on last week, RE: Ouija boards causing insanity.
  • One thing I wanted to mention is that in 1920, the story of Ouijamania really made it all around the globe. I was curious, so I searched in a database of historical African newspapers and found a number of mentions of Ouija boards, including a little write-up in The Bulawayo Chronicle in Zimbabwe in October 1920. I wanted to read a bit from it:
    • There is a revival of playing with the little instrument called “the planchette” in this country. It has taken such a firm hold of some women that they are playing morning, noon and night. In New York, where the planchette is known as ouija, the craze has been raging with great virulence for some time. Some inbalanced women have been driven out of what little minds they had by it. In fact, there have been serious proposals to make the game–or pastime, or pursuit, or whatever it is–illegal.
  • It sounds like in California, people were especially vigilant about ouijamania. And men weren’t totally immune: I found a San Francisco Examiner article called “Ouija Board Blamed for Mental Trouble.” from Mar 20, 1920 that talks about how police claimed that a ouija board had caused a man’s “strange mental condition.” The cops brought him to a detention hospital where it said that his sanity would be examined. They don’t go into detail about what seemed to cause the trouble, it just said:
  • He is said by his neighbors to have been acting strangely lately and to have spent much time with the ouija board.
  • Again, we’re seeing flimsy reasons for people being arrested and sent away for being supposedly insane.

 

“Ouija Board Drives Policeman to Street Naked.” The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) · Sat, Mar 6, 1920 · Page 13

  • There’s a front page, above the fold headline that takes up the whole top of the newspaper, about a cop named Elmer H. Dean who “was taken from the crowded streets of Oakland yesterday scantily dressed and in an apparently unbalanced state of mind because of ouija board, he said, had sent him to Berkeley in search of some mysterious enemy.
  • He was initially arrested in Oakland, sent a sanatorium there for observation, but then escaped, climbed onto the running board of a nearby car, and told the driver to take him to Berkeley.
  • Somehow, he’d gotten ahold of a revolver, and he kept it trained on the driver so the driver would take him where he wanted to go. He also started to undress–it sounded like he was inside at that point.
  • Then, he leapt out of the car, realized he wasn’t wearing much clothes, and hid in a bank.
  • He took refuge in a Dr. C. H. Walsworth’s office, and Dr. Walsworth called the cops, who came up a blanket and brought Dean to the hospital.
  • I guess Dean had told a coworker that he’d gotten a bunch of information from a ouija board, which told him to capture this unknown enemy.
  • There’re actually three articles, all next to each other on this page. We already talked about one of the others, about the El Cerrito case, but there’s another article called “Ouija said to Hasten Insanity” that quotes different prominent mental health professionals
  • Dr. Leonard Stocking, of Agnew State Hospital, said:

○ I would give it as my opinion that no well-balanced person would become insane from consulting the ouija board. Such persons as do become insane do not have a strong mentality.

  • Dr. R. L. Richards, of Ukiah State Hospital, said:
  • From a point of mental hygiene, the ouija board could not cause insanity. . . . Persons who do not have a strong mentality are as likely to go insane by the intent concentration of their mind on anything else as they are by concentrating it on the ouija board.

○ So, just a reminder: “Mental hygiene” is a eugenics term, much like “racial hygiene”

  • The San Francisco Lunacy Commissioner said:

○ We have had many commitments to State Asylums during the past few months on account of the ouija board. . . . It attracts a certain mold of mind and unfortunately many mental upsets are the result.

  • Dr. D. D. Lustig, a San Francisco Lunacy Commissioner said:

○ Without knowing the character of the person affected it would be difficult to make an authoritative diagnosis. The superstitious mind is naturally the more easily influenced. With certain nationalities superstition is rife and it is generally this class that fall victims to such as the ouija board.

  • Dr. Theodore Rethers, another San Francisco Lunacy Commissioner, said:

○ I do not say that the Ouija board per se would cause insanity but if a person’s power of resistance is weak it might have a tendency to encourage it.

  • So all of these influential doctors have a real eugenicist vibe.

 

So I started wondering, while reading the reports of men affected by Ouijamania in the Bay Area, why that might be. I have some thoughts–calling it a theory might be too strong of a word, because I just started thinking about this yesterday–but as I was reading about this, I wondered how gay SF was in 1920.

  • The reason why I wondered that is that I wondered if the knowledge that there were gay men in San Francisco might have caused people to be more suspicious of men in SF than in other places. And even if we’re talking about the cases here: in El Cerrito, the men, who were Italian and it sounds like all or mostly married, were let off the hook, whereas the wives got sent off to institutions.
  • However, the cop from Oakland and San Francisco man both seemed to be unmarried.

○ The article about the cop from Oakland quoted his sister about his whereabouts, and she mentioned that he’d slept over in Berkley with their aunt. I think if they were going to mention two female relatives, they would have mentioned his wife if he had one, as well.

○ There’s very little information about the man in SF, but it mentions that his neighbors noticed he was acting strangely. Again, I think the reporter would have spoken with his wife if he had one.

  • I’m definitely not implying that all unmarried men in SF in 1920 were gay. But I do think that unmarried men had the potential for people to regard them with more suspicion. That would have been compounded in the case of the cop, who was also undressing in public.
  • And remember, around this time, gay people were routinely sent to insane asylums.
  • Obviously I know that queer culture was huge in 1920s NYC, but I of course know far less about SF.
  • So I looked it up and learned that apparently, there was a gay community in SF in the 1920s. The first well-known gay bar in SF, called The Dash, opened in 1908.
  • Some people say that this was partially because during WWI, it was common for the US Navy to issue something called a “blue discharge” to anyone on their ships who were found to be gay. The discharge was printed on blue paper, so it was also called a blue ticket.
  • I found an article from October 1945 that had some good info about blue discharges–it was printed in the Pittsburg Courier, a black newspaper that spoke out against blue discharges since it was a way to strip soldiers, particularly black soldiers, of their GI bill benefits. In many cases, it sounds like black people were strongly pressured into signing blue discharge papers, often by subjecting soldiers to extreme racism–basically bullying them into accepting a discharge.
    • To read a bit from the description of blue discharge from that article:
      • These regulations set forward as reasons for discharge under the blue certificate, debatable issues that run all the way from “habits or traits of character which serve to render his retention in the service undesirable” to the highly questionable charge of “enuresis” bed wetting. Inaptness and homo-sexuality are also reasons for discharge under the blue certificate. An examination of those falling under these reasons shows that the “unfortunates” of the Nation, as well as the Army, are the ones who are being preyed upon by the blue discharge.
  • Gay people were supposed to be court martialed and dishonorably discharged, but that was too much administrative hassle.
  • Basically, it was just a type of administrative discharge that a commander could use to get someone off their ship and out of the Navy. It sounds like it was originally given to religious contentious objectors in WWI (I found newspaper articles about that) and then it may have been quietly given to queer people. San Francisco was a major port city, so it was easy to drop off gay people who’d been discharged there. And so the gay population grew.
  • I found that kinda funny and charming. But because of who I am as a person, I unfortunately have to rain on the parade.
  • So the blue discharge was mostly used against gay and black people. To be totally clear: It was a discriminatory discharge designed to kick undesirable people like gay and black people out of the military.
  • If you got a blue discharge, you were subject to a lot of discrimination. You also weren’t eligible for GI bill benefits, and it was hard to get any kind of job, because employers knew what a blue discharge meant.
  • The blue discharge was a thing from 1916-1947, when it was finally phased out, in large part because of criticism from black newspapers.

 

“Ouija to be Banned from Sacramento.” The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) · Tue, Mar 9, 1920 · Page 4

  • This article begins:
  • Ouija board seances, which have been reported in society circles of Sacramento, will be promptly broken up by a special squad of police. . . . Persistent use of the “future boards” will result in immediate arrests.

 

As we touched on last week, prohibition started in January 1920–I was seeing PSA ads for it in newspapers. So people were both on edge and used to calls to forbid things.

  • I found an article from February 28, 1920 “Ouija Boards to Amuse Guests in NY Hotel.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois) that talked about how a hotel has opened a game room and would be offering its guests Ouija boards as entertainment, because “hotel managers say they find it difficult to amuse their patrons now that there is a dearth of cabarets and refreshing liquids.”

 

“Weird Ouija Board Rites Are Fertile Source of Mania.” The Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana) · Mon, Mar 29, 1920 · Page 1

  • To read from it:
  • Alienists and metaphysicians are united in the opinion that today the ouija board is one of the greatest contributing factors in the filling of insane asylums in this country. . . . Ouija board mania is not foreign to the Montana state asylum at Warm Springs. A considerable number of women patients at the institution are suffering from this peculiar form of mental aberration. At least three Billings women have suffered loss of reason from ouija board manipulation, all within the last few months. . . .
  • Then it tells a few specific stories:
  • One Billings woman purchased an ouija board during the last Christmas holidays. Four days later she was adjudged insane and was taken to an asylum.
  • It doesn’t go into any detail about how, in four days, this woman could have been driven so insane by the ouija board that she was immediately packed off to an asylum. Sounds almost like an excuse from a husband who wanted to get rid of her? Though without more detail, it’s hard to say.
  • They talk about another woman who started taking the Ouija board seriously and who is “still confined in an institution for the mentally deranged, showing little progress toward recovery of reason.”
  • MAKE COLD OPEN The article quotes a student of psychology and metaphysics who says that because of the war:
  • “Mental processes have become distorted. Abnormality frequently rules. So many instances have been given of seemingly simple methods of communication with departed spirits, such as the ouija board, that people are placing undue reliance upon them with the result that in many seemingly normal human being though processes are becoming distorted. Neurasthenia is becoming frequent. People brood and gain unwholesome sensations. The emotional element steps to the front. As a general rule the ouija board leads to distress, not pleasure. . . . Unnatural frames of mind are fostered, and the result frequently is morbid mania, and even sheer insanity in some of the worst cases.”
  • Then there’s another story:
  • A recent news dispatch tells of a treasure seeker who believed a qualtity of gold was buried near his house. He consulted an ouija board and from it secured a “tip” telling him where to dig. In his haste to secure the buried treasure he neglected to take due precaution and the roof of the tunnel caved in, suffocating him.
  • Then the reporter talks to a local sales clerk, who says that most of the people buying Ouija boards are women, but the few male customers that they do get usually come in early in the morning.
  • It also talked about a cop in Oakland, CA, who was institutionalized because of Ouijamania–a rare case of it affecting a man.
  • And then it also mentioned a man who’d done some bad things in Alaska that no one knew about, but felt guilty, consulted a ouija board, and went insane:
  • As a result of manipulating the ouija, he became irritable, depressed, worried and finally his mental processes became so distorted that he was examined by a sanity commission and adjudged insane. He now occupies a ward in the Oregon insane asylum.
  • I do like the closing of this article, which has a theory for why ouija was so popular:
  • Some people seem to think that humanity must have an outlet for their exuberant spirits. Deny them liquor or other methods for intoxication and they promptly indulge in spiritual or ouija board jags. The jazzy life of today seems to demand some means of expression, but from the evidence the ouija board apparently exacts a toll altogether out of proportion to the questionable benefits it confers.

 

“Doctor Tells Ouija Board Secret Works.” Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, Michigan) · Wed, Jun 23, 1920 · Page 2

  • This article is about a doctor who studied the Ouija board and how it works, and determined that it comes from subconcious memory.
  • The doctor talks about a woman who grew up wealthy, but whose father died and left her in poverty. There was an old painting in the family that was supposedly worth a lot of money. So to quote from the article:

○ “One day this woman, who lived in Minneapolis, was playing with a ouija board and was told to make herself passive. While in a trance she met Marie Antoinette, who told her that the picture was very valuable.”

  • When she came out of the trance, she asked the board how to restore the painting, and it gave her a man’s name. When she called the hotel where the board said he lived, they said that the man had died 8 months before.
  • She then made contact with the man through the board, which told her how to restore the painting herself.
  • So the doctor said that it turns out that she’d seen the artist’s name in a newspaper, and all of the other details the board told her it turns out had been things she’d been exposed to.
  • The doctor concluded:

○ “She was poor and had been rich. She rebelled against conditions; was unhappy to the last degree and had contemplated suicide. The other side of herself saw a solution. She wanted to become a great prophetess and the prospect of becoming one made her supremely happy.”

  • The article doesn’t offer any theories on why she saw Marie Antoinette. But it’s interesting that in both this June 1920 article and in the February 2020 article, there were mentions of Marie Antoinette.

On top of all of that, Sir Oliver Lodge came to America for a speaking tour in January 2020. I found TONS of articles that mentioned him. Though, interestingly, tons of articles talk about how he said negative things about the ouija board.

But I did find one mention of him discussing the Ouija board that wasn’t totally skeptical:

“Sir Oliver Lodge Talks Here With ‘Spirit’ Via Ouija Board: 20-year-old Winnipeg Girl is Medium Used for Unique Experiment.” The Winnipeg Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) · Thu, Apr 29, 1920 · Page 1

  • This was a huge front-page, above-the-fold article, with a headline that spanned pretty much the whole width of the page.
  • It describes Sir Oliver Lodge observing a 20-year-old local woman named Olivia B. Taft, who apparently was very gifted at Ouija. As he observed, she was able to operate the board in such a way that it answered scientific questions that she wouldn’t know.
  • Rememember, we talked about Sir Oliver Lodge a couple weeks ago–he was a physicist as well as a spiritualist.
  • The entity that was supposedly communicating with them claimed to be from “the tenth plane–so far removed from the earth in the process of evolution that he cannot approach very close to material matter, operating through the medium’s mind by mental concentration.
  • They spoke about a number of scientific and spiritual things, and Lodge and the entity disagreed about reincarnation, which “the entity declared . . . Was a necessary fact in the progress of evolution–that man reincarnates in matter until he has learned certain lessons in life after which he reincarnates through the spiritual worlds in a similar process of continuous evolution.”
  • It sounds like through all of Oliva B. Taft’s conversations with this entity have revealed that the entity seems to be Christian, and “vigorously upholds the highest teachings of Christ.” Though “at the same time he severely rebukes those who cramp themselves within the narrow confines of orthodox beliefs. When dealing with religious subjects, the language at times reaches sublime heights of eloquence.”
  • Sir Oliver Lodge seemed to enjoy the conversation but wasn’t prepared to say whether this entity was real or not without further investigation, though he said that he didn’t think that Olivia B. Taft was faking.

 

 

There were a ton of reasons why Ouija was in the headlines in 1920. For example, in 1920, the court finally decided on the Fuld brothers court case and ruled that William Fuld was the rightful manufacturer of the Ouija board, so that case made headlines.

 

  • And there are definitely a lot of silly articles from this period, though there’s always some dark social statement underneath. I found one called “Give these Ghosts a Job.” The Salina Evening Journal (Salina, Kansas) · Tue, Mar 23, 1920 that basically just details European ghosts.

○ The article begins:

  • In these after the war days, when apparently there is such an interest in anything that tends to the occult, when factories are not able to turn out ouija boards and doodle sticks sufficiently to meet the demand, why not call on the ghosts of Europe that have been out of work since the big battles have ended?

○ S then it talks about some of the ghosts who haunted European artistocracy, like a ghost called the White Lady of Potsdam who supposely appeared to the Kaiser on the eve of his father’s death and told him what would happen. (Which I assume means warned him about WWI.) I haven’t been able to find info about that story specifically, but of course there have been many women in white ghosts in folklore.

○ I guess there was also a Green Lady ghost that haunted the Austrian royal family, who had disappeared since there was no longer an Austrian royal family.

○ Apparently the ghost of Catherine the Great haunted the Russian court as well, and according to the article “almost all families of note in Europe had one or two.”

○ The article closes with:

  • The theory is that these ghosts could help us in our mad mania to probe occultism and, by employing them, it would furnish some money to be used in the rebuilding of Europe.

○ This is a very silly article, but I think the writer’s saying that occultists could pay European ghosts wages for showing up during seances, and those ghosts could give that money to their home countries to rebuild?

○ So that’s almost funny, until you realize how insenstive it is. It’s kinda a sore winner sort of article, considering how much the German people suffered after WWI. (The Germans weren’t the only Europeans who suffered post WWI, but I’m most familiar with Weimar Germany so I’m using them as an example.)

  • I think most people have heard about how hyperinflation hit Germany hard in the early 1920s.
  • To be fair, I think things got really bad starting in 1921 but things were still not great great in 1920. For example, in 1914, the exchange rate of German marks to USD was 4.2:1. In 1923, it was 4.2 trillion marks to one USD. In January 1923, a loaf of break cost 250 marks, and by November, a loaf of bread cost 200 trillion marks.
  • There are some wild stories that came from that period:

□ Waiters had to climb onto tables to announce new prices on menus every half hour

□ People bought wheelbarrows, sacks, and suitcases to work to get their wages. In one case, a worker’s suitcase was stolen, though the thief dumped out the money and left it behind, since it was basically worthless.

  • It was a really traumatic time for the German people, and pretty predictably led to fascism, as these types of things often do. 1923 was when the Beer Hall Putsch, when Hitler and the Nazi party tried to overthrow the government, happened.

○ So this is a pretty screwed up article, I think, and it shows you more about the types of people who were writing newspaper articles, and the types of things people apparently wanted to read, in 1920.

Sources consulted in researching 1920s Ouija Board Stories

For additional sources used for this episode, check out 1920s Ouijamania (Ouija Boards Part 7)

Historical articles and advertisements RE: 1920s Ouija Board Stories

  • “Ouija Boards to Amuse Guests in NY Hotel.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois) · Sat, Feb 28, 1920 · Page 1
  • Los Angeles Evening Express (Los Angeles, California) · Sat, Feb 28, 1920 · Page 2
  • Leavenworth Post (Leavenworth, Kansas.) Monday, January 27, 1919
  • Courier Launches Probe of Army’s Blue Discharges. The Pittsburg Courier. Saturday, October 20, 1945
  • Buluwayo Chronicle (published as The Bulawayo Chronicle Weekly Edition.) October 23, 1920.

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: