Mondays in Maryland: Spirit Boards in Baltimore

Baltimore, John Wilkes Booth, and…an Ouija board?

It started off, as so many of my adventures do, with a visit to a graveyard.

I was at the un-name-able Baltimore cemetery to find John Wilkes Booth’s penny-covered grave. The cemetery map highlighted many famous–or, in the case of Booth, infamous–names, but one person was conspicuously absent from the roster: Elijah Bond.

Who the heck is Elijah Bond, I hear you ask. Stay with me. Elijah Bond, eternal bedfellow of a presidential assassin, was a late-nineteenth-century lawyer and inventor, and he was not in any way involved with the plot to kill Lincoln.

He was, however, the man who invented the Ouija board.

To be fair, planchettes–the moveable pointing pieces associated with Ouija boards–had been around for centuries before Bond. They traditionally included a pencil on the end, and rather than point at letters, movement of the piece would result in the pencil writing.

Bond had the idea to market the planchette with an alphanumeric board. He received a patent for the bundle in 1891, and soon after the Baltimore-based Kennard Novelty Company began producing the toy.

When Bond died in 1921, he was buried in the same Baltimore cemetery as John Wilkes Booth. And he originally shared Booth’s destiny of eternal anonymity, in that both were placed in unmarked graves.

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It was not until 2007 that Bond’s grave was rediscovered. 21st-century admirers raised funds for a more-appropriate headstone commemorating Bond’s contribution to the spiritual world.

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Finding Bond’s grave is a bit more complicated than finding Booth’s. For whatever reason–most likely because the printed guides have not been updated since 2007–Bond is not included in cemetery’s list of famous burials. A little detective work, though, and you’ll soon see a giant Ouija board in the stoney sea of 19th-century headstones.

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It’s a beautiful memorial. The “good bye,” although printed on every Ouija board, is so final, so sad, in this context.

I wonder if anyone has tried using the gravestone board to communicate with Bond. I confess to briefly entertaining the idea myself.

Bond’s gravesite has thus been saved for future generations, but most of the buildings associated with this story haven’t been so lucky.

The Kennard Novelty Company’s original factory is today the site of the Baltimore Convention Center, while the Ouija Novelty Company–Kennard’s successor–is now a tattered parking lot.

Not all has been lost to the ages. Multiple imitators sprang up after Bond’s 1891 patent, and one of them–the Baltimore Talking Board Company–has survived. Down on Paca Street, next to the University of Maryland Medical Center and, coincidentally enough, just two blocks from Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, its factory lives on as swank condos.

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It’s ironic that the company dedicated to speaking with the dead has itself died, while a cheap knock-off continues to shape Baltimore.

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So, when you dust off your old Ouija board for Halloween this Friday–or go to see the new Ouija movie–pause a moment to thank Elijah Bond and the great state of Maryland for the entertainment.

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