The Mystery of the Ouija Board Revealed

Updated on March 5, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Many of us have fooled around with a Ouija board and been amused by the claims that it can see into the past, present, and future.

The mysterious Ouija board.
The mysterious Ouija board. | Source

The Origin of the Ouija Board

Historians have found evidence that in the 1880s people were using so-called “talking boards” in Ohio, but nobody seems to know where the idea came from.

A man named Charles Kennard, of Chestertown, Maryland, must have gone wind of the goings-on and claimed to have invented a magical device in about 1890. He got a carpenter, E.C. Reiche, to make up a few wooden boards with the alphabet in two rows painted on them. The numbers zero to nine were added along with the words “yes,” “no,” and “goodbye.”

The ensemble was completed by a wooden token called a planchette. When fingers were placed on this token it moved, apparently involuntarily, to spell out sentences or answers to questions.

Reiche later claimed the board was his idea and Kennard stole it from him, so already we are into the realm of mystery.

In Baltimore, Kennard met a lawyer called Elijah Bond and they attended a séance with Bond’s sister, Helen Peters. Kennard displayed his board and asked it what it wanted to be called; of course, it spelled out O-U-I-J-A. The board was asked what that meant and the reply was “Good luck.”

It so happens that Helen Peters was wearing a locket with an image inside of a famous women’s rights campaigner called Maria Louise Ramé, who wrote under the pseudonym Ouida.

Bond went off to the patent office and Kennard rustled up a couple of investors.

In 1920, a Democrat uses a Ouija board to conjure up advice from William Jennings Bryan.
In 1920, a Democrat uses a Ouija board to conjure up advice from William Jennings Bryan. | Source

American Spiritualism

During the nineteenth century there was an explosion of belief in spiritualism; the notion that the living could communicate with the dead. The Civil War created huge numbers of dead soldiers whose families wanted to know if they were okay on the other side.

In upstate New York, the Fox sisters became famous. Their routine was to ask questions and receive answers in the form of thumps on the wall. The truth was that the noises came from an apple tied to a piece of string that was unobtrusively yanked by one of the sisters.

Other methods of contacting the dead were used: automatic writing and séances with mediums were popular. Spiritualism got the nod of approval from the White House when Mary Todd Lincoln held séances to contact her dead 11-year-old son.

So, when the Kennard Novelty Company launched the Ouija board it was into a society that was receptive to the idea of communing with spirits.

In 19th century France, a gathering is amused by the phenomenon of “spirit-guided” table turning.
In 19th century France, a gathering is amused by the phenomenon of “spirit-guided” table turning. | Source

Popularity of the Ouija Board

Within two years, the Kennard Company had six factories in the United States and one in England turning out Ouija boards.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie (Smithsonian Magazine) writes that “It was marketed as both mystical oracle and as family entertainment, fun with an element of other-worldly excitement. This meant that it wasn’t only spiritualists who bought the board; in fact, the people who disliked the Ouija board the most tended to be spirit mediums, as they’d just found their job as spiritual middleman cut out.”

The fact that the inventors of the device refused to reveal how it worked only added to its mystique and made it more of a must-have item.

Source

How the Ouija Board Works

There are those who believe that Ouija board users are suffering from demonic possession or some equally frightening condition. Be careful, you might be passing through some occult portal and be unable to get back. But, there’s nothing anyway near so exotic and troubling going on.

This is where we meet something called the “ideomotor effect.” Here’s The Association for Critical Thinking: “Ideomotor actions are unconscious, involuntary motor movements that are performed by a person because of prior expectations, suggestions, or preconceptions.”

It’s the unconscious part of our brains playing tricks on us. As The Guardian notes, “Although the illusion that the pointer (planchette) is being moved by some outside force is extremely strong, the truth is that the sitters are actually moving it without realising it.”

And, here’s an explanation from an article on Vox: “In the case of a Ouija board, your brain may unconsciously create images and memories when you ask the board questions. Your body responds to your brain without you consciously ‘telling’ it to do so, causing the muscles in your hands and arms to move the pointer to the answers that you—again, unconsciously—may want to receive.”

Got it? No ghosts. No spooky things. No Satan pulling wicked pranks.

The Ouija Board as an Accessory to Crime

Clothilde Marchand of Buffalo was attacked and murdered in 1930. When Nancy Bowen was arrested and charged with the killing a complex plot involving Ouija board instructions unfolded.

Clothilde’s husband, Henri, was a sculptor who had used one Lila Jimerson, a Seneca Indian, as a model. Henri told Lila that it was a “professional necessity” that he make love to his models; no doubt through seduction he was able to release the inner spirituality of his subject. If nothing else, it was a novel philanderer’s con.

Lila became infatuated with Henri the sculptor and wanted Clothilde out of the way. She conceived of a clever plot to get this done, and enlisted the help of a Seneca tribal healer.

Lila convinced Nancy Bowen that they could make contact with Bowen’s recently deceased husband, Charlie. Old Charlie came through loud and clear, telling his naïve widow that he was murdered by a witch, none other than Clothilde Marchand.

Then, Nancy Bowen received a series of letters explaining that she was next on the list of victims. Eventually, the manipulation brought Bowen to Marchand’s doorstep where she pulled out “a hammer and beat down the Frenchwoman, then finished the job by stuffing chloroform-soaked paper down her throat” (New York Daily News).

The trial was a great disappointment to the media and the public who wanted the law to come down heavily on the two Indian women. Here’s The New York Daily News, “Jimerson was acquitted and freed. Bowen was released after pleading guilty to manslaughter and accepting a sentence of time served.” Henri the sculptor, 54, scooted off the Albany where he married Clothilde’s 18-year-old niece.

There have been other criminal misadventures tied to Ouija board use.

  • In 1983, two Florida people, Anthony Hall, 25, and Bunny Dixon, 16, were dabbling with the occult, when they got a Ouija board message that instructed them to kill a motorist. Hall got a life sentence while Dixon got 50 years.
  • God told Carol Sue Elvaker, 53, via a Ouija Board, that her son-in-law Brian Roach was evil and needed to be killed. In February 2001, the Oklahoma woman plunged a knife into Roach’s chest. She was committed to an insane asylum.
  • With what is now becoming a familiar story, 15-year-old Mattie Turley of Prescott, Arizona killed her father because that is what a Ouija board commanded her to do. That was in 1933 and Mattie was put in a reform school until she was 18.

It seems to be a requirement that any image of a Ouija board must have a burning candle in the frame.
It seems to be a requirement that any image of a Ouija board must have a burning candle in the frame. | Source

Bonus Factoids

  • Spiritualism usually spikes in popularity during economic hard times and wars. In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Ouija boards outsold Monopoly; the only time a board game has achieved this.
  • Despite the fact that Ouija boards have no connection to the supernatural, they have been condemned by several religions. Pope Pius X warned against parlour games that dabbled in the occult. The website Catholic Answers advises “The Ouija board is far from harmless, as it is a form of divination (seeking information from supernatural sources). The fact of the matter is, the Ouija board really does work, and the only ‘spirits’ that will be contacted through it are evil ones.”
  • In 1993, some members of a jury in the murder trial of Stephen Young consulted a Ouija board for a verdict. A mistrial was declared. In a second trial, Young was found guilty without the aid of a talking board and was sentenced to life in prison.
  • The Ouija board came out of the 1973 movie, The Exorcist, with a terrible reputation based on the idea 12-year-old Regan was possessed by demons through the device.

Sources

  • “Ouija: Origin of Evil and the True History of the Ouija Board.” Olivia B. Waxman, Time, October 21, 2016.
  • “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board.” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Smithsonian Magazine, October 27, 2013.
  • “A Natural Explanation for Many Paranormal Experiences.” John Jackson, The Association for Critical Thinking, 2005.
  • “The Unseen Force that Drives Ouija Boards and Fake Bomb Detectors.” Chris French, The Guardian, April 27, 2013.
  • “The Ouija Board Murder: Tricking Tribal Healer Nancy Bowen to Kill.” David J. Krajicek, New York Daily News, March 21, 2010.
  • “10 Terrible Crimes Connected To Ouija Boards.” Robert Grimminck, Listverse, August 5, 2015.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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