Friday, June 6, 2014

The Ouija Files: Restoring Ouija's Past

Editor's Note: Bob Murch is the world's foremost authority on Ouija and spirit boards. His full bio is below but he joins us today to uncover his recent discoveries about the origin of the people behind the board.


Did E.C. Reiche really invent the Ouija board? Yes? No? The board's still mum on that, but in 1891 Reiche convinced the directors of the Kennard Novelty Company he did.

Wait, What's that? You thought Charles Kennard invented the Ouija board? In order to wrap your head around Ouija's birth you have to understand that not everything is as it straightforward as it seems and the truth is only the truth of the person giving it.

Claim: Both Reiche and Kennard claimed to invent Ouija.

Fact: Talking Boards, which looked and worked just like the board which would become Ouija, popped up in Ohio in early 1886.

Fact: By mid-1886, a Massachusetts company by the name of the W.S. Reed Toy Company manufactured a "Witch Board" and sent it as a wedding gift to President Grover Cleveland who received it at the White House.

Fact: In 1919, Charles Kennard, through two letters to the “The Baltimore Sun” and the “Baltimore American,” claimed he invented the board that very same year.

So who the hell is E.C. Reiche and why should anyone care?

Reiche is a ghost who's been haunting me for over two decades. A few times I thought I'd had him, but then he'd slip through my fingers leaving me with nothing more than rumors and legends. At times I dismissed him and other times I believed.

That all changed a few months ago, when I tracked down his great-great grandchildren who heard the same stories I'd caught whispers of and, after digging, turned up this photo.

According to them, this is E.C. Reiche and he invented the Ouija board. This small beat-up tintype is the only known photograph we have of him and that's amazing!

Yup, you're staring at the face of a man who departed this world in 1899 leaving behind a mystery that's stretched over a century. It seems he was kind enough to leave a small trail of clues hidden in dusty libraries, museums, letters, articles, graveyards and stories passed down through generations of Reiche descendants.

That windy trail has taken me from my home in Boston, to Baltimore, MD, Chestertown, MD, Rochester, NY, College Park, MD and to Washington D.C. From living rooms to coffee shops, I’ve searched for the elusive and mysterious E.C. Reiche.

This is his story, how he once claimed and proved he invented the Ouija board and how I came face to face with the ghost of a man who's haunted me for the past 20 years…

Ernest Christian Reiche was born in Lippstadt, Westphalia, the son of a baroness. He immigrated to the United States in 1847, finally settling on the Eastern Shore of Kent County in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1870.

Reiche was a talented man. He owned a mill, was an inventor, coffin maker, undertaker and made musical instruments, electroplated metal, and a cabinet of drawers only he could open. He patented a ballot box and crafted furniture so fine it ended up in the White House.

Yet his most infamous claim was he invented the board that would become Ouija.

Hold on, didn't Kennard also claim to invent Ouija in Chestertown? He sure did. In fact, these two men knew each other and had side-by-side offices in the Voshell House in the center of town.

Though Kennard claimed to come up with the idea in his house in 1886, Reiche's son claimed his father invented the board and debuted it at a party at Judge Wickes' house. Judge Wickes was one of the most respected men in Maryland and, coincidently, Kennard's father-in-law.

Kennard claimed he asked Reiche to make a dozen for him because they were popular with neighbors. So popular he proposed the two go into business together and sell these talking boards. According to Kennard, Reiche declined and, in early 1890, Kennard left for Baltimore where his board would receive its name and created the Kennard Novelty Company.

For one year the Kennard Novelty Company turned out more Ouija boards than you could shake a planchette at until one fateful day when Reiche came knocking at their door. Reiche claimed they were making his invention and he could prove it.

According to the company notes he brought with him, something convinced the directors he was telling the truth and the company agreed. They compensated Reiche with two stock payouts -- the first of which Kennard himself had to sign.

What could he have brought to Baltimore that was so compelling and convincing the company would pay him off rather than fight him in court?

Now that's the million-dollar question. And the answer could change everything, or little-to-nothing at all. If his proof dated prior to 1886, well then he may have invented the Talking Board in general. But, if his proof dated to 1886 or later, then his claim is the same as Kennard's was: A claim to invent the board known today as Ouija.

The Devil's in the details and, as of today, we just don't have them. We need Reiche's proof to settle that score.

Yeah, yeah, I’m on it.

When I started researching the beginnings of Ouija in 1992, encyclopedias said William Fuld claimed to invent the Ouija board and talking boards were in use by Pythagoras in 540 BC.

Nether is true.

In 1992, Stoker Hunt wrote "Ouija, the Most Dangerous Game" and, in 1994, Edmund Gruss republished "Ouija, a Doorway to the Occult." Listed among their sources was an article, which appeared in the “Literary Digest” in 1920. It condensed an earlier and larger article, which appeared in the “New York World Magazine.”

This was the first article that mentioned Reiche as a contender for inventing Ouija.

I found the “Literary Digest” article in Boston Public Library, but the larger and more detailed article in the “New York World” was a bugger. A few years back I found the microfilm at the New York Public Library; problem was I live in Boston and thankfully friend and colleague Mitch Horowitz, who lives in NY, volunteered to get it.

Bam! There it was, one article with both legends that Kennard and Reiche invented the board.

In 1997, John Ellsberry and Mike Anft wrote and article on Ouija and they also included the legend of E.C Reiche inventing Ouija.

Both the 1920 articles and that 1997 article claimed that Col. Washington Bowie -- original investor, former director, treasurer, and manager of the Kennard and Ouija Novelty Company -- testified in the trial of Isaac Fuld versus William Fuld that it was indeed Reiche who invented Ouija. So, back in 1997, I worked with the Maryland Archives and got my hands on both court cases between the Fulds.

Nowhere in them did it mention Bowie testifying nor did it mention Reiche. Perhaps Reiche was nothing more than Ouija Lore.

But a few years back I stumbled on that series of 1919 letters I mentioned from Fuld, Kennard, Reiche's son, Bowie and Elijah Bond -- the man who patented Ouija.

In it, each man presents his truth:

William Fuld, original stockholder, one-time employee and, at the time, head of the Ouija Empire, says Reiche invented Ouija.

Kennard writes two letters claiming it was him and he only asked Reiche to make them for him.

Reiche's son, William Mack Reiche, writes in that Kennard is a liar and claims his father invented it. And he tells the story of Ouija's debut at Judge Wickes house.

Bowie gives the facts per the company records that Reiche approached the company in 1891 and proved to them it was he that invented the board.

Bond pipes in and explains his role in the company.

It's also in these letters we are introduced to Helen Peters, how she named the Ouija board and helped get it patented.

Turns out, Reiche really was part of the story and, like Helen Peters, was written out long ago. Having had so much success with descendants of other Ouija founders I decided to go back to the drawing board and try again to find the Reiches.

This was easier said than done. I had tried in 1997 and, like Ellsberry and Anft, came up empty-handed. But a lot has changed since 1997, and with the help of and, I was able to map out Reiche's children, his grandchildren, great grandchildren, and then his great-great grandchildren.

It was a real bitch because non of Reiche's four sons had any children. Of his five daughters, only two had children. That means name changes and so on. Eventually I followed those two lines, and one ended with a granddaughter.

I thought it was over, that no Reiches survived. But that other line not only survived, it thrived! I found a relative online who put me in touch with his cousins who were indeed Reiche's great-great grandchildren.

First, there was Doug who put me in touch with Walt. But not before he told me that Reiche's son, William Mack, the son who wrote to “The Baltimore Sun,” lived with one of his cousin Walt. He thought his cousin Walt was my best bet for any stories and hopefully photos of Reiche.

I met Walt near D.C. and he retold me the stories Reiche's son, grandmother and mother told him about E.C. inventing the board and selling the rights to a company in Baltimore. He always thought the stories were just that, stories.

After a few hours in Starbucks going over every detail he left me with two things: handwritten notes his mother crafted about the Reiche family, and an ornate walking cane Reiche made for his son Charles. He also told me about a Reiche family bible and some old tintype photographs that the family had of E.C., but which were lost in the 1950s. He hoped one of his cousins might just have them.

Walt helped me track down the rest of his cousins. One by one they told me similar stories to Walt's but didn't have or know where the bible or tintypes went.

With only one cousin left I was feeling pretty sure Reiche's face was lost to the ages. I'd left messages and had written the whole thing off until Anita called me back. And she told me the darndest thing. She decided to clean out some of her parents’ stuff. In a desk she found an old tintype that matched the description Walt gave me and another photograph she thought were some of Reiche's children.

Could it really be I might get a chance to look upon the face of ghost who's haunted me for decades?

Anita, who lives in Indiana, took some quick pics with her cell phone but decided to mail me the photos so I could get real good scans. I couldn't wait! They showed up in the mail and I looked at them for a long time.

How could I be certain this was Reiche or his children? Walt was traveling abroad so, to establish the approximate date based on the photos and what the people in them were wearing, I scanned and sent the photos to Mike Zohn from Obscura Antiques and Science Channel’s show Oddities, Gary Clark from, and a contact at Princeton University.

All three gave the same date range of 1880s that works perfectly for it being Reiche. A few weeks later Walt came home and though he couldn't remember seeing that exact tintype before, it matched the description his mom gave him where she said Reiche was sitting on the left in front of a bunch of woman wearing white dresses. Twenty years of searching and it turns out Reiche was sitting in a drawer discovered one week before I came calling.

In return for scanning in about 50 family negatives, Anita gave me the tintype and the photo of his children. They are now being framed and will join the wall of photos given to me by the families of William and Isaac Fuld, Charles Kennard, Helen Peters, Elijah Bond, Washington Bowie, Harry Welles Rusks and William Maupin.

These are the men and woman responsible for giving us the Mystifying Oracle and for giving me a lifetime of adventure. Ouija the Wonderful Talking Board doesn't talk much about its past, but over the years, it has slowly given up its secrets.

The last word hasn't been written on Ouija, or E.C. Reiche for that matter, and I fully expect to be researching, collaborating, writing, traveling and making friends until the day when I'm on the other side of the board. Until then, the journey continues!

*The photo you're looking at was painstakingly restored by friend, mentor, collaborator, and fellow collector Gene Orlando, who just so happens to be the man behind the curtain of the Web’s very first talking board website, The Museum of Talking Boards - thank you Gene, for all your friendship, help, support, emails, phone calls, and most of all for having the patience and tough as nails attitude that made me the researcher I am today. Without the Wizard of Oz, Oz would be just another boring city. Thanks to your pushing and inspiring me to never take no for an answer Ouija is alive and well in the 21st century and in the perfect place to celebrate it's 125th anniversary in 2015. It's ALMOST party time :)

ROBERT MURCH is the world’s foremost collector, historian and expert on Ouija and talking boards. His bizarre relationship with Ouija began after watching the movie Witchboard in 1986, a century after the talking board made its debut. Murch purchased his first antique Ouija board in 1992, and became obsessed with unraveling the mystery of its origins. Since then he’s devoted his life to researching the history of the Ouija board and its founders, with Murch often traveling the world to track down descendants of all those involved with the introduction of the Mystifying Oracle.

Murch showcases his research and knowledge on his websites and the upcoming, which together provide the most in-depth Ouija history sites ever created. Murch often collaborates with Hasbro (producers of the Ouija board today) and on various films. He has also consulted on or appeared in numerous TV programs featuring Ouija and The Smithsonian Magazine consulted Bob for a popular article on Ouija boards and featured him and his research on the topic. He is currently collaborating with Brandon Hodge to create the definitive history of spirit communication devices and serves as the Chairman of the Board for the Talking Board Historical Society Inc., which he founded. Find him on Facebook, and Twitter @TalkingBoards