A séance is a meeting in which a person attempts to communicate with the spirits of the dead. The popularity of séances grew with the Spiritualist movement of the 1800s. The movement began during March of 1848 in Hydesville, New York, at the home of John and Margaret Fox and their two daughters, ten year-old Margaretta and seven year-old Catherine, whom they called Kate. The family had been plagued during the winter by unexplained rapping and knocks. The children nicknamed the unseen entity they believed caused the noises Mr. Splitfoot because of their mother’s fear the sounds were the ‘work of the devil’. One night young Kate asked Mr. Splitfoot to repeat the knocks in a certain order. The entity complied. She did it again. Once again, the knocks repeated in the order she requested. Her mother, overhearing her daughter’s conversation with the entity, intervened and began to ask her own questions. They asked the spirit to answer with one knock for no, three for yes. Each question was answered correctly. Word spread and people arrived to witness the rapping. When the sisters moved to Rochester to live with their older sister, Mrs. Leah Fish, the loud spirit rapping’s which seemed to center around Margaretta moved with them. Leah became aware of the financial possibilities connected with her sisters’ contacting Mr. Splitfoot and asked her friends to come to the house to witness the events. Soon she began organizing public demonstrations.
People were fascinated by the séances they witnessed. Spiritualism exploded across the country and remained popular for several decades after. There were many types of séances held. Some in grand parlors, community halls, or in darkened rooms with only very few people. One of the methods of conducting a séance was to use the Ouija board.
The Ouija (commonly pronounced wee-gee) board as we know it today was developed around 1890 though it is believed that similar ‘talking boards’ or ‘spirit boards’ were used even in ancient times. In ancient China, Greece, Rome and even certain tribes of American Indians some manner of spirit boards were used which they claimed assisted them in communicating with the dead. The classic Ouija board in use today is a flat board marked with letters and numbers, as well as the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. An indicator, commonly called a planchette, is used for the spirit to spell out the messages or answers to the questions the person using the board has asked.
A coffin maker in Chestertown, Maryland, named E.C. Reiche had an interest in séances and wanted to create a simple method of communicating with the dead. Together with his two friends, Elijah J. Bond and Charles Kennard they developed what Kennard called the ‘Ouija’ board. He claimed that while using the board a spirit told him what the device was called explaining the word was Egyptian meaning ‘good luck’, though no such word seems to exist. Others claim the name is a combination of the words for French and German meaning ‘yes’. Oui and Ja.
The Kennard Novelty Company was formed in 1890 and the Ouija board was sold for public use for $1.50. No séances or mediums were necessarily required since anyone could use it. Isaac and William Fuld took over the company and renamed it the Ouija Novelty Company in 1892. Finally, in 1966, the Parker Bros. acquired ownership and the Ouija board was recast as a toy status. Children were given the board as Christmas and birthday presents by unsuspecting parents.
There is much controversy even today on the true abilities of the Ouija board. Stories abound of practitioners inadvertently opening a portal for spirits or those posing as spirits to gain access to their homes. A novel published in 1971 called The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty was based on a 1949 exorcism he heard about while he was a student at Georgetown University. Supposedly a young boy used the Ouija board to communicate with his deceased aunt and instead invited something entirely different into his body. The novel was the basis for the movie with the same name released in 1973.
The Ouija board is still sold in stores today usually with no paper instructions accompanying it. Séances are also still conducted in one form or another, sometimes by teenagers playing at slumber parties or by those with serious intentions for speaking to the spirits. In any form of spirit communication caution must be observed. After all, who knows for certain what’s really out there?