A Letter to the Lab from Denis Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J. B. Rhine were not friends. When J.B. and Louisa Rhine published a report in 1927 denouncing the medium Mina Crandon, (aka Margery) Doyle slammed them in the press. Only the year before Doyle and members of the British Psychic College had presented Mina with a silver cup that read, “in recognition of your heroic struggle for truth,” (pictured here) so he was not pleased with the Rhine’s conclusions.

Doyle came to Mina’s defense and attacked the Rhines in a New York Times piece. “Job was a hot-blooded and impetuous person compared to them.” Then, after characterizing the Rhine’s report as “colossal impertinence,” Doyle talked about Mina and her husband’s careful efforts to modify the controls of their work whenever objections were raised. “And now comes Dr. Rhine with his eagle eye, and on the strength of a single sitting he broadcasts the opinion that all these years of ceaseless labor and contention have been founded on senseless fraud, and all these sitters incompetent dupes.”

That was pretty much what the Rhines had concluded. So I was very surprised to find a friendly and admiring letter from Doyle’s son Denis to J. B. Rhine. It was written on November 19, 1940, ten years after his father had died, and it reads:

Dear Dr. Rhine,

I recently had the pleasure of reading some account of your profoundly interesting experiments in the realm of telepathy and thought transference. You are to be congratulated upon a painstaking, valuable and constructive contribution to human knowledge in this important field of research, which [is] as little understood as it is constantly misrepresented.

My own personal interest in the matter lies in the indirect connection which exists between your realm of research and my own, which is directed towards furthering the studies and experiments into demonstrable survival after death of my father, the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and especially into the field of Universal Spiritual Law and its possible application to mundane affairs, both individual and international.

The immediate importance of your work, if I may say so, seems to me to lie in the irrefutable establishment of the mind as an entirely separate and distinct unit from the physical body, able to function independently of it. The importance of this basic fact is of course of overwhelming significance, since it forms the first fundamental step towards that infinitely comprehensive range of knowledge of the three-fold composition of Man—Body, Soul and Spirit.

I should welcome the opportunity of meeting you, as I believe there are many points of contact between our respective lines of research which I should like to discuss with you. Apart from that, it would be a pleasure to make your personal acquaintance.

Believe me,
Yours very truly,
Denis P. S. Conan Doyle

P.S. I am at present on a lecture tour in this country, and I hope that my schedule may bring me in your direction.

This is a 1947 Life Magazine picture of Denis. Rhine’s November 23rd response follows.


Dear Mr. Doyle:

I am glad to make your acquaintance, having of course heard of you and having been at a strategic moment in my life considerably influenced by one of your father’s lectures.

What you say about the interests we have in common is entirely correct, and whatever differences there might be in other features this basic similarity of purpose should warrant our keeping in touch with each other.

Accordingly, if you are ever in this part of the country, as I hope you will be, I should be very glad if you would drop in to visit our Laboratory and talk over our fields of interest. If I am in New York, I shall look you up.

Sincerely yours,
J. B. Rhine

The Rhines were influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle very early in their careers. They had attended a lecture of his while Louisa was in her third year at the University of Chicago (1922-1923). Their friends wouldn’t stop making fun of Doyle afterwards, but there was something about Doyle’s certainty that he had communicated with his dead son that impressed the Rhines. They didn’t know if his belief was justified either, but it reinforced their growing interest in subjecting psychic phenomena to rigorous scientific investigation.

Denis (and his brother Adrian) frequently lectured, promoting Spiritualism, but Denis sadly died in 1955, when he was only 46 years old.

Whatever happened to Jackie Merkle?

While I was researching my book I constantly came across these former psychic superstars. For a time there’d be a flurry of activity around them, lots of press, letters, and public appearances to either demonstrate their talent or expose them as a fraud. Eventually someone would write the Parapsychology Lab and ask if they were looking into this person.

I researched a few of these individuals and wrote about what I found, but there were many more that I passed by. One of them was little Jackie Merkle. This letter to the lab about Jackie, however, is interesting because of the source—the New Yorker magazine—and because of what the writer says. I’m reproducing the letter here so you can see what I mean.

The thing I don’t understand is, the boy disappears completely a couple of years after this letter. What happened to him? Even if he was a fraud, he’s clearly a very good one and people a lot less skilled were able to make a living from their comparatively meager skills for a lifetime. Why not Jackie? And what did he ultimately do with his life? My searches so far (admittedly brief) haven’t turned up anything except for a few more articles from the 30’s marveling at his abilities.

It’s so sad about Jackie losing his mother at such a young age. I do wonder about him. And his father.

November 26, 1936

Dear. Prof. Rhine:

Since I began reading magazine and newspaper accounts of your experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance, I have wondered whether anyone ever tipped you off to an 8-year-old boy named Jackie Merkle, and whether you have ever put him through a conclusive test.

The boy baffled me and others who have tried to divine how he works. Of course, none of us testers was very well versed in the phenomena which seemed to be involved, but we gave him what seemed to us foolproof tests. I will relate them briefly and you can judge for yourself.

We tried the simple test of putting him in an adjoining room, writing words and sentences (or geometrical figures) on a piece of paper and asking him what had been written. He answered these easily. Next, without any writing, one of us would think of a name, or a word, or a combination of words and ask him to tell what it was we were thinking of. This took him a little longer but he got the answers. We worked this both in the same room with him, and by having the tester go to another room, fully out of sight of the boy. In this test, some of the testers would think of long medical words. The boy would stumble over pronouncing them, but he never missed.

Next, we sat him at one end of a long room. At the other end was a shelf of books. One of us would pick a book at random, open it at random and ask the boy to tell what was on the printed page. He was very slow and stumbling about this but accurate in his reading to a syllable. The bookshelf was unfamiliar to him and unfamiliar to us. None of us knew where any book would fall open. During much of this test, the boy was looking at a funny paper. He has a passion for comic strips and sometimes it is difficult to get him away from them long enough to perform.

Next, one of us, whose background he couldn’t have known, asked Jackie questions about his (the questioner’s) history. The boy told him how and where his mother died (in Dublin, of cancer), what her name was, where the tester’s father had been born, what his name was, and a number of other things of the same nature. A woman in the groups said: “I am thinking of the name of a dog I once owned. What is it?” The boy instantly gave it and it was some complicated name like Sir Ronald of Twyffort Fields.

Jackie is the son of a pair of acrobats. His mother was killed in a fall and his father, now a retired acrobat, lives off the child’s vaudeville performances, scooting along the thin ice of child labor laws as best he may. Jackie doesn’t perform much around New York because of strict enforcement but spends most of his time ranging around the country, mostly in the gaslight circuit, astounding the natives, as he astounded us here. One of his father’s favorite publicity stunts is to take Jackie into a local newspaper office where the boy stops reporters, stenographers, printers, et al, and tells them very intimate things about themselves, such as how many children they have and their names, their past occupations and their current ambitions. His talent is frankly being commercialized and I think he give a lot of phoney answers just to please the theatre customers. Many ask: “Who stole my diamond ring?” and he usually answers: “A domestic.” In this sort of thing, I believe he is a plain fake, but I simply cannot doubt his telepathic abilities.

If you are interested in this boy, I will be able to get in touch with him. May I request that if you decide to test him the New Yorker get whatever story there may be in it?

Jack Alexander

[I thought I copied Rhine’s response to him, but I can’t find it. I will continue looking.]

Letters Received at the Lab

The best poltergeist case I found took place out in Seaford, Long Island in 1958, in the home of James Herrmann and family. Once the disturbances were publicized people started writing the family with suggestions about what to do. Detective Joe Tozzi, who was working the case, went through every letter they received. This is a Life Magazine picture of Tozzi and Mrs. Herrmann going through the current batch of letters.

I enjoyed reading them and I’ve reproduced one below. It’s filled with misspellings and bad grammar, but I’m typing it in as is.


Dear Family:

Concerning your trouble in your house, I like to ask yours some questions, if the answers are true, may be I can clarified your trouble.

My question are if in your family or relatives or may be you had two daughters been dead or kill some time ago, Or two girls that be very friendly to you die or kill some time ago. You think about that if something in this letter are true I know for sure what is happening in your house. Then I can come out to your house and explain you how to cure that. I saw to girls look alike in your house doing all that trouble. Maybe I am wrong but this two girls are dead sometime ago.

Hoping everything goes fine,
Sincerely yours,

I’m leaving the name out, but it was a man who lived in Jamaica, Queens. The last two lines are heavily underlined, by Tozzi I’m sure, who didn’t like the sound of them. It makes me think of the Diane Arbus photo that Stanley Kubrick borrowed from to great effect in The Shining.

Sad Letters to the Lab

I’ve written before about the many sad letters that would arrive at the lab every day.  Every time I read one I wondered how the scientists would manage to come up with a compassionate response to them, or if they would answer them at all. They always did though.

Here is an example of one of the letters they would respond to.

My Dear Dr. Rhine:

I have read a good deal about your experiments in psychic phenomena (or parapsychology), but I don’t think you’re getting anywhere near the truth until my own case is exposed completely and the scientific oligarchy that rules the United States by “human farming” is exposed and stopped.  I was brutally experimented on years ago and I pray and work for exposal.  This scientific gang deliberately produces fake phenomena by remote control using ultrasonics, microwaves, pulse modulation, etc.

After Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated, I was broken down by government scientists (undoubtedly) by remote control using sound waves.  They used also what I call “mental telephony” on me and projected images by remote control to members of my own family.  I was reduced to poverty, forced into a state hospital because I was penniless, where they produced over a hundred heart attacks by remote control until my heart valves were defunct, then they kept me alive by pulse modulation (sound wave pressure) for years.  I had all kinds of things done to me and was attacked in four different states.

I am just a living dead woman and I know there are no spirits nor anything left after death, and some of your experiments under the circumstances are useless fakes.  You can’t experiment with parapsychology properly until the atmosphere of the United States and the world is cleared of remote control experiments by science by ultrasonics on human brains and material objects.

Why don’t you work for exposal of this gang who victimized me, if you expect to make any genuine progress in your experiments?  Otherwise, how can you know genuine results from the false?  Please acknowledge this at least.

Harold Scharper and Why I Loved Reading the Letters

One day while going through the Parapsychology Lab archives, I came across this November 9, 1946 letter to J.B. Rhine from Harold A. Scharper, a returning WWII soldier who was now a paraplegic writing from the Vaughan Veterans Hospital, in Hines, Illinios. He’d heard about their work and was offering himself up for research.

“I will have to resort to developing more than I ever dreamed the use of my intellect.  I finally believe that this is an asset to most disabled people for we have the time and can develop the patience needed far better than the normal person … I am not going to kid myself into believing I will be able to perform miracles but I do as I said before firmly believe that the work that you are doing can help me and others like myself to become leaders in many fields.  I will appreciate deeply anything that you can say or do to confirm my belief.”  More below …


J. B. wrote a tender letter back, assuring Harold that it was true, “about the capacity of the mind to make up in one for the handicaps that may develop” but he wanted to give him more.  He included some of the lines from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, The Chambered Nautilus,

“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll.
Leave thy low-vaulted past.
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from Heaven with a dome more vast
Till thou at length are free
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s
unresting sea.”

And he closed with, “Our research does, I think, help support the view that the mind is a free, creative, volitional system.  It does encourage one to reach out for greater powers.  It adds to the sense of adventure in merely being alive.”

I was able to find out a few things about the very active Harold Scharper. He was married the year he wrote Rhine. The next year, in February, 1947, he attended the first meeting of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He then went on to serve on the Board of Directors for Delta Sigma Omicron, which was founded in 1948 at the University of Illinios, where Harold was a student in psychology at the university. “Delta Sigma Omicron was an integral part of the first comprehensive program of higher education for those with disabilities in the world … It co-sponsored the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in the spring of 1949 and shared in the growth and development of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and other sport activities for those with disabilities.” Harold played on that first wheelchair basketball team, called the Gizz Kids.

Sadly, he died the next year, on June 7, 1950. He was only 31 years old. Delta Sigma Omicron established two awards in his name, the Harold Scharper Service and Achievement Awards.

Harold served in the 15th Infantry and had been wounded at Anzio. Oh god, I just read this in a description of what happened at Anzio. “Efforts by the 4th Rangers and 15th Infantry to rescue the beleaguered units failed, and by noon armored units of the Hermann Goering Division had forced the Rangers into the open. The Americans had only grenades and bazookas for antitank weapons, and as they attempted a fighting withdrawal in small and scattered groups they were cut down mercilessly. Of the 767 men in the two battalions, only 6 eventually returned to Allied lines.”

The picture is from the University of Illinois Archives. The caption reads, “Member of the University of Illinois Gizz Kids being hugged by a Gizz Kid Cheerleader.”

Exorcist To-Do

In one of the chapters in Unbelievable, I talk about the actual case that inspired the book and movie The Exorcist. I had intended to try to track down Dr. Mabel Ross, the child psychiatrist who examined the boy at the center of this case.  

Dr. Ross had two interviews with the child, and there was supposed to have been a third, but the family never brought him back. Dr. Ross, if still alive, would be in her eighties now, at least.  I see that she is depicted in a 1997 movie about this called In the Grip of Evil.

Rev. Luther Schulze, the clergyman who contacted the Parapsychology Laboratory, didn’t think this was a case of possession and neither did J. B. Rhine, the head of the lab. (This is a picture of Father Walter Halloran, by the way, who assisted at the exorcism. I don’t have a picture of Rev. Luther Schulze.)  

Rhine and Schulze were skeptical about the cause.  Schulze, for instance, wrote Rhine about the words that were purported to have appeared on the boy’s body.  “My physician and I saw no words,” Schulze wrote, “but we did see nerve reaction rashes which had the appearance of scratches.”  

Schulze did witness some very bizarre events involving the boy, which he couldn’t explain, but he didn’t think the answer was possession.  They thought perhaps it might be psychokinesis or a poltergiest, but they also thought it was also just as likely that there would be a psychological explanation.

Sad Letters

I’ve written before about the thousands of letters received at the lab. Many of them were so sad. People sometimes wrote for help the lab couldn’t give, like finding missing children or for assurance that the voices they heard were ghosts and not mental illness. The lab always answered as compassionately as they could and did their best to direct the writers to where real help could be found.

A sample of the letters received follows after this picture of the lab staff at their evening staff meeting, where they would go over their current projects and experiments and the daily mail.

“About five years ago I started hearing someone or something thinking to me, I say thinking because it is not like a voice or a whisper. It is more like my own thoughts, but I know it isn’t … I have adopted a very bright healthy boy and once in the beginning of this, this thought train said I had to choose between my son and my parakeet …”  1958.

“Since September 13, 1962, Diane Y., age seven, and her brother, Mark Y., age two and one-half, have been missing from their home … At first it was thought they may have been taken by a gypsy woman, now many believe they have been murdered. Please advise me …”  1963.

“My brain is two-in-one, uncomplete. New cells are even now in the process of completion, whose function it will be to benefit mankind. Already I have a flexible gristle-type growth within my inner ear and lower part of my brain. With this I receive telepathic messages of earth and spatial origin … you will probably be receiving letters from the Dept. of Defense, and various other sources about me. So be it.”  1959.