When Cincinnati Was Enchanted by the Ouija Board

Like almost all cultural trends, the emergence of this 19th century parlor game grabbed the nation’s attention but eventually triggered a backlash.

Every so often, a compulsion to contact spirits from beyond the grave possesses Cincinnati. Séances were as common as church festivals here for a time, and the mainline churches fretted that Spiritualist cults would siphon away congregants. Card readers and crystal-ball gazers have occupied veiled storefronts as long as our city has had storefronts. And from 1890 to 1920, the preeminent supernatural fad in Cincinnati was the Ouija board.

Rube Goldberg, not yet famous for his impossibly complicated contraptions, cast a wry glance at the Ouija board fad in this 1920 newspaper comic.

Cincinnati Post (1920), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Although homemade “talking boards” had been employed in Spiritualist practice for many years, commercially produced Ouija boards did not become widely available until the 1890s. From its first introduction, Queen City media tut-tutted about the talking board craze, predicting only two possible outcomes for participants: insanity or damnation. The Catholic Telegraph [August 19, 1920] claimed both:

“Ouija is sending them to St. Elizabeth, the national hospital for the insane, by the score. At the Washington Asylum hospital, fifteen devotees of the spook board are now being watched by the alienists. ‘If Washington residents continue to ‘monkey’ with occult Ouija,’ said one of the physicians, ‘we will have to have an addition to the local staff.’ Do not imagine that manipulation of the Ouija board is only a harmless method of recreation. It is playing with fire—Hell fire.”

One of the first Ouija incidents recorded by the local media seemed to bear out at least the insanity option. The Cincinnati Enquirer [May 9, 1892] spotlighted Mr. & Mrs. John Chapman from Liberty, Indiana and their outrageous Ouija-inspired misbehavior. Alarmed by screams and pounding noises, neighbors discovered the Chapmans carving circles on the walls and floors of their house, using hedge knives and scythes, while threatening to kill their own children and various relatives. They had chopped all their carpets to ribbons and smashed most of their furniture.

“Mrs. Chapman’s great delusion is that she wants to make every body a Mason. She claims Horace Greeley ordered her to do so and the Ouija board also tells her too. It is this Ouija fad that has caused the crazed condition of Mr. and Mrs. Chapman. Hundreds of these boards have been sold in this county and it will not be strange if there are other cases of insanity from its use to be reported from this city soon.”

A couple of years later, a whole community just outside Harrison, Ohio went on a treasure-hunting rampage, all because of a Ouija board. One evening, according to The Enquirer [February 23, 1894], an apparently persuasive “prominent gentleman” of the area consulted his brand-new Ouija board and learned that substantial treasure was buried in Southgate, Indiana, just north of St. Leon.

“So impressed was he by the answer that he called a mass meeting of the citizens of that hamlet to organize an expedition to go to Southgate and endeavor to find the precious stuff. They started about three days ago, 50 anxious men forming the company, and from a report received here this morning, they have dug over a field covering seven acres, but without success.”

The Ouija craze produced celebrities, and they visited Cincinnati. Among the most famous was Pearl Lenore Curran, who stopped by Cincinnati’s Grand Hotel with a spectral visitor named Patience Worth who claimed—through Ouija sessions—to have lived in England from 1649 to 1694. Dutifully transcribed by Pearl’s husband, John H. Curran, Patience Worth transmitted hundreds of poems, seven novels, some short stories, and even a couple of plays via an apparently frenetic planchette. Cincinnati Post reporter Cynthia Grey published [November 13, 1915] a “conversation” with the spirit of Patience Worth:

“Mrs. Curran is young and good-looking. There was nothing mysterious about her or the way she ‘talked’ with ‘Patience.’ She simply laid the Ouija board across our knees and told me to put my fingers on the pointer with hers. I felt a thrill when the pointer began to move swiftly from letter to letter.”

The Ouija fad really took off in 1920, apparently because many people wanted to contact relatives or friends who had died during World War I or during the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. Regardless of psychic potential, young people discovered that the Ouija board gave them an excuse to sit knees-to-knees in dimly lit rooms.

Cartoonist Roy Grove captured trolley commuters employing a Ouija board to locate booze among their fellow passengers.

Cincinnati Post (1920), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cartoonists had a ball with Ouija-themed gags. Rube Goldberg portrayed people paralyzed with indecision until they consulted the Ouija board about purchasing formal attire or ordering dinner or making a telephone call. Walter Allman’s “Doings of the Duffs” portrayed a sleepwalking wife frightening her husband by interrupting his Ouija session. Roy Grove’s “The Boys in the Other Car” portrayed a gang of commuters trying to get a Ouija board to tell them who among their fellow passengers was hiding some booze. These comic strips were syndicated by Cincinnati’s E.W. Scripps Company.

Throughout 1917, with the U.S. entering World War I, Cincinnati Post writer Alfred Segal invited readers to send reports of their Ouija sessions to be printed in his “Village Gossip” column. He ran dozens of reports, most suggesting a quick end to the war, a U.S. victory, and horrible consequences for the German Kaiser. One of his correspondents claimed to have chatted with Abraham Lincoln.

Foremost among Ouija’s detractors, surprisingly, were the Spiritualist churches. After a century trying to gain respectability for their beliefs, the thought that their religion should be reduced to a parlor game was infuriating. The Enquirer [June 24, 1920] reported high dudgeon at a Spiritualist convention:

“Inference that the Ouija board is controlled by spirits was resented by the delegates. Discussion today developed strong possibilities of a nation-wide movement to put down what one speaker referred to as a ‘slander against our religion’ for which the Ouija board was held responsible.”

It may have been too little too late. The Post [August 7, 1920] quoted eminent authorities assured that the Ouija board and similar activities were heading toward the dustbin of history:

“The popularity of the Ouija board and other forms of spiritualism is waning. Institutions for the feeble-minded have fewer ‘spook’ patients and fewer books on occult subjects are being circulated by libraries.”

If the Ouija board had anything to say about that, it went unrecorded.

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