Letters to the Lab from a Freedom Rider

I’m taking a side trip from parapsychology today. I watched a documentary on PBS the other night about the Freedom Riders. I learned so much that I hadn’t known before, and I am now even more impressed by what they did. They were just so mind-blowingly courageous.

I bring this up because while I was researching the Lab’s archives at the Special Collections Library at Duke, I came across some letters between Gaither Pratt, one of the scientists at the lab, and his son Joe, who was a freedom rider. Just 19 years old, Joe joined the Freedom Riders and was one of the people arrested in Mississippi and who spent more than a month in Parchman Prison, an experience I now know a lot more about. It was not pretty. I think it’s even more impressive when people like Joe, who was raised in the south, in a segregated state, got on those buses.

Dear Joe, We had begun to despair of hearing directly from you, one letter began.

A desperate father, Gaither had even written the prison and offered to take his son’s place. But on the whole, Gaither doesn’t say much. He’d learned that his letters weren’t getting through, so he had written accordingly. “I hope you appreciate the fact that I’ve been speaking carefully to make certain you get this,” he said at the end of one. In a letter to his other children he wrote how “people like Joe are suffering a lot personally to make the rest of us wake up to the fact that a lot of our citizens are regularly denied the rights of citizenship.”

Anyway, I just wanted to note this. You raised good kids, Mr. and Mrs. Pratt.

The Medium Who Committed Suicide

I had intended to write about Ted Serios, the man who was said to be able to take pictures with his mind. But while reading through some 1962 letters about Serios between Dr. J. B. Rhine and Pauline Oehler, who had written an article about Serios for Fate Magazine that year, I got side-tracked by a reference to a medium who killed herself in 1911, and the man who had conducted experiments with her the year before, Dr. Tomokichi Fukurai.

Thank heaven for Google and the internet! The medium was a young woman named Chizuko Mifune and Fukurai wrote about the experiments (and others) in a 1931 book titled Clairvoyance and Thoughtography. I didn’t read the whole book, but they were basically ESP card experiments. Could Chizuko tell what characters were on the cards without seeing them? Fukurai reported that she could at first, but then her abilities declined. There was talk of cheating and scientists became skeptical about all her results. At around this time her sister developed abilities. On January 18th Chizuko killed by taking poison. She was only 24 years old.

Kyohei Iseri, her former school principle and the one who introduced Chizuko to Dr. Fukurai, wrote to Fukurai afterwards. He mentioned that Chizuko’s sister had become clairvoyant, hinting that this was an issue, and that Chizuko’s reaction was, ‘I have now become of no use of the world.’

“She looked very pitiful and I solaced her with all my heart. She confessed: ‘I feel it already hard to read a card in a single envelope …’”


Fukurai talks about her death in the book, and says it could be due in part to “family affairs,” without explaining what those were, and the fact that she was losing her abilities. He also writes a little about her psychological history, saying she was sensitive and temperamental, had trouble sleeping, and perhaps she had an eating disorder, but he downplays one symptom that I found very interesting.

“She began to hear singing in the ears since about twelve years of age, and this became continuous.  She was, however, fond of music by nature, and, especially after the clairvoyant force appeared, she began to enjoy herself by playing the koto, a Japanese instrument.  She did not find it so difficult to hear music as to hear others talking.”

I’m currently researching a book about singing and the composer Robert Schumann had a similar disorder and it worsened. It drove him crazy and he ultimately tried to kill himself as well, but he didn’t succeed and he was committed voluntarily to an asylum which he never left.


Chizuko Mifune’s story is a sad one. But apparently she has captured the imagination of the Japanese public. According to Wikipedia, “Chizuko Mifune has recently grabbed the attention of Japanese horror filmmakers and has in some way been acknowledged in such films as Yogen and Ringu.” She has also been the inspiration for various Japanese novels and anime, I’ve read.

In 1919, as a result of his work, Fukurai was forced to resign from the Imperial University of Tokyo, but he continued to study psychic phenomena, and he died in 1953.

“Yes, it is too bad about Professor Fukurai,” Rhine wrote in one of the letters to Oehler. “The poor man was not very careful. I have had several inquiries made about him and what he left. Friends have visited his institute. Had he been more of a scientist he might have made great headway for parapsychology in the Japanese culture, which is much more favorable than ours. But then, too, he might not have found what he claims to have found had he been more careful. Who can tell?”

Letters to the Lab

Now and again I think about this one paragraph from an August 30, 1944 letter of J. B. Rhine’s. I wish I could research it more. Apparently Rhine was having some sort of exchange with one of his donors about Thomas Edison. (I posted about Edison and the afterlife here and here.) But it’s not the part about Edison that haunts me. Here is the paragraph:

“I did not make myself clear about Edison. I am satisfied about the facts. There is a man named Fitzgerald in Detroit who is doing something similar. He is a young physicist. He claims to have read Edison’s notes, as well as those of Steinmetz [famous inventor and engineer who worked with Edison] and Tesla [another famous inventor and engineer]. I have only talked with him over the long-distance telephone. He claims to be able to register electric wave transmission given off by the action of a muscle twenty-five feet across the room. He wants to investigate mediums to discover whether they can transmit some physical force which his machine can pick up. I have a friend in Detroit investigating him.”

I wonder what happened to Fitzgerald. I didn’t copy the entire letter, and I’m not sure why I didn’t. I must have been tired. I’m completely ignorant about things like this though — does the body emit electric waves?


[That’s a picture of Tesla that I found while googling.]

Oliver Lodge

One June 29, 1940, just under two months before he died, the physicist Oliver Lodge wrote J. B. Rhine. The first half of the letter is typed and the rest is handwritten with a very shaky hand.

Dear Dr. Rhine,

I have heard so much about your experiments in telepathy that I rejoiced to get an authoritative account, and especially to know that a University Professor of Psychology was taking up the subject. And now I find that you were aware of my own work in the same direction, although it was carried on in a back-stairs manner and had no University status At the same time I was personally convinced of the reality of what you have rechristened E.S.P.

I desire no more evidence; only now the subject is on the way to becoming respectable, treated in a handsome volume, published by Henry Holt, & vouched for by several Professor as a branch of Psychology.

Yours faithfully,
Oliver Lodge


Lodge is referring to the book Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, which was co-written by J. G. Pratt, J. B. Rhine, Burke M. Smith, Charles E. Stuart, and Joseph A. Greenwood. I double-checked and was happy to see that Rhine had credited all the telepathy experiments that Lodge had undertaken before Rhine. The Lodge letter was very gracious and Rhine was thrilled and proud to get. He wrote a very admiring and grateful letter back.

Ah, the last paragraph from Rhine says this: “I hope, as most Americans do, that the Nazis can be kept from carrying out their threat of destruction of English civilization. I heartily wish we were allied with you on this as we were in 1917.” A year and a half later he would get his wish.

Commander McDonald to Captain Rickenbacker

On November 1, 1943, Commander Eugene F. McDonald, the founder and president of the Zenith Radio Corporation, sat down and wrote WWI hero Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who was then working for Eastern Airlines.

My Dear Eddie:

“… I am enclosing a copy of my letter to Dr. [Joseph] Banks Rhine of Duke University written in March of this year. This letter I wish you would stick in your pocket and read at your leisure. I wrote the letter to encourage Dr. Rhine to carry on in his work and not be stopped by scientific scoffers.”

“In 1923 I put on the first program that was ever produced for radio on the subject of telepathy on our radio station WJAZ. I did this with the cooperation of Dr. Robert Gault, head of the Department of Psychology of Northwestern University, and Dr. Gardner Murphy of Columbia.”

“In 1938 I put on a program on extra-sensory perception which program was supervised not only by Dr. Gault but also by Dr. [Joseph] Banks Rhine, who was then starting his work at Duke University on extra-sensory perception. This program I put on the national chain and carried it on for nearly a year. There was no faking. It was a sincere attempt to make extra-sensory perception a subject which should be discussed …”

“Before I used Dr. [Joseph] Banks Rhine I called a number of scientists out on my yacht each Sunday to interview him and ascertain whether or not in their opinion they thought he was conservative.”

“I’ll never forget what our great physicist, Dr. Arthur Compton, said. After he talked with Dr. Rhine for over three hours on my yacht he said, “Rhine, I was asked out here to ascertain whether or not you were conservative enough. My answer is going to be that you are too conservative. You’re trying to explain everything by the laws of science. You can’t do that. There are too many facts which we must accept cannot be explained by the now known laws of science.”

McDonald then closed his letter by asking Rickenbacker to keep his letter to Rhine confidential.
Rickenbacker said he read the letter to Rhine with interest, but I have to say, he doesn’t sound very enthusiastic in his answer. He sounds like he was just being polite.

But after googling him for a while I see he had a few psychic experiences during the war (and near-death experiences) so he was definitely open-minded about the subject.

Also, McDonald mentions a recent American Magazine article of Rickenbacker’s titled: When a Man Faces Death. McDonald said it was one of the most inspiring articles he has ever read, but he makes an interesting correction. He says Rickenbacker made a mistake that “so many people make in referring to the science as ‘mental telepathy.’ All telepathy, as we know it, is mental.” So Rickenbacker must have written about telepathy in the article.

I want to add that I love the story McDonald told about Compton saying Rhine was too conservative. Years later Rhine would say that Compton was too credulous.

IBM and ESP Part One

One of the most fun finds I made while going through the Parapsychology Laboratory’s correspondence was a 1938 exchange between J. B. Rhine and IBM.

Rhine contacted them first. “I am writing you concerning the possibility of adapting the Test Scoring Machine which you have invented, to the purpose of research we are conducting at the Parapsychology Laboratory here in extra-sensory perception.” Rhine was always trying to refine their experiments and tighten the controls, and part of that quest was the creation of an ESP machine.

The best part in this exchange however, was the response from IBM. “There is no question in my mind,” Reynold Johnson wrote back enthusiastically, that “it would be possible to develop a machine along the lines that you outline.” Again, this was 1938.

Reynold Johnson wasn’t just any IBM employee. He had designed the test scoring machine Rhine mentioned while working as a high school science teacher, and his design was bought by IBM, who then hired him as an engineer. Johnson went on to have an amazing career, with 90 patents to his name and he has been called the “father of the disk drive. (His Wikipedia entry is worth reading, he was an interesting guy.)

“I have given some thought to the application of the Test Scoring Machine to the problem you describe,” Johnson went on, “and have made out several forms which might possibly work out for the purposes you have in mind.” A detail from one of the forms he sent is shown above.

Johnson wasn’t sure if his machine could do the trick and said, “Undoubtedly a special machine more along the lines you outlined could be developed, but a good deal more information would have to be made available to us,” and then they talked about where the funds would come from in order to pay for the development of such a machine.

In the last letter I found Johnson said he was going to take up the matter with their Engineering Department and get back to him, but I couldn’t find any more letters after that. That isn’t to say they aren’t in there. There are over 700 boxes in the Parapsychology Laboratory archives at Dukes and I didn’t go through them all.

I keep meaning to post about how much else is in there to explore. I just scratched the surface. There are still countless discoveries like this one to be made.

Forgotten Mediums of New York

In 1945, J. B. Rhine started corresponding with the widow of Lt. Ernest D. Wenberg, an Army doctor who died on December 23, 1944, while a POW of the German government. Like so many other widows who wrote J.B., Mrs. Wenberg wanted to communicate with her dead husband. Her letters to Rhine described all her recent sittings with the psychics of New York, where she was living at the time, and also a few of her encounters outside New York.

For instance, the Rev. C. Drayton Thomas had held four proxy sittings for her with the British medium Mrs. Leonard, who doesn’t really count as a forgotten medium, at least not forgotten by any students of parapsychology.

But the more interesting parts of Mrs. Wenberg’s letters were the sections about mediums I’d never heard of. Mrs. Wenberg was getting advice from a Miss Gertrude Tubby, the former secretary of the late Dr. James H. Hyslop (a Columbia professor turned psychical researcher). Miss Tubby said she only knew two reliable mediums in New York. The first was Beulah Brown.

When I googled Brown I found that she was still working as a psychic until at least the late 1970’s. She gets a brief mention in a Jazz Times article about the composer and musician Horace Silver. “Around that time, in the late ’70s, he also consulted with the New York-based medium, Beulah Brown, who gave him the name for his label, Silveto.”

This was an ad placed in the New York Times in the 50’s.


The second medium recommended by Miss Tubby was Mrs. Tellier, the widow of Louis Tellier, a French golfer who hung himself in a shelter on the grounds of the Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, Massachusetts.


I have yet to find out a thing about Mrs. Tellier, who refused to sit with Mrs. Wenberg. She told Mrs. Wenberg she was “not taking any more sitters for a couple of weeks, due to physical and emotional fatigue.”  

Update:  a relative of Mrs. Tellier (Sheila Ryan) has very kindly sent me a photograph of Mrs. Ella Tellier.  She is the one in white in the back row at the left.  Sheila doesn’t know a lot about her, but she is going to try to find out more and she said she would share what she learned.  Thank you Sheila, and thank you for the photograph.


Meanwhile Mrs. Wenberg continued to visit mediums, whether they were recommended by Miss Tubby or not. She tried to see someone named Eddie MacKay, but at the time MacKay was “very skittish and would not see me unless I was vouched for personally or by letter by my informant,” who was not named. The unnamed informant in turn recommended a medium named Edward L. Thorne.

However, in her letter Mrs. Wenberg describes Thorne as “the most mercenary and unmitigated fake. He holds no private sittings—why should he, since he gets a dollar for an average of 2 1/2 minutes of drivel at his public meetings and must pull down $75 dollars easily every night.”

Thorne is to the far left in this picture, which is from a June 16, 1941 Life Magazine article about the skeptic Joseph Dunninger. Mrs. Wenberg said Thorne looked “something like an older edition of Orson Wells” and I can see it. That’s Dunninger on the other side of the table.

Mrs. Wenberg attended two of Thorne’s public sittings and her accounts are quite detailed. But when it came to Thorne, Mrs. Wenberg sided with Dunninger. “… it is sickening to see such creatures battening on the credulity and perhaps grief, of people. Not the least distressing thing is to have individuals who seem to be intelligent recommend frauds to one. It makes me doubt what one reads in even apparently well-authenticated books.”