Historian Robert Murch has spent years studying the Ouija board. He explains how the civil war and the Sears catalogue fueled a phenomenon
If you grew up in the US, youre probably familiar with the Ouija board. Whether youve seen it used in movies like The Exorcist or huddled around it with some friends at a seance, the mysterious talking board has long captivated us with its promise to connect the living and the dead.
And though the board is a fixture in American pop culture, very little is known about where it came from. According to the historian Robert Murch, the history of the Ouija is as mysterious as the workings of the board itself. Murch has spent years tracing the history of Americas favorite seance tool and we asked him to tell us a little bit about what hes learned so far.
After the civil war, spiritualism exploded in America
The mass deaths in the civil war created a widespread desire to contact the dead, and mediums began marketing their services in major cities around the country. Everyone lost a father, a son, an uncle, a grandfather, a cousin, Murch said. Death touched everybody in a way that had never happened in the US. According to Murch, many families had to grapple with the bodies of their loved ones never being recovered and spiritual devices like the Ouija board answered questions that no one else could. They gave people peace of mind because they couldnt get answers any other way.
The name Ouija comes from a rooming house in Baltimore
Like Band-Aid or Kleenex, the trademarked name Ouija is now generally used for all talking boards. But the name was coined by Helen Peters, a medium who was using the board with her brother-in-law Elijah Bond one night 1890 in Baltimore. When she asked what they should call it, the planchette spelled out Ouija, which the board told her meant good luck.
The building where Peters named the board is now a 7-11 convenience store, which has a plaque commemorating the event on the wall.
Peters got the first patent on the Ouija board but the business was soon taken over by the American entrepreneur William Fuld, who began to market the board, especially in national catalogues like Sears.
Ouija The Magic Game. Remarkable, interesting, and mystifying game. Great mirth and making game for parties. Apparently answers questions concerning past, present, and future, reads one ad in the Sears catalogue.
We would not be talking about the Ouija Board today had it not been for the brilliant marketing of William Fuld. He just knew how to change the story, retell it, Murch said.
Helen Peters, the mystery lost to history
As the boards popularity, and profit, increased, most of the early investors sought to highlight their role in the creation of the Ouija board. But Helen Peters wanted nothing more to do with it after the board caused serious damage to her family.
When some civil war family heirlooms went missing from Peters home, Peters asked the Ouija board who had taken them. According to Peters grandson, the board indicated a member of the family. Half the family believed it and half the family said bullshit, including Helen, said Murch. The event created a conflict that was never resolved, and tore the family apart.
After the fight, Peters sold all of her stock in the company. Until her dying day, shes telling everyone: dont play the Ouija board because it lies, Murch said.
The mysterious death of William Fuld
William Fuld had his own Ouija-related family troubles. In 1919, he cut his brother out of the business and the two never spoke again. That year was a particularly good one for sales following a world war and a flu epidemic. In a 1920 article, the New York Times compared the popularity of the Ouija board to that of bubble gum, and in 1927 the Baltimore Sun reported that Fuld had personally made $1m from sales of the board.
He continued to open new factories, building the largest a 3-story building in Baltimore after the Ouija board itself told him to prepare for big business.
In early 1927, he went up to the roof of the building to supervise the replacement of a flag pole. According to the Baltimore Sun, he was standing near the edge of the roof, grasping an iron support of the pole to study himself, the workmen said, when the support suddenly pulled away and he toppled over backward.
As in a movie, Fuld initially grabbed hold of the sill of an open window, which suddenly closed, sending him crashing down to the sidewalk below. He broke several ribs, but was expected to survive, until a bump in the road on the way to the hospital sent one of the fractured bones through his heart and he died.
His family continued to run the business until 1966, when they sold it to Parker Brothers, which was later bought by Hasbro, whose website warns: Handle the Ouija board with respect and it wont disappoint you!