The Ouija Defense

Can using a ouija board lead to murder?  And what would a court make of such a defense?   You might be surprised...

Ouija boards, a.k.a. spirit or talking boards, have a long and somewhat colourful history.   While "talking boards" were a standard tool for Spiritualists through much of the 19th century, it wasn't until inventor Elijah Bond first patented his Ouija board in 1890 that things became interesting.   Largely seen as a parlour game novelty, the ouija board craze really began in the first few decades of the 20th century.   One famous case that helped spark this craze involved a Missouri housewife named Pearl Curran.  It was Curran who first reported in 1913 that the board allowed her to communicate with a mysterious entity named Patience Worth.   Through this mysterious link, Curran eventually became a prolific author producing novels, plays, poems, and eventually a monthly magazine - all reportedly dictated by Worth.

Not surprisingly, evangelist preachers began denouncing the boards as evil while skeptics dismissed the messages conveyed by the boards as examples of the ideomotor effect.   Despite the controversy however, the venerable ouija board remained a big seller for the Kennard Novelty Company (and later Parker Brothers).  People from all walks of life insisted on using the boards to seek advice on just about any imaginable topic.  

Original_ouija_board[1]Which brings us to the events of November 18, 1933 when a 15-year-old girl named Mattie Turley shot her father with a 12-gauge shotgun at their ranch near Springerville, Alabama.   Though severely wounded, Ernest Turley  lingered for a month before finally succumbing.   Which was when Mattie and her mother, Dorothea Irene Turley, were both arrested for their joint role in the death:  Mattie for firing the fatal shot and Dorothea for instructing her daughter to commit murder, apparently based on instructions received from a ouija board.

While Mattie initially insisted that she had killed her father by accident after stumbling,  forensic evidence quickly ruled this out.   It was only after Mattie was interrogated by police that she finally confessed what had really happened.  "Mother asked the ouija board to decide between father and her cowboy friend,"  she told astonished listeners.  "As usual, the board moved around at first without meaning .  Suddenly it spelled out that I was to kill father.   It was terrible, I shook all over ... Mother then asked if the shooting would be successful.  and it said it would;  she asked if he would die  outright and it said no."   The helpful board also advised them to use the family shotgun and thy the law wouldn't be a problem.    

According to Mattie, her mother then confirmed the ouija message by doing a card reading for her husband. Drawing an ace of spades (the death card) apparently confirmed that Ernest was meant to die.   Mattie told police that she tried to kill her father right away but lost her nerve.  Only after following him later and thinking of what it would mean for her mother did she finally raise her gun and fire.   

With Mattie's confession in hand, police then turned their attention to her mother.   Dorothea Irene Turley had been a beauty contest winner two decades earlier.   After winning the title of "Miss American Venus"  (for her striking resemblance to the Venus de Milo),  her future likely seemed bright enough.   She then went on to marry Chief Gunner's Mate Ernest J. Turley and had two children, Mattie and her brother David.   After Ernest retired from the Navy in 1933, they moved to Arizona together, reportedly for Dorothea's own health.    Bit the former beauty contest winner was apparently not particularly enchanted with this new life.

She soon found two new interests to occupy her abundant free time.  The first of these was with ouija boards, an obsession that she passed on to her daughter Mattie.   The second interest came later in the form of a rather buff cowboy living nearby named Kent Pearce.   Despite there being few actual details about what passed between them, Dorothea wasn't particularly discreet about her desire to be with Pearce.    She even confessed to a neighbour that she intended to marry him as soon as she got rid of her troublesome husband.   During her subsequent trial, prosecutors produced evidence that Dorothea had tried to kill Ernest herself on two occasions though she wasn't as successful as her daughter.

Dorothea's lawyer tried valiantly to prove his client's innocence.  He began by insisting that the shooting had been accidental and that Mattie had  been aiming at a skunk when she accidentally hit her father instead.  As for his client, he stressed that Dorothea had no idea of what the ouija board had told her daughter and that Mattie was "talking insanely."   In any case, the court had no problem finding Dorothea guilty, largely based on the revelations about her and Kent Pearce.   She was sentenced to a ten to twenty-five year sentence in the state penitentiary.  

Mattie, who was a minor at the time, was sentenced to the State Reform School for Girls in Randolph, Arizona until reaching the age of twenty-one.  According to one report,  she reportedly told the reform school matron on admission that "she was sorry she killed her father but remained "certain of the ouija board's instructions."   But the case didn't end there.    

In June, 1936, the Arizona Supreme Court overturned Dorothea's conviction and ordered a new trial arguing that the lower court committed multiple errors.   Chief Justice Alfred C. Lockwood described the case as the "most remarkable" ever presented to the Supreme Court but argued in his summation that the first jury had been unduly swayed by the revelations about Dorothea and Kent Pearce.   The judge also ruled that the jury had convicted Dorothea due to allegations about her moral failings rather than the actual facts of the case (which was true enough).

Dorothea's new bid for freedom worked.  The charges against her were dropped and she was released after spending three years in prison.   Once free,  she was wasted no time in trying for a reunion with her daughter.   Unfortunately for her, Mattie had been made a ward of the state and, according to news reports, refused to have anything to do with her mother.  In fact, she stated publicly that "it is best that we never see each other again."   Dorothea insisted that she would keep working for a reconciliation and that she would take her back to New York to live with her brother.  

Mattie was kept at a secret location, mostly to avoid any contact with the press (and her mother).  In November of that same year, she was quietly paroled and prison officials refused to release any information about her plans.  "This girl has received too much publicity", said the judge who had granted her parole.  "She has her life to live and I think she should be left alone."   Dorothea seems disinclined to accept this and even went so far as to sue the reform school matron, Thelma Bradford Bailey and her husband for "alienation of affection" due to their allegedly turning Mattie against her.   It was a hefty suit demanding $75000 in damages (quite a sum in those days).   The lawsuit was eventually thrown out of court in 1939.   Dorothea and Mattie both faded into anonymity after that with no further mention in any newspaper that I could find.  No word on whether Dorothea ever married her cowboy.

Even today, ouija boards seem to have a permanent place in popular culture including numerous  horror movies, literary works of varying quality (allegedly dictated by spirits), denunciations by fundamentalists, etc.   Still, they make surprisingly few appearances in criminal trials (but not for want of trying apparently).   In that respect at least, Dorothea Irene Turley and her daughter have the dubious honour of making legal history.

Something that neither of them likely appreciated.


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