Let’s Confront Lady Wonder and Get it Over With

I was so excited to see a book devoted to quantum entanglement, by someone named Louisa Gilder.  But then I saw this unfortunate section about J. B. Rhine and telepathy.  “Rhine has displayed the extent of his scientific rigor quite early, in 1927 … by earnestly declaring a horse named Lady Wonder telepathic.  A magician who investigated her the same year discovered that in fact she was reading subtle clues from her trainer’s stance and expression.”

I didn’t want to bring up Lady Wonder in my book because she is always used to make Rhine look foolish.  The story always delivers a one-two punch for critics.  First, Rhine’s an idiot for even thinking an animal could be telepathic, like how silly is to test a horse for ESP??  And second, he’s an idiot for being tricked.

I finally decided I had to include the Lady Wonder story.  If Rhine made a mistake, I shouldn’t hide it.  When I looked into it however, I learned that the stories I had heard over and over were repeatedly told leaving out one essential piece.  More below …

There are basically two versions of this story.  In one, Lady’s owner had been giving her signals, and it was deliberate fraud, and in the second the horse was picking up on inadvertent visual clues from the owner, and the owner was innocent of wrong-doing.  

Here’s the part that is always left out:  Rhine had taken precautions against possible fraud which included testing her without the owner present, and the horse was still able to perform.

Update: Someone pointed out that it hadn’t occurred to Rhine that he too might have been giving unconscious signals to the horse. But that did occur to him. They selected targets silently, shielded their eyes from the horse and leaned against the tent pillars to limit their body movements.

Here’s what has always bothered me about how people tell this story. For those who will accept no experimental results of ESP, no group will be tolerable, but there is no reason animal studies should be a point of ridicule.   I mean, animals are used all over the place in science to learn more about us.  I get that some people think ESP is ridiculous, so it’s all insane to them, and somehow the fact that he pronounced a horse telepathic is the height of that insanity. I get that.  But the fact that he was willing to test a horse for an ability he thought we all might possess is scientifically valid. People use animals to test theories. 

Gilder goes on to say, “To the end of his life Jung believed that Rhine’s experiments had provided ‘scientific proof’ of ESP despite the increasing awareness that Rhine, though sincere, had only a tenuous grasp on the details of scientific method.”

That’s simply untrue and not fair.  (And Rhine would say that their experiments provided evidence of an effect.)  Even the skeptics and critics I researched would not say that about Rhine.  I have countless examples, and here are three. I don’t want to post them all because I plan to have entries about various critics and what they’ve said in the future.  But each of these people were skeptical:

“I would like to mention the fact that I find this whole field intellectually a very painful one.  And I find it painful essentially for the following reasons:  I cannot reject the evidence and I cannot accept the conclusions.” – Warren Weaver, Vice President, Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, on extrasensory perception.  (I posted this Weaver quote earlier.  He went down to Duke to study their experiments and this is what he came about with.) 

“The whole situation is very interesting, and I think those that are especially concerned with “parapsychology” are very lucky indeed to have a person of your scientific temperament engaged so deeply in it.” – Dr. Edwin G. Boring, Harvard University. (Boring also never accepted telepathy, but wouldn’t dismiss Rhine on the basis of sloppy experimental controls, etc.)

“He is an intensely sincere man, whose work has been undertaken with a care and competence that cannot be dismissed easily, and which deserves a far more serious treatment.” – Martin Gardner on J. B. Rhine, from Fad and Fallacies.

If Gilder found critics who described Rhine as having “only a tenuous grasp on the details of scientific method” I would have to say that their research of him is as superficial as hers.  HOWEVER, people I admire greatly, like Michio Kaku for instance, have repeated this mistake against Rhine. It is perhaps a common human foible to sometimes accept without question data which confirms your beliefs and to reject data which doesn’t.

From the Letters in the Parapsychology Lab Archives

The letters received at the Lab gave me such an amazing picture of the people in this country, both good and bad.

Seventy-five foreign students from twenty-two countries had come to Duke in the summer of 1954 to enroll in various programs at the University. They were promised a swim and a picnic to get away from their studies one day, but all the public places in Durham were out of bounds due to the Jim Crow laws at the time and not all of the visiting students were white. The Rhines were then living on a farm by a lake, and the Duke Administration appealed to them for rescue (J. B. Rhine ran the lab). Rhine was more than happy to oblige. The students came to the farm for the day and swam, played softball and J. B. and Louie joined them in the evening for singing.

I couldn’t get over the fact that while some people were working on the discovery of an expanding universe and others a possible sixth sense, there were people who thought the best use of their time was putting through and maintaining legislation preventing black children from swimming in a public pool.

In 1957 Rhine wrote a letter to the editor of Life Magazine in response to pictures they’d recently published of the Little Rock Nine. The Governor of Arkansas had called in the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School in the town of Little Rock. A federal judge ordered them to withdraw, and President Eisenhower brought in 1,000 members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the children to class. Crowds showed up to shout, yell, jeer and spit at the children. One journalist wrote that student, “Elizabeth Eckford’s dress was so full of spit she was able to wring it out.”

Rhine wrote a Letter to the Editor saying, among other things, “The desperate courage of the storming of the Bastille and the riots of Poznan burst spontaneously from the ignition of group emotion. But these children have to walk calmly and coolly out to meet tormenting and humiliating attacks that hurt to the very soul. I cannot recall that there has ever been a more inspiring demonstration of courage by the children of any race, any age … Salute them and I think others will take heart and go over and stand beside them. It may help us to believe this is the home of the brave, perhaps more than it is the land of the free.”

When Life printed his letter, some people predictably did not respond well. A man in Georgia wrote to say that the word “nigger” wasn’t so bad, and scoffed at what he called Rhine’s “emotional tizzy.” But most people responded positively, like Duke alumnus (Law, 1937), and then Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who wrote to say, “I think there has been far too much discussion of the legal problems involved in this crisis and not enough emphasis on the human factors. Your letter will help immensely in bringing about a more proper balance in the public mind.”

After that Rhine and Nixon corresponded for a brief time about the human spirit and, surprisingly—I say surprisingly because I grew up during the Nixon years—Nixon wrote about the importance of protest and rebellion.

Parapsychology and Drugs

“The big new, hot issue these days in many American circles is DRUGS. Have you been tuned in on the noise?” That’s actually from Arthur Koestler’s piece, Return Trip to Nirvana. Koestler and Aldous Huxley were the ones who helped put J. B. Rhine and Timothy Leary together and I write about that in the book.

I wanted to tell another interesting little drug story that I read about in a paper by David Luke.  It’s about an intriguing inadvertent drug/psychic case from 1912.  While deep in the middle of a jungle, a Colonel Morales swallowed the psychoactive alkaloid harmaline, later named telepathine because of its psychic effects.  (I love that name—telepathine.)  Morales had a vision of his dead father and sick sister, except he didn’t know his father had died or that his sister was ill at the time.  They were 15 days from the nearest communications outpost, and Morales wouldn’t get confirmation until the news came by messenger a month later.  It’s a small, isolated incident, yes, but still. Intriguing. 

The picture is of Parapsychology Lab researcher Betty McMahan conducting an ESP test under the influence of a depressant.

Alfred P. Sloan

One of the lab’s more interesting donors was Alfred P. Sloan, the former president and chairman of General Motors who is probably best known for the Sloane-Kettering Institute which he founded with his friend Dr. Charles Kettering. Sloan initially wished to keep his donations to the Parapsychology Laboratory anonymous, and they referred to him as Mr. Junior in all their early correspondence. Rhine and Sloan’s point of contact was New York psychiatrist Dr. Smiley Blanton.

As important as his money was his approval of the direction of their work.  “I believe the question of extra sensory perception, using that term in its broad sense, is more important, in a way, than its impact on the hypothesis of survival,” Sloan wrote. “It is really a study of the mechanism and functioning of the mind, physical and spiritual, one might say. There is much to be learned that we do not know and I am of the belief that basic research, as conducted by you in the past, should prosecute that problem as intelligently and carefully as possible.”

Sloan’s initial grant to the Lab was for $120,000.00. They’d get $40,000.00 a year for three years, beginning in 1957. Rhine hoped that the grant would be renewed at the end of the three years, but Sloane wrote them in 1959 that their relationship would be terminated with the last check which was due the next year.

Sloan was depressed about the recent death of his friend and associate Dr. Charles Kettering, and Blanton was concerned that Sloan, who believed he was going to die soon, was withdrawing from life. “I think the subject of spiritual survival is the only thing that really moves him,” Blanton wrote. He wanted Rhine to write Sloan about spiritual survival and their work, but Rhine said he didn’t want to lie and “top-dress our basket of fruit.”

It was true that Sloan was interested in the survival question. “It has been scientifically demonstrated that man has non-materialistic or non-physical perception,” he wrote Rhine, and “the relationship between that and the impact of such a discovery on survival is really the most significant question, it seems to me, that is before Parapsychological Research.” But he would always come back to, “I think the problem of survival is secondary to determination of further facts in the areas of extrasensory perception.”

On August 31, 1959, Sloan wrote Rhine that his contributions would be coming to an end. “I wish that circumstances with me were such that I might help in a concept which I believe in so thoroughly but as I have told you many times my work in this life is drawing to a close and it is only intelligent for me to not assume obligations beyond an almost day to day basis.” (Alfred P. Sloan lived on until February 17, 1966.)

The Last Witch of Langenburg

I met Duke history professor Tom Robisheaux while I was in Durham last week and I was so impressed I immediately put his book The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village on my “to-read” list.  I just knew it was going to worth reading—the guy worked on it for 15 years. FIFTEEN YEARS.

Sure enough, he got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly (those are not easy to get).

“Duke historian Robisheaux turns the obscure story of a smalltown German woman convicted of witchcraft into a marvelous window onto a society in crisis. On Shrove Tuesday, 1672, Eva Küstner delivered Shrovetide cakes baked by her mother to her neighbor, Anna Fessler, who was still recuperating from the birth of her child a few weeks earlier. A few days after eating some of the cakes, Anna died a painful death. Almost immediately, the community accused Eva and her mother, Anna Schmeig, of witchcraft. In this fast-paced account, Robisheaux chronicles the roles that various ministers, lawyers and physicians play in the indictment of Anna Schmeig and her immediate family. Robisheaux shows that Schmeigs trial and execution as a witch grew out of a small villages superstitions and its belief in the power of God to transform an evil event into an exemplary one. Drawing on rich records of the trials of Schmeig and her family, Robisheaux finely crafts a vivid glimpse of a time, place and state of mind that, though remote, is all too familiar.”

Feedback from one of the Duke Scientists

It was scary sending my book out to the scientists who actually lived the story I did my best to tell. But I got a letter from Dr. Elizabeth McMahan:

“… I find that your factual history of Parapsychology is just what I’d hoped it would be. Unbelievable gives a comprehensive and very interesting account of the scientific studies in Parapsychology. In your research, you have dug out details of the Duke Lab’s history (many of them almost forgotten by me) that I find fascinating.”

“I am convinced that no one could have done a better job of keeping the facts straight while making the story such an interesting one.”

Thank you, BettyMac. (The nickname she was known by at the lab.)

Poltergeists in Virginia

A few years before he died, Gaither Pratt was once again called to a scene of poltergeist activity.  It was 1974, and it involved a family in the small town of Powhatan, VA.  The police had been contacted just as they had been in Seaford in 1958 [another poltergeist case I wrote about], and after determining that a prowler hadn’t been involved they reached out to Gaither who was working at the University of Virginia.  Nothing much happened when Gaither first arrived. (More below …)

Then, on a Sunday evening, like the Reverend Schulze all those years ago [another case], Gaither found himself standing frozen while he watched a “chair tilt backward, gathering speed as it went, and slam its back against the wall.”  For the next three hours it was as if the house was enchanted.  A ghost-like hand was seen at a window.  A closet door opened with a loud bang when Gaither walked past, and a tobacco pouch, a book of matches, and a magazine flew through the air.  Members of the family ran back and forth to report other dreamlike flights of objects.  Two weeks later when the family called begging for someone to come to the house immediately Gaither’s colleague John Palmer was there to take the call.  The house had once again erupted. Among other things a stove was moving back and forth they told him, and doors to appliances and drawers were opening and closing by themselves.  Just before Palmer arrived a stool slid across the floor, “pinning the grandmother and granddaughter into a corner.”  They were able to escape and run outside.  As Palmer’s car came up the drive the grandmother “felt a hard slap” and then a voice saying, “Go away.  Go far away!”  By the time Palmer reached her she was in tears. 

Over the course of the investigation both Gaither and Palmer found evidence of intentional trickery on the part of the children, but the children said they did it to please the scientists, thinking they’d want to see even more things move unaided.  In any case, their admission didn’t weaken Gaither’s confidence about the events he had witnessed directly when the children weren’t around.  

When giving his opinion about the investigation Gaither spoke with greater conviction than he had in 1958.  This was a genuine case of psychokinesis, he said.  He later published a report saying that a large number of the disturbances happened under circumstances that made it possible for him to say, “with complete assurance that no normal explanation could be given.” John Palmer wasn’t so sure.  

The next year, in the small town of Pearisburg, VA, a nine year old boy was placed into foster care with Mrs. Beulah Wilson, a widow.  The two got along well, and the child was looking forward to having his first real Christmas.  The disturbances began on December 19th.  A neighbor ran over while everything was still happening and he was able to confirm with Mrs. Wilson that the boy was with them when things flew, fell or tipped over.  It wasn’t the child acting out, not consciously at least.  Mrs. Wilson said she thought the hand of the Lord was behind it, but she didn’t know why.  Things erupted again on Christmas Eve and the police were called to take the boy away.  Sadly, he spent Christmas Eve in a the police station and was picked up later by a social worker.  “I personally have no doubt that this case was paranormal in nature,” Gaither wrote, while noting that a dozen presents for the boy remained unopened under the tree.  Two days after Christmas the boy was placed in another foster home. 

This story broke my heart a little.  I just can’t get over the fact that this little boy thought he was going to have his first real Christmas and instead spent Christmas Eve in jail and Christmas right back wherever they put kids until another foster family took them.  He never got to open those Christmas presents for him, which he must have been so excited to see.

(The house in the picture is from the Seaford poltergeist case I wrote about.  I didn’t have any pictures from these stories.)