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.

 

 

Pictures

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:

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