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At The Ouija Board

January 20th 1935
The Baltimore Sun
(Copyright © Reprinted with permission from the Baltimore Sun)

The Ouija Board Turns to Science

by Stanton Tiernan

WHEN a United States Customs inspector of Baltimore, who later became a member of the Maryland Legislature, invented the ouija board in 1892, he had nothing more in mind than to devise a clever play thing. It soon developed, however, not only into the most popular toy or its era, but also into a source of controversy as a supposed medium of communication with the next world. The inventor, whenever appealed to, always denied the he ever attributed any such connection to spiritualism with it.

THE first ouija board worked its “spell” on felt-clad slippers, later it was speeded up by giving it roller skates in the form of ball bearing casters. Now the latest improvement of all embodies a small electric light, whereby its answers to questions are flashed out when proper contact is made, and read through a little circular window. This not only adds greatly to the weirdness of the game, by allowing it to be played in total darkness, but should prove of great advantage to bashful lovers, if there are any of that type left.

Besides their normal steady sales, there have been several peak years. New impetus was given to ouija during and just after the world war. Also in the late stock market panic they were largely consulted. Those who did so defended themselves by claiming that at least they did not lose their money any faster by following its instructions than did those who paid higher fees to orthodox experts.

The faith of a person who develops “ouija mania,” as its more advanced stages have been termed, is something to be marveled at. Soon or late, they receive an answer that is correct and forever after they swear by the mystic board. Evanston, Ill., seriously reported a case several years ago where a woman recovered her stolen car by means of her ouija board, both the name and address of the thief having been accurately spelled out for her.

But in a similar incident here, in its home town, where, if anything, it should have been able to do even better work, this armchair detective method did not score such a success. The police of the Northwestern district were telephoned to on this occasion by a woman, who not only gave the number of the license plates and location of the car, but a graphic description of two men who were sitting in it, and who, she said, had stolen it from behind from a friend of hers. After fruitless search the informant was visited in person and elaborated her information by admitting she had received the tip of this theft by ouijagraph. Whereupon, the automobile was found in its proper garage, near Gilmore, and Lanvale streets, from which place it had not stirred that night.

AMONG prominent men said to have experimented with ouija have been President Wilson, Maurice Maeterlinck, Andrew Lang and Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was a firm believer in its messages and claimed to have talked by it with her husband in spiritland. Soley upon its advice and despite her advanced years, she made a trip to France during the war to carry a message of cheer to the soldiers. After her death she was alleged by her friends to have communicated with them and to have written both prose and poetry by its means. If she did, a great change came over her control of English. As one sad example, she is reported to have said: “I selected you as my medium because you always was a friend of the downtrodden.”

What the ouija board said, and exactly how it said it, formed the main testimony in a $10,000 slander suit at Lockport, Ill. Judge De Selm, of the Circuit Court, who tried the case, charged the jury in this manner: “If there was malice behind Ouijas declaration that Mrs. Walton stole ten pounds of raisins, some sugar and potatoes from the Yost home, defendant must be found guilty, but if, on the other hand, the ouija was manifestly in a jocular humor and merely jesting, the defendant must be found not guilty.” The defendant was acquitted, but a new trial was granted on appeal.

It was advanced as the plea of defense in a murder case in Arizona. “The ouija board told me to shoot daddy so that mother could have her freedom,” said the youthful killer in this instance. Several divorces have been laid to its gossip. In one of these suits, filed at Cumberland, the husband’s first suspicions were aroused when the board told him that his wife no longer loved him.

“Every time an argument came up,” recited another plaintiff for divorce before Judge Sabath in Chicago, “she consulted the spirits, mostly one called Laughing Walter, and they always threw me down and upheld her. Finally her ouija told her to leave me and she packed it and herself off to Brownsville, Kan.”

CRANE WILBUR was the leading actor in a very successful play called “The Ouija Board.” In the Mary Roberts Rinehart-Hopwood thriller, it will be recalled, it was one of the essential stage properties, and struck the note of mystery soon after the rise of the curtain for the first act, by spelling out the word “BAT.”

Innumerable anecdotes have been centered around ouija: There is a housewife who, forbidden to use her board, resorted to feeding her husband alphabet soup and thus regaled him during the meal with ouija service in liquid form. There was a resourceful widow and mother, who, when her son became unmanageable, always procured a severe scolding for him from his deceased father.

A disgruntled scientist suggested that communication by ouija with the planets Mars or Venus would be just as reliable as by radio and far cheaper. Many of the more patient men of learning, however, have gone to great lengths to explain the phenomenon of its action by calling it motor automatism, in other words involuntary muscular action.” Involuntary, but semi-conscious,” adds one authority. “The hand pushes the oracle in the direction of those letters or signs which are in accord with the expectations or fears of the operator.”

The pulpit, as a whole, has never given it the sanction of its approval. In the 90’s particularly, when the ouija seems to have been as much s household necessity as was a corkscrew during prohibition, many fulminations were directed against it. Several sermons advised the women of that decade to go back to their washboards and let their fortune-telling boards alone. Gypsies regard the foundry-made oracle as a barber does the safety razor, and for like reason – it cuts into their profits.

John Kendrick Bangs, spokesman for the spooks, in the “Houseboat on the Styx,” chronicled in a later revelation how Napoleon, Socrates, Xanthippe and others of the astral smart set justly resent being called up at all hours by ouijaphone to give off-hand opinions on subjects they care nothing about.

IN THE FILES are hundreds of interesting letters from celebrities and unknowns, but not all of the letters are eulogistic. Among recent complaints is an appealing epistle from a man located at some R. F. D. postoffice in Tennessee. He says in part:

“Under separate cover I am mailing your fortune board, as the mail order house I bought it from don’t want it back. We are not used to haunts in our home so please call these spirits back to you (Hurry) as I can't rest.”

A leading lexicographer of the country wrote in not long ago to ascertain the derivation of the unique trade name with its four vowels and only one consonant. The official reply was that it is a combination of the French oui and German ja, both words meaning yes. But the legend at the factory is that the board named itself when asked to spell out what it wanted to be called.

In addition to the two kinds of talking boards, the originator of them invented and manufactured parlor “return pool tables” combination fifty-seven boards and an extensive line of other games and toys. But none of the achieved the prominence and of the ouija, which placed a new name in the dictionary and his own in the encyclopedia. He died in 1927 from an accidental fall from the roof of his large factory while supervising the raising of a flagpole. The business is carried on by one of his sons.