Games

The True Origin Story of the Ouija Board

Ever wonder what "Ouija" means? Maybe it's the name of the first spirit contacted through the veil of death. Maybe it's the demonic force that introduced the eerie power to the mortal realm. Maybe the ghosts that early mediums contacted were just very agreeable Europeans repeating "oui" and "ja." Here are the true origins of the board, which you might not have expected — including the real-life movement that spawned it.

Related: Ouija Boards and Spiritualism

A Spiritual History

Like a few of the other stories we've told with roots in the 19th century, the Ouija board is a product of the Spiritualist movement that seized the United States in the wake of the Civil War. People across the country were desperate for a way to connect with their late relatives — not to mention their own divine powers. As such, it's perhaps not surprising that there used to be more than one way to talk to a ghost using a board and a planchette — that's the thing you push around on a Ouija board.

Still, it's sort of surprising to hear that "Ouija" isn't a general name for a type of oracle. Spiritualism was started by sisters Margaret and Kate Fox sometime around 1848 when they allegedly contacted the spirit of a deceased merchantthe first talking boards wouldn't show up for some decades after that. It's a little unclear where they started, exactly, but they likely emerged from table-tipping or -turning. Mediums who tried to reach the afterlife with this method would sit at a table, which would move and tip as they spoke to ghosts and spirits (we're guessing no one was looking too closely at their feet). This movement would bump tiles bearing letters off of the table, allowing a message to apparently get through.

From this technique, mediums expanded to proper talking boards, which might either be pencil- or alphabet-based. A pencil planchette would roll on three legs, two of them wheels and one of them a pencil facing tip-down so any movement would leave a mark behind. A medium might attempt to see a message in the scribble on a blank sheet of paper or use a specially prepared sheet of paper with messages or omens the planchette could hover ominously near.

The Birth of Ouija

Modern Ouija boards, on the other hand, are examples of alphabet boards. But they weren't even the first of those, either. Boards adorned with the alphabet and a few key phrases ("yes," "no," "hello," "goodbye") predated the Ouija as well. So what made it so special? Simple. While the inventors of the Ouija board may have been a decade or so late to claim coming up with the idea, they were the first ones to actually submit it to the patent office.

There are some questions surrounding who, exactly, gets credit for this particular board, but whether it was Charles Kennard (whose name is on the patent) or Elijah Bond (a major investor closely tied to its creation), the Ouija board was first advertised in 1891. As for the name, we have a pretty definitive source, but its meaning is still shrouded in mystery. Bond's sister-in-law, Helen Peters, was a medium of some renown and asked the board what it would like to be called while it was still in the playtesting phase. "Ouija," it replied, and explained that the word meant "Good luck."

Except it definitely doesn't, at least not in any known language. And, as Peters herself claimed later, she was wearing a locket engraved with the word "Ouija" at the time of the reading. This is making less sense by the sentence. Fortunately, there's one theory that can pull all of these threads together. As a well-read, upper-class woman, Peters was likely familiar with the English novelist Ouida, and may indeed have worn a locket that bore the pen name. Swap one letter, and you've got your answer. So much for the supposed ancient origins of this alleged link to the next world.

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The height of the Spiritualist movement was a great time to be a con-artist. Even the former First Lady wasn't safe. Find out why in Peter Manseau's "The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 9, 2018

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