Prologue – In my lifetime, I’ve listened to Ouija as its revealed many of its secrets. It’s been a group effort that’s taken countless collaborations, old school research, hours of interviews, and travelling the western hemisphere to get the world’s most well-known talking board to speak up. Arguably, one of the most profound finds regarding how the Ouija board was born are a series of 1919 letters and an interview written by its first manufacturers in Baltimore to two local newspapers. Charles Kennard begins by revealing how the board that would become Ouija was born in 1886 in Chestertown, Maryland and was first manufactured and named in 1890 in Baltimore. When I first stumbled across those letters, I admit it, I missed the point entirely. I failed to ask myself a key question that now seems incredibly obvious: Why, after thirty-three years, did the man who claimed to invent, manufacture, author, and originate the Ouija board decide to reveal its origins at that particular moment? I was so excited to learn that Elijah Bond did more than just file a patent, discover Helen Peters and how she named Ouija and help secure its patent, and prove that E. C. Reiche was really involved in Ouija’s inception, that I ultimately missed his point. The real reason Kennard spills the beans is to introduce and promote his newest talking and writing board, the Weird-A. Had he not been selling a new board thereby setting off a war of words with his old partners, we wouldn’t know as much about Ouija’s origins. There is so much information packed into those letters that they’re we’re still mining them to this day. Each one of their accounts are a response to Kennard peddling his new Weird-A. And so, in that way, Charles Kennard’s last talking board winds up telling us the story of his first. How utterly perfect.
In 1999 I sat alone in the musty basement of the Boston Public Library flipping through the published trademarks in the United States Patent and Trademark Gazette looking for anything Ouija-related. Yes, that was before the internet was considered useful and yes, I’m actually that old. To this day trademarks aren’t fully indexed and if you search online you can only see trademarks that were alive since 1976. If your public library was big enough or lucky enough to get CASSIS then things were easier. CASSIS was a dedicated computer system where you could search through all registered trademarks and all you needed was a little information. You’d put in the index CD, do your search and it would tell you which number disc to insert to pull up your mark. CASSIS was decommissioned in 2008 and most systems don’t even boot up anymore. However, Google took the images for each mark and uploaded them to a giant online database…that isn’t searchable. You have to download zip files and flip through each file one by one. Oh yeah, talk about your good times.
So, on this one day in 1999 I got lucky. I found a registered trademark on the word “Weird-A.” It said only that it was for a game-board and didn’t mention a talking board. But, it was registered to Charles Kennard who we know made at least three other talking boards. If I was a betting man, I would’ve put money on it being another.
Years go by and nothing. Not a peep on the Weird-A until one day in 2011 when I stumbled across two finds that changed a lot about what we thought we knew about the Ouija board’s origins. First, I came across a Weird-A advertisement dated August 24, 1919 in the Baltimore Sun. It described the Weird-A as a “Talking and Writing Board” manufactured by the Kennard Novelty Company. That’s the same company name Kennard used to first manufacture Ouija back in 1890. Next I found a series of letters, also from 1919, from the originators of the Ouija board to the Baltimore Sun and interview in the Baltimore American. Bingo Bango. In one foul swoop we’re able to say the Weird-A IS a talking board! Kennard is now responsible for making Ouija, Kasnon, Volo, Igili and now the Weird-A. Not bad right?
What makes The Weird-A unique is that Kennard marketed it as a Talking and Writing board. What’s that? Luckily, Kennard answers that in the Baltimore American as “a great improvement over all talking boards, as owing to the double pointed table and the arrangement of the letters, and numerals, it is twice as rapid and more satisfactory in its results. It can also be used as a writing medium.” So, this board’s planchette doubled as an automatic writer. A two-fer! Cool!
Meanwhile, another mystery board, the ‘Witch-E Ouija’ was just itching for some attention. I saw this board for the first time in 2004 on eBay. The board is made of litho over cardboard and in the center the word OUIJA is stamped. The planchette is diamond-shaped giving its users four pointers to spell out received messages. A private collector bought it and sent me an email asking if I knew who was behind it’s manufacturers, the Baltimore Novelty Company, Inc. I had no idea, but my gut told me that being from Baltimore and having the word Ouija on it meant something. They were clues no doubt, but no other companies used the address of 215 N. Frederick Street and without any advertisements we didn’t know who these jokers were and if they were connected to anyone we already knew about.
Now, in 2010 I was filming a Ouija documentary and headed to Baltimore. I invited friends and collectors Andrew Vespia and Brandon Hodge to take part in the adventure. On one of our days off we hit my second home, the Maryland Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Andrew had recently bought a Witch-E board and he wanted to see if he could dig anything up on it. Brandon asked if he could peruse my Ouija files on past auctions and unidentified boards. So I set him up on my laptop and while he emailed himself whatever tickled his fancy, Andrew and I hit the stacks.
The librarian on duty showed us to the Baltimore City directories which are all on microfiche. We guessed the Witch-E was made 1919-1935 and so Andrew started buzzing through them. About thirty mins in Andrew yells “Bob, I think I got something!” Now if you know Andrew, you know I’m not exaggerating when I say he yelled. Andrew is one of my best friends, he has a thick New York accent and has an Italian whisper. The librarian was already irritated from the microfiche machine whirling through time and when Andrew called me over I thought we were in big trouble.
Sure enough, Andrew found a Baltimore Novelty Company in the 1921 directory which meant it existed in 1920. Andrew kept going until 1925 but no other hits. The problem is the address in the directory didn’t match the address on the back of the Witch-E. Who knows, maybe they moved or had more than one address? We stopped at the business department but nothing was else was ever filed by the Baltimore Novelty Company. Worse than that, most company records in Baltimore dated 1920-1927 were destroyed in a flood. We still didn’t know who was behind the company, but at least we had a date. We took the win.
Now, back to the Weird-A. That advertisement I found online in 2011 was in terrible condition. All bit-mappy and blurry. In 2012 I made another trip down to Baltimore with Brandon who, along with Mikey Buchner, was helping to set up our group Ouija exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. We hit up the Periodical Department and while I jumped on the microfiche machine to get a clearer image, Brandon went to see if he could hunt down articles on his Baltimore obsession, T. H. White. I found the ad I was looking for and was able to sharpen it and pump up the contrast. Much better! Even though the advertisement was a drawing of two women playing the Weird-A, the board’s design looked to me like that of the Witch-E. I began to think maybe these two boards were related. It’s a stretch though, because interpreting drawings is tough and usually inconclusive. Without a Weird-A board to compare it to, it was just a hunch.
That same year a Witch-E variation popped up. And this one was missing the OUIJA stamp in the middle. Was that a mistake? Was it left off on purpose? Was this board later or earlier than Andrews? Ugh, Another mystery. One collector got it, sold it to another collector and friend, Calvin Von Crush, who traded it to me.
After the Ouija exhibit ended in 2013, Andrew restarted the hunt on the Witch-E. Sure enough, he found a reference to a Witch-E Babe Ruth Baseball game advertisement. In order to see the ad I had to join another collectors’ group, and once I was in, we could see the ad was from the Baltimore Novelty Company, Inc. and listed the same address as the Witch-E boards. So the company made other things! Great! Another clue.
2014 gave us two more puzzle pieces in the Weird-A and Witch-E mystery. In March I paid a visit to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. For over a decade, archiver and researcher Gene Morris has been helping me with talking board trademark and patent files. They are the yellow brick road of paper trails. When I mentioned to him Charles Kennard claimed he had applied for patents on some boards that were seemingly never registered, he said no problem. All patents that were applied for, registered or not, were recorded in one or both of two places. These are handwritten records and hadn’t been indexed or scanned in. If I had dates he was willing to go through them. In the end he was able to find that Kennard had indeed applied for patents on his 1892 Volo, 1897 Igili, and—you guessed it—his 1919 Weird-A board. Besides an amazing tour and getting to meet someone I had worked with for over ten years, he pulled out what he’d found and allowed me to photograph the pages.
At the end of 2014 Gene Orlando from the Museum of Talking Boards was perusing some toy catalogues in Google Books and found a VERY clear January of 1920 advertisement for the Weird-A board! Now my Spidey senses were tingling. If the artist of the Weird-A ad drew an accurate depiction of the board, the arc of the letters and numbers, full, and crescent moon sure did resemble the Witch-E board. And, this ad said something else the first ad from 1919 left out. “Better Made, Lighter Weight”. Could Kennard be describing the same litho over cardboard? Brandon and I blew up that ad and asked ourselves “What’s with those wings? Are they on the planchette or the board?” We really needed to see a Weird-A board, and see one we would. What a difference a year can make.
Unbeknownst to me, In December of 2015 Mike Zohn, Oddities TV star, antiquing legend and co-owner of Obscura Antiques and Oddities, collector and friend, found a Weird-A board at a flea market in Pennsylvania. The picker who brought it scored it out of an old Victorian home in Wilmington Delaware. Coincidentally, the same city Charles Kennard was born in. Mike had seen me post about the mysterious Weird-A and figuring it was something I’d have a seizure over, hit up Brandon Hodge to verify. The Talking Board Community had just gone through a big fake board operation and Mike was worried this was one of them. Luckily for us, it was real. But they kept it quiet, because they had a big surprise in store for me.
Now this past year I’ve been recovering from back surgery and TRIED to keep travel to a minimum. So when my husband Gary asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said a party at our place. We usually travel on our birthdays but my back had other ideas. So I opened the party up to friends, family and any Ouija collectors that wanted to come visit Boston in February. The Ouija signal went out and slowly but surely Ouijamaniacs from all over the country made their way to Massachusetts.
At some point during the party I sat down with Mike Zohn. We were watching the grey beards point out differences in boards to the newbies and everyone was passing around piles of boards. Brandon walked up to me with a few and said “Check out these Witch-Es.” I noticed that one was bigger than the others and thought “Cool! They came in two sizes!” As I flipped through people’s Witch-E boards, both fake and real, I got to the large board I’d noticed earlier. Something was wrong. It didn’t look exactly like the others and I had to run my hand over it to make my brain accept what I was seeing. It was the elusive Weird-A board! I’d been on the hunt for this thing since 1999 and I never thought I’d actually see one. Amazing! Surprise, it turned out to be a birthday gift from Brandon, Andrew and Mike. I guess it was fitting, they’d had to listen for years about how this was one of my holy grails, all my once-crazy, and now not-so-crazy theories on it, and yes, it very much resembled the Witch-E in both name and appearance. They were absolutely related. But how? And how do you thank your friends for one of the weirdest setups ever?
Now get this. After waiting twenty-four years to see a Weird- A board, four days after getting one, a second Weird-A popped up on eBay. What the hell?! Now that’s weird, eh? Luckily, another friend and collector, John Kozik, bid and won that second board. Even cooler, he invited me to come with him when he went to pick it up in Connecticut on March 6th. We were already headed that way to meet toy collector extraordinaire, Mike Mozart, but yeah, that’s another story.
When we pulled up to the address the seller had given John, he came up to us and asked us not to say a word to his wife who was just leaving. He said she didn’t even know he had it in the house. As she pulled out she asks us what we were buying and without skipping a beat John answered “Just a piece of wood.” She looked confused but drove away. John just smiled. When the seller came back with the board in a plastic bag he looked like he couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. He explained his friend cleaned out houses and he found this one in Canaan, Connecticut. As we were leaving his friend showed up and asked us if the board was really that rare. We both said yes in unison.
Now for the real nerdy moment. We get back into John’s car but don’t take off. We studied the hell out of this board. I brought mine on my phone and John reads the label on his board as I follow along on mine. We quickly see a few differences. Mine has an extra line explaining a contest and says Weird-A Trade Mark Registered, while his just says Weird-A Trade Mark. It seems his might be older than mine by a few months! Two different Weird-As. Now that’s pretty cool right? I immediately went back to work on the Weird-A and Witch-E. I put in requests at the Maryland Archives to triple check for any incorporation papers for The Kennard Novelty Company of 1919 and the Baltimore Novelty Company, Inc. I reached back out to the National Archives to see if there was any assignment of Kennard’s patent application or his Weird-A trade mark.
Next, Rick Schreck, one of my oldest friends, offered to help manually flip through Google trademarks from 1919-1927, and asked the folks who oversee patents and trademarks at the Boston Public Library to search for a Witch-E registration. Yup, he’s a saint. We often call him Saint Schreck.
All of this took months. The results came in one by one and last week my final request was answered. The mystery is over…ish. Thanks to the eyes of Rick, the Boston Public Library, and my very own peepers we can now be certain that even though these Witch-E boards say Trade Mark, they never had it registered. Strike one. Side note, Rick and I found a bunch of other Ouija related trademarks and Rick found a previously unknown one for an indicator. Bonus! The National Archives confirmed that no assignment was ever recorded for either Charles Kennard’s Weird-A trademark or the patent he applied for. Strike two. Then the Maryland Archives wrote back. They confirmed that most business documents from 1920-1927 were destroyed in a flood though some records were saved. Among them, the March 15th, 1920 incorporation papers for the Baltimore Novelty Company, Inc. Oh no! However, in the spot where the Kennard Novelty Company info should be was a simple note that read “See Baltimore Novelty Company Inc.”, our first real connection, but what the really does that mean?
I wanted to see Kennard’s name in those incorporation papers more than anything because that would put the nail in the coffin so to speak, and make the Witch-E another one of his boards, but that just wasn’t meant to be. However, we do have a new cast of characters. Please meet William L. Klees, Irvin E. Lent, and Frank J. Murphy, who together put up the $30,000 to incorporate the Baltimore Novelty Company, Inc. They named William Klees its principal agent and 215 N. Frederick Street its principal business address. Yup, that’s the very same address listed on the back of the Witch-E boards. The last piece of information was another note that read “forfeit May 12, 1924.” I asked what that meant and they said the articles of incorporation for this company were revoked and forfeited for not paying or filing taxes. No other filing for the Baltimore Novelty Company survived the flood. The next document in the file should be the results of a vote of those three directors of who it’s officers would be. Then we should see the tax assessment reports. And of course, all of those are gone. Sigh.
We know Charles Kennard started making and selling his Weird-A boards in 1919 and by January of 1920 he was making them in two sizes. We know the Baltimore Novelty Company, Inc. incorporated on March 15, 1920 and made Witch-E boards that not only look similar to Kennard’s Weird-A, use the same litho over cardboard, they also use a lot of the same text on the back of their boards. We also know that there was a connection between the Kennard Novelty Company and the Baltimore Novelty Company Inc. according to that one line in the records. But exactly what was it? Was Charles Kennard a part of the Baltimore Novelty Company in some official capacity? Maybe an officer or stock holder who put up his Weird-A trademark and pending patent rather than cash? Or perhaps he simply leased or sold his rights to them. Maybe this single line in the company’s incorporation papers gives us a hint, “The purpose for which said corporation is formed and the business and objects to be carried on and promoted by it are the manufacture of toys, games, novelties and etc. and the buying and selling of the same, both wholesale and retail, also representing as agent, broker, or jobbers of manufacturers, patentees, or dealers or the same.” Finally, I’m left wondering if the Weird-A was made at the same time as the Witch-E, or did Weird-A production stop once the Witch-E started? To date, neither board is talking.
In the twenty-four years I’ve been researching, writing, and talking about these boards I’ve pretty much learned one thing: In time, all will be revealed. All you need is patience, a detective cap, a sense of humor, and good friends and colleagues. With that combination, anything’s possible. I’ve been blessed to learn the art of patience, become a historian and detective, and have the most amazing friends anyone could ask for. Somehow, the people I work with keep on working with me which makes them all masochists. Thanks to everyone involved. Without your piece of the puzzle the Weird-A and Witch-E may have taken their secrets to the grave.
Lastly, a very special thanks to Charles Kennard for making his Weird-A Talking and Writing board and for writing about it in 1919. Your letter and interview set into motion a series that remind us the wonderful talking board isn’t done talking yet, not by a long shot.
Epilogue – While I was writing this post synchronicity decided to have a little fun with us, and why not? A few weeks back I was in Virginia and visited Charles Kennard’s great granddaughter, Lavaille. While I was there I took some photos of her with his Weird-A board. Yes, it’s corny, but I’ve taken photos of her with each of Kennard’s other boards so why not? And, just to be safe, I snapped a few of her with the Witch-Es and the Good Night board, you know, just in case we were ever able to prove they were also his. While the jury may still be out on the Witch-Es, we’re finally able to put the Good Night board to bed once and for all. Gene Orlando just received photos of a third Good Night board with the words we’ve been waiting and wanting to see clearly stamped on the back “PATENT APPLIED FOR”. Now we know the Good Night board was the talking board Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard made in Baltimore in 1890, which after only a few short months became Ouija. I started by saying Kennard’s last talking board told the story of his first. I just didn’t realize how true that sentence was when I wrote it.