Chances are, you’ve seen a Ouija board in use before – even if it’s just on the silver screen, in horror movies such as The Exorcist or Ouija. But the history of the talking board goes back much further than that. And over the years, it’s been the subject of some startling stories and odd occurrences – from P.O.W. escape plots through to murder convictions.
20. Its origins lie in 1100 AD China
Long before the Ouija board got its name, a similar form of “spirit writing” was in use in China. Indeed, documents recovered from the Song Dynasty about 1100 AD point to the use of “planchette writing,” in which spirits would supposedly use a stick to communicate by writing in incense ashes or sand.
19. It was popularized during the American Civil War
The spiritualist movement was doing big business around the time of the American Civil War, finding new ways to help survivors communicate with their dead friends and family. One of those was the Ouija board, although it still wasn’t officially called that at the time. Indeed, they were still known as “talking boards,” but the principle was the same.
18. It was commercialized by Elijah Bond
Finally, in 1890 someone latched on to the idea of turning the talking board into a commercial product. Inventor and lawyer Elijah Bond sought to patent the concept of a board with the alphabet printed on, to manufacture and sell the boards with his business partner, Charles Kennard.
17. It named itself
If you have a talking board with no name, you may as well ask it what it wants to be called. Or at least, that’s the logic Bond, Kennard and medium Helen Peters are said to have used in 1890. Indeed, according to historian Robert Murch, they placed their fingers on the spooky board, and it spelled out “Ouija.” They then asked for the meaning of the word, and received back, “good luck.”
16. It was “proven” at the patent office
With the board named, Bond decided to patent it. So the story goes, he traveled to Washington with Peters to give a demonstration of the board to the patent officer. The challenge? To spell out the officer’s name, which was supposedly unknown to the pair. And, of course, the board somehow did exactly that, according to Murch’s records.
15. William Fuld gave it a new origin story
If Murch’s version of events is accurate, then the Ouija board’s origin is far more sinister than the more widely known story popularized by William Fuld. Indeed, in 1901, Fuld claimed responsibility for the board’s invention after Bond passed production on to him. He also established a new, far plainer meaning behind its name – an amalgamation of the word for “yes” in French and German.
14. Fuld died in mysterious circumstances
If Fuld’s revisionist approach to the Ouija board’s history was mundane, his death was the opposite. Indeed, in 1927 he was supervising construction on a factory when he fell from the roof, breaking several ribs. On the way to the hospital, a road bump caused one to puncture his heart, killing him. Most mysteriously, it was apparently the Ouija board that had directed him to build the factory in the first place.
13. The Ouija board outsold Monopoly in 1967
We’re sure Parker Brothers, inventor of the original Monopoly, won’t have minded too much when its game was outsold by the Ouija board, which shifted two million copies in 1967. After all, a year earlier, they’d purchased the rights to the board from Fuld’s family, who had run the business since his death.
12. There’s a science behind it
The most widely accepted explanation for Ouija boards appearing to work is the ideomotor response. Effectively, people using the board are actually moving the planchette themselves unconsciously, rather than being guided by spirits. Indeed, it’s been described as an example of the “dissociative state,” where consciousness is separated from cognitive functions.
11. A jury used a Ouija board to convict a man
In 1994, 46-year-old Stephen Young was convicted for the murder of a husband and wife in the U.K. However, it later emerged that four of the jurors had used a Ouija board to determine his guilt. Indeed, they had apparently got in touch with the murdered man in a séance, and he had told them Young was the killer. He was granted a retrial later that year but was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
10. A woman committed murder after using a Ouija board
In 2001, a woman blamed a Ouija board for telling her to murder her son-in-law Brian Roach, an ex-mayor of the city of Minco, Oklahoma. Carol Elvaker may have also tried to murder her ten-year-old granddaughter, claiming both the child and her father were evil. And just before she attacked Roach, Elvaker had been using a Ouija board with her daughter and grandkids.
9. It was once used as a means of flirting
Back in the Victorian era, when the talking board first came to prominence, society was far stricter about the how, when and where of dating. Ouija boards, then, gave couples an excuse to be intimate. After all, they had to touch fingers while using the board and generally sit very close to one another, allowing them to get personal.
8. Elijah Bond has a Ouija board grave
If you head to Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery today, you won’t find it hard to spot Elijah Bond’s grave. Indeed, his rectangular headstone has a Ouija board design printed on the reverse side, in homage to its inventor. However, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, historian Robert Murch spent 15 years tracking down Bond’s hitherto unmarked grave, before crowdfunding the installation of the fitting gravestone.
7. Mark Twain supposedly wrote a posthumous novel through a Ouija board
The early 20th century saw a wave of novels purportedly written from beyond the grave, with deceased writers apparently dictating their works through the means of Ouija boards. Perhaps the most famous of these was Mark Twain’s Jap Herron, published by Emily Hutchings. Curiously, she and Twain had corresponded 15 years earlier, and the author had written, “Idiot! Must preserve” on one of her letters.
6. It was featured in a 1951 episode of I Love Lucy
Nowadays, it would be pretty surprising to see a Ouija board used in an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But in the mid-20th century, they were popular enough to appear in the groundbreaking American sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, an entire episode of the show, which was the first to feature an ensemble cast, revolved around a séance performed using a Ouija board.
5. The Exorcist demonized it
For decades, films and shows such as I Love Lucy placed the Ouija board in a lighthearted context. By 1973, that would all change. Indeed, that year saw the release of The Exorcist, the seminal horror film in which a young girl is possessed by a demon, seemingly after the use of a Ouija board. Unsurprisingly, the result was a terrified audience that began to associate the board with dark occult forces, rather than harmless spiritualism.
4. Its popularity took off again in 2014
Halloween is traditionally the time horror movies land in cinemas, and 2014 was no different with the release of the low-budget Ouija. While it was critically lambasted, it did a roaring trade at the box office. And as a result, the popularity of Ouija boards surged. In fact, by Christmas that year, sales in the U.K. had risen by 300 percent, despite a religious figure giving a stern warning against their use.
3. Mary Todd Lincoln used one in the White House
Whether Abraham Lincoln was seriously spiritual or not isn’t certain, but his wife’s stance on the matter is. Indeed, Mary Todd Lincoln hosted regular séances in the White House, making use of a talking board – the precursor to Ouija. Her commitment to spirituality isn’t surprising, however, given the extreme loss she suffered, both of her husband and children.
2. Two P.O.W.s used a Ouija board to escape capture in WW1
In 1917, Cedric Hill and Elias Jones found themselves captured in a Turkish prisoner of war camp. By October 1918, however, they had managed to convince their guards that they were mediums who could use a Ouija board to find buried treasure. And, thanks to their captors’ greed, the officers were able to use their “talent” to secure their escape.
1. There are specific instructions on how to use one
When William Fuld took over production of the Ouija board in 1901, one of the first things he did was to print a set of guidelines on the back of each board. These rules, which have been reproduced many times over, directed the users to place the board on their knees, ask questions one at a time, and to take it very seriously. However, Fuld made sure to note that the Ouija is still “a great mystery.”