Well, here he is, Charles W. Kennard, the man who spent his life claiming he invented the Ouija® board. This is the only known photo of him that’s survived and I came face to face with it in July in a Mexican restaurant over chimichangas and margaritas. I’d been after good ole Charlie since 1992 and I got REAL close in 1997. I’d just read a 1990 article in Warfield’s Magazine on the Ouija board where the authors interviewed Charles Kennard’s youngest child, Edward Kennard. I was psyched! That was until I found his phone number and called him myself. Edward’s ex-wife answered and when I’d asked for Mr. Kennard she got real quiet. Then she asked back, “Is this some kinda sick joke?” I answered, “Ummmm no, who’s this?” to which she replied, “Ed Kennard died last week.” Then she hung up. “Awe Crap.” I said to myself. That went well.
I sat there with the phone to my ear and listened as line disconnected and the buzz buzz buzz while trying to figure out just how devastatingly mortified I was. Holy crap that totally sucked. A week later, I figured I couldn’t possibly top that performance so I called back praying to G-d it went to voicemail. It did! I fell over myself apologizing and told her who I was, why I was calling, and then left my number. At this point I thought I had nothing to lose and plus she’d never call me back anyhow. Before I hung up I apologized again for good measure. That night she called me back.
Now, she apologized to me for being so sharp and after we both ran out of apologies she told me that she was cleaning out his house and if I wanted anything she’d be happy to put it aside for me. NICE! She said Ed had kept a lot of stuff from his father Charles – photos, letters, papers, stuff. She’d promised she’d separate that out from the goodwill stuff and when she was done, she’d call me to come pick it up or she could mail it. Man oh mister I was on cloud nine. That was until I got her call back two weeks later. She’d been putting everything on the front porch, stuff going to me on the right and stuff going to goodwill on the left. She called goodwill to schedule a pick up and when she came back they’d taken everything. EVERYTHING! She’d called to try to get it back but the pickup had already been processed and the personal stuff they couldn’t sell was thrown out. UGH! So close! Finding Mr. Kennard wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought. That was 1997.
Ok, yeah, I made a few whoppers here but to my defense I was a newbie all around, to researching and to the Ouija world. Two major lessons here. One, do your homework BEFORE you call anyone, in particular make sure the person you are trying to reach is still on this side of the Ouija board. Two, when someone tells you they have a bunch of stuff you’re looking for and are giving the rest away to goodwill don’t wait until they call you to come pick it up. Don’t walk, run and help them go through everything. I learned these lessons the hard way.
Ten years later in 2007, I tracked down where Kennard was buried and planned a trip to visit his grave. When I got there I stopped in at the admin building. I wasn’t exactly sure where he was buried and it’s a really big cemetery. The nice lady who was working there came back with a map and marked two spots for Charles Kennard. Turns out one was for his son and one was for him. Cool. Charles Kennard Sr. was buried with his second wife and second set of children, one of them the Edward I missed by a week. Charles Jr. was buried with his mom and sister, Charles’s first family. Interesting. Maybe, I’d be able to find a descendant from his first family? I headed to the Baltimore Library and found who appeared to be Kennard’s great-granddaughter. I tracked her through the years until she moved and then poof! She disappeared into thin air. UGH! According to the Kennard family tree I’d made she was THE last living direct relative of Charles Kennard and she slipped right through my fingers. Another dead end.
Four years later in 2011 two cool things happened. First, I stumbled on a series of letters from 1919 by the original bunch of men who first manufactured Ouija in 1890 as the Kennard Novelty Company. These letters were to the editor of the Baltimore Sun. One of those letters was from Charles Kennard where he tells his tale of how he invented talking boards in Chestertown, Maryland in 1886 and brought them to Baltimore in 1890. He even says where he first made them. Second, I was invited down to Chestertown to speak at the Kent County Historical Society. That was awesome and the whole town turned out to hear the story! With the help of Kevin Hemstock, the former editor of the Kent News, we’d located the very house where Kennard claimed to invent the talking board. Together, with some of my best friends and fellow collectors Mikey Buchner, Andrew Vespia, and Brandon Hodge we investigated the town, found the spot where Charles’ first talking boards were made, and even visited his old house! The following year Brandon and I went back and met with the Grand Secretary of the Masonic Lodge in Chestertown where they shared Kennard’s life as a Mason. To top it off, we were invited to stay overnight in Kennard’s house. Best sleep over EVER!
Now, fast forward to 2013. Every year I take out the puzzles that haven’t been solved yet and one at a time put the pieces I have all over my desk. I take out my notes from the last time I looked at them so I don’t go down the same path twice. Kennard, UGH. I just couldn’t see another way to look at it until I changed the order of the pieces on my desk. What if the name of Charles Kennard’s great-granddaughter wasn’t her name anymore? What if the answer was sitting right in front of me this whole time? Only one way to find out, right? So I tested that theory and did a new search for Ms. Kennard. Nothing. I widened the search and BINGO, a hit. The ages matched. This could be it, except she had an unlisted number. Damn. Well, that’s never stopped me before and so after an hour of digging I found her number.
I called, one ringie dingie, two ringie dingie, three ringie dingie, and then I got an answering machine. Not voicemail mind you, an answering machine, I could hear the wheels creaking as they turned the tape. Now, with all the calls I’d made over the years this was the easy part. “Hi my name is Bob Murch and I’m doing some research on Charles Kennard. If I’ve got the right person your parents are so and so and your grandparents were so and so, and your great grandfather was Charles Kennard…” Smack in the middle of me rattling off my lines a woman picks up the phone and stops me dead in my tracks. The voice on the other line cuts in and says, “Please don’t hang up! Yes, I’m Charles Kennard’s great-granddaughter and I haven’t heard some of those names in a very long time.”
Well, that was unexpected. Ms. Kennard couldn’t have been nicer and more intrigued. We talked for nearly two hours about everything. Why I was looking for her, how close I’d come to her great grandfather in the past, and then she said the words I’d hoped for. “OK Bob, how can I help?” Holy crapolla she had no idea what she was in for lol.
For the next few months we talked every day. Ms. Kennard had a few boxes of family memorabilia that her grandmother, Charles Kennard’s daughter, gave to her mother, who gave it to her. She would start digging in her basement and as she found something new she’d call and we’d go over it. Then one day she called and I could hear something exciting in her voice. “I think I found something you’ve been looking for. I’m holding a photograph of your Charles Kennard.” WHA WHA WHA WHAT??? I could feel the smile break out over my face. Did this photo match the tiny bitmappy photocopy of the one that appeared in that Warfield’s article back in 1990? Well, I’d just have to wait to see it in person. Ms. Kennard didn’t have a computer in her house and wasn’t technically savvy. The anticipation was killing me. So, we set July 28th as the date we’d meet. She agreed to bring everything she’d found and I could scan, photograph, record, whatever I wanted to do. Now all I needed was some patience.
I combined meeting Ms. Kennard with celebrating Stuart Fuld’s 80th birthday. Stuart is Isaac Fuld’s grandson and to find out who that is you’re just gonna have to wait for another post lol. On Wednesday my husband flew in for Stuart’s party and Thursday we headed to stay with THE Mikey Buchner. After some catching up, and by catching up I mean drinking, we got up early to get ready to meet Ms. Kennard at 11:15am. Since we didn’t know where we were going and with traffic we left extra early. I admit it, I was a little anxious. Not only was I going to meet someone I’d been looking for, for a very long time but I was breaking one of my own cardinal rules. I was bringing other people to a first meeting. Mikey really wanted to come and so we dragged Gary along for the fun of it.
I usually have these first meetings at the person’s home or at a hotel conference room where I’m staying. Well, the hotel conf room was out since we were staying with Mikey, and Ms. Kennard wasn’t comfortable having three guys she’d never met showing up on her doorstep. Yeah, she’d been to the library and looked me up. She already knew I was a gay married Jew with a shaved head and earrings. So, where did we agree to meet? Where else but a Mexican restaurant! Turns out Ms. Kennard was friends with the owner and he’d let us have a few tables to ourselves to setup the scanners, laptops, and all the stuff she was bringing. He’d even let us stay while they closed between lunch and dinner.
Eleven hours later we were all hugging and saying our goodbyes. Have you ever spent 11 hours at a Mexican restaurant? Gary and Mikey were hung over for the second time, the first time fixing that by having more drinks. So what exactly happened during that historic meeting. What didn’t? Well, Margaritas were involved.
When we got there Ms. Kennard was sitting in a booth wearing a big smile waiting for us. We joined, introduced ourselves and decided to order some food and get to know each other. Yeah, first round of Margaritas woo hoo! After a few more drinks we moved two tables together and setup the scanning station. While I hooked up my laptop and scanner, Ms. Kennard went out to the car to get the first three big bags of photographs. My eyes bugged out, oh crap we gotta get moving! Gary and Mikey ordered another round. So now we had the system down. Ms. Kennard takes out a photograph and while she tells us about it I slap it down on the scanner and Mikey holds down the lid. Gary takes another gulp of his drink.
This goes on and on and on. She shows us photos of people I’ve been researching for over two decades. Amazing to see their faces. Then she holds a photo to her chest and with a big smile says “And here he is, your Charles Kennard.” It’s hard to describe what it feels like when that moment comes after so long. So everyone, meet Mr. Charles W. Kennard. He’s been waiting a very long time to meet all of you and have his story told! At this point Mikey and Gary order yet another drink. Hours go by.
After we finish scanning the Kennard family photos, we move onto the documents. Among them are Charles Kennard’s separation and divorce papers from his first wife and the Ms. Kennard I’m sitting with’s great-grandmother. Carrie Barney Wickes’ father was none other than Judge Wickes of Chestertown who, according to accounts threw the party in 1886 where Charles Kennard’s yet nameless talking board made its debut. (Ouija didn’t get it’s name until 1890.) Now we have photos of Carrie and her father Judge Wickes.
The photo of Charlie may take the prize but there’s a close second. In the piles of Ms. Kennard’s family documents sat the most amazing Christmas gift I’d ever seen. It was a 15 page typed history of the Kennard family written in December of 1948 and was a gift from Charles Kennard’s sister to Charles’ daughter. In it, I just knew we’d have all the answers to all the questions we’d ever asked about Charles Kennard and finally learn what his family thought of his beloved Ouija. Holy crap right? I’m holding THE document we’ve been looking for.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out how full of shit I was lol. Yes, this family history chronicled in excruciating detail the life of Charles Kennard and yet, when it came time to talk about the end of his fertilizer business and the beginning of Ouija in Chestertown, Maryland in 1886 his sister merely said “he grew tired of it (the fertilizer business) and he went into something else.” WHAAAAAAT? SOMETHING ELSE? That’s it? That’s how she described her brother’s 39-year love affair with the talking board? AHHHHHHHHHH!
But, sometimes what isn’t said is just as important as what is. And with that in mind I read on. This family history settled so many questions about who, what, where, when and why about Charles Kennard and yet it only raised more questions about his life with Ouija. Did his sister disapprove of the board? Did she consider his time with it an embarrassment? Who knows. Charles Kennard made his claims and told his story from 1886 to the day he died in 1925. The fact his family didn’t talk about the love of his life means something.
Right about then Mikey and Gary come back into the restaurant all smiles with Mikey holding a balloon. I didn’t even notice they left! Mikey looks at me and says “Lookie what I got!” and waves his balloon at me. Just then a little kid who’s been crying on and off stops and points at the balloon. Mikey’s smile falls and he gives the balloon to the kid and saves the day.
Now I’ve never been and never claimed to be a traditional researcher or historian. I’ll whatever it takes and if that means having an 11-hour interview in a Mexican restaurant than so be it. It was the best time I’ve ever spent at one. I got to meet and make friends with Ms. Kennard AND I got to do it with my husband Gary and one of my besties Mikey. Even though I left with more questions than answers this was one of the coolest Ouija memories I’ve made. So cheers everyone, here’s to Charles Kennard, his family, and most definitely to Margaritas! Please feel free to share this post and help spread the word of Ouija 🙂
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