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World War I Era Spiritualism in Seattle
HistoryLink.org Essay 8341
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This story, prepared by museum historian Lorraine McConaghy, Ph.D., begins with a Ouija board held in the collection of Seattle's Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). The simple wooden board measures about 12 by 19 inches and was marked in black with an alphabet, a set of numbers and other designs. A separate pointer called the “planchette” is part of the set. This style was manufactured in Baltimore, Maryland, by the William Fuld Company in about 1917; the set was likely bought locally during or shortly after World War I and later donated to the museum by the Seattle owner. This gameboard may have been enjoyed as a simple toy or it may have been used to communicate with the spirit world.
American true believers were confident that the dead spoke to the living in many ways, and the Ouija board was the simplest means of communication from the “other side. Though “talking boards” had been in use for many decades, perhaps centuries, the first United States patent for a Ouija was issued to Marylander Elijah Bond in 1891, covering his “improvements in Toys or Games” for the “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board.”
Bond made no supernatural claims for his invention, simply describing it as “a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions of any kind and having them answered by the device ... so that the answers are designated by letters on a board.” Among his claims, Bond specified placing the word “yes” under a full moon and the word “no” under its crescent; stars were painted at both lower corners and two gentlemen shook hands between the words “good” and “bye” at the center bottom of the board.
The planchette was unmarked, but Bond specified that its feet were to be faced with felt to prevent any scratching noise while it moved over the board, pointing at letters and numbers as the players’ hands gently rested on its upper surface, guided to spell out the answer to their question.
Bond assigned the patent to Charles Kennard, who began to manufacture Ouija boards and planchettes, followed by many other American game makers, including Fuld. Countless Americans asked questions of the Ouija board: What are the initials of the man I will marry? Should I loan my brother the money to start his new business?
But the Ouija board went far beyond a parlor trick or idle amusement for many. An earnest Seattle urologist, Guy Shearman Peterkin, donated a book to the University of Washington Library entitled Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery; he was acknowledged on the bookplate as Dr. G. S. Peterkin. Published in 1916, just before the museum’s Ouija board was manufactured, Patience Worth was a runaway bestseller, respectfully reviewed in The New York Times. Author Casper Yost was a self-described skeptic, editor of the St. Louis Globe Democrat, and he was captivated by the wit and wisdom of Patience Worth, a seventeenth century Englishwoman who communicated through a St. Louis medium, Pearl Curran, by means of the Ouija board. Yost wrote:
"Upon a July evening in 1913, two women of St. Louis [Missouri] sat with a ouija board upon their knees. Some time before this a friend had aroused their interest in this unfathomable toy, and they had since whiled away many an hour with the inscrutable meanderings of the heart-shaped pointer ... . Upon this night, they received a visitor. The pointer suddenly became endowed with an unusual agility, and with great rapidity presented this introduction: 'Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name.' Thus began an intimate association with Patience Worth that still continues and a series of communications ... have accumulated until they have filed several volumes of typewritten pages ... . They include conversations, maxims, epigrams, allegories, tales, dramas, poems ... and even prayers ... "
Yost went to great lengths to establish the good character of the “agent of transmission,” Pearl Curran, and of her husband, who transcribed the communications of Patience Worth. Rather than the silent, darkened rooms in which psychic charlatans staged their deceptions, the Curran’s invited five or six skeptics to their circles, held in the “full glare of electric lamps.” In Yost’s opinion, Pearl Curran’s “reputation and social position” placed her above all suspicion of fraud; in 1916, she gave no public exhibitions or private exhibitions for pay. Yost described the Ouija board and the planchette, under Pearl Curran’s hand:
"The ouija board is a rectangular piece of wood ... [and] upon it the letters of the alphabet are arranged in two concentric arcs, with the ten numerals below and the words “yes” and ‘no” at the upper corners. The planchette, or pointer, is a thin, heart-shaped piece of wood provided with three legs, upon which it moves about upon the board, its point indicating the letters of the words it is spelling. Two persons are necessary for its operation. They place the tips of their fingers lightly upon the pointer and wait. Perhaps it moves; perhaps it does not. Sometimes it moves aimlessly about the board ... but often it responds readily enough to the impulses that control it and even answers questions intelligibly, occasionally in a way that excites the wonder and even the awe of those about it. Its powers have been attributed by some to supernatural influence ... [but] it has no more significance than a pen or pencil in the hand. It is merely an instrument for the transmission of thought in words ... . It is proper to say ... that every word attributed to Patience Worth in this volume was received by Mrs. Curran through this instrument."
Whatever Dr. Peterkin may have hoped that UW students might glean from twentieth-century century psychic access to the seventeenth-century messages of Patience Worth, Seattle’s postwar lovelorn, bereaved, and ambitious looked to the “other side” for comfort and advice. In 1917, the Post-Intelligencer’s want ads listed five fully fledged “ordained spiritual ministers,” who offered private psychic consultations as well as séances and circles at the Temple of Truth, at 1420 2nd Avenue, or at Stevens Hall, 1525 4th Avenue.
These ordained spiritualist ministers carefully distinguished themselves from self-proclaimed spiritual mediums -- there were four times more mediums than ministers advertising in 1917 Seattle. The spiritual mediums claimed expertise as phrenologists, advisors, and clairvoyants and as trance mediums, psychics, and card readers. Two claimed to know their visitor’s heart without a word spoken; one claimed 20 years of unbroken success in advising businessmen; two others especially reassured those in trouble that here they would find help and understanding.
Most Seattle professional spiritualists in 1917 were women, from the Reverend Stella Ross Cameron at the Second Spiritualist Church to “Madam Mae,” the “honest” spiritual advisor, in Room 4, at 611 Union. Certainly Madame Mellie had the biggest ad and made the grandest claims: World’s Greatest Egyptian Phrenologist, Clairvoyant and Medium.
Madame Mellie promised to predict the visitor’s entire life, past, present and future, to tell the name of the future husband or wife, to advise how to be successful, how to know if love was true or false, how to guarantee a speedy marriage; indeed, how to be happy. Her advice, promised Madame Mellie, would remove every obstacle and every evil influence. Her fee was 50¢, though if you were not satisfied, there would be no charge.
Spiritual advisor Madame Victoria opened portals to the other side from room 14 at the Abbott Hotel, 3rd Avenue and Pike Street, where male psychic “Cliffton the Great” also rented rooms. Cliffton was the only psychic in Seattle to call himself a scientist, though his claim was tainted by his proud boast that he was “Late of World Vaudeville Tour.” Another male psychic, “The Well-Known Soldier Boy,” had rooms at 1410 5th Avenue, and advertised nothing about his specialty -- perhaps in wartime Seattle, his name was enough for grieving wives and mothers.
It is interesting to study the intellectual history of a period and topic in Seattle, by the books purchased for or donated to our public collections. This essay has focused on a book donated to the University of Washington Library by a Seattle physician; a search in the Seattle Public Library for “spiritualism,” limited to the years 1905-1925, is equally interesting. And, of course, it all comes back to the humble gameboard, the Ouija board and the planchette, in the Museum of History & Industry’s collection.
United States Parent 446,054, issued February 10, 1891; Casper S. Yost, Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery (New York: Henry Holt, 1916); “Remarkable Plays, Poems and Stories with an Early 17th Century Flavor Produced Through a Ouija Board” (review of Casper S. Yost., Patience Worth, A Psychic Mystery), The New York Times, February 27, 1916; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 30, 1917; Museum of Talking Boards website accessed October 22, 2007 (http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com/index.html).
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Ouija board and planchette, from the collection of the Museum of History & Industry
Courtesy MOHAI (1966.3924.1)