In the 20th century, William Fuld’s name became synonymous with Ouija boards. We look at how William Fuld got into the Ouija game, the feud with his brother that split the family for nearly a century, his mysterious death that resulted from some advice that the board gave him, and more.

We also talk about how the official Ouija board evolved throughout the 20th century, look at some of his competitors, and talk about what he did to shut them down and make his Ouija board the Ouija board. 

We also give an update on the planchette that Chris ordered and had an unsettling experience trying for the first time, getting a message that may have a connection to the hostile entity we spoke to in Salem.



Episode Script for William Fuld (Ouija Boards Part 3)

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. 

“At the moment that the ouija board, which some years ago excited the country and then virtually disappeared, has again come into the limelight throughout the world, two brothers are engaged in litigation here over the ownership of the patent.” –from an article in The Economist, April 6, 1920


The main source for this episode is

  • It’s truly encyclopedic, and if you have any interest in ouija boards, I strongly recommend you check it out. They have tons of information, including pictures of different iterations of the board, etc.
  • It’s created by Robert Murch


  • Last week, we ended with the creation of the Kennard Novelty Company, which was founded by onetime-fertilizer manufacturer Charles Kennard and a group of investors who he likely met at the local Masonic lodge.
  • But the truth is, most people who know a little bit about Ouija generally don’t know that Kennard ever existed as part of the Ouija story. That’s because, for much of the 20th century, a man named William Fuld became known as the famous creator of Ouija boards.


  • Remember that the Kennard Novelty Company was founded in 1891. There was a bit of a reorganization of the company in 1892,  Kennard left the company and started a new company in Chicago. I don’t totally understand what precipitated the change, or really how Kennard felt about it, though I assume, based on what he did next, that he wasn’t pleased with being cut out of the company.
    • The Kennard Novelty Company, now owned by Col. Bowie and Harry Rusk, two of the original investors, was restructured and renamed the Ouija Novelty Company.
    • The put an employee and stockholder, William Fuld, in charge of its operations. Fuld was also a close friend of the new owners.
  • After being booted out of the company, Kennard started manufacturing something he called a Volo board
    • Volo comes from Latin, meaning “to fly about (especially applied to the imagined movement of disembodied souls).”
    • it looked a lot like a Ouija board in construction, but the design was different: the letters were arranged in an inverted triangle, flanked by two rows of numbers, it replaced the moons with anchors, good bye with farewell, and added some weather-related text, “clear” and “rain”.
    • Col. Bowie sued Kennard over the Volo board, since it infringed on the patent. The Volo board was only produced for 3 months.
    • There was another competitor, in Massachusetts, that manufactured a product called the Espirito board. Four months after they registered their trademark, the Ouija Novelty Company shut them down with a lawsuit. The company even ended up giving their Espirito trademark to Ouija Novelty Company, so for a while, the company tried printing the Espirito board on one side and the Ouija board on another-giving customers two talking boards for the price of one.
    • Kennard did try to create another talking board, called Igili The Marvelous Talking Board, in the late 1890s. Instead of moons and starts, it featured  the words “Who, Which, Where, Because, and Rest” in addition to the alphabet and numbers. That board also didn’t last long.



  • On July 18, 1898, the Ouija Novelty Company agreed to allow William Fuld and his brother, Isaac Fuld, to manufacture the board for three years.
    • It sounds like the company’s owners had had enough of the operational side of manufacturing the boards, and would rather just collect royalties from someone else manufacturing them.
    • Plus, William Fuld was a friend, and had been in charge of the Ouija Novelty Company for about six years, anyway.
    • Fuld had already patented his own talking board, but of course the Ouija name was way more valuable.
  • So now Isaac Fuld and Brother was the company manufacturing Ouija boards.
    • Just as the three year period came to an end, the brothers had a big falling out.
    • And then the license came up for renewal, and in 1901, the new license was given exclusively to William Fuld, cutting Isaac out of the deal.
  • This began a split that would keep the two sides of the family from talking to each other for 96 years. Its unclear if their disagreement was related to the Ouija board or not.
    • The two sides of the familiy didn’t reconcile until Stuart Fuld, the grandson of Isaac Fuld, reached out to Robert Murch, wanting to learn more about his family. Around the same time, Kathleen Fuld, William Fuld, was also talking to Murch for the same reason. Eventually, Kathy asked for Stuart’s number and the two sides of the family reconciled now get together regularly.

I know this is a digression, but I read this story in Baltimore Magazine and I thought it was so funny. Kathleen Fuld told the reporter:

“I’ll tell you a funny story. We went up to the Poconos for a golfing trip one year and there was a conference of priests taking place at the hotel where we stayed. I don’t remember why or how it came up, but Stuart ends up telling

a group of priests we’re talking with that his family once made the Ouija board.

All the priests immediately started making little crosses with their fingers. They started asking Stuart all kinds of questions. They wanted to know the whole story and got the biggest kick out of that.

Even better, the priests invited the couple to take advantage of the conference’s complimentary evening cocktail parties for the weekend—which they did.

But it didn’t matter. Every time we saw those priests, in the elevator, or wherever, they’d start making those crosses with their fingers.


  • Back to 1901:
    • After the brothers split, William Fuld formed a new company called William Fuld Manufacturing Company.
    • Isaac Fuld continued making Ouija boards, so William Fuld took him to court, forcing Isaac Fuld to stop.
    • After he’d won in court, William Fuld wrote to all of their customers telling them that now he was the only person allowed to sell Ouija boards, freezing his brother out completely and ensuring that he couldn’t go selling them behind his back anymore.
    • So then Isaac created a talking board called the Oriole, which looked exactly like a Ouija board down to using the same stencils–he literally cut out the name “Ouija” and replaced it with “Oriole” in the template.
      • It sounds like the company was fairly successful
      • The brothers fought in court for twenty years, until 1920, when Isaac lost the case once and for all. The court judged that the Oriole board was exactly the same as the Ouija board.
      • Even though Isaac had to stop selling Ouija boards, his company continued selling other toys until his brother William died. The year after William’s death, Isaac became an insurance salesman. Which leads me to wonder if he stayed in the toy business out of stubbornness or something.
  • Ouija kept getting more and more popular, and William Fuld moved his company to ever-larger showrooms and factories.
  • In 1917, the Ouija board told Fuld “prepare for big business”
    • He bought a big block of land and began to build a huge new factory, which opened in 1918.
      • The factory was really huge by the day’s standard’s, especially for Baltimore. It was three stories high, 36,000 square feet, and it cost $175,000 to build (which is more than $3 million in today’s dollars.)
    • Sidenote, I wonder why he would ask the Ouija board something? He once told a reporter who asked if he believed in Ouija boards: “I should say not. I’m no spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian.”
      • I wonder if he was lying then, or if the story of the board telling him to “prepare for big business” is fake? Or maybe he was just idly playing with the board?
  • On February 24, 1927, Fuld was on the roof of the his huge, 3-story warehouse, watching the installation of a new flagpole.
    • He leaned on an iron railing, which in a freak accident, collapsed.
    • He off the roof, backwards. After managing for a moment to grab one of the factory’s windows, he fell to the ground.
    • He got a concussion, five fractured ribs, a broken arm, a fractured leg, plus some cuts and bruises
    • He was rushed to the hospital, and they thought he was going to survive, but a bump in the road jostled him and made one of his ribs pierce his heart.
    • As he lay dying, he made his children promise that they would never sell the Ouija board



Let’s talk about how the Ouija board evolved over time:

  • We talked last time about the paddle-shaped planchette with four legs, that the Kennard boards had.
  • The first Fuld boards looked about the same: similar stencil, put over veneered pine wood.
    • The box that it came in showed a Victorian family and says “Mysterious and  Entertaining!” “Amusing, scientific, and instructive”
    • The planchette was still shaped like a little paddle, but it had three legs now.
  • By 1898, the planchette became heart shaped. I’m actually surprised it took so long to get there, since planchettes were typically heart shaped.
  • Some Ouija boards began having octagonal shapes (so like a rectangle with its corners cut off.)
  • By the early 1920s, they’d streamlined production on the Ouija board, and totally changed the stencils that were used.
    • Instead of having letters that were very clearly stencils, this introduced the fancier type we’re used to today–that type that looks almost old west, or circus-y.
  • Also around this time, windowed planchettes started being introduced. So for example, instead of a planchette being one solid heart-shaped piece of wood that pointed at the correct letters, it had a hole in the middle with a piece of glass in it so it could hover over the right letter and you could look through and see it.
  • Fuld started to become obsessed with the idea of people creating knockoff Ouija boards, so starting printing his name in huge red letters on the back of the board, etc. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
  • In 1902, William Fuld trademarked the name “Oracle.” He was worried about competitors undercutting the Ouija board by pricing their versions lower than the Ouija board, so went ahead and made a cheaper version himself, dubbing it the Oracle.
    • It’s funny, this is very similar to what people say now with tech startups and stuff, like if you don’t disrupt your own product, someone else will.
    • At any rate, people liked the Oracle, and it did well.
    • It looked a lot like a regular Ouija board, was built out of the same veneered pine wood. It also had the moon and sun at the corners, like the Ouija board.
    • It differed in that it had a big circle in the middle, with the name of the board, and then the numbers surrounded the circle. The letters were in four curved rows across the board.
    • It also had a black planchette shaped like a diamond, with a hole in the middle.
    • It became the second most popular talking board on the market, after Ouija.
    • Casually, it was called the Mystifying Oracle, and in 1915, that became its official name.
    • One thing I have to note: if you look at pictures of the board, EVERYWHERE there are mentions of patents, etc.
      •  The circle in the center  says “Mystifying Oracle” in the middle, with “Registered trade-mark” around the edges in a font almost as large.
      • Then at the bottom of the board, it lists the US patent number and date, the Canadian patent number and date, and William Fuld’s name and the company’s location.
      • On the back of the board, it says in huge all caps at top: TO OBTAIN THE ORIGINAL GENUINE OUIJA BOARD AND GET BEST RESULTS, then it has the instructions in small print with a block of text at the end advertising Fuld’s company, listing his name, and listing the copyright date, and then at the bottom in even bigger all caps, it says SEE THAT THE NAME WILLIAM FULD, BALTIMORE, MD, IS PRINTED ACROSS THE BOTTOM OF EACH BOARD. WE HAVE NO BRANCH FACTORIES OR OFFICES.
      • The planchette is a diamond with the Name MYSTIFYING ORACLE on it, then the patent date and trademark registration info again, and then the words “Made by Wm Fuld, Baltimore, MD.”
      • So . . . I guess he was very concerned with people ripping off his own rip off of the Ouija board.
    • Eventually, in the 1930s, they basically turned the Mystifying Oracle into a Ouija board, adding the word Ouija to the name and redesigning the board so it looked like a traditional Ouija board.
      • They did this for two reasons:
        • They wanted ppl to know that the Mystifying Oracle was made by the people who also made Ouija boards.
        • They wanted Mystifying Oracle to have better brand recognition–since Ouija had become a name for basically any kind of talking board, they were worried they might lose their trademark.
    • In 1933, William Fuld’s son, William Andrew Fuld, patented something called the Electric Mystifying Oracle.
      • The letters had kinda a weird, zigzag layout.
      • The boards were metal, and had raised buttons that would turn on the light bulb in the planchette–which contained a battery–as it was moved across them, so it could be played it in dark and look cool.
      • Unfortunately, the board was short-lived. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and the board was expensive at $3.50 (about $68 in today’s dollars).
        • One thing I wanted to note, tho: Even during the Great Depression, people were buying the cheaper Ouija boards (which cost about half of what the Electric Mystifying Oracle cost.) People were buying so many that Fuld’s company had to build a new factory.
      • The product was discontinued and the boards were melted down for scrap metal for World War II (that was a big thing back then)
      • So they basically pulled an Atari/ET on it. (do you know this story? Back in the early 80s, a ET video game was rushed out and didn’t really work, so Atari took the extra cartridges and buried them in the desert in New Mexico. There’s a cool documentary called Atari: Game Over.)
      • One innovation that did stick around, tho, was the board replaced the stars at the lower right and left hand corners of the board with figures of people, like we’re used to seeing today. Apparently it’s supposed to show people playing Ouija, which I never realized. And apparently the illustrations were done by William Andrew Fuld.
    • By 1938, they stopped printing both the Ouija and the Mystifying Oracle boards directly on wood, and instead moved to printing on paper over board–which is how we’re used to board games looking today.
      • Apparently they had issues with the wood warping, plus it was cheaper to print on paper.
      • The last wooden Mystifying Oracle board was made in 1940, and by 1950, they had switched from using paper over hardboard (which was thicker) to paper over masonite (which was thinner.)
        • In general, at this point, we start seeing all kinds of cost-cutting changes, which I think really starts to underscore how American manufacturing declined and the idea of consuming more and more cheap products emerged:
          • The hardboard version of the boards were kind of octagonal shaped, like a rectangle with all of its corners cut off.
          • Masonite boards were rectangles with sharp corners–eventually they figured out how to round the corners a little bit so they didn’t hurt people.
          • In fact, in addition to the change in board material, they also started putting the printed paper on one side of the board.
          • They made the planchette out of plastic instead of wood and glass, though they kept the little window in the middle.
          • Whereas once the office and factory were in the same place, they moved the factory further and further away from the main office within Maryland, then finally moved it to Pennsylvania.
      • The Ouija board had big surges in popularity in the 1910s and 20s (after World War I).
        • Ouija boards were so popular that there’s even a Normal Rockwell illustration showing a man and woman playing Ouija–and Normal Rockwell is supposed to be the avatar of 20th century domesticity
      • Apparently Fuld was kind of a marketing genius. He got the Ouija board into the Sears catalog, which really helped it take off.
        • But he didn’t miss a chance to advertise the board. For example, Murch has found old envelopes from Fuld’s company that had a little picture of the Ouija board on them, so literally all of their correspondence was Ouija branded.
        • The Fuld family also basically encouraged product placement for the Ouija board. So the Ouija board was featured in a number of different TV shows and movies, as well as sheet music, plays and vaudeville shows. Some of the songs it inspired have pretty funny titles, such as “Ouija Mine” and “Weegee Weegee Tell Me Do.”
      • I guess there was an article from 1920, where a New York Times article compared Ouija boards to bubble gum.
        • In 1920, 3 million Ouija boards were sold.
        • Apparently, at one point, almost every household in the US had a Ouija board.
      • In 1927, the year Fuld died, the Baltimore Sun reported that he, personally, had made over $1 million from Ouija boards. (More than $14 million today.) For reference, it looks like from the 1890s through the 1920s, Ouija boards were priced at $1.
      • The board was also popular during and after World War II.
        • There was a five-month period in 1944 where a department store in NYC sold 50,000 boards
      • By 1950, the company only made Ouija boards.



  • In 1966, after 65 years of making Ouija boards, William Fuld’s company was sold to Parker brothers, along with the Ouija board.
    • Sidenote, in case you were wondering: William Fuld’s son, William Andrew Fuld, died in the 1970s, so he didn’t exactly keep his deathbed promise to his father. But he had a number of strokes in the mid-60s, and it sounded kind of like the family just didn’t want to manage the company anymore.
    • The first thing Parker Brothers did was to move the company to Salem
    • In 1967, one million Ouija boards were sold, more than Monopoly
  • In 1991, Parker Brothers was sold to Hasbro
    • Since taking it over, they’ve made glow in the dark boards (which were a thing in the 90s) as well as some more vintage-inspired boards lately.
      • I was reading amazon reviews of the current kinda creepy/vintage inspired Hasbro board, and a lot of people said it was extremely flimsy and the seams in the board kept the planchette from moving
        • I’ve ordered a couple wooden ones from Etsy which I’m excited to experiment with (one’s a reproduction of a Fuld board, and the other’s a more modern, witchy one




Things mentioned

Websites about William Fuld

Historical articles and advertisements about William Fuld

  • Ouija Board is Worth Million. The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa) · Tue, Aug 17, 1920 · Page 8
  • Who Invented Ouija? The Economist (Clay Center, Kansas) · Tue, Apr 6, 1920 · Page 3
  • “Ouija Board Has Chance Now to Pick Inventor” The Topeka Daily Capital (Topeka, Kansas) · Sun, Mar 14, 1920 · Page 11

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:

We take a look at the board’s invention, in particular two women behind it, Helen Peters and Ouida: a highly-educated, unconventional medium who later ended up denouncing Ouija, and the eccentric, dog-obsessed English writer whose name may have inspired the board’s.

In 1886, homemade talking boards became a new “Ohio craze” that newspapers reported widely around the country. Five years later, a man named Charles Kennard started a company to create his own talking board, which he claims he invented (though the prototype may have been made by his neighbor, a coffin maker turned undertaker.)

But what most people don’t know is that one woman’s involvement in the Ouija board’s creation had been totally written out of the history, until Ouija historian Robert Murch unearthed her story. We look at how a woman named Helen Peters was integral in ensuring the board got patented. She also was at the Ouija board session that the board’s name came from, and wore a locket around her neck with another woman’s name, Ouida, which is where the name “Ouija” may have emerged from. 

Ouida was a real character–an extremely prolific, oddball author of somewhat scandalous 19th-century adventure novels–so we take a look at her life and wonder how we’d also never heard of her.

We’ll pick up again next week to talk about what happened to Kennard’s company, and what happened to Ouija as the 20th century dawned.




A couple demonstrating the use of a talking board

The New Talking Board: The Mysterious Amusement Which is Fascinating Ohio People. The News, Frederick, Maryland, Sat, Apr 10 1886

Elijah Bond's Patent for the Kennard Ouija Board

Elijah Bond’s Patent for the Kennard Ouija Board

Episode Script for Helen Peters and Ouida / Invention (Ouija Boards Part 2)

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. 

Remember, planchette peaked around 1868


Talking Boards

  • In April 1886, there were a flurry of articles in different newspapers talking about how people were starting to get obsessed with “talking boards” in Ohio. It seems like AP or some similar news wire service may have written a story about it and it got published all across the country. I found three versions of stories about it (which were then repeated everywhere) and want to read a bit from them.

First article:

  • The New Talking Board: The Mysterious Amusement Which is Fascinating Ohio People. The News (Frederick, Maryland) · Sat, Apr 10, 1886 · Page 3:
    • Many of our readers will still remember planchette, the strange little heart-shaped board with a pencil at its point which used to walk over yards of paper and write no end of sense and nonsense if the fingertips of two persons touched the upper surface of the board.
    • Planchette had its day, and mostly died out. But the same mysterious force which used to impel it is moving now another kind of little board, and setting whole communities of eminently sober and respectable Ohio people on their heads.
      • It then describes how it is made: you write the alphabet on a board, as well as the words “yes,” “no,” “good evening” and “good night” in the corners.
        • Sidenote, I love how there’s the assumption that you’d only use it at night.
      • Then, the instructions vary a bit from what we’re used to:
    • Then a tiny table is made with four legs. It is three or four inches high and very thin and light. Two persons sit opposite each other and take the board upon their knees . . . The little four-legged table is placed upon the board. The two persons grasp lightly with the thumb and forefinger the corners of the table that are next to them.
      • One note on that: there’s an illustration of a very proper Victorian woman and man, and it’s notable that their knees are touching–they have to be to keep the board balanced, especially with a table on top. I wonder if some of the early appeal of talking boards was that it was an excuse to touch someone in a way that wasn’t considered proper? Also, it would allow you to send a message to someone that maybe you weren’t supposed to say, and you had plausible deniability.
      • To continue reading from the article:
    • The two sit down and become quiet, asking the question: “Are there any communications?” After a few minutes the little table begins to move over the board. It is an intelligent, or at least, a semi-intelligent force that guides the table, for it answers questions. Sometimes it talks utter nonsense and again it will write real information. . . . When a question is asked, the table moves toward the letters, and the foot steps upon the first one of the sentence to be written out. Then it passes to the next one and the next and so on, with more or less rapidity. A gentleman, who has experiemented with the thing, says: “Sometimes the table will cover two letters with its feet and then you hang on and ask that the foot be moved from the wrong letter, which will be done.”
      • The article does NOT explain which leg of the table you’re supposed to be paying attention to. If there are four legs, which is the “right” one?
      • Another story:
    • One man who thought his family was spending too much time over the talking machine burned it up. Then he left home on a journey. When the talking board could not be found some one made another, and the amusement went on as before. To the queston what had become of the other board the answer was given “Jack burned it up,” which somewhat astonished Jack on his return.
      • The article closes with:
    • The questions may be asked mentally, even by persons sitting in the room several feet away from the operators, and the answers are given just as readily.
      • I really want to try that, to try to eliminate bias etc.
    • In some cases remarkable and truthful revelations are said to have been given about  living persons. But it is not well to give too much heed to these revelations.
      • I like that it closes on a warning.

Second article:

  • An Ohio Craze: The Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which Ohioans Are Agitated. (Reprinted from the NY Tribute.) The Clay Democrat (Clay Center, Kansas) · Thu, Apr 22, 1886 · Page 2
    • This article is interesting, because it seems to be what the last article was based on (without attribution.) This is a chattier and snappier article, written in a voice that feels very yellow-journalism-y to me. To give you a taste:
      • “Planchette is simply nowhere,” said a Western man at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, “compared with the new scheme for mysterious communication that is being used out in Ohio. I know of whole communities that are wild over the ‘talking board’ as some of them call it. . . . I have seen and heard some of the most remarkable things about its operations–things that seem to pass all human comprehension or explanation.”
    • It’s conducted like an interview, with the writer asking questions like “what is the board like?” and the man from out west saying things like “give me a pencil and I will show you,” but the information is all in the same order, and mostly the same. (Though it doesn’t have a nice drawing of two Victorian people.)
    • Here are a few extra tidbits that I found interesting:
      • “The ‘yes’ and no are to start and stop the conversation. The ‘good evening’ and ‘good night’ are for courtesy.”
        • That doesn’t . . . Really make much sense to me. But also I guess if you’re starting the convo by saying “are there any communications?” then yes is an okay start.
      • The guy from out west claims that “Any one can make the whole apparatus in fifteen minutes.”
        • I will say that it’d be easier to make than a planchette, since you don’t need wheels, and in theory you could just make it out of whatever scrap wood you have around.
      • Apparently when that guy, Jack, burned the talking board, the family got a servant to make a new one, which I found a bit funny.
      • He then talks a bit more about believability, etc:
        • There are, of course, any number of nonsensical and irrelevant answers spelled out, but the workers pay little heed to them. If the answers are relevant they talk them over with a superstitious awe. One gentleman of my acquaintance told me that he got a communication about a title to some property from his dead brother, which was of great value to him.
      • He talks about how it’s the new planchette, and lists some towns in Ohio that are obsessed And he talks about how “Its use and operation have taken the place of card parties.”


Third article:

  • It’s not just Ohio getting in on the fun; apparently it was a craze in Omaha, Nebraska, too.
    • The Columbus Journal (Columbus, Nebraska) · Wed, Apr 21, 1886 · Page 2:
      • It tells the same story about “Jack,” but makes it sound like he was from Omaha instead. I doubt the existence of this Jack a little.
      • It called the talking board a “Spiritual Talking Board”
      • It’s a short article, but here’s my favorite quote from it, which are the closing lines:
        • It will disclose the whereabouts of absent members of families, who are in the habit of spending their evenings from home. It is said to reveal some terrible secrets in this line.
          • I LOVE this dig at adulterers.



Ouija Board

  • After the initial flurry of articles about home-made talking boards, the newspapers seemed pretty quiet on the topic for a while, until in 1891, ads for “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board” or “Ouija, The Egyptian Luck Board” started appearing in newspapers.
  • To read from an ad that a bookstore called Vickery and Company that sold Ouija boards placed in The Norfolk Landmark (Norfolk, Virginia) · Sat, Jan 31, 1891:
    • The OUIJA is without doubt the most interesting, remarkable, and mysterious production of the nineteenth century. Its operations are always interesting and frequently invaluable, answering, as it does, questions concerning the past, present, and future with marvelous accuracy. It furnishes never-failing amusement and recreation for all classes, while for the scientific or thoughtful its mysterious movements invite the most careful research and investigation, apparently forming the link which unites the known with the unknown, the material with the immaterial. It forces upon us the conviction that a great truth was contained in the statement of the Danish Price: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than were ever dreamed of in thy philosophy.”
      • I LOVE how flowery that ad copy is. A Hamlet quote!
      • However, I learned that this store didn’t write the copy themselves, because I found and ad for a store called Danzigers in the Pittsburg Dispatch in January 1891 with the same copy–I wonder if the manufacturer supplied it.
  • An ad in the Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, Massachusetts) · Sat, Oct 3, 1891 · Page 4
    • OUI-JA. THE TALKING BOARD. THE LATEST PARLOR GAME. Will answer questions on Politics, Every Day Topics or Love Affairs. Call and see it at D. T. Johnson’s Paper Store, 5 North Main Street.
      • This one made me laugh because it felt really BS-y to me. Like I can imagine someone asking what you can use it for and a sales person saying, “oh you know, politics . . . Every Day topics . . . Love affairs”
      • Also notable that this ad spells Ouija Oui-ja hyphenated.
  • There was some funny copy in an 1892 ad in the St. Joseph Gazette-Herald (St. Joseph, Missouri):
    • OUIJA. THE EGYPTIAN LUCK BOARD. WHAT IS IT? Ask for OUIJA, the most Wonderful Invention of the 19th Century. And you will soon find out. A TALKING BOARD, Silent and Mysterious. It works wonders.
      • NOTE: “you will soon find out” really reminded me of some of the Watcher letters.
  • An ad in the New York Sun from March 1891 Kennard Novelty Company, which was located on Canal Street:
    • OUIJA. A WONDERFUL TALKING BOARD. Interesting and mysterious: surpasses in its results second sight, mind reading, or clairvoyance: will give an intelligent answer to any question. Proven at Patent Office before patent was allowed. Price, $1.50. All first class-toy stores.


Kennard Novelty Company

  • There’s a Ouija historian named Robert Murch who’s been researching Ouija boards since 1992. that’s the source for almost everything in this episode that doesn’t come from a primary source like a historical article. A few other modern secondary sources that I used are also listed in the shownotes, but to be honest, most of them are built upon Murch’s work.
    • That last ad, for Kennard Novelty Company, is for the original manufacturer–though maybe not the inventor–of the Ouija board.
    • The inventor may have been a Prussian immigrant named E. C. Reiche. Reiche may have sold the invention to Kennard, but apparently he later accused him to stealing the invention.
      • Kennard claimed that he thought of the idea of the Ouija board at home, in his kitchen. He said he used an overturned teacup on a breadboard, put his hand on it watched his it move as if on its own, and said it was a way to access his subconscious. 
    • Kennard was the son of a merchant, who moved to Baltimore in the late 1880s and claimed to have developed a “secret recipe” for bone-mix fertilizer. He was successful at first, but his business eventually failed because of competition and bad luck with the weather, and he had to auction it off.
      • However, Kennard had an office next to Reiche’s. Reiche had been a furniture maker, then a coffin maker, then an undertaker (which apparently was a pretty normal career path back then.
      • Reiche loved to tinker with things, and he’d started making prototypes of a talking board.
      •  Kennard left town and moved to Baltimore, got into real estate, and started pitching investors on his new invention, a talking board.
      • In 1890, he gathered a group of investors including Elijah Bond, a local attorney, his law school friend Harry Rusk, Col. Washington Bowie, a surveyor, to start the novelty company and make ouija boards. They had $30,000 in capital.
        • Sidenote, Kennard became a Mason in 1880, and it’s been suggested that he met his fellow investors through that network.
      • None of them were spiritualists, they were just businessmen
      • The company was incorporated the day before Halloween.
      • So, first they had to come up with a name.
      • It sounds like they called it a “witch board” at first.
      • A lot of people say that Ouija comes from the French word for “yes” (oui) and the German word for “yes” (ja), but Murch says that it was actually Bond’s sister in law, Helen Peters who came up with the name.
        • Helen Peters was a well-off, well educated, society woman, and Bond described her as “a strong medium”
        • Also, she was a total babe, based on a picture that her husband drew of her from the 1890s.
        • On April 25, 1890, Kennard was at a Baltimore boarding house with Elijah Bond and Helen Peters, and they decided to ask the board what they should call it. The board spelled out Ouija and when they asked what it meant, the board just said “good luck”
        • Kennard said that after that happened, Peters showed the two of them a locket with a picture of a woman in it, with “Ouija” written beneath the picture.
        • Kennard asked if Peters had been thinking about the locket during the session, but Peters said she hadn’t been.
        • According to Murch, the woman in the locket may have been Maria Louise Ramé, whose penname was “Ouida.” Kennard may have just misread the name.
        • Ouida’s story is too good not to go into, even though it’s a bit of a digression:
          • Who was Maria Louise Ramé? She was born in England in 1839, and was the bestselling author of romance and adventure novels, essays, animal stories, and children’s books. She published her first novel when she was 24, though she wrote a book when she was 16 that was later published.
          • Her work was known for being swashbuckling and kinda racy, sort of the opposite of what you think of when you think of Victorian literature.
          • She was so popular that even Queen Victoria was a fan of her work.
          • Jack London read one of her books when he was 8 and said that the book of hers that he read was one of the reasons for his success.
          • She wrote a book a year between 1863 and 1900.
          • Ouida’s penname came from the way she said “Louise” when she was a kid.
          • She was known for being very eccentric. She adored purple writing paper and Lord Byron. 
          • The 1912 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography describes her as having an “artificial and affected manner, and although amiable to her friends was rude to strangers. Cynical, petulant, and prejudiced, she was quick at repartee”
          • When she was 28, she moved into the Langham Hotel in London, which was a traditional grand hotel, and which was also the largest and most modern hotel in the city (it had bathrooms and hydraulic elevators.)
            • There, she wrote by candlelight, drawing the curtains during the day. She would fill her room with purple flowers, and sometimes her hotel and florist bill would be 200 pounds per week (which is the equivalent of almost $28,000 in today’s money.)
            • At the hotel, she hosted fancy soirees attended by soldiers, politicians, authors (including Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning and Wilkie Collins), and artists.
            • She was once described as “sinister, clever face” and with a “voice like a carving knife.”
            • Dictionary of National Biography says that she “dressed expensively but not tastefully”
          • When Ramée was older, she lived “an expensive and affected life with dogs and frequent hopeless infatuations” in Italy, according to The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature. She lived with her mother in Italy.
          • She was also described in a Dictionary of Literary Biography as having “lived for most of her career and died in Italy . . . surrounded by the dogs whose company she came to enjoy more than that of many humans … Her main monument in England is a drinking fountain for dogs.”
          • She made a lot of money, but managed it very badly. At one point, she was just living in an Italian tenement full of stray dogs that she kept bringing in from the street.
          • At once point she owned 30 dogs.
          • In 1906, her friend was able to get her something called a “civil list pension” which is basically a government pension. So she was offered 150 pounds a year by the prime minister.
          • She died of pneumonia in 1908, and “An anonymous lady admirer erected over the grave a monument representing the recumbent figure of Ouida with a dog at her feet.”
        • But to get us back to the story of Ouija:
          • Male writers didn’t like Ramée, but she was beloved by her female fans, whose signature, according to Atlas Obscura, “become something of a talisman for forward-thinking women like Peters.”
          • Murch says that it makes sense that Peters, as a well-educated woman, might wear a locket with her name in it.
          • Peters was also unconventional: she married in 1891, when she was 40, and her husband was 13 years younger than her. Murch has said that her part in the history of Ouija has been mostly erased, and even Elijah Bond just calls her a “lady friend” in many of his letters.
          • But apparently Peters was integral in getting the board patented.
            • The patent office said they wouldn’t award a patent unless they could demonstrate that it worked.
            • It was rejected by several inspectors, until finally Peters showed the board’s effectiveness to the chief patent officer. The officer said that if the board could spell his name, which they didn’t know, he would grant the patent. The board successfully spelled out his name, and they got their patent.
          • There’s a nice quote from Murch, where he says “For 20 years, I researched the fathers of the Ouija board. Turns out, it had a mother.”
          • Murch’s organization, the Talking Board Historical Society,  worked to add a marker to her grave talking about her involvement in the Ouija board.
          • Later in life, Peters rejected the Ouija board and spoke out about it.
            • The reason is because her family’s beloved collection of Civil War-era buttons disappeared.
            • Some family members asked the Ouija board what happened to it, and the board claimed that a family member had stolen it.
            • That basically tore the family apart, with someone people believing the board, and other (including Peters) being skeptical and saying they shouldn’t believe it.
            • So after that, Peters rejected Ouija and said it wasn’t trustworthy.
            • And just my two cents, I think she was right to do so. I think it’s screwed up for people to believe a parlor game over their own family, even if Ouija does sometimes have accurate results.
        • But whatever the reason for the name, Ouija also sounded really Egyptian–or at least it did to 19th century people, and Egyptian stuff was really popular back then.
        • The Kennard Ouija board was made from a few pieces of wood held together by wooden braces nailed to the back.
          • Its planchette was shaped like a paddle and had four legs.
          • It usually had a bright orange finish, with black letters stenciled on top.
        • So by the early 1890s, about 2,000 Ouija boards were being sold per week.


  • An early ouija board article in The Thayer News (Thayer, Kansas) · Fri, Apr 8, 1892:
    • A great many of the people have become quite interested as well as amused at the life like actions and extreme truthfulness of a little instrument owned by one of the young ladies of this city.
    • The Ouija board . . . Has only been invented about a year. We did not learn who it was invented by, but probably by some prominent electrician, for the instrument is worked by the electricity in the human body.
      • It then describes the Ouija board, and describes a something that sounds almost like today’s planchette:
    • There is a little odd shaped table about 3 inches long and 2-1/2 inches wide, that comes nearly to a point at one end.
      • It describes the operation as being similar to the talking board’s–two people prop it across their knees. It said that the legs of the little table can be taken out; before using the board, you take out the legs, dampen them, and then put them back in, presumably so they slide better on the slick surface of the board.
      • It closes in a funny way, like many of these articles do:
    • It is what might be called a little fortune teller. We understand that some of the boys borrowed it to find out whether their best girls thought of them or of the other fellow, and brought it back in a very dejected manner. They say that it is the best thing in the world to tell the age of old maids.


  • So, whoever actually invented the Ouija board, it was patented and owned by Kennard’s company.
  • But Kennard was not the last person to claim to have invented the Ouija board.
  • One of Kennard’s employees and investors, a man named William Fuld, would come to say that he had invented it.
  • But more on that next week, when we pick back up and talk about what became of Kennard’s company, and we look at William Fuld, the man whose name was attached to Ouija boards for much of the 20th century.


Planchette and Automatic Writing Sources

Websites about the Ouija board

Historical articles and advertisements about the Ouija Board and its invention

  • The New Talking Board: The Mysterious Amusement Which is Fascinating Ohio People. The News (Frederick, Maryland) · Sat, Apr 10, 1886 · Page 3

  • An Ohio Craze: The Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which

  • Ohioans Are Agitated. (Reprinted from the NY Tribute.) The Clay Democrat (Clay Center, Kansas) · Thu, Apr 22, 1886 · Page 2

  • The Columbus Journal (Columbus, Nebraska) · Wed, Apr 21, 1886 · Page 2

  • Ad. The Norfolk Landmark (Norfolk, Virginia) · Sat, Jan 31, 1891 · Page 2

  • Ad. The Norfolk Landmark (Norfolk, Virginia) · Fri, Apr 3, 1891 · Page 3

  • Ad. The Sun (New York, New York) · Sat, Mar 14, 1891 · Page 9

  • Ad. Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, Massachusetts) · Sat, Oct 3, 1891 · Page 4

  • Ad. Pittsburg dispatch. [volume] (Pittsburg [Pa.]) 1880-1923, February 01, 1891, SECOND PART, Page 12, Image 12

  • Ad. St. Joseph Gazette-Herald (St. Joseph, Missouri) · Sat, Apr 16, 1892 · Page 1

  • The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana) · Sun, Dec 6, 1891 · Page 14

  • Ouija Board. The Thayer News (Thayer, Kansas) · Fri, Apr 8, 1892 · Page 4

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:

Starting with the automatic writing method planchette, we begin a series about Ouija boards. We’ll dig into the strange history of the much admired and maligned method of communicating with spirits and/or having fun at parties.

Before Ouija, there was planchette. Invented in Paris in the 1850s, planchette was a method of automatic writing. Much like the planchette we recognize from today’s Ouija boards, it was a heart-shaped plank of wood. But it was much larger than today’s planchettes, rested on wheels or casters, and had a slot to put a pencil through. One or several people would rest their hands on the planchette, and see what messages come through.

Highlights include: The Spiritualist movement, weird personifications of “Planchette,” plenty of alarmist rhetoric about this popular parlor game/occult technique, and the story of a young woman in New Orleans who supposedly died as a result of her obsession with planchette

This is the first of ?? episodes about Ouija boards. We’ll be back next week to talk about the invention of Ouija boards and spirit boards!



Episode Script for Planchette and Automatic Writing (Ouija Boards Part 1)

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. 

Planchette is the name of a curious machine, whose ability, without any voluntary action on one’s part, to write down on paper an answer, not necessarily the proper answer, to any question, has during the past week excited the amusement and astonishment of those who have witnessed its performance. -from an article in the Burlington Times (Burlington, Vermont) · Sat, Apr 4, 1868



  • In 1848, three sisters in Upstate NY, the Fox sisters, kicked off the spiritualism movement. The two younger sisters claimed that they could communicate with the dead and interpret knocks as messages from the dead. Even though one of the sisters confessed that it had all been a hoax–the rappings had come from their toe joints. A lot has been written abut how spiritualism was also a movement that gave women more power in a society where very few occupations were allowed, etc. More on that another time.
  • In a nutshell, spiritualism is the idea that the living and the dead can communicate, an idea that was especially attractive in the years after the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. People wanted to talk to their deceased loved ones and to feel like life had meaning, etc.


Before Ouija, there was Planchette

  • Planchette was a sort of automatic writing device.
    • Automatic writing, also known as psychography, is when someone writes something without consciously writing.
    • Sceptics have written automatic writing off as being an example of the ideomotor phenomenon, which is basically involuntary muscle movements, kind of like reflexes, which can move whatever object you’re touching.
      • This comes up a lot when talking about ouija boards, planchette, dowsing, etc.
      • I don’t want to get sidetracked and get into this now, but I don’t see the ideomotor phenomenon as something that proves that all automatic writing, or spirit board communication, etc, are wrong. Like–who’s to say that whatever entity you’re communicating with isn’t causing those involuntary movements, etc.
    • Automatic writing has been around a long time.
    • There was a Daoist method of spirit writing called Fuji (fu-chi), that was used during the Ming Dynasty in China, which was during 1368-1644 CE, which involved suspending a sieve or tray to guide a stick writing in sand or incense ashes.  But even before that, spirit writing was popular in China, as long ago as the 400s CE.
      • I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because I’m trying to stay focused on the history of Ouija boards in the United States, but I wanted to mention it so people don’t think that white people invented this stuff.
      • I don’t think it became a thing in Europe until the 1600s, when it was used by practitioners of Enochian magic.
  •  It was shaped like a rounded triangle or heart, with two wheels on the broad side and a hole on the pointy side. You put a pencil through the hole. Then you put the device on a piece of paper, everyone put their hands on it like they would the planchette of a Ouija board today, and then they asked a question and saw what the planchette wrote.
    • The planchette used here was much larger than the planchette of a modern Ouija board: it was about 7-1/2 inches long and 5-1/2 inches wide on the broad side and 2 inches wide on the pointy side.
    • According to a 1904 pamphlet I read called Crystal Gazing, Astrology,  Palmistry, Planchette & Spiritualism, it could be used by 1, 2, or 3 people. The pamphlet recommended that you start off asking yes or no questions, and then only after you’ve gained some experience, you can ask questions that would have longer answers. The pamphlet described using the planchette like this:
      • Very soon it will be found that by some mysterious power, which the operators are quite sure they do not themselves exert, the Planchette will begin to move about, up and down the paper for some little time, and then, generally, an answer will be found written to the question asked. The most mysterious part is, while the operators are lightly touching the Planchette with the ends of their fingers, and are quite unconscious of in any way influencing its movement, it will move about with more or less rapidity, and will write words and sentences with more or less distinctness
  • The planchette may have been inspired by telegraph, because apparently an early prototype by Morse involved attaching a pencil to something.
  • Most of the following info about the history of the planchette come from, which has a ton of awesome info:
    • Apparently planchettes were popular in Paris at the time.
    • Planchette is french for “little plank”
    • It’s a little unclear to me who originally invented the planchette–several people claim credit, and it sounds like it was invented in France during a séance on June 10, 1853. Someone tied a pencil to an upside down basket, which seemed to work really well, and which was less exhausting than calling out all the letters of the alphabet and waiting for rappings in response.
    •  But because it was somewhat similar to “table-tipping” devices used in seances, it makes sense that a bunch of different people sort of had similar ideas for the device around the same time.
    • But in 1853, a German composer and music teacher filed a patent for a psychograph in London, which he called “Apparatus for Indicating Person’s Thoughts by the Agency of Nervous Electricty.” It involved putting your hands on plates that were attached to a pointer, which would point at letters.
    • Planchettes became so popular in Europe that in 1853, that same year, the Bishop of Viviers wrote a pastoral letter against them.
    • Also, apparently mediums started saying that people shouldn’t use planchettes and similar devices. They had an obvious ulterior motive: it threatened their monopoly on spirit communication and seances.
    • But to talk about how planchette came to America:
      • In 1858 or 1859, two spiritualists, Robert Dale Owen and Dr. H.F. Gardner, saw planchettes while overseas and brought some home with them.
      • Robert Dale Owen supposedly communicated with his father using the device. His father gave him advice on a book he was writing.
      • one of Robert Dale Owen and Dr. H.F. Gardner’s acquaintances, a bookseller in Boston named G.W. Cottrell, started manufacturing them by around 1859.
      • Around 1868,  Planchette became extremely popular.
      • At the time, Cottrell was selling planchettes for between $1-$3, depending on what sort of wood it was made of. (You could get a plain black walnut one for $1, or a “beautifully painted” hollywood one for $3. As far as we know, none of the hollywood ones have survived to the present day, tho there are examples of his cheaper models.)
      • By 1868, Cottrell said he was shipping thousands of planchettes to all parts of the country.
    • In a lot of sources, the New York bookseller and toy manufacturer Kirby and Company are credited as the first American planchette manufacturer. It sounds like they started selling them around 1868.
      • The company catered to the wealthy, particularly wealthy women, and sold things like expensive soaps, custom embroidered pocketbooks (which they called port-monnaies to be fancy), and other trinkets and games for the wealthy.
      • So because their clientele was so wealthy, that could be why planchette became so trendy.
      • By December 1868, Kirby claimed that he’d already sold 200,000 of them.
      • They sold numbered models, with Number 1, which was made of ash wood, cost $1.50, number 2 made of highly polished wood priced at $3.00.
        • There’s a picture of their “Number 3 India Rubber Planchette”; it’s basically made of plastic, which was pretty ahead of its time, and it looks super cool and goth. It’s shaped like a heart and is jet-black. That was priced at $4.
        • No. 4 was made of plate glass and cost $8. The idea was that the user could see what they were writing.
        • Later, they introduced a cheaper No. 0 version which was made of mahogany and cost $1.
        • $1 in 1868 is about $15 today, and $8 is about $144.
    • I also found an ad from 1868 selling instructions on how to make a planchette for 3 cents, calling it:
      • The new Parlor Mystery. The wonderful little Automaton that answers questions, “tells fortunes,” and can even disclose one’s secret thoughts. Any boy can make it.
    • That brings up one thing–part of the planchette’s popularity could also have to do with how easy it was to make them.
    • Looking through different models and manufacturers, I’m seeing a lot of interesting variations on the theme. One fun variety is in the 1920s, there were planchettes shaped like hands.


  • There were other spirit communication devices that became a thing during the late 19th century, including clock-like devices that look really cool, but I got really interested in the planchette 1) because of its direct link to the ouija board and 2) because of the way people talked about them, which is similar to how ouija boards are still discussed today. Like as if they’re either a game or a weird occult instrument of the devil.
  • So I pored through a bunch of different books and articles for some interesting accounts of people’s experiences with planchettes.
  • One weird thing that I’ve noticed in writing from the 19th century is that they often refer to Planchette as Planchette, capitalized and without an article, as if they’re an actual person who they’re talking to.


I read a bit of an 1886 book called The Salem Witchcraft The Planchette Mystery and Modern Spiritualism.

  • I can’t really tell who wrote it, but it was edited by the editor of a phrenology journal. And the book’s introduction is preceded by webster’s dictionary definitions of bigotry, prejudice, and superstition. Which is kinda ironic, because phrenology is a extremely debunked pseudoscience that was used to justify all sorts of racism and bigotry.
    • The introduction begins with:
      • The object in reprinting this most interesting review is simply to show tlie progress made in moral, intellecnial, and physical science. The reader will go back with us to a time—not very remote—when nothing was known of Phrenology and Psychology; when men and women were persecuted, and even put to death, through the baldest ignorance and the most pitiable superstition.
    • From the planchette section:
      • For me alone, the instrument will not move; for myself and wife it moves slightly, but its writing is mostly in monosyllables. With my daughter’s hands upon it, it writes more freely, frequently giving, correctly, the names of persons present whom she may not know, and also the names of their friends, living or dead, with other and similar tests. Its conversations with her are grave or gay, much according to the state of her own mind at the time ; and when frivolous questions are asked, it almost always returns answers either frivolous or, I am sorry to say it, a trifle wicked. For example, she on one occasion said to it : ” Planchette, where did you get your education ? ” To her horror, it instantly wrote: “In hell,”. . . On another occasion, after receiving from it responses to some trival questions, she said to it : ” Planchette, now write something of your own accord without our prompting.” But instead of writing words and sentences as was expected, it immediately traced out the rude figure of a man, such as chool children sometimes make upon their slates. After finishing the outlines—face, neck, arms, legs, etc., it swung around and brought the point of the pencil to the proper position for the eye, which it carefully marked in, and then proceeded to pencil out the hair. On finishing this operation, it wrote under the figure the name of a young man concerning whom my daughter’s companions are in the habit of teasing her.
    • The book also sets forth some theories about what could be causing the planchette phenomena:
      • First theory: The people who’re touching the planchette are moving it and writing the words
        • He tries to refute this, saying:

How is it, for example, that Planchette, under the hands of my own daughter, has, in numerous cases, given correctly the names of persons whom she had never seen or heard of before, giving also the names of their absent relatives, the places of their residence, etc., all of which were absolutely

unknown by every person present except the questioner?

  • Second theory: It’s electricity or magnetism
    • I find this kinda charming, because I feel like those are such 19th century things to be impressed by or just throw out as an explanation
    • Apparently this was a pretty popular theory
    • The author says (and I agree with this):
      • we are tempted to ask, Who is electricity ;’ what is his mental and moral status? and how and where did he get his education? Or if by ” electricity” is here simply meant the subtle, imponderable, and impersonal fluid commonly known by that name, then let us ask. Who is at the other end of the wire?—for there must evidently be a who as well as a what in the case.
    • People argued that since magnets were used to fake some stuff in seances, then they could be used to fake planchette stuff too. Which of course is true, but most operators using the planchette as a parlor game aren’t going to be setting up a complex system of magnets under their tables just to impress their friends.
  • Third theory: It’s the devil
    • Kinda self explanatory, a lot of religious figures condemned it as being the devil’s work, etc
  • Fourth theory: a floating, ambient mentality
    • Sounds like thisis claiming that it’s the consciousness of the ppl  in the room:
      • It is supposed by those who hold this theory, or rather hypothesis, that the assumed floating, ambient mentality is an aggregate emanation from the minds of those present in the circle ; that this mentality is clothed, by some mysterious process, with a force analogous to what it possesses in the living organism, by which force it is enabled, under certain conditions, to move physical bodies and write or otherwise express its thoughts ; and that in its expression of the combined intelligence of the circle, it generally follows the strongest mind, or the mind, that is otherwise best qualified or conditioned to give current to the thought.
  • Fifth theory: ” TO DATMONION ” (THE DEMON)
    • This is the spiritus mundi, or basically like the collective unconcious
    • Ppl appealled to a bunch of different philosophers and stuff in antiquity
  • Sixth theory: “some principle of nature as yet unknown”
  • Seventh theory: spirits of the dead
  • Eighth theory: “Planchette’s Own Theory”
    • Planchette is intelligent ; she can answer questions, and often answer them correctly, too. On w^hat class of subjects, then, might she be expected to give answers more generally correct than those which relate to herself, especially if the questions be asked in a proper spirit, and under such conditions as are claimed to be requisite for correct responses?
    • So then he asks Planchette if he can ask how she works:
      • That will depend much upon the spirit in which you may interrogate me, the pertinence of your questions, and your capacity to interpret the answers. If you propose a serious and careful consultation for really useful purposes, there is another thing which you should understand in the commencement. It is that, owing to conditions and laws which may yet be explained to you, I shall be compelled to use your own mind as a scaffolding, so to speak, on which to stand to pass you down the truths you may seek, and which are above the reach of your own mind alone. Keep your mind unperturbed, then, as well as intent upon your object, or I can do but little for you.
    • He asks for more detail about what the intelligence is:
      • It is the reduplication of your own mental state ; it is a spirit; it is the whole spiritual world ; it is God—one or all, according to your condition and the form and aspect in which you are able to receive the communication.
    • There’s then an extremely long (maybe 10-15 page?) q&a where they go into a lot of philosophy, talk about the bible, etc.


  • I found an article in an volume 38 of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from 1896, called “The Confessions of a Reformed Planchettist.” It begins:
    • I am not wicked; at the worst, I am but weak.
    • And to read a bit more from it:
      • How did I become a Planchettist? How does a man become committed to any evil career? Insensibly and by degrees, of course. No man clothes himself at once with the full measure of guilt, as he would put on a ready-made garment. There are gentle gradations in all iniquity. . . [he then goes on to compare himself with Nero starting to learn the fiddle] . . . Certainly when I first laid confiding and caressing hands on the smooth and shining back of Planchette, I had no idea of the dark path of deception on which that three-legged monster would drag me, of the depths of turpitude into which I thereby pledged myself to plunge.
    • [to recap some of the article, this guy was working o an astronomical invention, and dropped by the shop of a guy who made mathematical equipment, and found that he was really busy making “pentagraph wheels” for a newly invented writing machine so couldn’t make his item for a month at least. Curious, the author picked one up.)
    • He also personified the planchette as soon as he saw it:
      • There I found Planchette lying in wait for whome he might devour. He was a brown-looking little familiar, made of wood, and mounted on two pentragraph wheels, a lead-pencil forming his third leg; he looked as if he might bite, and had an uncanny air about him generally. Inquiring, What is this mystery? I was informed that on two persons placing their hands upon the fellow’s back, and a question being asked, he would soon begin to wriggle about (like a crab in the sand) and write an intelligible if not an intelligent answer with his plumbaginous tail.
        • (FYI plumbaginous means containing graphite)
    • He went on a date with a lady he didn’t really like, and used the board with her. Supposedly the board works the best when people are opposites (like in gender, complexion, temperment, etc) but the board didn’t work. He went to return it to the store the next day, and was given a refund but told to keep the board. After that, the board started working.
    • He definitely wrote this article as a sort of money grab, it’s so dramatic and ridiculous:
      • I didn’t feel quite easy at having Planchette for a room-fellow that night. I started several times, expecting to find him scratching about and endeavoring to climb into bed with me. I would rather have taken up with a bug.
    • Then he talks about how popular it got:
      • The mania spread, and the air became full of Planchettes. Wherever you went a board was brought out as soon as the lamps were lit; the soft blandishments of music gave place to its presence, and conversation ceased. The baleful dissipation became universal.
    • The article goes on forever, but I want to read a bit of the end, which is his conclusion with info about how it doesn’t work, isn’t real, etc.
      • I have little more to say, and surely nothing further to confess. I have truthfully given my experience, and if it be of any use to any of my fellows, that knowledge is guerdon sufficient. . . A reformed Planchettist, I eat better, drink better, and sleep better than when pursuing my evil practices. . . . Let this encourage those who are still under the dominion of the Destroyer to emancipate themselves.
      • It is useless to tell me that there is any thing in Planchette, or that by its aid any man may become is own medium . . . It would only write when I moved it, and then it wrote precisely what I dictated. That persons write ‘ unconsciously,’ I do not believe. As well tell me a man might pick pockets without knowing it. Nor am I at all prepared to believe the assertions of those Avho declare that they do not move the board. I know what operators will do in such cases I know the distortion, the disregard of truth which association with this immoral board superinduces.


There was definitely a moral panic about planchettes, particularly RE: how women used them and how they supposedly worked better for women than men.

An 1868 article in New Orleans Republican tells the story of someone dying from planchette:

  • In the street in which I live a young lady who was unduly attached to this “uncannie” game came to her death in consequence. She had shut herself up with it, and regardless of the directions on the downwards side of the board that two persons are to operate simultaneously in placing their finger-tips upon the upper surface, had endeavored for hours at a time to get a response to certain questions she asked respecting a far-absent lover. Midnight came, and she still remained seated in company with Planchette, impatient and despairing, and ready to dash the mocking toy to pieces. AT length she felt a slight thrill along her arms, and a movement on the paper beneath the pencil AT this crisis her mother entered but she heeded her not. Bending low, she asked, “Where is Richard?” “In heaven” was the instant response, written out in characters as copper-plate-like as a writing master’s and the girl fell lifeless from the chair. Medical remedies, including shocks of electricity, were applied, but in vain.


When they were big, they were really big!

  • In 1868, a sheet music company published a piece called “Planchette” and dedicated it to Kirby, the planchette manufacturer. And there was another song written that year called “Planchette” as well. And another in 1870.
  • There were an unbelievable number of articles about them, as well

So what happened to planchettes?

  • While doing this research, I got really curious and wanted to experiement with a planchette. Thinking it would be easy to find one since spiritualist and occult stuff is so popular now, I went on etsy and could only find two vendors selling them.
  • Someone on Etsy who sells planchettes that are reproductions of 1920s models, which are really cool and come in boxes decorated like the old boxes were back then.
  • There’s another vendor from near New Orleans, who makes really beautiful handmade planchettes. I ordered one of those, which the cheapest planchette for automatic writing I could find online and it was still like $80.
  • So why is it so hard to find planchettes these days, even though ouija boards are so popular?
    • It sounds like the introduction of the ouija board in 1890 was the beginning of the end for planchettes.
    • Ouija boards are easier to use and simpler, and you get answers faster than writing.
    • By the 1930s, a British toy company was the last company really making many planchettes.
    • There was a revival of interest in ouija boards after WWII, but planchettes just weren’t really being made anymore, so they didn’t come back.

Planchette and Automatic Writing Sources

Books mentioning planchette

Where to buy planchette


Historical Articles and advertisements about planchette

  • The Confessions of Reformed Planchettist from Harper’s Monthly Magazine
  • Planchette. The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York) · Sat, Jul 11, 1868 · Page 2
  • Planchette. Burlington Times (Burlington, Vermont) · Sat, Apr 4, 1868 · Page 2
  • Planchette. Daily Press and Herald (Knoxville, Tennessee) · Wed, Jul 29, 1868 · Page 4
  • Planchette. Gold Hill Daily News (Gold Hill, Nevada) · Tue, Jul 14, 1868 · Page 2
  • Planchette. New Orleans Republican (New Orleans, Louisiana) · Thu, Jul 2, 1868 · Page 2
  • Ad Planchette Quad City Times Sat Jul 25 1868
  • Ad Planchette The Daily Milwaukee News Wed Jul 15 1868
  • Ad Planchette The Buffalo Commercial Sat Jul 11 1868
  • Mr Home The Pall Mall Gazette Fri May 15 1868
  • My Acquaintance With Planchette The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer Sat Jul 25 1868
  • Planchette Star Tribune Fri Jul 3 1868
  • Planchette The Daily Evening Express Sat Jul 11 1868
  • Planchette The Native Virginian Fri Jul 24 1868
  • Planchette The Scranton Republican Sat Aug 8 1868
  • Planchette The Times Democrat Wed Jul 1 1868
  • Planchette The Times Picayune Tue Sep 15 1868
  • Planchette The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer Wed Jul 8 1868
  • Planchette Is Simply Nowhere. Herald and Tribune Thu Apr 29 1886


Don’t miss our past episodes:

Continuing our look at Salem’s most haunted hotel, we unearth a strange synchronicity in the history of the land that the Hawthorne Hotel stands on and take a look at the mysterious Salem Marine Society.

Following up on a lead that Chris found last time, we dive into what happened at the site of Salem’s famously haunted Hawthorne Hotel. We find a really strange set of circumstances that we can’t believe aren’t spelled out more in many of the sources we found online. We also correct a big inaccuracy perpetuated by many websites about the Hawthorne Hotel.

Highlights include: Arson, a man named Estes, two buildings with the same name burning down on the same weekend, a ship’s cabin located on the hotel’s rooftop, and more

For pictures of the Hawthorne Hotel, check out Investigating the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Part 1 .

Episode Script for Investigating the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Part 3, and the Salem Marine Society

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. 

Oddly, fire may be the “psychic residue” visitors claim to sense when visiting the hotel. Lederhaus reiterated that the myth, perpetuated in several books, that the hotel marks the former site of the apple orchard owned by Bridget Bishop isn’t true.

Investigators with Ghost Hunters told the general manager that they went to the library and City Hall, and did research on the physical property and claimed “nothing happened at the hotel that would cause hauntings.” Seriously? The TV reearches completely overlooked the six fires that plagued the land’s previous occupant, the Franklin Building, during the 1800s. -Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City by Sam Baltrusis


  • Before the Hawthorne, the Franklin Building was at the site.
  • It was a large, four-story brick building where people could rent out offices, and it was built in 1809.
  • It was located on Newbury Street, extending from Essex street to the Common.

I saw advertisements for different businesses there, like:

  • a penmanship instructor
  • a school that taught the classics
  • a natural history society
  • a headquarters for a Whig political party members
  • and of course the Salem Marine Society (who owned the building)
    • The Marine Society was founded in 1766 to share navigation information and to help the families of sailors who had died. It was common for sailors to be lost at sea at the time, so the society used the rent earnings from the Franklin Building to help fund their donations for widows and their children.
    • The Marine Society came to own it when a merchant named Thomas Perkins donated it to the society (sidenote: I read in one book that apparently Perkins participated in both the slave and opium trades, tho not sure if it’s true)
  • There were, in total, at least 4 fires in the Franklin Building. Though the book Ghosts of Salem by Sam Baltrusis says there were 6, but I couldn’t find articles about the other 2.
    • The first fire I could find was on March 29, 1825 (see article below)
    • There was another on January 29, 1845, which damaged a ton of the building, and which some people thought was caused by arson. (see article below)
    • Another building had burned down, and a building across the street from the Franklin building had signs of a fire having been started, but then dying down itself.
    • The city put out a $500 reward for finding the arsonist
    • About a year and a half later, in June 1846, the building was struck by lightning, but it wasn’t damaged badly. (Sounds like the lighning went down a chimney and messed up the bricks a little.) The same night, though, several cottages in neighboring towns were severely damaged by the lightning.
    • There was another fire on January 4, 1859 (see article)
    • In October 1860, the building caught fire and completely burned down.
      • MR CHASE’S LEG
      • Another building called the Franklin Building, located in Philly, burned down the same weekend: The Philly Franklin Building burned down on Friday night, and the Salem one burned down on Saturday night
      • Also, tragically, unbeknownst to the Marine Society, their insurance policy lapsed at noon on the day that the building burned down. Some sources say that the letter informing them that it was going to run out had been delivered but hadn’t been picked up by society members yet, while other sources say that they misremembered the date and thought it expired later that week.
      • Also, that same night, Captain Jonathan Porter Felt, the Marine Society member responsible for managing the building died from a “lingering disease” while the building was burning down.
        • (read from article)
    • The Marine Society had the building rebuilt, and by the following November, tenants started moving in.
      • John C. Weber, a grocer, was the first to move in. He’d been in the old Franklin Building, but his new store was way nicer and bigger.
    • On August 2, 1862, the new building’s flag pole was hit by lightning, but not damaged.
    • In 1921, 1,100 Salem residents banded together in support of building a hotel on the land that the Franklin Building occupied. 
      • They basically wanted a luxury hotel to lure wealthy visitors.
      • Though the fought it at first, the Marine Society eventually relented and allowed them to build the hotel there, as long as their meeting house could be on the rooftop. So they built a replica of the  Taria Topan, a ship that they’d used in travels to India as part of the shipping trade.
    • In October 1997, there was a fire in the basement of the Hawthorne. It caused about $10K of damage, and smoke got into all 6 floors of the hotel, and there was a lot of smoke damage in the ballroom.
    • RE: Bridget Bishop’s orchard, it sounds like that was an incorrect legend started by Ghost Hunters when they came to investigate the hotel in 2007. Her orchard was where the Lyceum is.
    • Supposedly, members of the Marine Society have found objects in their quarters missing, misplaced, or scattered around. (Stuff like maps, charts, and other antiques)


  • More about the Marine Society from Yankee Magazine, “Ship’s Cabin | The Most Unusual Room in New England”:
    • “Captain Edward B. Trumbull designed this unique room—a replica of the deckhouse aboard the Taria Topan, his last command—in 1925 as a meeting place for the Society, founded as a charitable and scholarly organization in 1766.”
    • “John leads me through the Hawthorne’s luxurious lobby to a guests’ elevator, where he hits the number 6 for the hotel’s top floor. From there it’s a long walk to the opposite end of an Oriental-carpeted corridor, through an unmarked door with frosted-glass panes, and up a steel-railed stairwell to a concrete landing. John waves a magnetized card in front of an armed reader. The door opens.
    • I’d heard whispers about this room for years. But I was unprepared for the time-travel jolt of walking out of a hotel stairwell and into an actual ship’s cabin. The room is lit with hurricane lanterns and paneled in teak. Cypress “hanging knees” brace overhead timbers; brass instrument dials and solemn portraits stud the walls. The dark-wood ceiling is cambered, or arched, as if a water-shedding weather deck lay directly above. A massive deck-stepped mast rises centrally. The detail is so authentic—the 1925 collaborative effort of Captain Edward Trumbull and hotel architect Philip Horton Smith—that Society members were recently informed that if they wanted an appraisal they’d better find a marine insurer.
    • . . .
    • John shows me one of the room’s most beloved possessions: an 18th-century wooden voting box holding white marbles and black cubes. During new-member votes, a chosen white marble affirms; a “blackballing” black cube opposes. Those who’ve heard it swear that the black cube makes a chillingly hollow sound when dropped into the box’s secret compartment. The “master” at those meetings—the Society’s chief officer—wears a silver anchor around his neck and keeps order with a “fid” gavel (a tapered wooden club ordinarily used to splice rope). Current master Ben Shreves says he could do without a literal anchor around his neck but dutifully abides by the custom.
    • . . .
    • The . . . routes to membership . . . are maritime achievement and legacy. Originally the only people allowed into the Society were “deep­water” sea captains who had completed a full voyage. Those days are gone, of course, and to survive, the Society has periodically amended its restrictive bylaws. In 1790 it allowed in ships’ owners; by 1994 it had from time to time begun inviting sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, and eventually female descendants of members, as well as past and present ship owners and masters.
  • I went through the society’s recordbooks, everything I could find online, and looked for a 132.
  • One thing I noticed is that members are numbered.
  • According to a book detailing the rules of the Marine Society and listing the members, the 132nd member of the Salem Marine Society was Francis Roach, who joined on February 28, 1792, and died in November 1798, when he was 43. He died in Salem, and served in the Revolutionary War. It looks like during the war, he like many of the other members of the society, spent time in Mill Prison in Plymouth in the UK. That was an overflow prison during the Revolutionary War (and then later during the French Revolutionary wars and the War of 1812.) From 1777-1783, 10,000 prisoners passed through Plymouth, and only 179 died, so hygiene and food was prob pretty good for the time.



Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City by Sam Baltrusis



  • The Franklin Building. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)October 25, 1860
  • Alarm of Fire. Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts)March 29, 1825
  • Advertisement. Salem Observer (published as SALEM OBSERVER.) (Salem, Massachusetts)June 19, 1824
  • Advertisement. Salem Observer (Salem, Massachusetts)April 7, 1827
    [Mr. Editor; Marine; Society; Franklin; Building] Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts)June 14, 1833
  • Advertisement.Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts)July 19, 1836
  • Advertisement. Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts)November 8, 1836
  • Fire. Boston Courier (Boston, Massachusetts)January 30, 1845
  • News Article. Boston Daily Times (published as BOSTON TIMES.) (Boston, Massachusetts)January 30, 1845
  • Another Serious Fire. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)January 30, 1845
  • Incendiarism. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts) January 30, 1845
  • News Article. Boston Traveler (published as AMERICAN TRAVELLER.) (Boston, Massachusetts)January 31, 1845
  • $500 reward. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)February 6, 1845
  • News Article. Boston Semi-weekly Atlas (published as The Boston Semi-Weekly Atlas.) (Boston, Massachusetts)June 24, 1846
  • Events in Salem and Vicinity during the Year 1846. Salem Observer (published as The Salem Observer.) (Salem, Massachusetts)January 2, 1847
  • News Article. Boston Evening Transcript (published as Boston Evening Transcript.) (Boston, Massachusetts)January 4, 1859
  • News Article. Boston Traveler (published as Boston Daily Traveller.) (Boston, Massachusetts)January 5, 1859
  • News Article. Boston Traveler (published as Boston Daily Traveller.) (Boston, Massachusetts)January 5, 1859
  • Fire In Franklin Building. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)January 6, 1859
  • Re Opened. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)November 19, 1860
  • News Article. Boston Evening Transcript (published as Boston Evening Transcript.) (Boston, Massachusetts)October 23, 1860
  • The Franklin Building Fire. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)October 25, 1860
  • Franklin Building Destroyed. Salem Observer (published as The Salem Observer) (Salem, Massachusetts)October 27, 1860
  • Salem And Vicinity. Salem Observer (published as The Salem Observer) (Salem, Massachusetts)March 9, 1861
  • Salem And Vicinity. Salem Observer (published as The Salem Observer) (Salem, Massachusetts)May 4, 1861
  • Salem And Vicinity. Supreme Judicial Court. Salem Observer (published as The Salem Observer.) (Salem, Massachusetts)November 16, 1861
  • Removals. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)November 18, 1861
  • The New Armory Of The Cadets. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)February 20, 1862
  • Freaks Of Lightning. Salem Observer (published as The Salem Observer.) (Salem, Massachusetts)August 2, 1862
  • Salem Marine Society Centennial. Address By The Master, Capt. Nathaniel Brown. Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts)June 12, 1871

Also see sources used for Investigating the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Part 1 and Investigating the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Part 2. 


Don’t miss our past episodes, like The Smallpox Hospital, aka Renwick Ruin, on Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 1, The Renwick Ruin and Charity Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 2, and Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia .

We deep dive into the stories of other guests who’ve stayed at the haunted Hawthorne Hotel in Salem and seen ghosts and other phenomena, as well as the hotel’s history.

After sifting through all of the haunting-related reviews of the Hawthorne Hotel on Trip Advisor, we talk about the most interesting ones (including reviews from some guests who don’t believe the hotel is haunted.)

Highlights include: ghostly cats, Ouija boards, the ghost of a sailor, glitchy phone calls, disembodied voices, cold spots


Episode Script for Investigating the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Part 2

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. 

Trip advisor (27 pages of reviews come up when you search “haunted”):

” Room 504 isn’t known to be haunted, but my sister woke up in the night to what felt like the comforter moving slightly around her. Being a cat owner, she described it as feeling like a cat walked across her and then settled for a nap on her feet. This only occurred on one of our three nights in the hotel. No one we spoke to knew of an animal ghost in the hotel, but told her not to consider herself crazy either. They get a variety of reports from guests and the stories definitely add to the fun factor at this hotel. I would definitely choose this hotel again for a future stay and recommend it to others who don’t mind a few creaky doors and a possible ghostly guest in their room”


“The hotel is beautiful and the employees are very nice. Everything is clean and everything works fine. I would have thoroughly enjoyed my stay if not for one thing, which needs to be addressed: it’s haunted.

People are not lying about that. I too thought they were lying, until yesterday night. I had the full experience (in room 510), starting at 3am and ending near 4 am: physical contact (finger poking me), crying outside the door, knocking on the door (from the mid level of the door), whispering sounds, lights flickering when a presence would be felt and then stabilizing when it would leave, and changes in temperature.

If you don’t mind the risks of being awakened at night and to go though what I went though yesterday night, or if being in a haunted hotel is what you are looking for, I recommend it”


“! I didn’t know it was haunted when we booked but it is, a man in an orange coat and a hat kept opening our curtains and sometimes we couldn’t open the closet… the handle kept jiggling in the middle of the night too and something kept touching my feet! I feel like too many people have played with spirit boards in this room ( never play with those things FYI) if you want a haunted room check into room 308 if not don’t lol.”


“We were not originally booked in the room. At check-in I asked for us not to Have that haunted room but the young man at the desk said we could have this 2 room suite as a free upgrade. Well, we fell for the bate and thought it would be an adventure. The back room is supposedly haunted, but nothing happened, except I slept like the dead! It was an adventure. The staff here goes out of its way to see you have everything you need. The restaurants were both excellent and not too pricey. You can walk everywhere from this hotel and I would highly recommend it.”

odonna56 RE: room 325

” From my experience on this floor so far, I have experienced a few un-easy experiences. For the first one, I went down in the elevator to go to the fourth floor and I went inside the elevator, the door shut, and then opened again and I felt like something walked into the elevator with me. My second experience was, walking to my room I felt very un-easy walking to it, so I ran in scarcement. “

Angis K RE: 6th floor

“The hotel has a charm about it but I’m sure somthing else lay beneath the surface.

The elevator, halls and room are just creepy. Like somthing out of a strange old horror movie but stunning.

When we got to our room it over looked the park and the Salem witch museum which was lit up in red! The bedroom lights were flickering then turning themself on and off this was un settling.

It was hot in the room then freezing cold the next. The first night I dreamed about an old lady witch who was flying around the room screaming and pulling off our blankets. It was frightening. The next day I took a photo of the hallway just for memory sake and what appears to be on our room door is the face of the old lady from my dream.

I did not report this to hotel staff as I only just seen it now after looking back at photos. I am grateful to have had this experience but beware if you stay here things DO go bump in the night.”

Laura J from Melbourne, Aus

“Booked a trip to Salem and knew immediately we wanted to stay in the, what is believed to be haunted, Hawthorne Hotel. Checking in was a breeze and they even had the room available for us hours earlier. Had wanted a room on the 6th floor (for extra spooks) and what do you know we got it! Everything about the hotel was nice. A very old world class charm about it. Our room was one of the smallest ones, but that is what we had chose and was perfect for what we needed it for – to sleep in. Was still just as nice and clean as the larger rooms I am sure. It wasn’t until the day we were checking out that we did believe the hotel to be haunted. I was making a phone call from my cell phone when it did not ring and instead was staticy with a man’s voice chopping in and out. I did not even think “haunted” or “ghost” and had hung up. Had I thought quick enough I would have stayed on. I tried that same number literally 6 times after, each time ringing as normal and arriving to the female automated voice recorder. After that I got a little spooked and can honestly believe the others whom have had weird interactions at this hotel. It’s a great hotel for families and couples alike and seems like a terrific spot to host a party in the ballroom. Didn’t get to try the restaurant but there’s always next time!”

Alyssa Lori 


“One thing – rumor is the hotel is haunted. We didn’t have a second thought about that until we heard our door handle turning & clicking then silence…then the door just opened all the way by itself – no joke. A little scary as no one was there!!!”

PDCornwell (“Beautiful Hotel for Romantic Getaway”)

My sister and I travel back to Salem Mass where we were born after 30 years in Canada just to travel down memory lane, we stayed in room 325 for two nights and on the second night my cousins brought over a Ouija board because we told them it was the most haunted room in the Hawthorne Hotel just for fun, my sister and one of my cousins started asking questions and to my surprise a spirit was speaking back saying he was a handyman for the Hawthorne Hotel many many many years ago and had committed suicide by jumping out the window of the room I was staying and he said he had two small daughters and a wife, that he left behind I did not believe any of this my sister at the board if he wanted me to leave it said yes and I said I was not leaving and the Ouija board piece that you put your fingers on literally jumped off the board and hit the ceiling I swear to God, this is the honest truth my sister has it on her iPhone as a video. So in cloSing the hotel waS abSolutely fabulouS and if you are into paranormal activity maybe you’ll experience Something in room 325

paul m

Hotel beautiful. Service excellent. Bathroom beyond small, you can brush teeth shower and use toilet simultaneously. The reason I am deducting points is because my daughter and I stayed in room 525 and were haunted from 2 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. This was the scariest thing that either of us has ever encountered in our lives. We will never be able to forget the experience. I will be surprised if this rating is accepted but I must report the truth. The place has every ounce of historic charm but unfortunately, this for us included apparitions and supernatural occurrences.



negative review:

No bellhop service…you have to lug your luggage through the parking lot and around the corner to the door. Or take a chance with your life by double parking on the street. We stayed in the ‘haunted’ room #325. The bathrooms doors will randomly swing open if not fully latched…not a ‘haunted’ thing, probably a ‘structural’ thing. The bathrooms( shower has a separate room) in this room is extremely small…no countertop space at all…well, maybe just enough for a toothbrush. No privacy from the bathroom window because of sheer curtains. The view out the window was ghastly. Perfect for that ‘haunted’ effect! It was very noisy at night. We heard hallway doors slamming constantly. The food in the downstairs restaurant was delicious. And the staff was very pleasant. One star for the stall and one for the restaurant. I’m adding photos.


“-Lillian R 

” The room had two chandeliers which flickered leaving us to believe that they may be “haunted”.”


I heard that the 3rd and 6th floors are most haunted however I had a couple experiences in room 525. Nothing to make me pack up and leave in the middle of the night though.




My mom & I recently stayed at the Hawthorne Hotel, specifically because it is listed as being haunted. After having stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado just a few months prior, I can say that I experienced even more activity at the Hawthorne! My mom & I stayed on the 6th floor, which is supposed to be the floor with the most activity. While waiting to go on our paranormal investigation later that night, we experienced several different things in our room, which included the tv turning itself off & being on a different channel when we turned it back on, the curtains moving without any air or draft being present anywhere in the room, and ‘cold spots’ that moved throughout the room, which is said to be an indicator of a spirit. We were so excited to actually have had something happen, and it was not in any way scary or harmful. Aside from our ‘ghost adventure’, the hotel was beautiful, cozy, warm, and the staff was extremely nice and helpful. I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone, whether looking for a ghost adventure or not!




My grandmother, mother and myself stayed here for 3 nights and enjoyed everything immensely! We happened to stay in room 325 which happens to be haunted! We didn’t know this until after we stayed one night and was reading something about the hotel and we read that Ghost Hunters came a few years prior and didn’t find anything… Well, we did! On the last night of our stay my mother and grandmother both were woken by the sound of a baby crying, followed by sounds of little girls laughing. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning when it happened. That was the highlight of our stay! As for everything else, it was wonderful – service, cleanliness, location, everything! I would definitely stay here again.




We did experience something odd immediately after turning off the lights around 11:00 p.m. There was a VERY loud sound in the room which made both of us sit straight up in bed. We thought someone had opened up the door, but no one was there. The door was closed and no one was in the hallway. We looked around the room to see if something had fallen, but nothing had. The only way we could recreate the sound was by swinging the metal safety lock open really hard against the doorframe (the kind that hotels use now in place of the chain locks). It kind of freaked me out, but I didn’t feel threatened. I guess they just wanted to get our attention??!


“-turnest1 / Convinced 6th floor is haunted 

Now for the haunted part. It may have been the fact we were in Salem or exhaustion from two weeks on the road but I think our room was haunted. I kept hearing a scratching sound coming from the nightstand but there was nothing there and my husband could not hear it. Eventually it went away and I went to sleep. During the night my husband woke me to ask me what I wanted. Dazed and confused I asked what he was talking about. He had heard a women’s voice call out his name and thought it was me, it was not. Enjoy your stay at the Hawthorne and don’t worry the ghosts are friendly.



“Last but not least the GHOST. YES THIS HOTEL IS HAUNTED. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. We had presence of man and women in our room. We could here music playing and faint talking. I walked downstairs and back up to the second floor area to see if there was a party going on. The party left around midnight I was told. Each night a women dressed in early turn of the century clothing, not 1920’s would sit in the chair and look out to the Commons. I would turn on the light and she was gone. Something sat on the end of my bed each night and on two nights this presence grabbed my finger really hard. Call me crazy…my 24 daughter saw all of this as well. The minute you walk into the Hotel you are taken back in time. Maybe the Grand Dames of the past or still lingering…. dare you to stay in room 526 and say your alone. “



“Room 325 is supposedly haunted. We stayed in 326 … the minute we walked in we felt we were being watched, were even brushed up against. I left my camera in the room, only to find later that evening, the settings were changed. Very intriguing.

” –tomreilly 

sounds fake to me:

we stayed in room 614 next to the most haunted room there we were fooling around with our cameras and we turned on the video camera and heard a voice growl get out we took some pics every pic had at least 10 orbs we were getting touched the spookiest thing was that my parents were praying and all of a sudden a blue cross appeared on the door we looked and took pics wasnt there only on the video camera we left at 1:00 in the morning so do not stay in that room



who says that this place is not haunted. i have to differ. we stayed in a certain room called the bridal suite room.we heard small children crying and newspapers waving in the hallway. a certain employee at the hotel told us a story before we put this together. he told us that a bride and two of her children stayed there. the bride took her own life and her childrens. after we came back toour room small finger prints appeared on a back wall in the bedroom. this kinda spooked us. we left alittle bit earlier than expected.





Trip Advisor

Check out our first episode about the Hawthorne Hotel for our full list of sources, as well as pictures of the hotel.


Don’t miss our past episodes, like The Smallpox Hospital, aka Renwick Ruin, on Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 1, The Renwick Ruin and Charity Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 2, and Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia .

We share our strange encounters at Salem’s famously haunted Hawthorne Hotel, including audio from an Estes session where we spoke to some of the hotel’s spirits.

In part 1 of our look at the Hawthorne Hotel, we look at some of our experiences at the Hawthorne, and share audio from our (we believe successful) attempt to speak to some of the hotel’s entities.
Highlights include: a possible sleep paralysis episode, a (briefly) missing wedding ring, a conversation with a squid fisherman, a not-so-friendly entity named Justin, and our first attempt at a Estes session.
Resources and things we mentioned:
The company Chris bought the SB-7 Spirit Box from, Ghost Augustine (they also sell on Amazon)–definitely recommend this place because they replaced the first spirit box they sent with no hassle. Chris thought it was defective, but it turned out that Chris was just using it wrong. They were extremely nice about it and had great customer service.


Chandelier in our room at the Hawthorne Hotel

Chandelier in our room at the Hawthorne Hotel

Hallway at the Hawthorne Hotel

Hallway at the Hawthorne Hotel

Our room at the Hawthorne Hotel, Room 403

Our room at the Hawthorne Hotel, Room 403

Jen piled pillows in front of the closet in an attempt to keep the spirits inside

Jen piled pillows in front of the closet in an attempt to keep the spirits inside

One of the Hawthorne Hotel's "No Access" rooms

One of the Hawthorne Hotel’s “No Access” rooms

Hawthorne Hotel exterior

Hawthorne Hotel exterior

Hawthorne Hotel exterior (Witch Museum seen in the distance)

Hawthorne Hotel exterior (Witch Museum seen in the distance)

Hawthorne Hotel exterior seen from Essex Street

Hawthorne Hotel exterior seen from Essex Street

The Hawthorne Hotels' Grand Ballroom

The Hawthorne Hotels’ Grand Ballroom

Jen's selfie in the ballroom (Chris' ring seen on the floor)

Jen’s selfie in the ballroom (Chris’ ring seen on the floor)

Chris' ring on the floor (we think)

Chris’ ring on the floor (we think)


Chandelier in the Hawthorne Hotels' Grand Ballroom

Chandelier in the Hawthorne Hotels’ Grand Ballroom

Lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel

Lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel

Lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel

Lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel


Episode Script for Investigating the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Part 1

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. 

This episode is a bit more conversational, so I have less of a script than usual. But here’s what I got:

Stayed at the Hawthorne Hotel, Room 403

  • Around 5:30: explored the lobby, CB lost and re-found ring. It wasn’t cold, I wasn’t taking gloves off or doing anything else
  • ~7:30 played Wildnesgeist by Stone Breath. 8:09 turned it off (50:40 mins in.) While listening, Amy and Jen ate sundaes.
  • Set SB-7 spirit box to 200ms, AM. Scanning forward I think.
  • ~8:13 started
  • 8:18-lights flickered after we talked about Bridget Bishop
  • 8:22-lights flickered again
  • ended around 8:49
  • The lights over Amy kept flickering during the session, and they stopped after the session. The lights over us didn’t flicker.
  • Overnight, had left on a snore recorder. Got an EVP that said “someone’s here.”
  • During the night, Jen had a nightmare (and maybe a sleep paralysis experience–at first Jen thought it was real, and she couldn’t move.) Jen felt someone crawl out of the closet, get into bed and lay beside her and stare at her. The dream kept happening again and again, and in the dream, Jen screamed and we had to pull her out of the bed. She woke up and propped pillows against the door. It was a male ghost, and not a nice one.
  • In another dream, Jen heard knocks. At one point, there was a fire and everyone had to leave their rooms.
  • Note: there were some noisy partiers in the room down the hotel.



  • Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City by Sam Baltrusis
  • Haunted Salem & Beyond by Lynda Lee Macken



Don’t miss our past episodes, like The Smallpox Hospital, aka Renwick Ruin, on Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 1, The Renwick Ruin and Charity Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 2, and Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia .

Did you know that in late 19th century Australia, ordinary people would dip sheets in toxic glowing paint and run around at night pretending to be ghosts?

Neither did we, but Chris dug up this oddball story from Jen’s home state of Victoria and was excited to tell Jen all about it! The story involves a angry mob chasing a preacher; a protective mom siccing her dog on a creepy dude; calls for vigilante justice; hallucinogenic moonshine and a “very fine” draper’s dummy; a lady dressed up in a glow-in-the-dark wedding dress and playing guitar on a rooftop, and more.
article called Thrashing a Ghost

Example of an article with illustration about a ghost hoaxer being thrashed in Connington near Perth, Western Australia, Sunday Times, 27 November 1898, p. 9. (from )



Episode Script for Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia

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. 

  • The year is 1882. The place: Victoria, Australia.
  • In the late 19th century, Australia didn’t have professional police, so there was a lot of shenanigans and “lawlessness”
  • There were a lot of ghost stories in 19th century Australia, particularly in central Victoria.
  • Particularly in places like Ballarat, which was considered a “haunted” city from its early days, and in the late 19th century became a hotbed of spiritualism and “ghost hoaxing”
  • In the 1850s, a lot of immigrants moved to the area to do gold mining, which brought a lot of new folklore and beliefs to the area,
  • In the 1860s there were a number of lectures given about how it’s so sad that science has vanquished the idea of ghosts, and we’re the weaker for it, having lost a sense of the sublime, etc.
    • One of them, ‘A Plea for Ghosts’, was given by David Blair of Melbourne, and it caused a stir–there were tons of letters to the editor and newspaper articles about it.
    • it seemed to really hit home b/c it resonated with concerns about the spiritual health of the area; there were tons of ghost sightings, exorcisms, and hoaxes at the time
    • there was a lot of tension between ideas of the church and spiritual world and the ideas of science
    • people wanted to know more about what happens after you die, etc
  • by the 1870s, Ballarat, Bendigo and Melbourne had become a flourishing centre for spiritualism
    • An editorial in the Argus said:
      • [i]t is a noticeable symptom of the reactionary movement against the materialistic philosophy so much in vogue at the present day that ghosts, after having been objects of contempt to the educated and intelligent classes for some generations, are beginning to grow again into favour. We are not now alluding to the phenomena of spiritualism, which some years ago threatened to make the spirits of the dead quite as common as, and a great deal more commonplace than, the persons of the living. But outside the obscure regions tenanted by this creed, there are distinct signs that ghosts, which we thought were laughed out of existence by the robust common sense of the eighteenth century, are creeping back into the world, revisiting again the glimpses of the moon, in these rather sickly times of the moribund nineteenth century.
    • In 1881, 400 people gathered at the the Galloway monument in Ballarat to listen to speakers discuss ghosts and spiritualism. However, when a preacher said that spiritualism was bad and ghosts were agents of the devil, an angry mob chased him down the street
    • There were tons of stories about headless horsemen, women in white, headless animals, and ghosts of murdered victims, and there was also more fiction written about those things as well.
    • By the 1890s, there were so many stories that ppl called it the ‘ghost nuisance’, b/c panics could waste public time and money, a use up police resources
      • some editorials suggested that armed constables and vigilantes patrol ruined buildings and cemeteries with orders to shoot any ghosts on sight with buckshot. they said that real ghosts wouldn’t be hurt, and pranksters would learn a lesson
    • Most of the articles about ghosts were tongue in cheek and sceptical
      • the story of a headless ghost animal revealed to be a cat with its head trapped in a lobster tin.
      • Another similar story was that of a Castlemaine stockman terrified of a female headless horsewoman ‘with a fine body’ that was later revealed to be a misidentification of an abandoned drapers dummy lying next to an old log
      • a lot of stories framed ghosts as hoaxers who were just trying to rob people and cause mayhem
    • And remember, this is a time where fast-growing cities like Ballarat wouldn’t have had street lighting everywhere, and flashlights weren’t a thing.
    • David Waldron is a folklorist and historian at Federation University in Ballarat, and this topic is his specialty
    • Playing the Ghost by David Waldron:
      • colonialism = evil, life in Australia = hard
      • Even in the Australian climate with its scarcity of water and blistering heat, people attempted to create a British environment. They wore formal suits, even in summer; they created English dinners; they imported English animals; and the Acclimatization Society of Victoria was formally established in 1861 to make the environment more familiar, more English (Gillibank 1986; Dunlap 1997). English building styles were used, even though totally inappropriate for the Australian climate, and British farming practices were introduced with disregard for the alien landscape, often with disastrous consequences (Tunbridge 1991, 20–21). Displacement was endemic, which made nineteenth-century Victoria a fertile environment for the advent of ghostly experiences and ghostly conjuring.
      • . . . Ghostly encounters serve to destabilize any neat compartmentalization of the past and present as secure and fixed entities; they call the dominant narrative into question and they defy any presumption of the future. Ghosts can therefore be seen as serving a displacement function (Wolfreys 2002, 5) and this happened in an environment (the nineteenth-century goldfields) where displacement was an integral part of the fabric of existence. The dark was being made visible and the unseen was being made seen, but it was a shadowy manifestation and often emerged in ways which expressed in a physical form the injury that was psychically present.
      • . . . The people who participated in colonial goldfields ghost hoaxing were often the representatives of the rational, respectable, and safe community: school-teachers, housewives, and public servants, even though they were described as riff-raff and working-class ‘larrikins’ in the print media. (‘Larrikin’ is a popular term used to describe mischievous working-class pranksters and troublemakers.)
    • the article compares the Australian ghost hoaxers to a group of young aristocratic men in England in the early 1700s, who prowled around London and attacked people (both men and women.) They were such a problem that in 1712, the royal court put a 100 pound bounty on their heads
      • This appears quite distinct from the populist perception of the ‘prowling ghosts’ of England from the same era, who in the public imagination were primarily young aristocrats. These perceptions had their origin in earlier panics surrounding the ‘Mohocks’—well-dressed, affluent, aristocratic young men with too much time, wealth, and boredom on their hands—who had been terrorizing the inhabitants of the cities in the gloom of England’s poorly lit urban streets (Middleton 2014, 91–92). The grievances which arose against the activities of these Mohocks went further than just an attack upon their actions. They were also entangled in popular critiques of the political and social system in which a disproportionate amount of power and wealth was vested in the aristocracy. The perceived irresponsibility of the Mohocks was used to fuel the contention that they did not deserve the influence they held. The apparent impunity they seemed to enjoy was exploited as an argument that electoral reform was urgently required (Middleton 2014, 91–92):
      • Australia was a world turned upside down. This was in part due to the gold rushes, but also because it was a country where emancipated convicts could rise in the ranks of government and become landowners, and where aristocrats could be found working the gold mines alongside emancipated convicts and commoners. It was also a collection of colonies dealing with the consequences of the challenge to British authority represented by the Eureka Stockade Rebellion, and massive multi-ethnic immigration and economic upheaval wrought by the gold rush. This was a situation which was viewed with considerable concern by colonial authorities.
    • Apparently ghost hoaxing became so common that it happened several times per week in Ballarat during its heigh
      • Violence and public disturbances were common over differences of belief regarding the fate of the dead. In one such event a local Ballarat preacher was chased up the street by a group of angry young men after opining that spiritualism and apparitions of the dead were no more than agents of the devil. While the details of the dispute were unreported beyond the anger displayed towards an attack on spiritualism, it nonetheless demonstrated significant public interest and anxiety over religious belief and the afterlife
      • . . . In such a climate, tales of hauntings and strange apparitions generated a great deal of energy and flourished in the popular culture and folklore of colonial Australia. Many of these stories were about apparitions and spirits, the nature of which would be very familiar to the people of British and European extraction precisely because they had migrated with these stories: headless horsemen, apparitions of women in white, animal spirits, and the ghosts of murdered victims. This ghostly mix of folklore and local legends also proliferated alongside an increased popularity of Gothic and ghostly fiction in popular culture.
      • . . . In many cases the reports were clearly presented with an eye for humour at the expense of the gullibility of believers. One example featured the story of a headless hound, revealed to be a cat with its head trapped in a lobster tin (Bendigo Advertiser, 24 August 1861, 3).
      • Another told the story of a Castlemaine farmer who returned to town in hysterics after an encounter with a terrifying headless horsewoman. The article repeated his claim of how the ghost was seen ‘with a fine body’ and then revealed it to be a misidentification of an abandoned draper’s dummy lying next to an old log (Ballarat Star, 27 September 1861, 3).
    • The draper’s dummy story turned out to maybe have to do with the witness having drank adulterated alcohol. Apparently at the time in the area, a lot of alcohol was poor quality and laced with opiates and toxic substances that could cause hallunciations. So some ghost sightings in the area were maybe people just tripping out
      • Other reports were treated in a more serious, although no less sensationalist, light, such as the ghost of a young man believed to be a Castlemaine murder victim (Singleton Argus and Upper Hunter General Advocate, 20 January 1877, 4). Similarly, the often-discussed tale of ‘Fisher’s Ghost’—in which a ghostly apparition was believed to have revealed the site of a horrific murder—has become an iconic piece of Australian folklore (Wagga Wagga Advertiser, 21 August 1875, 4). In Ballarat, the story of the ‘Burnt Bridge Ghost’ (Bendigo Advertiser, 8 July 1871, 3) was reported on relatively seriously as the case of a haunted house; the ‘Warrenheip Brewery Ghost’ was reported with ridicule in the Ballarat Star, but taken more seriously in reports by other newspapers (Ballarat Star, 17 August 1877, 2).
      • . . . There was another major feature of newspaper reportage of ghosts: the stories were often reported as examples of hoaxing or ‘playing the ghost’. These cases described the many occurrences of supposed hauntings as examples of larrikinism and using superstition as a vehicle to conceal incidents of robbery, battery, and sexual assault while disguising oneself as a ghost or monster. Stories of ‘playing the ghost’ were common in newspaper reports on south-eastern Australian goldfields in the late nineteenth century. Men, and to a lesser extent women, dressed in what could be quite elaborate costumes would make ghostly appearances with dramatic screams, sometimes assailing passers-by and even, in extreme cases, assaulting people. Many of these individuals displayed quite a theatrical flourish in their costuming and activities, leading to the characters receiving fanciful nicknames from the local press. One man was arrested by local police and fined two hundred pounds for damages after assaulting a police officer’s daughter while dressed as a ghost (Kerang Times and Swan Hill Gazette, 14 June 1878, 4). Another young man received the nickname of ‘Wizard Bombardier’ due to his costume of white robes with a tall sugar-loaf hat. He would scare workers and passers-by between Ballarat and Kilmore with eerie screams and rock-throwing, and seemed to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game with local vigilantes and authorities as they set off in pursuit (Kilmore Free Press, 22 June 1882, 3; Camperdown Chronicle, 24 June 1882, 4). He was, in the end, discovered annd beaten by two local residents in an act of vigilantism . . .
      • Many of the costumes of these ghost hoaxers made use of phosphorescent paint, which had only recently become available in Australia (Balmain 1882, 1). Its luminous appearance caught the imagination of the public and served as an ideal way to create the required ghostly effect. Sometimes the activity could be as simple as painting a skull and cross-bones around the town as a practical joke. There were similar occurrences with people painting angels and tombstones in Ballarat Old Cemetery. Perhaps the simplest trick was to soak a sheet in phosphorescent paint to create an eerie, glowing, green ghost, but there were also many examples of more elaborate regalia (Barrier Miner, 12 July 1895, 1; Adelaide Advertiser, 10 June 1889, 7; Bendigo Advertiser, 12 September 1903, 4). One man dressed himself in a knight’s costume with a glowing breastplate featuring the words ‘Prepare to meet thy doom’ (Horsham Times, 26 July 1895, 3). There were also examples of costumes that copied outfits from antiquity, with skins and claws being quite common accessories, although luminous paint was still a prominent feature (Register, 28 June 1904, 4; Adelaide Advertiser, 3 October 1895, 5; Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 March 1899, 22).
      • Phosphorescent paint is highly toxic, and poisoning can cause a myriad of severe symptoms including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, gastrointestinal dysfunction, diarrhoea, incontinence, blurred vision, hypertension, anxiety, tremors, seizures, ataxia, coma, and death. Ironically, by using phosphorescent paint to portray themselves as images of death, ghost hoaxers were courting the very thing they portrayed. They were unconsciously enacting their depiction.
    • B/c the paint could cause brain damage, some ppl may have actually had brain damage as a result of ghost hoaxing (and a number of them did get sent to asylums).
    • Later, they used radium paint instead, which of course was radioactive and caused cancer.
      • Quite often it seems that these pranks had a more sinister purpose—protecting the identity of criminals engaged in violence, robbery, and sexual assault. Most often these attacks were directed at young women. In one example, a former inmate of Ararat Lunatic Asylum stalked the streets of Ballarat in a costume consisting of black robes and smears of phosphorescent paint. His regular harassment of young women in the late evening inspired local vigilantism until he was arrested by police (Bendigo Advertiser, 27 May 1895, 3 and 29 May 1895, 2).3 In another case, a man described as having a skull and cross-bones painted on his bare chest above the word ‘Death’ was accused of exposing himself to passers-by at the Ballarat cemetery (Bendigo Advertiser, 26 May 1904, 5). In Bendigo, a man in a white overcoat with a glowing phosphorescent-soaked suit was accused of harassing young women late at night (Bendigo Advertiser, 23 July 1903, 3). In a more dangerous example, retired miner Frederick Parks was stabbed by a ghostly assailant who was attacking a young woman in Eureka Street, Ballarat. His costume consisted of white clothes with a coffin lid strapped to his back, his face and limbs covered in glowing phosphorescent paint (Barrier Miner, 10 June 1895, 3).
      • . . . One of the most famous of these ‘ghosts’ was Herbert Patrick McLennan, who was charged with indecent exposure and assaulting women in Ballarat in 1904 (Bendigo Advertiser, 14 July 1904, 5). Wearing a costume of high India-rubber boots with a long white coat and carrying a cat-o’-nine-tails, he regularly harassed women at night on Mair Street and Lydiard Street in Ballarat, often exposing himself and physically assaulting them (Adelaide Advertiser, 24 May 1904, 4; see Figure 2). Despite a reward of five pounds for information leading to his arrest, plus the use of police dressed as women, he eluded his pursuers for some time. A letter was also sent to taunt the mayor of Ballarat:
        • Dear Sir,
        • I see that you and your bally councillors have fixed a reward of £5 on my head, but you didn’t say whether dead or alive; and, furthermore, you said you would have me plugged with a lead on sight.
        • Mr. Mayor, I give you warning that the first man I see with his hand in his pocket, or otherwise looking suspicious, I will plug a bullet through him. I hope you will caution the ‘Rakebite’ portion of your council of my intentions.
        • Yours truly,
        • The Ghost.
      • McLennan was a well-known and respected elocutionist and senior clerk, and his arrest was discussed with considerable shock and taste for scandal in local newspapers. However, despite his well-respected social status the local police had long suspected him, but had felt compelled to wait until they had gathered sufficient evidence. Upon his arrest they also seized a number of theatrical props and costumes from his Drummond Street residence. In court he was convicted of assaulting young women by ‘wilfully and obscenely exposing his person and is therefore deemed to be a rogue and vagabond’.4
      • The act of ghost hoaxing, however, was not solely confined to men. While most of the hoaxes were conducted by men, there were nonetheless women who engaged in ‘playing the ghost’ as examples of larrikinism, but also to hide petty larceny. One woman wore ghostly attire to conceal the theft of poultry and eggs (Examiner, 3 January 1903, 6). 
    • One woman used to dress as a man and visit bars and chat with men before exposing herself as a woman. (she was charged with indecent exposure)
      • After spending time at the Ararat Lunatic Asylum, she began dressing as a monster in a hideous papier-mache mask and a white sheet soaked in glow-in-the-dark paint.
      • She would hide under the Peel Street bridge and jump out and scare people.
      • Dr Waldron says the woman would have been told she was a monster and a deviant in the lunatic asylum and by dressing as a ghost she was “in a sense, becoming this thing she was told she was”.
    • There was one woman who’d wear a glow in the dark wedding dress, paint her face an arms white, and then play guitar on the roof of a building
      • Another aspect of the ghost hoaxing phenomenon was the act of ‘laying the ghost’. This typically referred to vigilantism, debunking ghost claims, and active scepticism, although the term had its origins in older practices of rituals and exorcisms against spiritual activity. A retired soldier named Charles Horman, while patrolling the Ballarat cemetery, fired a rock-salt-loaded shotgun at the legs and buttocks of a man ‘playing the ghost’. On another occasion he went to the rescue of a young woman being assaulted by a man dressed as a ghost, attacking the ‘ghost’ with a cane (Argus, 18 June 1896, 4). A lady by the name of Mrs Date, after her daughter had been assaulted by a man dressed as a ghost, went after the man with her bull terrier. In one incident, a man in white phosphorescent robes was flogged by vigilantes after causing an elderly gentleman to suffer a heart attack in Buninyong (Colac Herald, 12 May 1913, 2). These stories were typically reported on favourably by Australian newspapers, and the practice of ‘laying the ghost’ was strongly encouraged in editorials.
    • Though the newspaper articles often depicted women as being helpless and passive in the face of ghost hoaxers, there were actually plenty of stories of women fighting back. For example, there was one story where a woman was being attacked by a ghost hoaxer, she fainted and played dead, and then when he came up to her she slashed him across the face so he could be identified and arrested.
      • . . . From a Jungian perspective there is a correlation between the phenomenon of ghost hoaxing and unbidden experiences of the paranormal. Both arouse the same feelings of weird strangeness and mystery. They also both rely on the sense of crossing boundaries and the freedom of breaching taboos, as was very obviously displayed in the case of McLennan. Ghost hoaxing creates psychic disturbance, a term which in Jungian parlance means that the psyche of the individual is troubled by that which it cannot fully comprehend. The experience of the uncanny involves a crisis of uncertainty with particular regard to the reality of who one is and what is being experienced (Royle 2003, 1). It also transgresses cultural taboos and integrates sexuality, death, and fear within the one grotesque display. . . .
      • While criminal motives in many of these cases were undoubtedly an issue, the act of ‘playing the ghost’ and the thrill of subversive success challenged intellectual certainty regarding contemporary attacks on superstition and ghost beliefs. It challenged the claim that the superstitious past was something dead, buried and supplanted by the values of Enlightenment reason. It offered a vehicle to challenge Victorian morality and respectability and served as a site of rebellion. By cloaking oneself in the symbols of a superstitious and Gothic past, one could gain a sense of empowerment and anonymity. Hoaxing occupied a liminal space in which a person could break taboos and engage in a carnivalesque inversion of morals, beliefs, and behaviours. It symbolically expressed the sense of displacement experienced in this world of strangeness and suppressed realities.
      • It is therefore unsurprising that many of these hoaxers inverted traditional gender roles and broke sexual taboos through dress, public exposure, sexual assault or harassment, and foul language. The care often taken in making costumes and the sense of theatre in their displays shows how much this sense of transgression meant to hoaxers who routinely risked arrest, exposure to highly toxic paint, disgrace, and vigilantism to ‘become’ ghosts. What better way to express displacement and challenge social and gender roles and condescending attacks on superstition than to become a symbol of death which could terrify people enough to shake their faith in scientific rationality. . . 




The Atlas Obscura article

Article on Victoria government site



Images Used in this Post

  • Example of an article with illustration about a ghost hoaxer being thrashed in Connington near Perth, Western Australia, Sunday Times, 27 November 1898, p. 9. (from )


Don’t miss our past episodes, like The Smallpox Hospital, aka Renwick Ruin, on Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 1 and The Renwick Ruin and Charity Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 2.

We return to Blackwell’s Island to look at the now-destroyed Charity Hospital and the Renwick Ruin as it stands on today’s Roosevelt Island.

In part two of our two-part look at the Smallpox Hospital / Renwick Ruin, we talk about the Gothic ruin of the Smallpox Hospital that remains on Roosevelt Island, as well as the much larger ruin of the 19th century Charity Hospital (also FKA Penitentiary Hospital, City Hospital, and Island Hospital) that’s since been torn down.

We also discuss the connection between Charity Hospital on Blackwell’s Island and the Elmhurst Hospital Center, which is now famous as the epicenter of the current coronavirus crisis here in Queens, New York. 

Note: This episode is a little darker than part 1, with a few mentions of suicide and some conversation about COVID-19. (Chris did leave out the parts about the awful medical experiments that happened at Charity Hospital, though.)

Don’t miss part 1 of our series, for more background on the island and some historical images of the island in the 1800s. (See part 1 for the episode script.)

The Renwick Ruin Today

Photo of the Renwick Ruin in 2019

Renwick Ruin in 2019 (photo taken by Chris)

Photo of the Renwick Ruin in 2019

Renwick Ruin in 2019 (photo taken by Chris)

Photo of the Renwick Ruin in 2019

Renwick Ruin in 2019 (photo taken by Chris)

Photo of the Renwick Ruin in 2019

Renwick Ruin in 2019 (photo taken by Chris)


The Charity Hospital in the 19th Century

Engraving of Charity Hospital on Roosevelt Island

“Charity Hospital [Blackwell’s Island]” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1801 – 1886.

Stereoscopic view of Charity Hospital at Blackwell's Island

“Hospital at Black Wells Island, N.Y.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850 – 1930.


Check out all the sources used for this episode in the shownotes for part 1.

Images Used in this Post

  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Charity Hospital [Blackwell’s Island]” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1801 – 1886.
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Hospital at Black Wells Island, N.Y.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850 – 1930.

We take a look at the ruins of a forgotten Gothic hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City

A crumbling ruin is all that’s left of the old Smallpox Hospital that used to operate on Roosevelt Island, an island that lies between Manhattan and Queens in New York City. Nowadays, the ruin lies in a park and is lit up by floodlights at night. It’s a picturesque shell of the old Gothic building, and is popular with urban explorers, but the story behind it is a fascinating one.

Originally built by James Renwick Jr, the superstar 19th century architect who built St. Patrick’s Catherdral in Manhattan, and often called “the Renwick Ruin” these days, the old Smallpox Hospital was built in the 1850s.

At the time, Roosevelt Island (then called Blackwell’s Island) was an isolated “haven” for the poor and sick–many wealthy Manhattanites wrote about the picturesque island, more garden than prison. But in reality, the island housed an infamous penitentiary (where William Macy Tweed, aka Boss Tweed, was once held), a workhouse and almshouse for the poor and sick, the infamous New York Lunatic Asylum (where muckraking journalist Nellie Bly got herself admitted to expose the horrific conditions), as well as a few hospitals, including the Smallpox Hospital.

In part one of our two-part look at the Blackwell’s Island Smallpox Hospital / Renwick Ruin, we talk about the history of Roosevelt Island and the hospital itself, as well as a bit of the history of smallpox in the world and in New York City. We’re coming to you from lockdown in Queens, New York, so we also talk a bit about how 19th century Blackwell’s Island relates to the world today, especially with the current coronavirus crisis. We also talk about about some paranormal investigations we want to do on Roosevelt Island once we’re cleared to hang out again.

Important Note: In the episode, we talk about wanting to do a paranormal investigation at the hospital. To be clear, we want to do an Estes session from outside the ruin’s fence. If you’re in the area, you definitely shouldn’t attempt to enter the hospital ruin itself–the floorboards are very unstable and crumbling, and breaking into the hospital could be extremely dangerous, even fatal. Like us, try to content yourself with looking at it from the outside and watching videos of the interiors from experienced urban explorers.

Roosevelt (Blackwell’s) Island in the 19th Century

Stereoscope image of Renwick Smallpox Hospital
“Smallpox Hospital, Black Wells Island, N.Y.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850 – 1930.
A color image of Blackwell's Island in the 19th Century, seen from 86th Street in Manhattan
“Blackwells Island, East River. From Eighty Sixth Street, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1862.
The Penitentiary on Blackwell's Island
“Penitentiary : Blackwells Island.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1840 – 1870.

Engraving of Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island

“View of the lunatic asylum and mad house, on Blackwell’s Island, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853.

Episode Script for The Smallpox Hospital, aka Renwick Ruin, on Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 1

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. 

  • Located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, this fine Gothic Revival structure was originally constructed for the treatment of that “loathsome malady,” smallpox, and for many years was New York City’s only such institution. It is now a picturesque ruin, one which could readily serve as the setting for a 19th century “Gothick” romance.
    … The Smallpox Hospital could easily become the American equivalent of the great Gothic ruins of England, such as the late 13th century Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which has been admired and cherished since the 18th century as a romantic ruin. Plans have been made to transform the southern tip of Roosevelt Island into a park; ruins in park settings were so much enjoyed in Europe in the 18th century that small “garden fabrics,” which were purely ornamental structures, were actually built “in ruins” on various estates. The Smallpox Hospital in park surroundings would be of comparable picturesque interest. Paul Zucker in Fascination of Decay (1968) stated that ruins can be “…an expression of an eerie romantic mood… a palpable documentation of a period in the past… something which recalls a specific concept of architectural space and proportion.” The Smallpox Hospital possesses all these evocative qualities.”
    -1976 Landmark Preservation Commission Report on the Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island, New York
    • Renwick Smallpox Hospital, aka The Smallpox Hospital, later the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School, and now generally known as The Renwick Ruin
    • It’s located on what’s now called Roosevelt Island, but what at the time was called Blackwell’s Island.
    • Roosevelt Island is an island that lies on the East River, between Manhattan and Queens. If you’ve seen the Toby Macguire Spider-man movie, then you’ve seen the tram that goes from Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. It’s also reachable via subway (the F train), and by a drawbridge from Queens.
    • I’m interested in Roosevelt Island because I spend a lot of time looking at it from the Queens waterfront, especially these days. I’ve walked across the drawbridge from Queens countless times, and been on the tram a handful of times.
    • We visited the Renwick Ruin twice last year, and that’s how I became interested in it
    • Right now, it’s literally a crumbling ruin. It sits behind a chain-link fence right outside a park, and at night, it’s lit by spotlights. It’s very creepy and fascinating/beautiful.
    • I really want to do some ghost-hunting nearby, like an estes session etc, but I think that’s gonna have to wait till things settle down.

    What is smallpox?

    • It was a highly infectious disease spread by airborne inhalation of the virus (so from droplets from infected people.)
    • So usually it was spread by face to face contact with someone. It didn’t spread as fast as it might have, since you had to be interacting with an infected person for a decent amount of time, and b/c it wasn’t infectious until after the infected person already had the rash.
    • As far as they knew, there wasn’t such a thing as an asymptomatic carrier stage.
    • The first smallpox inoculations were used in India, Africa, and China.
    • There are some ancient Sanskrit texts that describe the inoculation, and there are records of it being used in 10th century China, and by the Ming dynasty (the 16th century), it was in common use.
    • Basically, the inoculations introduced a less deadly strain of the virus into the patient, and the idea was that they’d get immunity. However, one in five people got full blown smallpox and died or spread it to others.
    • In the 1700s, the practice was brought to Europe and America.
    • The English used smallpox as biological warfare during their genocide of the indigenous people of what’s now the United States. It’s confirmed that the leadership in the British military all condoned and approved the practice.
    • There’s also some records indicating that smallpox was used as a biological warfare agent by the British in Australia, in New South Wales, though some people said it was chickenpox. Either disease would have been equally deadly to the aboriginal population.
    • Then, in 1796, an English doctor figured out that people could be vaccinated more safely using cowpox.
    • That’s actually where the word vaccine comes from: vacca is Latin for cow.
    • Then, in the 19th century, a different strain of the virus started to be used.
    • Over the years, as more and more people were vaccinated, smallpox was eventually eradicated.
    • The last case of smallpox was in 1973, and nowadays the only people who get the vaccine are laboratory workers who may be exposed to smallpox in the course of their work.
    • Some famous people who contracted smallpox include (not all of these people died of it):
      • Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (who’s famous for leading resistance against the US government’s horrific policies. he didn’t die from smallpox; he was killed by police at Standing Rock in 1890)
      • the 10th ruler of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (who led the resistance against the Spanish invasion, and died of smallpox in 1520, shortly after it was introduced to the Americas)
      • Ramses V (who lived in the 1100s, BC)
      • three emperors of China, (one in the 1700s, one in the 1600s, and one in the 19th century)
      • one emperor of Japan (19th century)
      • a king of Spain, an Emperor of Russia, a king of France, a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, some British royalty including Elizabeth I, American presidents including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Also, Joseph Stalin
      • one interesting anecdote: Catherine the Great of Russia didn’t get it, but her husband had a really bad case, and she worried about her son getting it so much that she socially isolated him and kept him away from large crowds. Eventually, she and her son got the vaccination, and then tried to vaccinate as many people as possible in the Russian Empire: 2 million people were vaccinated because of her efforts
    • And that’s all I’m gonna say about it! Not talking about symptoms or anything, because everyone’s freaked out enough about coronavirus rn.

    So, now that you know a little bit about the impact of smallpox, let’s talk about the hospital:

    • Designed by James Renwick, Jr.
      • he was kind of a kid-genius. He entered Columbia University at the age of 12 and studied engineering. (Note: his dad, who was also an engineer, graduated from Columbia in 1807 and was later a professor of natural philosophy at Columbia.) Apparently he graduated 3 years later and started work as an engineer on the Eerie Railroad, and then worked on the Croton Reservoir and Croton Aqueduct.
      • The Croton Aqueduct supplied water to NYC (it stretched 41 miles and used gravity to bring the water to the city.) It was a project that they undertook to bring water from upstate because the city supply was no good. In the late 1840s or early 1850s, the Croton Aqueduct actually started supplying water to Blackwell’s Island, where the Smallpox Hospital was built. (They had to lay lead pipe down below the East River to get it there.)
      • He didn’t have any formal architecture training.
      • His first commission as an architect was Grace Church, in Manhattan, which was built in 1843. It’s on 10th and Broadway and is done in the English Gothic style. He was just 25 years old.
      • He did a lot of Gothic Revival stuff, including his most famous work, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a famous cathedral in Manhattan, near Rockefeller Center. It’s one of the top tourist attractions in the city.
      • He designed a number of college buildings, including a building for City College in NYC and some buildings for Vassar, in Poughkeepsie, including the Main Building. He also designed the first chapter house of St. Anthony Hall/Delta Psi, a secret fraternity that was started at Columbia (that building’s on 28th street).
      • He designed the Charity (aka City) Hospital and Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island; the main building of the Children’s Hospital on Randall’s Island; the Inebriate and Lunatic Asylums on Wards Island. He was also the supervising architect for the Blackwell Island Light, the lighthouse that still stands on the north tip of the island today.
      • Renwick was buried in Green-wood Cemetery

    Roosevelt Island History:

    • In the 19th century, Roosevelt Island was called Blackwell’s Island. (Named after Robert Blackwell, who owned it.)
    • New York City purchased it in 1828.
    • The island is in the east river, situated about equidistant from both Manhattan and Queens (which in the 19th century was called Long Island.) And it’s just south of an extremely dangerous part of the East River called Hellgate, which was the site of the greatest loss of life in New York City until 9/11 when a ship caught fire and more than a thousand people drowned. Hellgate is said to be very haunted.
    • originally there was a little wooded area on the East side (I think where the Insane Asylum ended up being built.) And it was said that there was a lot of fertile land for growing vegetable gardens.
    • Blackwell’s Island was made of a lot of blue stone, which was suitable for quarrying and building buildings.
      • According to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, the stone that was quarried on the island was a billion-year-old type of stone called Fordham gneiss (pronounced nice.) It’s one of the three types of stones that Manhattan was made from, and it’s called Fordham gneiss because the stone’s above the surface in the Bronx. (And the Bronx was the home of Fordham manor, which is now my alma mater, Fordham University.)
    • A lot of the buildings on the island, including the prison, were made from rubble masonry, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s rough-hewn stone set in mortar, rather than equally-sized and shaped stones set in neat rows.
    • The first city building built on the island was the prison, in 1832.
    • All travel to the island went through the department of public charities and corrections.
    • It was home to several sanatarium/isolation style hospitals, an insane asylum, a prison, a workhouse, and an alms house.
    • A workhouse, or alms house, is basically a prison for poor people, where they’re put to work. Supposedly, there was a workhouse for “lazy” poor people who apparently needed hard labor to fix them (they’d committed small crimes like robbery, drunkenness, etc.) The way I read it described was that the workhouse was for people who were police prisoners, and the prison was for people who had gone to court.
    • The alms house was supposed to be gentler, for people whose crime was being poor.  But I don’t see much of a distinction between the two when reading the historical accounts, except that the almshouse what where old, sick people were sent, and the workhouse was where able-bodied people were sent. One article from the 1850s mentions that one of the things the people in the workhouse did was a lot of the “grading” or landscaping of the lsland. Apparently in 1850, workhouse laborers were paid for their work (between 50 and 35 cents per day) but payment was abolished a few years later, supposedly because the administrators thought they’d just spend all the money on alcohol.
    • In 1847, the alms house housed 902 people (760 of them were immigrants, 142 of them were born in the US.) They worked as nurses and housekeepers, at the bakehouse that supplied bread for all of the institutions on Blackwell’s Island and nearby Randall’s Island, washers and ironers, carpenters, tailors, blacksmith, boatmen, cartmen, and wool pickers. 435 of them weren’t able to work.
    • Many of the original buildings on the island were built from stone quarried on the island, including the prison. The manual labor used in building the prison was done by prisoners (135 of them, some of them in chains.)
    • Much like today, prisoners were used for anything the powers that be wanted to save money on: For a while, until around 1855, prisoners also worked for the Insane Asylum, doing indoor and outdoor work, attending patients, etc. Then they decided that maybe that wasn’t such a good idea and hired “responsible persons” instead.
    • Some prisoners worked as boatmen, and some of the female prisoners worked in the sewing shop. Many prisoners did landscaping and gardening (from Harper’s Weekly in 1859):
    • I read a really interesting article in a newspaper called Liberator, from 1842, about the prison at Blackwell’s Island that really rang true to me:
    • It seems like in NYC, if we don’t want to have to think about something, we put it one an island. Examples:
      • Riker’s
      • Hart Island
      • North Brother Island (sanitarium/rehab center)
      • Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island

    Now, onto the hospital

    • We talked about how smallpox inoculation had been around for hundreds of years, and the vaccine came about at the end of the 18th century. So why did people in 19th-century NYC still have smallpox?
      • One reason was that people didn’t get the vaccines because they didn’t trust the government.
      • To be fair, there wasn’t clean water, the streets were full of rotting animals, and the city government was extremely corrupt, so it’s not that surprising that people didn’t trust them.
    • Cases of smallpox actually went up in the 1850s in NYC, and smallpox killed 25-30% of the people who got it.
    • Rich people were usually treated at home (which contributed to the spread of smallpox) and poor people were treated in wooden shacks along the East River called “deadhouses.”
    • Medical professionals realized that people with smallpox should be isolated to prevent the spread of the disease.
    • Since it was isolated–literally an island–Blackwell’s Island was an ideal place to keep contagious patients
    • Opened in 1856
    • It was built in the Gothic Revival style, out of blue stone quarried on the island. It was built for $38,000, which was very cheap at the time. It was really beautiful on the outside, with a crenellated roof, a grand entrance portico, unusual triangle-shaped windows on the 3rd floor, and a huge tower on top.
    • Contemporary accounts said that the interior furnishing were excellent, but didn’t elaborate much. I watched some videos of urban explorers going through the ruins, and saw some ornate wrought-iron stair bannisters, and some tile-lined rooms.
    • There was room for 100 patients, and it was the only hospital in New York dedicated to just smallpox patients. (It was also the only hospital that treated smallpox patients. By law, all smallpox patients in NYC had to be taken there to be quarantined.)
    • The Smallpox Hospital admitted paying patients and charity cases (non-paying patients)
    • Charity cases were put in the lower floors, and paying patients had private rooms in upper floors. If you were able to pay, you were required to pay. You could pay $5-10 per week for better food.
    • Visitors were forbidden, but people were paid to carry letters from the dock to the hospital.
    • There were also a few smaller hospitals:
      • At some point, in addition to the Smallpox Hospital, there was  a Fever Hospital, and Epileptic and Paralytic Hospital, a Scarlet Fever Hospital, a Relapsing Fever Hospital. Many of these smaller hospitals were housed in tents.
      • Some of them were housed in wooden buildings around it, just by the water’s edge, dedicated to patients with typhus and ship fever (also known as typhoid fever). Those buildings could also hold 100 people, but apparently there were often more.
      • Though conditions were bad, there were few other places where people with contagious diseases could go for treatment.
    • About 10,000 patients were treated there in the 1850s and 60s. The hospital got mixed reviews.
    • According to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, which had some great details on their website, the NYT decried the terrible conditions in the hospital, saying it was poorly ventilated, killing many patients, and that it was little better than a shanty. Seven or eight patients might be stuck in a room with only one bed, and infected linens and clothes were reused without washing.
    • However, apparently the NYT also praised the care that patients received there, saying the doctors and nurses were excellent.
    • The Commission of Charities and Correction ran it at first.
      • Talking about treatments at the Smallpox Hospital:
      • An article from 1875 talked about treatments at the hospital: they mostly treated symptoms (like fever, insomnia, etc), and strongly recommended that everyone get vaccinated. You could get smallpox multiple times, so they recommended getting vaccinated multiple times.
      • From Harper’s Weekly, in 1869:
    • Then in 1875, the Board of Health took it over.
    • The hospital was only 20 years old, but was starting to get run down, and patients were reluctant to go there.
    • So they tried to rebrand it, calling it “Riverside Hospital”
    • They also replaced the open-air “sick wagon” that brought patients to the dock to go to the island with a closed carriage.
    • They also brought in the Sisters of Mercy from the St. Vincent Hospital to clean up the hospital.
    • The city report said:
      • “Since the change in management…the hospital has been steadily gaining in popularity, and it is not at all unusual for us to be gratified with the sincere thanks of returned patients for the kindness and tender care which they received during the period of exclusion from their homes and from society….”
    • However, in the late 1870s or early 1880s, they moved the smallpox patients to North Brother Island, a smaller and more isolated island off the coast of the Bronx. Some sources said that they did that because the patients could be more isolated and so the growing population of Blackwell’s Island didn’t have to risk infection. Some said that fewer people were getting smallpox, and there was a new-and-improved cowpox farm in Manhattan that was providing tons of vaccines for everyone.
    • To give you a quick overview of the future of smallpox in NYC after that:
      • In the 1870s, there was another smallpox epidemic that killed 1,200 people.
      • In 1900, it came back and killed 700 people.
      • By 1902, the Health Department was vaccinating 10,000 New Yorkers every day.
      • Smallpox didn’t return to NYC until 1947, but the city acted quickly, and within 2 weeks, 5 million people were vaccinated. Only 12 people got smallpox that time, and only 2 people died.
      • In 1967, there was a movement to end smallpox for good, and they were successful.
    • So around the 1880s, the Smallpox Hospital became nurses’ housing and a training school affiliated with the much larger Charity Hospital, which was just north of the Smallpox Hospital, and which Renwick also designed (after an earlier version of the building burnt down).
      • Having professional, trained nurses was still a rarity at the time, so this was a game-changer.
      • The program was for 2 years, and women between 20-25 years old could join, as long as they had certificates attesting to their moral character and health.
      • They did basic things to help the patients, like change sheets, take temperatures, etc. And they also took classes. a few of them were called: “Poisons and Antidotes,” “Pulse, Respirations, Temperature, Bandaging,” and “the Application of Leeches and Subsequent Treatment.”
    • In 1903, a south wing was added, and in 1904, a north wing was added.
    • Want to talk a bit about the Charity Hospital, because it actually relates a lot to current events today:
      • It was initially called Penitentiary Hospital, then Island Hospital, then Charity Hospital, then City Hospital.
      • The book Damnation Island talks about how in the mid-19th century, if you were poor and had syphilis , the only place you could be treated was at the penitentiary hospital. So if you went in for medical care and they found out that you had syphilis, they shipped you off to the police court. If you wanted treatment, you had to voluntarily commit yourself to the penitentiary for vagrancy, and then they’d send you to the hospital, which at the time was at the top floor. The police would decide how long your sentence was, and you were treated like the rest of the criminals.
      • From an 1866 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article, it sounds like some people treated at “the Island Hospital” had to serve in the penitentiary as payment for medical care.
      • Even children had to go to jail to get care for syphilis. There was a story about a 12-year-old girl in treatment at the penitentiary hospital. By the way, since antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet, people were treated with mercury, which is obviously deadly.
      • In 1846, Dr. William W. Sanger was put in charge of the hospital, and said that not everyone with syphilis was a criminal. (He gave the example of how a poor woman could catch it from an unfaithful husband, or a drunken laborer could catch it from a sex worker.) Sanger also lead a survey of 2,000 sex workers and ended up calling to decriminalize sex work and to have a medical bureau in the police department monitor sex workers for health issues and hospitalize them when they were infected.
      • Sanger was able to do a little bit of reform in the hospital before he resigned in 1847. But he returned in 1853.
        • While he was gone, a new hospital building–which he had advocated–had been built. But it was so badly constructed that it was considered unsafe for people to enter. However, since Sanger was gone, patients were put in the hospital anyway.
        • During his second stint, he was able to change the rules so people could get treatment without first needing to be convicted of a crime. He also got the name changed to Island Hospital.
        • On February 13,1858, during a terrible snowstorm, the unsafe Island Hospital building burned down. There were fire hydrants on the island, but they weren’t working, and there wasn’t a fire department on the island. So people–mostly convicts–just had to throw buckets of water from the river on the fire.
        • Shockingly, no one died during the fire, even though everyone had been locked inside. The walls of the hospital collapsed.
      • Everyone was pretty happy that they had a chance to build a new hospital.
        • When the Renwick version of Charity Hospital was built, convicts from the island quarried the stone that was used in the walls.
        • When the cornerstone of the Renwick version of Charity Hospital was laid, the president of the almshouse board of governors, called Blackwell’s Island “this New York Garden of Charity.” And he described the patients “victims of pollution, brought on by shame and crime.” Not much has changed.
        • The cornerstone has a copper box “with coins, hospital documents, newspapers and drawings of the hospital and other memorabilia.”
        • A New York Times article from 1994, right before the new hospital’s ruins were torn down, described the ruins of the hospital as “a rough, dark gneiss that might have been used on a Dickensian prison.” However, an article from the Episcopal Recorder 1858, when the cornerstone was laid, described it as consisting of “pearl-colored stone quarried on the island.”
        • The hospital was supposed to cost $400,000 to build ($300,000 more than the original hospital that burned down.) But it ended up being estimated to cost $150,000 since they used prison labor.
        • From Harper’s Weekly in 1859:
        • (missing words are “prepared to in case of insubordination, to shoot down, half”
      • The hospital was the largest hospital in New York. It was built in the Second Empire style, and it had a mansard roof. (It was a similar style to the one Renwick used for the Vassar Main building.) It was three and a half stories tall, and was almost as wide as the island.
      • It had 29 wards, ranging from 13-39 beds each.
      • Though the hospital was finished being built in 1861, people started using it in 1860, which was also the year that Sanger left.
      • Once he left, prison wardens once again took control of the hospital, instead of doctors. All of the medical departments were run by recent med school graduates who didn’t know how to do anything, and real doctors only visited once a week. 
      • During and after the Civil War, injured veterans were treated at the hospital.
      • In 1866, they changed the name of the hospital to Charity Hospital.
        • It’s pretty gruesome: recovering patients were made to work, and in 1867, patients made 504 shrouds. Reports from the time don’t say that the shrouds were for other patients, but 505 people died at the hospital that year.
        • In 1869, a patient from Charity Hospital was the first person buried in the new potter’s field on Hart Island.
          • Hart Island has been in the news a lot lately, because it’s still an operating potter’s field, with labor done by prisoners. It’s where unclaimed bodies in NYC are buried nowadays, and it’s the place where the city’s pandemic plan says that bodies will be buried if there’s a large number of coronavirus victims.
        • Conditions were bad; the chief of staff reduced the amount of food that patients were given, several patients killed themselves and at least one staff member murdered a patient.
        • But soon after, doctors were put back in charge of the hospital, and heating and ventilation was installed.
        • Also, as soon as enough nurses were trained at the nearby nurses school, in what used to be the smallpox hospital, the nurses started tending to the patients. They were really nice and kind to patients, and reported abuse from any other workers immediately.
        • There were also some good doctors. The chief of staff, Dr. Curtis Estabrook, who was from Canarsie, in Brooklyn, was so beloved that the people of Canarsie tried to have the neighborhood’s name changed to “Estabrook.”
        • Also, a couple years after the nurses’ school was established, the British surgeon Joseph Lister, who’s known for introducing and advocating for antiseptic surgery, visited Blackwell’s Island and trained the medical staff on how to sterilize everything used in surgery.
        • Charity Hospital became known for their adherence to sterilization; they even had a special room for sterilizing items.
      • In 1892, Charity Hospital was renamed City Hospital.
      • In 1957, City Hospital was relocated to Queens. Apparently, Charity Hospital was actually moved to Elmhurst Hospital Center, which is now the a big symbol of the coronavirus pandemic.
        • One thing that inspired me to start doing this research is everything I’ve been reading about Elmhurst; I’ve been thinking a lot about how we live right in between the ruins of the smallpox hospital, and the bustling center of our current pandemic. City Hospital was the second-oldest charity hospital in the city, and it served the poor. Elmhurst Hospital Center also serves a lower-income, immigrant population.
        • Even in the late 1970s, Elmhurst hospital has a shortage of nurses and ICU beds, and three patients who were on respirators died. There was a murder investigation to look into it, but doctors said it was just the lack of staff and beds.
    • In 1921, Blackwell’s Island was renamed to Welfare Island as part of an effort to rehabilitate the island’s image.
    • In the 1930s, there were a number of scandals related to the terrible conditions in the prison on the island, and eventually a raid exposed the conditions in the prison.
      • The prison and the workhouse were torn down in 1936, and the prisoners were moved to a new prison on Riker’s Island, where they remain today.
      • Rikers is famous for being one of the worst prisons in the US. By 1939, it was so overcrowded, dangerous, and unsanitary that a court in the Bronx called it “nearly unlivable.” And as early as 1941, the number of incarcerated black people started to skyrocket, creating the system of mass incarceration of black folks that continues today.
      • There are so many horrific stories about what happens in Rikers. For example, in 2010, a sixteen-year-old kid named Kalief Browder was arrested for stealing a backpack and was put in Rikers for 3 years without a trial, two of those in solitary confinement, and he was also subject to abuse from guards and inmates. His case was dismissed in 2013, but he was deeply traumatized, and he died by suicide in 2015.
    • In the 1950s, many of the hospitals were closed down and a lot of the island was abandoned.
    • In the 1960s, plans were made for housing to be made there, and in 1969, residential development began. Most of the 19th century buildings were torn down so they could build new construction.
    • In 1973, Welfare Island was renamed to Roosevelt Island.
    • One of the hospitals that remained on the island was built on the former site of the penitentiary. That hospital, Goldwater Memorial Hospital, started out being really beautiful and modern. But because of budget cuts, it became so bleak that part of The Exorcist was filmed there. It was torn down in 2015, and now there’s a Cornell Tech campus there.




    The Ruin

    • In 1972, the architect who oversaw the shoring up of the Smallpox Hospital inspected the old City Hospital building and said it was in good condition. It sounds like they planned to turn it into apartments. But the building wasn’t guarded, and vandals set fires that basically destroyed the building, leaving the building just a shell, much like the Smallpox Hospital.
    • Apparently, in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, people considered making it a landmark. Eventually, in 1994, the ruins of City Hospital were torn down, because they felt that the large building would be too difficult to repurpose.
    • After tearing down they hospital, they saved the stones and use them when building the park at the tip of the island, Southpoint Park. It also said that they had found out about the copper box in the cornerstone after demolition had already started, and it was unclear if they were ever able to save it.
    • During the 1970s, the Smallpox Hospital fell into severe disrepair. In 1975, there was a preservation effort to save the exterior walls, though there wasn’t any attempt to prevent collapse or decay in the rest of the building.
    • It’s been designated a national historic landmark.
    • Now, all you can see are the exterior walls, which are made of gray gneiss, and the brick foundation. On the inside, the wooden floors have almost rotted through, and several stories collapsed.
    • It sits behind a chain link fence.
    • There’s no roof left
    • It’s propped up by lumber struts
    • Part of the remaining ruins, the north wall, collapsed in 2007
    • It’s lit up at night.
    • From a 2008 NYT article: “There’s not much holding up the cornice right now,” said Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. She said she feared the effects of freezing and thawing on the already weakened masonry.
    • In 2009, a new park, Four Freedoms Park, was built on the southern end of Roosevelt Island, just south of the Ruin. Supposedly, there’s a $4.5 restoration project planned for the Ruin.
    • For a while, a few years ago, there was talk of tearing down the ruins of the Small-Pox hospital; I’d even heard it was torn down at one point, and was sad that I hadn’t seen it beforehand. But they thankfully decided against it.


These sources were used for parts 1 and 2 of the episode on the Renwick Ruin.


Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York by Stacy Horn



  • National Philanthropist, Date: January 9, 1829, “Blackwell’s Island”
  • Peabody’s Parlour Journal, 2/1/1834, Vol. 1 Issue 5, p2-2, 2/5p, 1 IllustrationIllustration; found on p2
  • Blackwell’s Island Prison. Youth’s Cabinet. 6/27/1839, Vol. 2 Issue 26, p101-102. 2p.
  • Blackwell’s Island. New-York Organ & Temperance Safeguard, Date: August 26, 1848
  • Drunkenness at Blackwell’s Island. New-York Organ & Temperance Safeguard. September 9, 1848
  • “Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, New York.” Journal of Humanity & Herald of the American Temperance Society. 07/08/1829, Vol. 1 Issue 7, p28-28. 1/5p.
  • “HOSPITALS ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, NEW YORK.” Boston Medical & Surgical Journal. 11/10/1847, Vol. 37 Issue 15, p300-302. 3p.
  • “The Prison at Blackwell’s Island” By: L. M. C. Liberator. 10/28/1842, Vol. 10 Issue 43, p172-172. 1/5p. , Database: Slavery and Abolition, 1789-1887
  • “CASES AT THE PENITENTIARY HOSPITAL ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” CLAUDIAN (AUTHOR). Boston Medical & Surgical Journal. 8/16/1848, Vol. 37 Issue 2, p57-60. 4p.
  • “STATE OF PRISONERS ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” ERBEN, HENRY. New York Municipal Gazette. 03/02/1846, Vol. 1 Issue 38, p527-527. 1/6p. , Database: American Literary Periodicals, 1835-1858
  • “Blackwell’s Island.” American Statesman. 07/31/1847, Vol. 1 Issue 26, p408-409. 2p. , Database: American Political Periodicals, 1715-1891
  • “Doings at Blackwell’s Island.” New-York Organ & Temperance Safeguard. 12/02/1848, Vol. 8 Issue 23, p180-180. 1/9p.
  • “The New Work-House on Blackwell’s Island.” Friend: A Religious & Literary Journal. 12/7/1850, Vol. 24 Issue 12, p90-90. 1/3p.
  • “No. 12.–NEW YORK. Criminal and Humane Institutions.–Police.–Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island.” Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline & Philanthropy. 1851 1st Quarter, Vol. 6 Issue 1, p59-60. 2p.
  • “CROTON AQUEDUCT SUPPLY OF WATER TO BLACKWELL’S ISLAND BY MEANS OF GUTTA PERCHA PIPE.” C. (AUTHOR). Appleton’s Mechanics’ Magazine & Engineers’ Journal. Dec1851, Vol. 1 Issue 12, p738-741. 4p.
  • “SUPPLY OF WATER TO BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Friend: A Religious & Literary Journal. 11/27/1852, Vol. 26 Issue 11, p82-83. 2p.
  • “ALM HOUSE, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Gleason’s Pictorial. 10/09/1852, Vol. 3 Issue 15, p225-225. 1p. 1 Illustration, 1 Graphic, Symbol or Logo.
  • “PENITENTIARY, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, NEW YORK.” Gleason’s Pictorial (Boston, MA – 1853-1854). 05/28/1853, Vol. 4 Issue 100, preceding p338-338. 1p. 1 Illustration, 1 Graphic, Symbol or Logo.
  • “LUNATIC ASYLUM, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” National Magazine. Oct1855, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p314-315. 2p. 1 Illustration.
  • “Randall’s and Blackwell’s Islands.” Independent (New York, NY 1848-1876). 09/27/1849, p172-172. 1/9p.
  • “BURNING OF BLACKWELL’S ISLAND HOSPITAL.” Brother Jonathan (New York, NY). 2/20/1858, Vol. 17 Issue 327, p003-003. 1/9p.
  • “BLACKWELL’S ISLAND HOSPITAL.” Episcopal Recorder. 8/7/1858, Vol. 26 Issue 19, p74-74. 1/9p.
  • “A VISIT TO THE LUNATIC ASYLUM ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Harper’s Weekly. 03/19/1859, Vol. 3 Issue 116, p184-186. 3p. 10 Illustrations.
  • “THE WORK-HOUSE–BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Nov1866, Vol. 33 Issue 198, p683-702. 20p. 19 Illustrations.
  • “VISIT TO BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” FOSDICK. American Odd Fellow: A Monthly Magazine. Apr1869, Vol. 8 Issue 4, p208-211. 4p. , Database: Masons, Odd-Fellows and Other Societal Periodicals, 1794-1877
  • “SMALL-POX HOSPITAL, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, F. Y.” New York Medical Journal: A Monthly Record of Medicine & the Collateral Sciences. Feb1875, Vol. 21 Issue 2, p173-176. 4p.
  • “PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Harper’s Weekly. 2/6/1869, Vol. 13 Issue 632, p91-91. 1/6p.
  • “SMALL-POX HOSPITAL.” Life Illustrated. 01/24/1857, Vol. 3 Issue 13, p101-101. 1/9p. , Database: Periodicals of the American West, 1779-1881


Images Used in this Post

  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Blackwells Island, East River. From Eighty Sixth Street, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1862.
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Penitentiary : Blackwells Island.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1840 – 1870.
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Smallpox Hospital, Black Wells Island, N.Y.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850 – 1930.
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “View of the lunatic asylum and mad house, on Blackwell’s Island, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853.