Helen Peters Nosworthy: The Medium Behind ‘Ouija’

Curiosities, Ghosts, Mediums, People, Women

Spirit Boards, Talking Boards, Ghost Boards; Whatever you call them, they’re all synonymous with one name – Ouija. Without thinking, we attribute Ouija’s creation and branding to a huge faceless company, peddling plastic ponies in one hand and sprit communication devices in the other.

But while stocks and patents are sold and traded, Ouija’s roots are far more legitimate than many of us would expect.

In 2018, The Talking Board Historical Society did immense work in documenting the true roots of the Ouija board.

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Helen Peters Nosworthy and her husband Earnest

While we see ‘Ouija’ boards as being solely marketed as a parlour game in the US, the more wider world of ‘talking boards’ – i.e boards printed with letters which one uses to communicate with spirits etc – has rather more historic roots.

Historically, prior to this, talking boards had been used worldwide for centuries. In China, there is evidence of usage as far back as 1100AD where they were used ritualistically and as a means of spirit communication. That is, until they were banned by the Quing dynasty around 1644.

The American spiritualist movement similarly saw widespread usage of printed alphabet boards as a means of contacting the dead. But the nuances of historic spirit contact, although vast and fascinating, aren’t for discussion today. It was not until Elijah Bond, a seasoned inventor, lawyer and businessman, saw to patent his particular planchette and board combination and launch the Ouija board into new realms.

In 1901, production was taken over by William Fuld, who began to produce the boards under his own name, suggesting that it was him personally who named the board. When asked of the roots of ‘Ouija’, he initially remarked that he learned the name from the board itself, and that it was an old Egyptian term, meaning ‘good luck’. Later, when popularity increased, Fuld went on to say that ‘Ouija’ was simply a combination of the French and German words for ‘yes’ (‘Oui’/’Ja’). Questionable claims aside, Fuld’s boards flooded the market and reached peak popularity in the 20s and 30s. To this day, his name is synonymous with the manufacture and popularisation of the board.

But why are Ouija boards truly called as such? Was Fuld’s claim correct? While this is widely accepted as the true etymological roots of the name, new research begs to differ.

ouijamania

Talking boards existed long before Ouija, and will last long after, but it’s the trademarked name that still holds clout in popular culture.

In a labour of love, Talking Board Historical Society (TBHS) founder Robert Murch found long forgotten references to Nosworthy’s input in the archives of the Baltimore Sun newspaper. In a series of publically-printed letters, Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond, co-creators of the board, aired their dirty laundry in newsprint

In these letters, it was recorded that Elijah Bond (the patent holder) brought his sister-in-law, Miss Peters, to patent meetings to demonstrate the power of the board. Helen was noted as being a ‘strong medium’ who, when testing the board, asked the unnamed device what it would like to be called. The board replied with ‘O-U-I-J-A’, which, when pressed was revealed to mean ‘good luck’.

Obtaining a patent for a device to contact the unknown was problematic, even in the 19thcentury. When Elijah Bond began to file for patents, the local patent office replied that they were unable to grant such a patent to an untested and unproven device. Subsequently, the pair travelled to Washington DC where their device was repeatedly brushed aside by inspectors until the chief patent officer’s interest was piqued by the strange board.

Supposedly, it was then that the officer promised to grant the patent, should the board be able to spell out his name, which was unknown to Bond and Peters.

goodnight2_board

Goodnight Board

A relative of Nosworthy recently recounted the story to Robert Much, stating that –

“The Patent Office told them that they couldn’t get a patent on Ouija unless they came to Washington to show them that it really worked. They headed down and Helen sat at the board. Inspector after inspector passed them on and up the chain. No one wanted to be the one to give them the patent. Finally, the chief of the patent office came in and said “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. If this contraption can spell out my name you’ve got your patent.” When the board finished spelling out his name the chief got up and started to walk out. He turned around white as a ghost and said to them “You’ve got your patent” and he walked out in a hurry.”

The patent was granted and the Ouija board began its life beyond Baltimore.

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Helen Peters Nosworthy

Interestingly, Helen’s relationship with the Ouija board was not as pleasant and as enduring as one would have presumed. A family rift saw Helen’s relationship with the Ouija irreparably severed.

Robert Murch explains –

‘The Peters were a southern family and many served in the Confederacy….(the children were told) that after a battle had been fought in on their property, Helen and her brothers and sisters went out and cut off the buttons of the dead soldier’s uniforms and took them home. They kept this collection of buttons proudly displayed. One day they noticed the buttons were missing. They asked the Ouija board what happened and it answered that one of their own had stolen them. They asked who, and it spelled out which family member it was, and BAM, the Peters Family Feud was born. Half the family believed the board and half didn’t, Helen among the latter. It split the family in two, broke Helen’s heart, and she disavowed the Ouija board right then and there.’

Murch goes on to explain that Nosworthy spent the rest of her life telling her family to avoid the board, professing that it ‘told lies.’ It would seem that her family followed her commands, and the Nosworthy interest in Ouija ended with a theft.

Nosworthy, who was also an early stockholder in the company, later married and moved to Denver, a year after Ouija’s introduction into the world.

She died in 1940 and was buried in a family plot in Denver’s Fairmont Cemetery. Sadly, as time rolled on, the Nosworthy family grave fell into obscurity and their grave was unmarked.

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The Proposed Headstone

However, following the efforts of TBHS, funds were raised for a fitting memorial to Helen’s place in Ouija history and now a substantial memorial stands on her and her family’s resting place. A fine memorial to an influential and under-appreciated woman.

 

 

frontstone

 

 

 


 

Links/Sources

 

Robert Murch’s research into Helen’s life is truly wonderful and I implore you to visit the links below to learn more about Helen’s life and his vivid journey in uncovering this hidden history.

 

 

https://www.facebook.com/talking.boards/photos/a.567074803327714/584596474908880/?type=1&theater

 

https://www.robertmurch.com/project/helen-peters-nosworthys-gravestone/

 

https://www.facebook.com/talking.boards/

 

Talking Board Historical Society

 

https://tbhs.org/?fbclid=IwAR185BsZnz2oQ6X1HiScTHEeDNS2c2MI2ss7AI5hJ6BSHBmpi9CTSrf-tZg

 

https://tbhs.org/helen-peters-nosworthy/

 

 

Images Courtesy of RobertMurch.com and tbhs.com

No copyright infringement intended.

Francis Bacon’s Ghost Chicken

Folk Tales, Ghosts, Hauntings, Superstition

With Christmas behind us, New Year on our minds and the lingering scent of roast poultry clinging to the curtains, I have been racking my mind for a seasonal topic.

While spirit snowmen are a thing of horror fiction, it would seem that ghostly chickens have their claws firmly lodged in the niche echelons of British folklore.

Before I am reminded by a helpful reader that ghost turkeys would arguably be more festive, in the true spirit of a family Christmas dinner, I say to you; ‘you get what you’re given’.

Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English statesman, philosopher and an early purveyor of scientific methods and reasoned scientific thought. According to John Aubrey’s vivid account, Bacon died as a result of failed experiments In preserving meats.

On a particularly cold night in January, Bacon was travelling to Highgate with the King’s Physician, when he was suddenly struck with the thought of using snow to prevent meat perishing.

Bacon and the Dr Winterbourne were so keen to test his theory that they alighted the carriage, and rushed to a ‘poor woman’s cottage at the bottom of Highgate Hill’, where they purchased a chicken. After delightfully commanding the woman to slaughter, pluck and remove the bird’s innards, Bacon went about filling the carcass with snow.

Shortly after his poultry-stuffing efforts, Bacon caught such a severe chill that he was unable to return home and was laid up in nearby Arundel House. Bacon’s sudden ill health was worsened by his hosts lodgings, Aubrey describing his bed as ‘damp’ and unused for some time; resulting in his death from pneumonia in ‘2 or 3 days’.

Aubrey’s accuracy in his accounts has been criticised for many years, by his contemporaries and modern academics alike. However, this is all immaterial; Bacon is a minor character in this feathery tale.

Since Bacon’s untimely death, there have been multiple accounts of a spectral white bird, resembling a plucked chicken, scuttling around Pond Square, Highgate. The chicken appears to run in wild circles before disappearing into the ether.

In 1943, an account given by Aircraftman Terence Long states how, after crossing Pond Square late at night, he was startled to hear the thundering clatter of a horse and carriage. Following this terror, he found the ensuing silence pierced by the shriek of a bird, after which a chicken appeared, racing in circles, before disappearing.  Similarly, another wartime sighting was recorded by a Mrs J Greenhill who reported seeing the chicken on several occasions, describing it as a ‘large whitish bird’.

In the 1960s, a stranded motorist encountered the same plucked vision, as a chicken appeared, winding in circles, before dissipating into the night air. However, in the 1970s, the bird took the form of the ultimate passion-killer by manifesting directly next to an amorous couple who were intertwined on a park bench.

Rather disappointingly, I have failed to find any especially recent accounts of this spectral fowl, but I live in hope. Perhaps the chicken is finally at peace with its fate. Perhaps the human imagination is a wonderful, if bizarre thing.

In the meantime, here’s a festive thanks to you, ghost chicken, for your part in scientific progress and for the future joy the British people experience, knowing our freezers can be filled to the brim with breaded fleshy offcuts every festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon#Biography

 

http://www.haunted-london.com/pond-square-ghost.html

 

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/the-strange-case-of-sir-francis-bacon-and-the-frozen-chicken/

 

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Ghosts, Hauntings, Superstition

The photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham hall is not just one of Britain’s most famous spectral photographs, but is world-renowned. Since its development in 1936, the ghostly image of the Brown Lady descending the stairs of the Norfolk country house has been widely circulated irrefutable proof of ghosts’ existence.

Now, with Halloween just behind us and dark winter nights drawing ever-closer, this famous photo is doing its rounds online, nestled amongst other famous compatriots as one of ‘ten frightening photos’.

But I think our Brown lady is worth a little more explanation than internet lists permit.

image

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

 

The legend of the Brown Lady was not a product of the infamous photograph, but has been part of Norfolk lore for centuries; the ghost captured on film has supposedly been a constant presence at Raynham Hall, Norfolk since the 19thcentury.

The haunting figure is frequently referred to by two names online, namely Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726) or ‘Lady Townsend’. Nonetheless, the women are one and the same. The Lady suffered an unfortunate existence in life – her husband was cruel and ill-tempered and, when learning of her adultery, punished her disloyalty by locking her in her chambers, refusing to let her leave Raynham hall (even to visit her children) until her death in old age from smallpox. Since her death, she is said to roam the Hall in a brown satin dress, carrying a lantern.

 

There are numerous reported sightings of the brown lady, including one from King George IV who saw the lady standing beside his bed at night.

However, one of the more elaborate claims originates in 1835 and was recorded at a Christmas gathering by Lucia C Stone. Visiting guests Colonel Loftus and Hawkins claimed to have seen a spectral woman in a brown dress as they retired to their bedrooms for the night. The next day, Colonel Loftus saw the lady again, but this time, closer. He reported that the woman had empty eye sockets that stood out darkly against her ghostly glowing face.

The next year in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat (Navy officer and father of Florence Marryat, author of the classic Spiritualist work ‘There is no Death) specifically asked to spend the night in the supposed haunted room. Apparently, he aimed to prove that any such hauntings were in fact the work of local smugglers who aimed to frighten people away from the area. In fact, Captain Marryat’s experience was anything but mundane. His daughter, Florence recounted his experience in 1891;

 

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. 

…The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father.

…I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham”.

 

Firstly, late-night gun comparisons with visiting youths doesn’t seem to be an idea way to spend ones time. Secondly, Captain Marryat shot a ghost in the FACE. There’s being sceptical, then there’s trying to execute the undead.

 

There have been several other reported sightings since Marryat’s gun-toting days, but none are as dramatic or violent.

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Raynham Hall

The photograph that gives us the lasting image of the Brown Lady was not taken by an investigator hunting for the woman’s apparition, but was the work of Captain Hubert C Provand, a photographer working for Country Life magazine. He and his assistant, Indre Shira were photographing the Hall for a general article and seemingly had no intent to cover the spectral legend.

After taking an initial photography of the Halls grand staircase, they were making preparations for a second when Shira saw the gradual formation of a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”.

Upon Shira’s instruction, Provand quickly took another photograph and, upon development, the infamous image of the ‘Brown Lady’ was revealed.

Instead of the supposed planned article on Raynham Hall, Provand and Shira’s experience, complete with photographs, was printed in Country Life on December 26th1936.

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Country Life Magazine, 1936

Since the Country Life photograph, sightings of Raynham Hall’s ghost have been sparse to say the least. Many believe she now haunts Houghton Hall and Sandringham House in a more youthful form of herself. Therefore, our lasting image of the Raynham haunting remains frozen in time. This spectre is a busy one.

 

Ever since publication, the image has been used as proof of ghost existence and visitation and has been subject to investigation by several high-profile paranormal sceptics. Generally, accounts of the images’ legitimacy are far more prolific in print, as they grab our imaginations far stronger than explanations by sceptics.

 

Nonetheless, there are many available explanations for the ghostly image; many cite a double exposure or smear of grease on the lens. Generally, consensus between critics is that the image is not of a spectre, but of either a living figure concealed beneath a sheet, or a simple superimposition of a draped Madonna statue. Many critics have said that the image of the ghost appears to have its hands raised in prayer and the square stand or mount beneath it is more than visible when one examines the shadows! In short, the 1936 image is generally regarded to be little more than a composite of two images.

 

Real ghost, planned hoax, or spur of the moment mischief, the ghostly image certainly afforded Provand and Shira their infamy in the paranormal history books. And a ghostly article in a country living magazine is certainly a pleasant break from the day-to-day photography of the wealthy and well-to-do.

And, most importantly, at least they weren’t armed. Marryat, you’re on your own with that one.

 

 

Sources:

 

http://hoaxes.org/raynham.html

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Lady_of_Raynham_Hall

 

http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/dorothywalpole.htm

 

https://fern-flower.org/en/articles/ghost-rayham-hall