Let Their Spirits Speak

One man can't rest until he knows the mystery behind the Ouija board, and the secrets that only two dead Baltimore brothers knew

April 27, 2008|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Reporter

Perhaps if Bob Murch had thought to ask his first Ouija board, it might have told him what was ahead: meandering trips through dank graveyards, hours of rooting through archives for patent files and court transcripts, landing in the middle - and helping resolve - a nearly 100-year feud between the families of the two Baltimore brothers who marketed the "all-knowing" slab of wood.

But he didn't, and 15 years later, he's still immersed in his quest to document the history of "The Mystifying Oracle" - that diviner of the future, that gateway to the spirit world, that simple lettered board, born in Baltimore, that went on to become an icon of both pop culture and occult subculture.

Murch was merely doing a favor for some friends - wannabe frat boys in need of Ouija Boards for rush-related scavenger hunts - when he bought his first one at an antique store. He bought more at flea markets, and some online. Most had these words at the bottom:

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Sunday's Arts & Life section misidentified William Andrew Fuld as his father, William Fuld, creator of the Ouija Board. William Andrew Fuld was pictured with his sister, Katherine Fuld, in the 1939 file photo.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

WILLIAM FULD, BALTIMORE, MD., U.S.A.

Murch, yet to turn 20 and living in Salem, Mass., at the time, was intrigued by the obscure name, the slightly less obscure place and how they combined to spawn the Ouija Board. So he set out to find out more about the history of "talking boards," which were first mass marketed under the name Ouija.

Had it been the 1960s, the decade in which the Ouija Board reached its peak, Murch would have had few places to turn: the board itself, maybe, or the World Book Encyclopedia - the two shared bookcases in many a mainstream suburban home. This was the 1990s, though, and Murch had the Internet. One could rest a hand on a little plastic thing - come to think of it, a little like the Ouija Board's windowed planchette - and point and click for answers.

But, also like Ouija, the Internet could be pretty ambiguous, Murch found, leaving the same uncertainties that users of the Ouija Board had in earlier decades: Can I believe this? Is it telling me the truth, or simply what I already know? Is it leading me astray? Is it - gasp! - a tool of the devil?

"I found lots of conflicting information," said Murch, 34, who was raised an orthodox Jew and was turned onto the macabre and mystical by a sci-fi and horror-show-watching grandmother. "I decided to stop reading what everybody else said and start from scratch."

On the phone, through e-mail and in repeated visits to Baltimore, he pestered newspaper librarians for access to yellowing clip files and century-old articles on microfilm, pushed caretakers for access to their cemeteries and directions to gravesites, and prodded curators of historical societies and museums for any pieces they might have to the puzzle.

Much of Murch's time, though, has been spent researching family trees, seeking descendants of the men who first manufactured the Ouija Board - chief among them, William and Isaac Fuld, the two brothers whose falling out would lead to a 100-year silence between the two sides of the family.

Someday, it will all come together, Murch says, in a "coffee-table-type book," loaded with pictures of the board. For now, it's a Web site (williamfuld.com), where Murch holds a virtual monopoly on Ouija trivia.

But documenting the history of Ouija - which actually outsold Monopoly one year in the mid-1960s - isn't enough for Murch; he wants Baltimore to pay homage to it as well.

He's urging the city to designate as a historic landmark the former Ouija Board factory on Harford Road - the one from whose roof William Fuld fell to his death.

He has raised $2,000 for a Ouija-style headstone for the unmarked grave in Green Mount Cemetery of Elijah Bond, the Baltimore attorney who first patented the board.

And he'd like to see a Ouija Board museum someday, located in Baltimore, of course.

It's not reaching those goals that keeps him searching. For Murch, an administrator for a Boston investment firm, the momentum is in the mystery - the new questions that come up, and the big one that lingers: What drove the Fuld brothers apart?

The Fulds' descendants don't know the answer - nor do they understand Murch's intense fascination with their family.

"We don't know why Bob is so interested," said Kathy Fuld, granddaughter of William Fuld. "I've never found it that particularly interesting."

"It was the oddest thing, somebody from that far away being so overly interested in my family," said Stuart Fuld, of Bel Air, grandson of Isaac Fuld.

William and Isaac Fuld made Ouija Boards together from 1898 until 1901, when Isaac was ousted from the Ouija Novelty Co. Isaac started making his own line of Ouija Boards, but was sued by William. Isaac then started making "Oriole Boards," from the same stencil as Ouija, with one word replaced. William badmouthed the boards as fake, and in 1919, Isaac sued him.

William Fuld won, and was a millionaire when he fell to his death while supervising the installation of a flagpole. The iron support he was holding came loose from the brick. By then, the Fuld brothers had gone 25 years without exchanging words.

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