The Parker Brothers version of the Ouija board (via Dave Winer)
These days, the word “Ouija” conjures up shades of mysticism, Satanic panics, and teenage bedrooms. The origin of the term is supposedly lost in the sands of time, or created out of a compound of the German and French terms for “yes.” But ask Ouija board collector and historian Robert Murch for the real story of the board’s name, and he’ll tell you a different tale — one that connects the board to two intriguing women.
As one of the world’s most active Ouija board collectors and historians, Murch has been researching the history of the object since the early 1990s. Its origins are cloudy, he explains, rife with he-said-she-said squabbles and family feuds. But at least one part of the story seems clear. Two years ago, Murch discovered a 1919 article in the Baltimore American in which one of the board’s originators, Baltimore businessman Charles Kennard, states how the Ouija got its name.
In 1890, Kennard gathered a group of investors to capitalize on the “talking board,” which was born out of the Spiritualist movement and introduced to the wider world four years earlier. But the Kennard Novelty Company, as the fledgling business dubbed itself, had no name for its wooden board inscribed with letters, numbers, and the words “yes” and “no.” On April 25, 1890, Kennard was hanging out at a Baltimore boarding house with investor Elijah Bond and Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters, when the group decided to ask the board what it wanted to be called.
Sketch of Helen Peters by her then-fiancé Ernest Nosworth (1890-91), & photo of her and Ernest (courtesy Bob Murch)
According to Murch, Helen Peters was a cultured, affluent woman who came from a society background. She was also, according to Bond’s letters, “a strong medium.” That night at the boarding house, the group waited with their fingers resting on the paddle-shaped planchette and watched as the board spelled out “o-u-i-j-a” in response to their query. When the group asked what “Ouija” meant, the board answered “good luck.”
But there was something Peters wanted to share. According to Kennard, she drew a chain from her neck and showed the men a locket with an image of a woman and the word “Ouija” written below. Kennard asked Peters if she had been thinking of the locket during their session, and Peters said no. That was good enough for Kennard — the board had found its name.
Ouida, aka Maria Louise Ramée (via NYPL)
So who was the woman in the locket? Murch believes it may have been Maria Louise Ramée, who went by the pen name “Ouida,” and that Kennard simply misread the signature. Ramée was a British-born writer who penned dozens of overheated romance and adventure novels set in exotic locales, plus critical essays, animal stories, and books for children. Her books were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic; even Queen Victoria was a fan. According to The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature, in her later life she lived mostly in Italy, indulging in “an expensive and affected life with dogs and frequent hopeless infatuations.”
Eccentric and ostentatious (she loved purple writing paper and Lord Byron), scorned by many male writers, but beloved by female readers, Ramée and her signature apparently became something of a talisman for forward-thinking women like Peters. As Murch put it: “In 1890, Ouida’s books were very important. It makes sense that Helen [Peters] would wear a locket with her name on it, because she was so educated and articulate.”
And like Ouida herself, Peters was unconventional: she married late, and to a man significantly younger than herself. Murch says her important role has been written out of Ouija history. When Elijah Bond described his all-important meeting with the patent office in Washington in his letters, he refers to Peters simply as “a lady friend.” But it was this “lady friend” who demonstrated the board’s efficacy for the chief patent officer, supposedly leaving him white-faced and shaken. Were it not for Peters, the board wouldn’t have either its name or its patent.
“For 20 years I researched the fathers of the Ouija board,” Murch said. “Turns out, it had a mother.”
Elijah Bond’s patent for the Ouija Board (via US Patents)
For more on the Ouija Board, visit the Maryland grave of its patent holder Elija Bond.
Robert Murch recently founded the Talking Board Historical Society, which is working on putting a headstone on Helen Peters’ unmarked grave in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, as well as marking the location where the Ouija Board was named. For more information, visit Murch’s website or Facebook page.