The Dangers of Live TV

On Friday night, July 11, 1958, a new tv show debuted on ABC called E.S.P. The reviews were absolutely scathing. “Whatever dignity this ‘phenomenon’ has enjoyed in the past was quite brutally destroyed on the opening session of the new network show,” a Variety reviewer wrote. The New York Herald said, “It took no sixth sense to figure out that ‘ESP’ is fairly dull viewing.”

Who thought two people trying to guess the symbols on a deck of ESP cards would make exciting tv? Everyone involved, except host Vincent Price, had very limited careers after this fiasco.

Poor Vincent Price. First he took 10 minutes to laboriously explain and demonstrate everything that had been done to prevent fraud. I can’t tell what sort of deck they used exactly, because the cards were described as five sets of three cards each, and that’s not the deck designed and in use by the Parapsychology Laboratory. The contestants would then get $100 for every correct guess.

The guests were screened beforehand for ability, and Price hailed them all as has having amazing talents. According to Variety however, the contestants looked embarrassed to be there. Worse, when the game began—airing live from NYC—they failed to deliver. (Not surprising actually.) I’m don’t know how many long television minutes went by before one contestant, a 25 year old ex-Marine boxing champion named Gerald Argento, finally managed to guess three cards correctly, defeating the other contestant, Mrs. Rasie Basu, a Delhi born lawyer who worked at the United Nations, and winning the right to come back the following Friday to face another contestant.

According to an ABC press release, Argento was going to face a Manhattan secretary named Kathryn Papaelion, but I can’t find any confirmation that a second show ever aired.

ESP Games and Academic Politics

In 1939, Rhine learned that the toy company Cadaco-Ellis was planning to come out with a game called Telepathy. The creator was said to be a psychologist named Dr. Ogden Reed.

J. B. Rhine suspected and confirmed that Reed was really Dr. Louis D. Goodfellow, a Northwestern University psychologist who had been hired by the Zenith Radio Corporation in 1937 to conduct ESP tests on the radio. Rhine had been hired as a consultant for that same program, and he had had no end of trouble with Goodfellow. Rhine felt Goodfellow had not inserted sufficient controls into the experiment and had made mistakes with the math. Goodfellow was eventually let go.

Goodfellow apparently had hard feelings toward Rhine because in the pamphlet that came with the game he wrote, “Dr. Rhine’s first experiments were full of loopholes. For example, it was found that the ink with which the cards were printed caused the paper to shrink, etc.”  As far as I know, the example Goodfellow gave was untrue, and while like any experiment, problems with Rhine’s initial experiments had to be identified and addressed, Goodfellow’s bringing it up in this way does feel a little like payback.

Commander Eugene F. McDonald, the head of Zenith, was so incensed by what Goodfellow had written that he told Rhine that he should bring action against Cadaco-Ellis and that he, McDonald, would foot the bill.

Rhine, meanwhile, had written Goodfellow and asked, “Is it proper for an academic man to use a surreptitious approach (in this case, an assumed name) to avoid having to meet the responsibility for the things he is expressing?”

Goodfellow answered that the company did use “a number of my own expressions,” however the creation of a Dr. Ogden Reed was the toy company’s idea, not his. Rhine answered that he had two signed statements from people in a position to know that Goodfellow was the sole author of the statement penned by “Dr. Ogden Reed.” If they removed the controversial matter, Rhine told him, they’d have no problem, “poor as its design really is” for telepathy. But if they released the game as is, they’d “take steps to bring you out in full light as author of an underhand attack and as party to setting up a fake “authority” as a psychologist.”

I found one funny letter referencing this incident from Robert H. Gault, a colleague of Goodfellow’s at Northwestern. Gault wrote McDonald: “Rhine and Goodfellow keep me supplied with carbon copies of their love letters. I’m not surprised that R. is up on his ear. Between you and me and the gate post, I don’t care what kind of spanking he administers to G. The latter is an excellent technical man in the laboratory and in that capacity he is useful to me. But in some other respects he is a damn fool … I’m telling him after today that hereafter I want to know what he is about, provided it is something that by any chance could affect relations outside the laboratory.” Gault went on to write books about criminology.

I found the picture of the Telepathy game on The picture to the left is Zenith president Eugene McDonald.

While I was looking for the picture of the Cadaco-Ellis game I came across this modern telepathy game. And this one pictured below from Milton Bradley.

And speaking of telepathy games, I happened to be researching patents a few weeks ago (about something unrelated to anything paranormal) and came across a 1984 patent for a “psychic connection game.” It was developed by Laurie G. Larwood, who, if I’m googling properly, was an organizational psychologist.

From the abstract:

A game for evaluation and development of various psychic abilities between its participants. Objects are furnished which include bi-valued dimensional attributes, such as rough-smooth, solid-hollow, or heads-tails. A player concentrates on a chosen attribute and attempts to either transmit, receive, block, predict, or influence a given valued condition.

A gameboard is provided on which a player’s successes are marked by position of his player-piece or counter on the board. Counter positions are marked with the chance probability of reaching a given position from a start position in a given number of moves. Board layout is such that if the incidence of successes is greater than that expected by random chance alone, counters are moved toward another player, thereby establishing a higher degree of psychic connectivity.

This is one of the drawings that was filed with the patent.


Parapsychology and Pop Culture

In 1965, two months after the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University closed its doors, the Broadway play On A Clear Day You Can See Forever opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York City. The play is about a woman with psychic abilities who learns through hypnosis that she has been reincarnated. Harvard graduate Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the libretto and the lyrics, had been studying ESP for years. “The weight of evidence is that we all have a vast latent extrasensory perception,” he told a New York Times reporter.  (More below.)

I’ve never seen the play or the movie.  I’m guessing J. B. Rhine would not have approved.  That reminds me, the Rhine’s story begins at Harvard and Boston and I recently learned there’s been an ongoing study of ESP at Harvard for years.  I keep forgetting to call and learn more about the study.

The picture above is of Lerner escorting Jacqueline Kennedy (not yet married to Onassis) to the premiere.

More Parapsychology and Popular Culture

In 1946, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s full-length opera, The Medium, premiered in New York at Columbia University. Actually, does opera count as popular culture?  Sometimes it does, right?  Definitely in this case I think.  Anyway, The Medium told the story of a deaf mute medium who started out as a fraud, but then developed genuine abilities which destroyed her.

From the May 9, 1946 New York Times review:  “Gian-Carlo Menotti’s two-act chamber opera, “The Medium,” given its premiere last night by Columbia University in Brander Matthews Hall, begins so badly that it seems hopeless. But by the end of the second act it has gripped the audience by means of its realistic musical theatre.”

I’ve got it on my Amazon wish list.

Shirley Jackson and J. B. Rhine

The end of this passage from my book sounds very melodramatic, I know, but if you read the book and see what happens next, I think you’ll agree that I did not over-state it.  I’m describing an example of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory work filtering out into art and popular culture:

A main character in Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, Theodora, is portrayed as a Hubert Pearce ESP card-guessing star [Hubert Pearce was one of the lab’s star subjects]. “The name of Theodora shone in the records of the laboratory,” one passage reads.  But in the next sentence Jackson writes, “perhaps the wakened knowledge in Theodora which told her the names of symbols on cards held out of sight urged her on her way toward Hill House …” implying greater ESP abilities than had been so far demonstrated.  It was a leap into magical ESP territory, indicating that Shirley Jackson and the general public didn’t really understand what ESP was or what it could do, a misunderstanding that would soon have tragic consequences.

By the way, I learned that Rhine was offered a huge amount of money from the people promoting the 1963 movie version of the book, if they could film him saying at the beginning of the movie that these were like the kinds of things they studied at the Duke Laboratory.  Rhine refused. 

I found this clip from the movie on YouTube.  The main character, a scientist named Dr. John Markway, is explaining psychokinesis.  I wonder how many time paranormal investigators were portrayed as scientists before Rhine and the Duke Parapsychology Lab?

[Video removed because the link no longer works.]