Message received… and with that William Wheeler and his Wireless Messenger spilled their secrets. Mind you, it only took five collectors, two librarians, two local historians, the Connecticut Secretary of State”s office and their archives, a researcher at the National Archives, and the Copyright Catalogue to get this little board to tell its tale, and what a tale it is!
Up until now, we dated this board circa 1898. As I was creating the Wheeler timeline and documenting sources I realized I wasn’t sure exactly why that was. I looked up everything I had and came up empty. So, I hit up Gene Orlando from the Museum of Talking Boards to see what he had. It turns out that because Wheeler advertised two of his books, “Life” published in 1890 and “Rest” published in 1892, on the back of his boards and separately on flyers that he sent out in 1897-1898, we’d simply assumed this board dated to the same time. It’s funny because we have this inside joke that whatever date we guess, take that and add ten years. I’m a record guy and learned a long time ago that no matter who you are and what you do, you leave a paper trail. Copyrights, Trademarks, and Patents have helped us solve many Talking Board mysteries in the past, so that’s where I started. Bingo Bango, on June 14, 1916 William Wheeler received a copyright on the Wireless Messenger. What does this mean? It means it’s the only date we have right now to assign to this board. It doesn’t mean he didn”t manufacturer it earlier only that we have nothing today to say that he did.
Because this little guy has “Trademark and Patents Applied For” printed on its bottom front side, I checked into those two. Trademarks aren’t catalogued and searchable online YET so those are tough and this one doesn’t say REGISTERED. Patents, however, are and Google loves them. Try as I might I couldn’t find any talking board patents for Wheeler or his company, though I did find eight other patents for him. So, I hit up Gene Morris at the National Archives who oversees Patents and Trademarks there and asked him a simple but ginormously tedious and boring task, to search from 1890-1916 for any trademark or patent applications that might remain. If a trademark isn’t granted its application gets tossed after thirty years so, I wasn’t very hopeful there. But I ‘d learned from Gene Morris in the past that EVERY single patent application gets recorded in one or both of two places; the Register of Applications for Patents and the Serial Register of Applications Received. Neither of these sources are indexed, both are hand written, weigh close to 25 pounds apiece, and are huge. Gene Morris had to meticulously look through every page of these enormous volumes. What did he find? NOTHING. Damn
So, I’m thinking how can this be? The trademark mystery can be solved in that if he applied for one and it didn’t get approved, it was simply tossed. But, what about the patents applied for printed on the face of each board? If he’d applied, there should be a record of at least that. Well, as it turns out, IF 1916 is the correct date for the birth of the Wireless Messenger then we may have our answer. Thanks to Melissa Murphy at the Meriden Public Library we now have William Wheeler’s obituary and the first of two previously lost photos of William Wheeler himself. Turns out, he died on December 27, 1916 just six months after his Wireless Messenger copyright. Ironic isn’t it? The man who considered himself a Spiritualist and made a talking board to communicate with the other side crossed over himself shortly thereafter. To add to the irony his factory was built directly across the street from the local cemetery. Seems Wheeler’s life was surrounded by death
Now, Obituaries are a treasure trove of information and almost always contain new leads and bread crumbs to follow. Wheeler’s is no different and today we know a lot about a man whose Wireless Messengers have intrigued customers and collectors for almost 100 years. We know he was born in East Haddam Connecticut which explains why he was buried in Moodus Cemetery. He moved to Meriden to work with his brother Frank in his photography business then struck out on his own in 1876 specializing in photoengraving and opened a plant on Pratt Street. A few years later he expanded and built a new factory at 191 Hanover Street on the corner of Hanover and Randolph Avenue. Turns out that factory still stands and has since been turned into apartments. (I’ll get to how we figured that out in a bit.)
According to his obit, Wheeler incorporated his company in 1891. With this date in hand I reached out to the Connecticut State Department who in turn put me in touch with their archives and librarian Laura Day. With this 1891 date she quickly found Wheeler’s original incorporation papers which were dated June 10, 1891 and list William Wheeler, his wife Emma Wheeler and Edward G. Johnson as stock holders and directors. She was also able to see the company was formally dissolved on December 31, 1953 meaning the company survived William and his wife by thirty-seven years. Yup, I said wife because, as it turns out, Emma Wheeler survived her husband less than a week and parted the veil herself on January 3, 1917
Remember I said that obituaries are a researcher’s jackpot? Well, Emma’s had its own tale to tell. It turns out the Wheelers weren’t the only family in their neighborhood to cross over in rapid succession. In fact, three families, including the Wheelers, were effected and four people all died within a week leaving only one member of those families alive. None of the families effected had any children. Things that make you go hmmm right? All of which reminds me to use hand sanitizer the next time I participate in a Spiritualist circle LOL.
William Wheeler wasn’t only interested in the dead, while among the living he was active in local politics moving from Democrat to Populist and according to his obit was one of the leading free silver men in Connecticut. He wrote a number of novels and his writing and opinions were often featured in Meriden papers. He invented a rotary engine, taking out six patents and incorporating a company for that purpose. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t met with much success and the company soon dissolved
Score right? We have one faded and grainy photo of Wheeler, know a bit more about the man behind his Wireless Messenger, and a working date for it. Now I wanted to know if the building still standing on the corner of Hanover Street and Randolph Avenue was indeed Wheeler’s factory and the basement where the last remaining boxes of his boards were found. The man who started this whole hunt, Calvin Von Crush, put me in touch with the man who did the original clean out years ago and indeed he confirmed the L shaped building, now apartments, was the building he found the boxes of Wheeler boards in.
What more could anyone ask for? Well, enter Allen Weathers, the eighty-five year old head of the Meriden Historical Society. I had called, left a voicemail and emailed them and a few days later I got a call back. It was Allen who took a keen interest in what he called “William Wheeler and his spiritualist ways” which worked out great for us. I told him we were looking for a better photograph of Wheeler, a map showing we had the right building, a photograph of the factory in period, and anything else he had on Wheeler. He recruited Bruce Rovinsky a fellow member of the Meriden Historical Society and off they went to work.
It wasn’t long before these two came up with the goods. Allen found a 1901 Sanborn-Perris Fire map showing the plans for the building putting the final nail in the coffin of which building was Wheeler’s. Alan also remembered he’d seen a photo of William Wheeler before and reminded Bruce to look in a book he had “The Meriden Daily Journal Souvenir Edition” from 1895. Among the pages was a short article on the man behind the mystery along with a crystal clear photo of him. Bruce even went the extra mile to scan everything in and drove to Wheeler’s old factory taking photos of it and its view of the graveyard. Amazing stuff.
So is this the end of the story? Not even close. Remember, Calvin is a Meriden native and I’m poking around in his stomping grounds. Look, I love Cal. He’s hilarious and a loyal friend so Wheeler gave me the perfect excuse to visit Meriden and get as close to Wheeler as we could without crossing over ourselves. So, off I went and met up with Cal at his place. Ok, I drove like a bat out of hell so I actually beat him back from his hair cut. The always fun and lovely Izzy, Cal’s better half, was there and we just chilled out on the couch and caught up. When Cal got home he took me through his place, which by the way is actually setup like a museum. From oddity to oddity we moved going over his latest talking board finds. When Izzy could hear both our stomachs growling we knew it was time to get this adventure on the road. First stop? Cal insisted we visit Ted’s Restaurant home of its World Famous Steamed Burgers since 1959.
If you’re anything like me you probably have no idea what the hell a steamed burger is and why it’s so amazing. First of all the portions are huge and when I say they put a slab of cheese a few inches thick on top I’m not kidding. Ok, we mowed like we’ve never eaten before and this might be our last meal. We probably should have ended rather than started here because now we had to walk off all the Burger now sitting inside us. Seriously, it was delicious!
Next stop? Wheeler’s factory, the one today’s maps now show as 193 Hanover Street but once you get there, you can see a very small 191 on the electric meters. Cal and I took some photos of our own and poked around a bit. Pretty cool to visit the spot where our Wireless Messengers came from and as we looked out across the street at the graveyard it was hard to shake the feeling that we were being watched. Was it Wheeler looking on as we received his wireless messages? That’s a negative. It turns out we were indeed being watched. Neighbors began coming out, wondering what the hell we were doing snapping pics and hanging out on the corner. Time to go!
We drove down to the road to the Meriden Public Library to meet Melissa Murphy, the librarian who’d taken so much of her time looking and scanning pieces of the puzzle in for us. I hid my XL Dunkin Donuts iced coffee in the lobby and we saddled ourselves up to the information desk. Melissa was waiting and she was as happy to see us as we were to see her. She took us to the Meriden local history room where’d she’d done much of the research. Amazing. Among the shelves and pages of all these volumes were William Wheeler’s story, just waiting to be uncovered and pieced together. We took more photos and thanked Melissa for everything. She had to get back to work and we had one last stop to make. BTW – bonus, as we left the library my ice coffee was still there…hiding right where I left it!
We plugged Moodus Cemetery into the GPS and Google said it was about 45 mins away with traffic. It was time to pay a visit to good ole’ William Wheeler himself. Cal makes an awesome co-pilot. He points out all the bizarre locations that if you didn’t live close by you’d never know about. Prostitution busts, long ago murders, and the random strange crime. The drive was fast but as we drove up to the cemetery we realized pretty quickly we had a problem. Though Wheeler’s obit and FindAGrave.com had told us he was here, they didn’t say where. Moodus is an OLD cemetery and there’s no visitor center or info station. We started toward the middle of the cemetery and Cal asked me to pull up the pics from FindAGrave. He looked at them closely and could see some landmarks. In the background you can see the church steeple, a few tall monuments, and a brown round grave. Cal was off like a dog with a bone and as we made our way back further and further we spotted it. Just off to the right was William Wheeler’s final resting place.
Ok, I get it, we’re weird. We didn’t just drive all the way to visit Wheeler, say hello, goodbye, and leave. We wanted to take pics and Calvin brought the single most important prop. He pulled out one of the very Wireless Messengers he scored from that original property cleanout which put us on the hunt to chase down Wheeler’s ghost in the first place. We put it here, there, and everywhere snapping photos the whole time. You’d think I’d be psyched right? Though we still need to nail down that 1916 date, we know so much more than before about the man behind his little pre-internet texter with the dead. And how lucky am I? I got to make some new friends and spend time with old ones. Truth is, I always hate this part, the ending of an adventure. As we took our last pics we thanked William Wheeler for the story and added to all the other Talking Board makers we’ve uncovered, message received.
No good story ends without a trip to Friendly’s and neither did this one. After the cemetery we headed back to Cal’s, picked up Izzy and headed to a Friendly’s that put me on my way back home. Have you been to a Friendly’s lately? If not you should. They’ve completely redone their menu and we had a waiter who couldn’t stop asking if we needed anything, did we like our food, and could he get us anything else? We recounted the day to Izzy who humored us. I’m thinking she was just happy to have the day to herself. Even though I’ve spent more than half my life hunting the ghosts of Talking Board makers I know all too well the best part of it all is sitting in some diner late at night with your living friends laughing. Now the only real reason you go to Friendly’s is for the ice cream and after we finished ours it was time to head home.
I live about a two hours north from Cal and on the way home I thought about all the people who it took to help tell the story of William Wheeler and his Wireless Messenger without whom none of the above would be possible. These people are the real heroes in this story and I can’t thank them enough. Thanks to everyone involved the ghost of William Wheeler should haunt the pages of Meriden’s history for generations to come and it doesn’t get much better than that.