Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Early 'Ouija Mania'

I recently received the following from reader Garron Yates...an excerpt from Mrs. Wakeman vs. the Antichrist: And Other Strange-but-True Tales from American History

From the Oakland (CA) Tribune, December 26, 1919:

Richmond Milliner Is Run Down by Speeding Motorist, Who Fails to Halt Car After Fatally Injuring the Victim

No trace has been found of the machine that struck Miss Moro at San Pablo and Potrero avenues, just out of Richmond toward El Cerrito. She was found unconscious in the road, the speed of the machine indicated by the finding of her hat 60ft [18m] away, but no assistance had been rendered her by its occupants.

She was taken to the Craven Hospital in Richmond, where her death from a fracture of the skull and internal injuries followed. Richmond and El Cerrito officials are seeking the machine which caused her death but with almost no clews upon which to work.

Chief of police W. H. Wood was confident that the driver would be caught: “We have the testimony of an eye witness who saw the car run the girl down and flee,” he told the Oakland Tribune. “We know where the car was going and we expect to seize the guilty person at any time.” But his prediction proved wrong.

The hit-and-run driver was not found, and eighteen-year-old Jennie Moro’s funeral was held on December 31, possibly the last of 1919’s 3,808 traffic fatalities to be buried that year. “Each year it becomes more and more dangerous for a person to walk the streets,” declared the Census Bureau, but if Stutz Bearcats and Model T Fords endangered American bodies there was another, more subtle danger threatening their minds, and it would twist the Moro’s sorrow into madness.

The Mania Begins

Jennie Moro came from an Italian family that lived in what was then the small Bay Area town of El Cerrito, California. She was survived by her recently widowed mother, Mary, fifty-one, and a twenty-nine-year-old sister named Josephine. She had two small children and was married to Charles Soldavini, a plumber. They lived together in a two-story frame building on San Pablo Avenue, near the place where Jennie was killed, and from which the late Mr. Naggaro Moro had run his blacksmith and plumbing businesses.

The family apparently had a Ouija board since 1918, though they seldom used it and had no faith in its communications. When Jennie died, however, the Moros began holding séances and consulting the board in a psychical search for the hit-and-run driver.

Josephine Soldavini approached town marshal Curtis Johnson, “with a jumble of numbers which she claimed that she had received in a dream” and believed that they formed the fatal car’s registration number. When a corresponding number was not found in the automobile register, the séances continued. Mrs. Moro contacted the spirit of her late husband, Naggaro, who threatened to punish her daughter’s killer, and the family was “gradually drawn into the belief that communication with the dead was being had through the board and through dreams.”

The “board” at the center of their efforts was patented as a “toy or game” in 1891, and a popular craze by 1920. Most players took a lighthearted approach to the results, using it to find missing objects or learn the future (“Tell me Ouija, that’s a dear / Who’ll be president next year?”), while others worried about its effect on the user’s mental equilibrium.

At the University of Michigan, Ouija boards were reportedly “replacing Bibles and prayer books,” so that a local nerve specialist was treating female students for “extreme nervousness” brought about by “too close association with the Ouija board and too great belief in its wandering. They had become fascinated by its message and had come to place so much trust in them that they were in a serious condition when they were turned over to him.” Men were also vulnerable, and a member of the staff warned that “[T]he ouija is becoming a serious menace to this country.”

Séance in the House of Mystery

On February 25, the Richmond Independent reported that, “Tony Bena, a neighbour, said that Mrs. Moro came to his house...and said she was going to save him and his family. She had wept on his arm at the time and he had tried to calm her. This is the first time he had noticed anything peculiar in the actions of his neighbors.”

A few days later, a hole appeared in the Moro-Soldavini yard (or, perhaps, a block away from their house) that was about the size of a grave, and appeared to have dirt added or removed every day. This looked like the work of the spirits to Mrs. Moro, her family, and a growing circle of séance participants that came to include two nephews, Louis and Henry Ferrerio, and the Moro’s neighbors: John (Giovanni) B. Bottini, forty-five; his thirty-six-year-old wife, Santina; and their daughters Rosa, age twelve, and fifteen-year-old Adeline.

The high school principal described Adeline as one of her brightest girls and said that she had been perfectly normal “until this change came down on her.” The teenager came to believe that she was clairvoyant, a trance medium, and possessed by the spirit of Jennie Moro, who “was completely in control of her body dictating every action.” The spirit of “Mrs. Thomas, a colored woman who had been dead for some years,” was also said to have power over her.

As the séances continued, the spirits wanted Adeline to have a comb decorated with “six stones of different hue.” But Mrs. Bottini was unable to find one and bought her daughter a six-colored corset instead. This, and other odd requests, might have been part of the preparations being made for a grand “Passion Display” that was expected to take place at five P.M. on March 3, when “the evil in all of them would be cast out” through the influence of Jennie Moro’s spirit. The mystery of the hole would be revealed soon after.

Adeline dreamed that evil spirits were in her clothes, so those were burned along with some money and, possibly, the Ouija board itself. Mr. Bottini also bought her an expensive new dress, and possibly a $150 diamond ring; the spirits apparently liked clothing and jewelry.

With the Passion Display drawing near, séances went on twenty-four hours a day. Rosa Bottini was unable to keep food down and needed to be revived several times with “holy water.” Adeline said that Rosa’s hair must be cut to save her life and it was, along with that of another child, and the clippings burned to dispel evil spirits. There were now five children in the house, as well as Mrs. Tony Bena, who was threatened with “bodily harm” if she tried to leave.

Mrs. Bena had been there twelve hours when the Ouija board commanded the group to collect her daughter. Finding the Benas’s door locked “the enthusiasts beat upon it with a hammer. Tony Bena, worried concerning his wife’s absence drove the messengers away and decided to seek police aid in breaking up the séance.”

El Cerrito did not have a police department in 1920, so town marshal A. W. MacKinnon was informed that the two families had drawn their curtains, barred the door and were “acting queerly.”

At three P.M. on March 3, MacKinnon asked Chief Wood, from neighboring Richmond, for help. They met at the Moro-Soldavini house—dubbed “the House of Mystery” by journalists—along with six officers and two patrol cars.

The police were refused entry but did not have to force their way in. Perhaps Chief Wood met the family after Jennie’s death, or knew that the Moros and Soldavinis were “highly spoken for by neighbors as law-abiding hard-working Italian people.” Whatever the reason, Father J. J. Hennessy, a pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Berkeley, was sent for and persuaded the group to open the door and let officers enter the house. Adeline was “scantily clad” or wearing her new dress, the children were hungry, and the communicants “in a state of high nervous excitement and nearing exhaustion from lack of food and sleep.” When the group realized they were being arrested, Mrs. Moro reportedly screamed, “My husband is here and he will kill you!” Whether or not the late Mr. Moro was present, a “lively tussle” ensued and the eight Ouija board enthusiasts taken to the county hospital at Martinez. Mrs. Bottini went into a trance and told officers “she had gone through the torment of the crucifixion, and then, being addressed by the Deity through her daughter, she had been brought back to Earth.”

John Bottini was released and instructed to appear in Judge R. H. Latimer’s courtroom the next day, so the County Lunacy Commission could evaluate those who had been arrested. In the meantime, Bottini looked after his youngest daughters, while Mrs. Moro’s cousin, Joe Ferrerio, cared for the Soldavini children.

The hearing lasted several hours. Tony Bena and Joe Ferrerio were present, and Rosa Bottini gave the panel of three doctors “a clear and lucid description of what took place.” This contrasted with the account given by the four female “Ouijamaniacs” who talked “wildly” whenever the board was mentioned. All four were judged insane “on their own testimony,” and Judge Latimer committed Adeline and Mrs. Moro to the state mental hospital at Stockton, and Mrs. Bottini and Josephine Soldavini to the Napa asylum. The men were released after they “disavowed their belief in the alleged messages of the board and said they took part in the séances in an effort to dissipate the hallucinations of the women.”

Charles Soldavini reportedly burned the board that night, but the Ouija’s resilience is legendary and it continued to fascinate those living around San Francisco Bay.


Four days before the families were arrested, a brick was thrown through a jeweler’s window, reportedly at a “suggestion from the Ouija board.”

A few days after that, Captain O’Day, of San Francisco’s Potrero police station, filed a report with his chief on March 4 expressing concerns about officer Elmer H. Dean, who “had been acting peculiarly and talked much of the information he had obtained from a Ouija board. He said he had a message instructing him to capture some mysterious enemy.” Dean borrowed a revolver from the station and did not report to work the next morning.

He was found at Berkeley and sent to the Anderson sanitarium at Fruitvale but escaped, jumping onto the running board of a passing car, pointing the gun at the driver, and demanding to be taken back to Berkeley. He undressed along the way (no small trick while clinging to the outside of a moving car) and when they reached downtown Oakland, the naked Dean took refuge in the Central Bank Building. A patrolman brought a blanket and returned him to the hospital, where doctors attempted to evaluate “the effect the Ouija board produced upon his mind.” Such incidents were not restricted to California.

The citizens of Macon, Missouri, had become so preoccupied with the board that “one person in five of the entire population . . . had fallen a wild-eyed victim to the strange malady” and preparations were under way at a local institution for their “wholesale reception.”

Back at El Cerrito, it was reported that “Ouija mania has gripped the entire city.” A meeting held at town hall on March 4 resolved to ban the board and have the town’s 1,200 residents examined to see if they were under its influence. A committee was formed to approach psychiatrists at the University of California and enlist their help.

Meanwhile, the “varnished and nimble ‘wee-gee’” was being denounced from the pulpit (“People who consult the Ouija board rather than Christ are displaying a yellow streak”), in the lecture hall (“as dangerous as a shot-gun in the hands of a maniac”), and by newspaper editors (“time for an end to the tolerance that has given the Ouija a wide and claptrap popularity”). San Francisco’s Spiritualist churches proposed a “Ouija board test” for the police force, claiming that “insanity of the kind disclosed by the Ouija board prevails to a degree 250 times greater among policemen than another other people.”

The board was called a drug “that is put into the brain directly . . . and the damage is swiftly and directly done,” and an illness with a recognizable course. “Dementia Ouija usually does not manifest itself in the form of frank delusions or hallucinations, but rather in an insidious way. The victim first regards the instrument with amusement, later with interest, still later with mystification and finally when the mind is sufficiently debased by the insane business, with actual reverence.” Furthermore, Ouija madness was a communicable disease.

Sacramento’s health department ordered detectives to break up Ouija board meetings, and that city, along with Oakland and Richmond, considered ordinances to prevent sales of the board. State senator William R. Sharkey prepared a bill to prohibit the “spirit’s switchboard” in California altogether, but unlike the Prohibition of alcohol that began two months earlier, attempts to ban the board proved unsuccessful

Richmond discovered that it did not have the authority to prohibit Ouija boards, the citizens of El Cerrito were not subjected to mass analysis, and there is nothing to suggest that police “séance squads” carried out raids. In July, Oakland detectives did arrest a medium for producing “spirits” that advised her clients to buy oil stocks that she controlled, but this was not the “War on clairvoyants, spiritualists, séances and Ouija board manipulators” described by the press. In fact, a determined anti-Ouija movement never appeared, and most of those deranged by the board soon recovered.

The fate of the naked policeman is not known, but the four women at the center of the Ouija hysteria were freed before the end of April; their descendants still live at El Cerrito, where the events of 1920 are largely forgotten. The House of Mystery is also gone, and a Target superstore stands on the site.

Cinema de Ouija

Cerritoans might have put the business behind them, yet the story remains intriguing.

In 2003, writer-director Ryan McKinney began work on a supernatural horror movie about a young married couple who move into a Victorian house where they discover Mrs. Moro’s twice-burned Ouija board in the attic. The husband warns his wife not to touch it, but the film’s promotional tagline is “One little question won’t KILL me!”

McKinney “looked into some of the stories of what happened, what was reported, and then took it a level further to see what happened to people who participated in it.” The result was The Invited, starring Carlos Alazraqui and Pam Grier, which was released in 2010.

Films sometimes revive interest in the events that inspired them, and much of what happened in 1920 remains unexplained. What was the group trying to accomplish? Did Mary Moro, or the others, consider themselves psychic before the séances began? And why were the men released when John Bottini is quoted as saying: “We believe in the Ouija board and our faith is unshaken. The board will drive away evil spirits. Do you think we look like maniacs?”

In addition to insanity, Ouija boards have also been blamed for a handful of murders, but millions of divorces and suicides. But millions have experienced nothing more traumatic than a giggle. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering El Cerrito before dimming the lights, resting your fingertips on the planchette, and asking: “Is anybody there?”

Mrs. Wakeman vs. the Antichrist: And Other Strange-but-True Tales from American History

Ouija Board Nightmares: Terrifying True Tales

Ouija: The Most Dangerous Game

Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board

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