Bank Street in 1942

Below, I tell the story of a possibly once haunted house on Bank Street in the West Village of New York City. (It’s the May 26th post.)

I searched the digital archives of the New York Public Library and found this 1942 picture of the building.

It’s the second building to the left of that car.

The block is largely unchanged since then. Only one building is gone today.

Gertrude Schmeidler, RIP

I only just heard that Gertrude Schmeidler, a well known psychologist and parapsychologist, died on March 9, 2009.  She was 96 years old!  We talked a number of times while I was researching my book, although she preferred email.   It frustrated her if she couldn’t couldn’t think and respond quickly, although I never noticed a delay.

So sad.  Towards the end of my research I looked into an interesting experiment that Gertrude had tried in the seventies.  She started bringing a control group to hauntings along with mediums.  She was doing this in order to use statistics to analyze the medium’s findings.  She’d put together a list of things that were reported in the initial hauntings.  She’d then compare what the control group sensed and felt to what the mediums sensed and felt.  Did the medium’s impressions fit more than the control group’s?

But she’s probably most famous for what are referred to as her sheep/goat experiments.  From the Parapsychological Association website.  “Repeatedly, average ESP scores of subjects who rejected any possibility of ESP success (whom I called goats) were lower than average ESP scores of all other subjects (whom I called sheep). This was inexplicable by the physical laws we knew; it implied unexplored processes in the universe, an exciting new field for research. From then on, naturally, my primary research interest was parapsychology.”

Most of my questions were about Parapsychology Lab and the people who worked there.  These were the people I was writing about and most have them had passed on.  She knew them, and her descriptions were so personal and colorful. 

I asked her about her first contact with J. B. Rhine, who headed up the Lab.  

“That first contact I had with the Parapsy Lab was a pleasant surprise to me: a letter from Dr. Rhine, whom I’d never seen, saying nice things about my work.  I don’t remember what year, but it came soon after I began publishing in parapsychology.  Early-ish in World War II.”

Did she ever work at the Lab?

“No, I never had any formal connection to Dr. Rhine’s lab.  It took my husband and me about five minutes of serious consideration to decide it wasn’t what we wanted—about the same length of time as to decline a similar invitation to him from the military.  But I gladly accepted – and very much enjoyed – Dr. Rhine’s invitations to visit for a weekend.”

I found a letter where Rhine described her visit.  Everyone loved her of course, and Rhine noted that she seemed to get along with Charlie Stuart and Betty Humphrey best.  I had asked Gertrude to describe Betty, and her description, like all her descriptions, gave such an evocative glimpse!

“When I first met her she was a tall, rather gawky young woman, strong and well built, with a face that the French might call belle laide—not conventionally pretty but attractive because she was such a thoroughly nice person that it came through in the way she looked. She had a friendly, hearty manner; outgoing.  And not only was she bright, and a good experimentalist who was sensitive to people’s needs, but she also was interested in the deeper theoretical questions that her research couldn’t directly address.”

I asked her why she didn’t accept Rhine’s overtures about working at the Lab.  Most of the reasons had to do with her husband’s professional needs and interests, and Gertrude’s interest in teaching psychology, and family concerns, but she also said this.  

“ …. here’s an anecdote to show the second major reason: my preferring not to be in an authoritarian society.  On one of my delightful, friendly visits to the parapsy lab, always full of good will, I attended a seminar. The staff and visitors sat around a table, with Dr. Rhine at the head.  He’d bring up a problem – for instance a request that had to be granted or denied.  Anyone who had an idea spoke up, one way or the other.  When all had had their say, heads turned to Rhine and there was silence.  Then he spoke, telling us the decision … There was no pretense of being first among equals; Dr. Rhine was First.”

Two days later she wrote me, concerned that she had been unfair to J. B., which shows what a decent person she was.

“I told you only a badly incomplete, one-sided impression of J.B.  The very same characteristic that made it impossible for me to work contentedly with or under him was a characteristic that made him an important, useful figure in the world.  There’s a place for alpha males!  In fact, it’s impressed me that most of the (admittedly few) Nobel laureates I’ve known were tall, muscular, powerful men, insistent on achieving their immediate goals and careless about brushing other people out of their way.”

I found a 1952 letter Gertrude had written to Gaither Pratt, another scientist at the Lab, after Rhine had fired Betty Humphrey and Frasier Nicol (that’s a whole other story).

“Betty has written me something – only a little- of what’s been happening at the Laboratory, and told me that she and Frasier left. I’m sorry – even though I don’t know enough about it, to know what to be sorry about. But your Laboratory was such a wonderful place when everyone was friendly and bubbling with ideas and full of new projects that I can’t help wishing those times never had to change.”

Gertrude did get to teach psychology, as she had wanted, at City College.  But her archives are not there!  They’re at Duke I see, you can read an overview of the collection here.

Wow.  It’s so extensive and varied.  Sy Mauskopf interviewed her in 1976 for his book The Elusive Science, and there’s a tape of that interview at Special Collections Library at Duke, in the Seymour H. Mauskopf Papers, 1972 – 1985.

Gaither Pratt and Pigeon Homing

This picture makes me a little sad.  The Office of Naval Research had funded a project, headed by Gaither Pratt, to see if homing pigeons were using ESP to find their way.  In 1958 Rhine asked Gaither to give up his pigeon research. He felt the research was more biology than parapsychology, and he was likely correct. But Pratt loved his pigeon work. You could just tell from his letters that the work made him happy. But Gaither’s obedience was absolute, and so he arranged to have the Office of Naval Research grant transferred to the Duke Department of Zoology.

Gaither hadn’t yet been able to answer the question of how pigeons home (and as far as I can tell we still only have theories). And “once Gaither got into something he was like a bulldog and to take him off of something would have killed him,” Rhea White told me. “He was nothing if not thorough, and to leave something unfinished would have really upset him.” Plus, look at this picture. Doesn’t this look like wonderful, idyllic work? I’m not saying Rhine was wrong. I guess I’m just saying it’s too bad we can’t have it all.

CIA and Parapsychology

In 1961, a purchase order came from the CIA for Betty Humphrey’s “Handbook of Tests in Parapsychology,” a set of ESP cards and record sheets, and the entire set of the Journal of Parapsychology (Betty Humphrey was one of the lab scientists).  According to this report, they contacted a parapsychology laboratory at Oxford the same year.

I didn’t write a lot about the CIA’s involvement with parapsychology, so much has been written about it already.  I was just struck by something as mundane as a purchase order coming from a place like the CIA for something as extraordinary as ESP cards. But I did find and write about an 1957 (!) CIA remote viewing experiment.

Pictures From the Rhine Research Center Archives

There were no captions with either of these photographs, so I call them “Nails Guy” and “Tongue Guy.” They’re self-explanatory, but I would have liked to have dates, places and names.  The second woman on the left in the mink and cloche is unmoved. 

Ack, ack, ack.  Oh christ, I only just noticed the guy on the right is holding onto something going through the other guy’s neck.  (Love the glasses.)

My Last Event for Now

I’m trying to psych myself up to schedule a bunch more, but my last event for now is a panel tomorrow at 6:30 at the New York Public Library called:  Paranormal Mysteries: Ghost Stories, Psychics, Vampires, and Things That Go Bump in the Night.

It’s not in the building with the lions, but the one diagonally across the street at 455 Fifth Avenue, on the 6th floor.

This is me and author MaryElizabeth Williams at an event for her new book called Gimmie Shelter.  I look happy because it’s MaryBeth’s event and she’s the one who has to deliver.  I’m just a regular member of the audience.  (She did a great job, of course.) I’m feeling less pressure for this event tomorrow because I’ll be on a panel with a number of people.  It should be a good one for that very reason — a number of people besides me and I’m feeling relaxed!

Cold Cases and Psychics

Part of the point of this book was to get away from unsolved murder, the subject of my last book.  But it just kept coming up. I had started researching a missing child in California named Bruce Kremen, whose family contacted the Parapsychology Laboratory for help.  

This led to a chapter I already mentioned about psychics, and, not surprisingly, to murder after murder. Among them was 6 year old Judith Ann Roberts, who was killed in 1954.  I talked to the original detective on the case, now in his 80’s, and he remembered talking to Peter Hurkos, one of the psychics who had gotten involved with the Kremen case.

I was trying to find a picture of Judith, but all I could find was this much copied photograph that’s been so re-touched she looks ghastly.  There’s only a tiny section in my book about Judith, it’s a truly horrific story.

From a Miami Herald article by Luisa Yanez: “An intruder breaks into a Miami home late at night and kidnaps a 6-year-old girl from her bed. Within hours, her body is dumped on a desolate road in Coconut Grove. She had been beaten, strangled and sexually molested.  The 1954 murder of Judith Ann Roberts, just a month before her seventh birthday, was Miami’s first media-soaked, high-profile murder of a child.  Call it South Florida’s version of today’s JonBenet Ramsey murder mystery.  The abduction and slaying of a little girl visiting her grandparents rocked small-town Miami, where folks until then thought nothing of leaving their doors unlocked at night. Across the country, headlines trumpeted news of a sex maniac on the prowl in sunny Miami.”

The psychic Peter Hurkos said he’d crack Judith’s case within two weeks, but fifty years later Judith Ann Roberts’ murder is still unsolved and under investigation by Detective Andy Arostegui of the Miami Cold Case Squad.

I posted earlier that after a bad experience with Peter Hurkos, the lab refused to give out the names of psychics.  It’s not that they didn’t believe some might have abilities, but they couldn’t find any evidence that they could control them, and there was no way of verifying the information they got, even if it was correct.