Ghosts got a lot of attention in the U.S. from the end of the 19th through the first half of the 20th centuries. Seven hundred thousand men died in the Civil War, one hundred
seventeen thousand Americans (out of 37,000,000 total casualties) died in WWI, and just when things were looking up, along came WWII. That one killed off 2.5% of the world’s population, including 420,000 Americans. Practically everybody had sons and nephews, fathers and uncles who were prematurely sent to the other side, and people wanted to stay in touch.
My mother’s family got its start in Spiritualism when my Great Grandmother visited France as part of the post WWI Gold Star Mother’s program. She bought flowers to put on her son’s grave but there were millions of war casualties and they’d been buried under
numbers in a disorganized field. She narrowed the graves down to two choices and divided her flowers between them. When she got back home she attended a séance and asked if she got it right. She had, according to her medium, and the other dead soldier appreciated the flowers too.
In the early days of American Spiritualism, ghosts communicated with knocks and bumps. It was extremely time consuming, especially when professional mediums weren’t around. To make things easier, Baltimore attorney and inventor Elijah Bond patented the Ouija Board. He “borrowed” the idea from a Chinese prototype developed in the 12th century.
Bond named his board by combining the French and German words for yes, Oui-Ja. The device was a flat rectangle marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9,
the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” (occasionally), and “goodbye”, along with various symbols and graphics. It came with a heart shaped planchette that would be guided by the spirits to spell out messages one letter at a time. Eventually Hasbro acquired all patent and trademark rights. About ten boards are sold today under various names.
The board’s popularity has faded in the 21st century, but it was widely use not so long ago.
In 1913, a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curan, was introduced to the Ouija Board by her friend Emily Grant Hutchings. At one of their frequent afternoon séances, the Ghost of Patience Worth (who lived in Dorsetshire England in either 1649 or 1694) spelled out, “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth is my name.” The message is
pretty typical of Ouija Board , experiences, but Patience went on to channel seven books, voluminous poetry, short stories, and plays. Her works are virtually forgotten today, but the prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation’s best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a “feat of literary composition.”
Pearl Curan’s friend, Emily Hutchings went her one better. She wrote Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board while the recently deceased Mark Twain dictated it using one of Elijah Bond’s Spirit Boards. The book received less than favorable reviews and was denounced by Samuel Clemens surviving daughter, Clara. Harper and Brothers publishing company, which had sole rights to publish Mark Twain’s works, sued to halt publication. Rather than face a court battle Ms. Hutchings and her publisher decided to stop distribution.
National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Some of the poetry in Changing Light at Sandover had been previously published as part of a collection, Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Not bad for a ghost written book.
Ouija Boards have turned up in the news as recently as 1994. A convicted Murderer, Stephen Young, was granted a retrial after it was learned that four of his jurors had conducted a Ouija board séance and had “contacted” the murdered man, who confirmed Young was his killer. No literary connection here, but this would make an interesting detail in a novel.
I’ve written three novels so far—one published and two on the way—and numerous short stories. I admit to having my share of writers block on each and every one. The next time that happens to me, I think I’ll dust off the old Ouija Board and see if Earnest Hemingway has any advice.
If you’ve been meaning to buy a hard copy of Owl Dreams but haven’t gotten around to it, my publisher is running a 20% off sale for the remainder of this month on all their books. Or, spirits willing, you can pick up a Kindle copy on Amazon.