Day 5 of the 31 Days of Myths, Magic, Mayhem, and more…
I will be your host for the evening, and tonight, we will dive deep into the mystery of Ouija Boards. Now I know there are far left and right feelings about summoning the dead to ask questions or say your final goodbyes. It’s a hot topic between the religious and the spiritualist.
It also screams Halloween.
But does anyone know how Ouija boards even became a thing? The history might surprise you.
April 9th, 1865- the Civil War has ended. The bloody war that saw father against son, mother against daughter, and families torn apart by invisible borders and competing morals has ravished the U.S.
By 1891 the pieces were still laying scattered across the bloody battle grounds.
26 years is a short time for most people. Memories last far longer than that. Most families hadn’t recovered financially, physically, or mentally. The economy was still in ruins, and the government still hadn’t figured out our new normal.
What the country needed was a distraction from life. Something to give them hope that there was a better future.
And what better way than to ask the dead. They know everything.
And Spiritualism was born. In the last post, we talked about the history of the Spiritualism movement and how it played a role in the U.S. and across the pond. But now we will see how that one tiny moment in history had a far broader impact than you first imagined.
It started out as a board game.
Yes. A board game. Not just any board game. A board game that has easily surpassed Monopoly as best seller for years.
It all started with a Spiritualism camp in Ohio. In 1886, the Associated Press wrote a story about a ‘talking board’ used to communicate with the spirits. The board had letters, numbers, and a device that could be used to channel the spirits from the afterlife.
Yup to me too. The original Ouija board before it became a ‘thing.’
And that’s where the American spirit of making a buck off people’s pain and suffering comes into play.
Mr. Charles Kennard of Baltimore read about the ‘talking board’ and had a sneaky feeling that if he could mass produce a similar product, it would be an instant money maker.
There was one small problem.
He didn’t have a ‘talking board.’
But where there is a will, there is a way. Kennard partnered with E.C. Reich, a local furniture maker turned undertaker, to create one. But as most people know, you can create something, but it doesn’t mean it will become a bestseller. Kennard and Reich needed help. They needed money, a brand, and a way to mass produce their new product.
So, in 1890, Kennard enlisted the help of Elijah Bond and Col. Washinton Bowie and started the Kennard Novelty Company.
A name that would sell.
As you can guess, ‘Talking Board’ doesn’t inspire the imagination or lead to sales. The group needed to come up with a name that would lure the unsuspecting population in. Something that would draw the eye and instill a sense of confidence in the game.
And that honor is given to Elijah Bons’s sister- Helen Peters. But of course, there are two sides of the story.
Helen claimed to be a ‘strong medium’ and had been invited to a meeting where board members used the newly created board to decide what it should be called. According to the members- the spirits replied- O U I J A. No one had seen or heard that word before, and when they asked for its meaning- the spirits replied, ‘Good Luck.’
The other story is that Helen wore a locket at the meeting of a women’s rights activist and author, Ouida. According to documents, the name Ouija was just a misspelling of her name.
But the spirits having a hand in it sounds better, so that was what was pushed to the public.
But did it work?
In order for anything to be viable in this world- it has to have a patent.
But how to get one for a game that can talk to the sprits? It’s not like they can sign off on it.
Again, Helen comes to the rescue. On February 10, 1891, she goes with her brother to the Washington patent office when he fills out the application. The chief patent officer was skeptical and would only sign off on the approval once he saw a demonstration.
The question he wanted the spritis to answer?
If the board could accurately spell his name, which Bond and his sister didn’t know, he would allow the patent application to proceed. I’m sure Helen was nervous, but they all sat around a table and reached out to the spirits.
A little bit later- a visibly shaken patent officer signed off on the new ‘toy or game.’
Ironically, the game didn’t initially evoke the devil or evil spirits. It was advertised as a fun way to ‘liven’ up a party (no pun intended). Families would spend a Saturday evening gathered around the table and have a good time asking the spirits for guidance and direction.
I’m sure that there quite a few females who used it to discover the name of their future husband.
Or men who used it to figure out if they should go into one field of study or another.
A few authors even used it to write their books. The original A.I.
So, when and why did it become so feared?
That would be thanks to Hollywood. Or, more notably- the movie The Exorcist. Since then, the Ouija board has been the focal point of numerous films, Netflix specials, and books. So much so that religious communities have petitioned for its removal.
But does it work?
Now, that is the real question. As with most faith-based religions, believing in the unseen brings comfort, solace, and closure to many people facing troubling times.
Can we honestly say that belief in the Ouija board is misguided?
Well, a study from the University of British Columbia says it may not be. This was a long study with many moving parts, so I will simplify it to the best of my understanding.
Sidney Fels, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University, brought an Ouija board to a Halloween party. Many of the guests (graduate students) were foreigners and had never heard of it before. Fels gave a generalized explanation, and they all tried it together.
To everyone’s surprise- the students believed that the planchette moved on its own.
Now, scientifically, there is an explanation called the ‘ideomotor effect,’ first introduced in 1852 by Dr. William Benjamin Carpenter, long before Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind. Carpenter believed that the unconscious mind directly correlates to motor activity.
Fels shared the experience with a colleague, Ron Rensink who was a psychology and computer science professor and Rensink developed an experiment to expand on the theory.
Group A- participants were asked to answer complex questions using the Ouija board. 50 percent of the time, they were right.
Group B- participants were using the board with a robot Ouija partner via teleconference. 65 percent of the time, they were right. The difference? The computer program used the participant’s tiny, unconscious movements to move the planchette.
Outcome? The unconscious mind is smarter than you know. When not competing with another person, participants could remember bits of stored information that are not accessible to the conscious mind.
Side note: Results in a follow-up study replicated the findings, which they reported in the academic journal, Consciousness and Cognition.
The Ouija Board is a hot topic. Especially this time of year. It did not start off as an evil demon-summoning tool. It was a game that helped people come to terms with a devastating period, offered a little hope, and maybe some fun in an already bleak world.
And yes, a money-making scheme too.
But who’s to say that with enough faith- it can’t work.
I leave that up to you to decide.
What do you get when you divide the circumference of your jack-o-lantern by its diameter?Pumpkin Pi
If tales of legend, myth and fantasy topped with a nice cup of coffee interest you, I suggest taking a look at my book The Writer and the Librarian. It’s a historical fantasy about a middle-aged woman faced with a decision: accept what is written in books or find out for herself the truth behind the stories. Now available on
And on any of your favorite Indie Book Store website!