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Would You Ouija?

A new exhibit explores our fascination with this strange device

Stephen Young got a life sentence in 1994 for a double homicide. When he learned that four jurors had consulted a Ouija board the night before finding him guilty (apparently to contact the victims), he won a retrial. However, he was once again convicted. He appealed, but his appeal was dismissed.

Although “talking boards” have been used since at least the 1860s, the first actual patent was granted on February 10, 1891, to Elijah Jefferson Bond. The following year, Bond sold the rights to William Fuld, who made a fortune with the device. Over the years, its popularity waxed and waned, until 1966, when Parker Brother purchased the rights and set up production in Salem, Massachusetts. Now it belongs to Hasbro.

Recently I learned that from now until January, the Baltimore Museum of Industry will offer “the most extensive Ouija exhibit ever assembled.” They’re calling it, “Let The Spirit Move You.”

I’ve had my experiences with the Ouija Board. For my book, Ghost: Investigating the Other Side, I researched and also participated in several Ouija-centered gatherings.

For example, I sat on a Victorian sofa that stood in the spot where Andrew Borden had been whacked in 1892 and read the post-murder results of a Ouija session—a record of which was included in the prosecutor’s notes!

According to the “spirits,” Lizzie was guilty. She’d worn trousers during the killing, which she then buried in the yard. Lizzie’s cousin, John Morse, assisted her with the cover-up, as did her sister Emma and her personal physician. The Ouija also indicated that Lizzie would never be found guilty. Her motive? Money. She'd overheard talk of an investment that she’d hoped to inherit being put into her stepmother’s name.

Apparently, the jury didn’t agree with the talking board, as Lizzie was acquitted and no one dug up the yard in search of buried bloodstained trousers.

The Baltimore exhibit will feature items from the private collections of Robert Murch, self-dubbed the world's foremost collector, historian and expert on talking boards, along with items from the collection of William Fuld’s granddaughter.

"Many people don't realize that up until Hollywood gave the Ouija Board a bad rap in the 70s," Murch wrote on his website, "it was used as a parlor or party game in homes around North America. For over a century this pop icon has evolved to reflect society's changing trends while at the same time captivating a nation by inspiring both wonder and fear."

Rosemary Ellen Guiley and Rick Fisher (another Ouija collector) have just published Ouija Gone Wild: True Shocking Stories, which contains numerous tales about the infamous board. I asked Rosemary to explain why the board has been so popular.

“People are attracted to the Ouija,” she told me, “because it is a simple tool for reaching into the spirit world, a realm that is inaccessible, unknown, and potentially dangerous. The board may deliver harmless entertainment, but the possibility of having a scary experience is irresistible. Many people use a Ouija board for the same reason they see a horror film—they are seeking a brush with the dark side.”

One of my favorite Ouija stories came from Mikal Gilmore’s outstanding book about his family, Shot in the Heart. His older brother was the two-time Utah murderer, Gary Gilmore, who was executed in 1977 by firing squad. Make of this story what you will:

Mikal provides a detailed sense of a turbulent family, full of fantasy and denial, along with rampant and random abuse. When Mikal researched his family history to see where things went wrong for Gary, he came across a rather strange tale.

Their mother, Bessie, believed that when she’d played with a Ouija board as a young girl, she’d conjured up a demonic ghost that had attached itself to her family. When one of her sisters was killed and another paralyzed in an accident, she blamed the ghost (and herself). Later, she married Frank Gilmore and learned that his mother, Fay, was a spirit medium.

One night while at Fay’s house with three of her sons (including Gary), Bessie was told that there was to be a “special” séance to contact the spirit of a man who’d died under the shameful suspicion of murder. Bessie stayed away, but came home to discover Fay in a state of exhaustion and fear.

Bessie helped the older woman to bed, but later that night Bessie woke up to the feeling of being touched. When she turned over, she later reported, she saw the face of a leering inhuman creature. She jumped out of bed and saw Fay, an invalid, somehow staggering toward her, insisting that she get out now.

“It knows who you are!” Fay shouted.

Bessie ran to Gary’s room, but stopped when she saw the same demonic figure leaning over her son, staring into his eyes. Shocked out of her wits, she grabbed the kids and ran.

After that, Gary began to have wrenching nightmares that he was being beheaded.

Bessie saw the entity again in their own house, just when Gary started to get into trouble. He continued having bad dreams and swore that something was in the room. Bessie concluded that the thing she’d conjured up years earlier with a Ouija board had taken over her son’s soul. His life thereafter was filled with angry, malevolent energy. He became a killer and was executed.

I’ve heard story after story about individuals who think that even touching the Ouija board will draw forth demons. It does have a bad rap (although my own tinkering for my research proved no more malignant than playing “Angry Birds” on my iPhone), but I'm not sure it deserves this reputation.

As a tool for crime psychology or risk assessment, I doubt the Ouija board will replace solid investigation. Still, I’d like to learn from this exhibit how the talking board might be associated with other criminal tales.