Charles Kennard always had his eye out for a chance to make a buck, but he was not the greatest, nor the luckiest, businessman. It appears that he wasn’t the most honest guy, either. The second child of a successful Delaware merchant, Kennard moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the late 1880s after developing “secret” bone-mix recipes for fertilizer. (In fairness, everyone in the fertilizer business claimed a “secret” recipe.) Following initial success, his Chestertown plant went to auction due to a combination of drought, competition, and debt. But all was not lost. A Prussian immigrant named E.C. Reiche kept an office next to Kennard’s on the first floor of the four-story, wood-frame hotel in Chestertown’s tiny business district. A furniture maker turned coffin maker turned undertaker—not an atypical career progression for the day—Reiche was also an inveterate tinkerer and Kennard had another plan.
Back story: Two generations earlier, a pair of girls in upstate New York named the Fox sisters, claiming to be mediums able to interpret mysterious “knocks” from the other side, had launched a spiritualist movement that continued to hold sway across the country. In fact, in the aftermath of the Civil War, with so many husbands, fathers, and sons lost in the conflict’s bloody battles, spiritualism—the belief the dead can speak to the living—had only gained steam with people desperate for a connection to departed loved ones and greater meaning for their own lives.
It’s in this context in 1886, during the period Kennard and Reiche shared a hallway, that newspaper reports began appearing about a “talking board” phenomenon sweeping Ohio, including an Associated Press story that ran in the local Kent County News. It’s also about this time, according a later Baltimore American story, that Kennard and Reiche—most likely inspired by the AP account—began collaborating and making at least a dozen of their own “talking” boards.
“Reiche, the biggest coffin maker in town, is making these on the side,” explains Robert Murch, the world’s foremost talking-board historian, and it’s these prototypes that became the Ouija board. “But it’s Kennard, when he leaves Chestertown for Baltimore in 1890, where he continues in the fertilizer game, and starts a real-estate business, who begins pitching what he says is his talking-board invention to potential investors.”
After numerous rejections, Elijah Bond, a local attorney who claimed his sister-in-law was a strong medium, finally took an interest. Soon enough, the Kennard Novelty Company, which incorporated the day before Halloween 125 years ago, began manufacturing Ouija boards much as they appear today. Bond was right about his sister-in-law, too: Helen Peters proved convincing enough with Kennard’s new talking board to win over a skeptical U.S. patent office. She not only gets credit for earning the stamp of legitimacy from the federal government, certifying the board delivered as promised, but also for “receiving” the O-U-I-J-A name from the board itself, which told her the strange word meant “good luck.”
(In truth, the name “Ouija” was written on the necklace locket that Peters was wearing at the time.)
“In the 19th century, people had a different relationship to death.”
So, yes, an undertaker and an opportunist named Kennard invented the only patented board game—billed as both a mystical oracle for communicating with the spirits and wholesome amusement—ever to outsell Monopoly in a given year.
“It comes straight from the 19th-century séances,” says Nic Ricketts, curator at The National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, noting that a glow-in-the-dark board and a classic version are still sold today. “There has never been another brand board game like it, and I don’t see it fading away any time soon.”
The story of the Ouija board, however, is more than a tale of snake oil salesmen duping the Victorian masses or, subsequently, a game of harmless fun at a million junior-high sleepovers. While it remains an amazingly enduring pop-culture phenomenon—tied to the rise of the horror movie/paranormal industrial complex—its saga is also about the universal desire to find answers to life’s biggest questions, the history of psychology, and even the development of neuroscience.
“It’s always been a board game, a parlor game, but it has always been more than a board game for some people, too,” Murch says. “In the 19th century, people had a much different relationship to death than we do today—it was much closer to their everyday experience. Now, we do everything we can in hopes of avoiding aging, let alone engage in any real thoughts of death. But in the 1800s, people only lived to be 50 years old. Mothers would have 12 children and six of them would die. Their parlor rooms were also their funeral rooms.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, there’s a dark side or two buried in Ouija’s origin story. There always is when money is at stake, and by the early 1890s, some 2,000 Ouija boards were already being sold a week. William Fuld, who worked for and invested in the Kennard Novelty Company—and eventually gained control of the Ouija business after the founder cashed out too early—went on to make millions manufacturing the board in Baltimore and elsewhere, but only after his brother was cut out of the company. Their ensuing lawsuits were no mere spat. William’s brother, Isaac, became so embittered that he had his baby daughter exhumed and relocated from the Fuld family gravesite during a cemetery renovation. The two sides of the family would not speak for 96 years.
And, tragically, William Fuld would suffer a fatal accident at his Harford Avenue factory, one he claimed in a 1919 Baltimore Sun story that the Ouija had told him to build. (“Prepare for big business.”) Overseeing the installation of a flag, an iron railing gave way and he fell off the roof of the structure, which still stands and has been converted into a senior apartment complex. “On his death bed—the coroner’s report said a broken rib pierced his heart—he made his children promise to never sell the Ouija out the family,” says Murch.