Presentation Today!

Just a reminder that I’ll be giving a presentation about my book today at 3pm.

Then after a short break parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach will talk about “Psychical Research Today: In Life, Lab and the Media.”


Polaris North Theatre
245 West 29th Street
Between 7th & 8th Avenues
4th Floor
New York, NY
$40 at the door

See you there!

Another Inventor and the Afterlife: Glenn W. Watson

Watching the History’s Detectives segment about Thomas Edison reminded me of another inventor who had an interest in subjects related to parapsychology: Glenn W. Watson. From my book:

“Just before Rhine retired from Duke in 1965, a 75-year-old inventor named Glenn W. Watson started writing Clement Stone, one of Rhine’s financial contributors. He was looking for financing for Telepathy-Type, a typewriter that would type out messages received telepathically. Watson, the inventor of the radio typewriter, had come up with the idea 30 years before. AT&T had worked for years on a similar project, Watson said, but had gotten nowhere.

“Stone asked Rhine what he thought and Rhine said the idea had no merit. Engineers young and old had attempted approaching the problem this way, he said. But what they all failed to understand was “that the limiting factor is in the individual, in the deep recesses of human personality, and not in the gadgetry of transmission.” Watson’s plan was “based on a complete misconception of what telepathy is and how it works.”

“Point taken about the limiting factor. But no one really knew what telepathy was or how it worked, including Rhine.”

That came out harsher than I had intended, although technically true. I think in part I was defending Glenn Watson and all the engineers of the world. Watson might have had a different take on the problem, but it was possible that the results of his efforts could have been enlightening.  In any case,  Watson died a few years later sadly, in 1969. But he has an interesting history of inventions and accomplishments.

In 1931, Watson invented something called a radio typewriter. Someone types a message on a typewriter and the message is transmitted via radio waves to a printer. He introduced his invention to the world by sending a message to Admiral Byrd who was in Antarctica at the time. Quite the showman!

A couple of years later Watson developed a machine to read aloud to the blind. Now why isn’t he more well known for that??  Did something come along soon after that surpassed his invention?


Watson also came up with he called the telepiano. The idea was a pianist would play a piano in one location, and that would be transmitted, again via radio waves, to every properly equipped telepiano which would then start playing whatever the pianist had just played. Fun, but I’m skeptical about how well the telepianos could recreate the subtler aspects of the original performance.


In the end, according to a Detroit Free Press article, Watson felt “his greatest work—the demonstration of mental telepathy—is still to be recognized.”

“I’ll put it over,” he said with confidence.  “I know how, but people aren’t ready for it yet. No one believes in anything new, so an inventor has to be a salesman, too.” [True, true.] He also said he was working with “Duke University scientists who are studying extra-sensory perception.”

I don’t remember coming across anything to confirm that, but even though Rhine was skeptical about Watson’s device, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have met with him and heard him out. While looking around to see if I had anything else in my files about Watson I found another Detroit Free Press article (August 7, 1950 ) which says Watson applied for a patent for the telepathy machine, and describes how the machine would operate.

“The machine would have a revolving belt carrying all the letters of the alphabet and other symbols to make sentences. There would be a key and when you pressed it, as the belt revolved below, it would stamp out a particular letter.

“Now to test out mental telepathy you would use two of these machines. One man, who was going to try to send a message by thought, would have a machine in a place remote from one who was to be the receiver.

“The two machines would be synchronized so the belts would be moving together—the same letters passing under the key at the same time.

“The one who was sending would look at the machine and as the letter—let’s say ‘C’—passed below his key he would send the thought ‘now’ or ‘hit it’ to the receiver.

“The receiver would just punch down his key when he thought he received a ‘thought impulse’ to do it. If mental telepathy was working he should hit the ‘C’ the sender wanted him to get.”

Watson thought he could build his telepathy machine for $2,500, but ultimately the machines would cost $97 a piece when he could build them in the thousands.

[The first picture is from Watson’s obituary, Detroit Free Press November 20, 1969. The second is from Popular Science, 1931, and the next one is from Radio-Craft. The date is cut off, but it’s from the thirties. The last picture is also from Popular Science, 1933, and it’s a picture of Watson with his radio typewriter, not the telepathy machine, which I suspect was never built.]

Edison and the Afterlife Part 2

History’s Detectives did a very entertaining segment about Edison’s machine (thank you for the pointer, Winifer Skattebol). You can see it here. It’s the first historical mystery they try to solve and it’s really worth watching.

And, one of their Edison authorities, Paul Israel, the Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers, didn’t try to downplay Edison’s interest in the possibility of life after death.

So there you go!

My Take on Edison and Talking to the Dead

In my book I briefly mention the interview Thomas Edison had with Scientific American about a machine he wanted to build to talk to the dead. While I was researching this section I talked to Jack Stanley, the curator of the Thomas Edison Menlo Park Museum at the time. He said Edison was putting on a show for the reporter. “He was 50% business and 50% show business.” Getting his name in the papers, getting everyone talking was good for business essentially.

A 2004 National Parks Service article essentially says the same thing. “This seems to be another tall tale that Edison pulled on a reporter. In 1920 Edison told the reporter, B.F. Forbes, that he was working on a machine that could make contact with the spirits of the dead. Newspapers all over the world picked up this story. After a few years, Edison admitted that he had made the whole thing up. Today at Edison National Historic Site, we take care of over five million pages of documents. None of them mention such an experiment.”

The National Parks Service is referring to a different interview, one with The American Magazine, and they got the name of the writer a little wrong. B. F. Forbes was actually B. C. Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine.  (It’s probably just a typo, c and f are right next to each other.)

Aside from a single reference by an unnamed “friend” who said that Edison said it was a hoax, I found nothing to truly confirm that this was a either a pr stunt or a hoax, or that Edison later took it back. Instead, what I found was that Edison continued to talk about the possibility of an afterlife until the day he died. Not as something he believed in per se, I don’t think he did, but it was something he though about, and theorized about, and he didn’t rule the possibility out.

In 1947 Edison’s son-in-law, John E. Sloane, while trying to downplay his father-in-law’s connection to the paranormal, said something that sounds closer to the truth: “Mr. Edison was interested in psychical phenomena only inasmuch as he was interested in everything.”


In other words, he was interested. Maybe curious is a better word. It was a puzzle to be solved. An unanswered question. That’s the sense I got from the Scientific American article. I loved how when Edison’s views were published on October 30, 1920, the Scientific American editors were so concerned for their own reputations they felt they had to explain themselves at the beginning of the piece in a box that was outlined twice for emphasis.

“When a man of the standing and personality of a Lodge [a respected British physicist who had also come out saying he was researching life after death] or an Edison interests himself in a subject, the public is never cold to the announcement of what he is doing and what he hopes to accomplish. So when the news went out, the other day, that Edison was carrying on experiments looking toward communication with the dead, the newspapers gave the item a place out of all proportion to that which its intrinsic importance in the scientific progress of the day and the stage to which Edison’s work has progressed would have entitled it. In this they were quite right, because their readers were interested in the bare news that Edison was working on the problem. We believe that our readers, too, are interested in what Edison is doing in this field and what he has to say about his theories and work. Hence this interview, in which Mr. Edison, himself, tells us what he believes about survival and why he hopes to establish communication. And if one thing stands out clearly beyond all other things in this interview, is that regardless of the manner in which sensational newspaper stories may present the matter, Edison stands for a return to sanity in our attitude toward the possibility of survival of personality and communication with those who may have survived.”

What actually stands out is that Edison believed it was possible.

While it’s clear is that he is anxious to distance himself from spiritualists and mediums, it is only because he thought better, more scientific devices could be constructed. “In the first place,” Edison begins, “I cannot conceive of such a thing as a spirit. Imagine something that has no weight, no material form, no mass; in a word, imagine nothing!” His problem with the perhaps non-physical nature of the afterlife reflected science’s problem with the afterlife, which continues today. He goes on. “I cannot be a party to the belief that spirits exist and can be seen under certain circumstances, and can be made to tilt tables and rap, and do other things of a similar unimportant nature. The whole thing is so absurd.”

“In truth, it is the crudeness of the present methods which makes me doubt the authenticity of purported communications with deceased person. Why should personalities in another existence or sphere waste their time with a little triangular piece of wood over a board with certain lettering on it? Why should such personalities play pranks with a table? The whole business seems so childish to me that I frankly cannot give it my serious consideration.” But then he immediately goes on to say, “I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation, we must do it with scientific apparatus, in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry and other fields.”

“Now what I propose to do is to furnish psychic investigators with an apparatus that will give a scientific aspect to their work.”   He then explains a theory he has about what happens to us when we die, and talks about the machine he has been working on for some time with a colleague, and how it will operate.

The machine he described, which was never built, was essentially a phonographic device with a very sensitive diaphragm. When I spoke with curator Jack Stanley he pointed out that the phonographic devices at the time couldn’t record the living very well, much less the dead. They recorded acoustically using a horn.

Edison’s idea about what happens when we die is at least as out there as some of the other ideas I’ve heard researching this book. He had this theory about something he called the “unit of life,” which has intelligence and propagates in some way (I don’t know how). “Man is not the unit of life,” he told a Boston Globe reporter in 1927. “I have stated that many times, but no one understands. Man is as dead as granite. The unit of life consists of swarms of billions of highly organized entities which live in the cells. I believe at times that when man dies, this swarm deserts the body, goes out into space, but keeps on and enters another and last cycle of life and is immortal. The origin and meaning of life will not be solved for centuries.” It sounds like reincarnation, and sounds even more so in the Scientific American article.

Edison didn’t believe in telepathy, at least not telepathy in the way that J. B. Rhine envisioned it. Although when asked, “Do you believe in mental telepathy, and do you think it will become a means of human communication,” he answered, “At present I don’t believe it.” Which seems to indicate he at least had a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude. It’s important to note that Edison died in 1931, years before Rhine first published the results of his ESP experiments.


By the way, I found a letter in the Parapsychology Lab archives at Duke where Rhine mentions Edison and a physicist in Detroit named Fitzgerald. According to Rhine, Fitzgerald said he has read the notes of Edison, Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz (a scientist who collaborated with Edison) and Nikola Tesla (a physicist and engineer) and was going to build the machine that Edison described in the Scientific American article. I couldn’t find anything more about it, although admittedly I didn’t try too hard. It felt like another journey for another day.

One last thing. Edison repeatedly said he didn’t believe we had a soul. Towards the end of his life his attitude about that softened. In a 1926 New York Times piece the reporter writes, “Though he does not admit that evidence of any weight in one direction or the other now exists, he thinks that the indications are favorable to the existence of a soul rather than against it.” Then, according to a New York Times reporter, Edison urged religious leaders to find evidence that can’t be easily ridiculed by the skeptical. That’s because Edison knew how the scientific community worked. So forget about ouija boards and table rapping, a better way had to be found.

The very next year J. B. and Louisa Rhine arrived at Duke University and began their experiments.

More Harold Sherman and Bruce Kremen

Once you start researching a story it’s hard to let go. I recently asked the librarians at the University of Central Arkansas Archives to search The Harold M. Sherman Papers for anything to due with Bruce Kremen, the missing boy I wrote about in Unbelievable. Bruce went missing in the Angeles National Forest in 1960, and Harold Sherman was one of the psychics the family contacted for help finding their son.  A few things were in the collection and sent to me.

Among the materials was a picture of Bruce that I’d never seen (shown here), a few newspaper articles and letters, some hand written notes which I’m still trying to decipher, and two 1953 U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service maps of the region where Bruce went missing, which made me wonder if anyone who goes missing in there is ever found.

In one of the letters it was clear that the Kremens had broken off contact with Sherman.  Harold had told them that their son had been murdered and in a letter he explained that “Mrs. Kremen has been threatened with a nervous breakdown and Mr. Kremen did not wish any adverse report to be given to his wife.” Completely understandable of course, but it looks like Harold was right, tragically.  In the chapter about Bruce I talk about the fact that it is now believed that he was the victim of serial killer Mack Ray Edwards.  Various law enforcement agencies are now looking at Edwards for Bruce and a number of other children who went missing.  In fact, among the materials sent to me was an August 22, 1961 article about Karen Tompkins who had just gone missing.  Sadly, every one of the children pictured are now believed to be victims of Edwards—in a couple cases they are known to be victims.  Mack Ray Edwards confessed to some of the killings in 1970. (More below.)


Reminiscent of all those years ago, law enforcement were under strict instructions not to contact Etta Kremen, who died on March 12, 2008, but to call her surviving son instead. It’s such a relentlessly sad story.

I’m still trying to decipher Harold’s hand writing, but he described the killer as short and barrel chested, and there’s something about a scar but I can’t read the details. And it looks like Harold was working with the FBI and not the Sheriff’s office, who according to Harold were not called about Bruce’s disappearance until 48 hours after Bruce went missing. Apparently officers did find the road that Harold had described and when they got there the scene was also as he had said (beer cans and other evidence that someone had spent some time there). Writer Weston DeWalt, who found the evidence that led to the new re-investigations, is still working on this story and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with and writes.

On a semi-related note, I have a few letters between Harold Sherman and J. B. Rhine about setting up a parapsychology department at the University of Arkansas. Sherman wrote J.B. to see if he or another member of the lab might be willing to leave Duke and establish a research center there because Sherman had reason to believe that the president of the university, Lewis Webster Jones, might be sympathetic to their work. Rhine was friendly and grateful, and while he doesn’t completely shut Harold down, it’s clear that it’s not likely he would leave Duke.

Elizabeth McMahan (aka BettyMac) 1924 – 2009

I only just learned yesterday that Elizabeth McMahan, who I knew as BettyMac, died on August 17th. She was 85 years old. I can’t tell you how sad I am. I really liked BettyMac, I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t. Seriously, if anyone told me they didn’t like BettyMac I would have to forever wonder about that person. BettyMac was a scientist and a researcher at the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory from 1943 to 1954, and she was one of the few people alive who could tell me what life in the lab was like. As part of my research I must have read hundreds and hundreds of letters she wrote over the years, and they were so full of life, humor, intelligence and kindness. In person she was the same.

BettyMac published 9 papers during her time at the lab, and her specialties were psychokinesis and pure telepathy. I described her experiments with psychokinesis a little bit in the book, but I didn’t go into the experiment she devised in pure telepathy and I really should have. At one point J. B. Rhine realized that the earlier card tests actually hadn’t eliminated the possibility of clairvoyance and therefore didn’t provide a true test of pure telepathy.  The subject could have gotten the information from the cards and not the mind of the sender. BettyMac was the one who came up with an experiment to eliminate clairvoyance as far as possible and her paper about her work was published in 1946 (“An Experiment in Pure Telepathy,” Journal of Parapsychology).

My book was once a billion pages and everything had to be edited down, but here is the longer version of the section about BettyMac.

Betty McMahan was a small town girl. Born in the tiny farming community of Pino, North Carolina, her family’s main crop was sorghum cane, which was made into molasses. Betty was a tomboy. When she heard her aunts say that if a girl kissed her elbow she would turn into a boy, Betty almost dislocated her arm trying to perform the magical operation.

She was a freshman at Appalachian State Teachers College when her advisor gave her an ESP test. Betty didn’t do well on her test, and she thought the whole thing was ridiculous. She put ESP in the same category as witchcraft or demonology. But Betty respected her advisor, so she read Rhine’s book New Frontiers of the Mind. After that, she didn’t think ESP was witchcraft anymore. “I learned what science was,” Betty wrote. “He’s not trying to believe,” she discovered about Rhine, “he’s trying to see if there is something to this.”


Betty made her own ESP cards out of thin cardboard and tested her roommate and everyone else she could talk into giving it a try. Soon she wanted to switch her major to psychology, but her college didn’t offer a degree in psychology. Her advisor told her to write J.B., who was almost a legend by this time, and Betty was thrilled when he not only wrote back, but sent her ESP cards and record sheets. His attentions were exciting and flattering to the then 18-year-old. He even invited her to visit the Lab. These were the war years, however, and there was little gas to be had for longer road trips. Luckily, a professor happened to be driving near Durham, and he offered to drop her off.

On March 9, 1943, Betty McMahan arrived at the lab. Betty Humphrey, who would become her closest friend, took her around. Two months later Betty was christened BettyMac, to distinguish her from Betty Humphrey, and she was working at the Parapsychology Laboratory as “the lowliest of research assistants.” In the fall she enrolled at Duke University. Work at the lab was demanding, and she didn’t get to take part on the college social life, but that was okay. The Lab became her social life and the Rhines became her family away from home.

(When I was writing about BettyMac’s younger years I always thought of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.)

However, BettyMac’s true love was bugs. Her heart was in zoology and entomology. She also admitted that about parapsychology, “I didn’t have the courage to stay in this.” I have since learned about the relentless hostility towards this field. “It was so hard,” she said. “There was no praise from the scientific world. You’re considered a dope.”

It wasn’t where she really wanted to be anyway. BettyMac told me about climbing a tree when she was a young girl. When she got to a place that was so high no one could see it she carved, “I shall be a great biologist.” Her dad found it much later when the tree died and they cut it down. BettyMac left Duke and the lab for the University of Hawaii where she got her Ph.D. in entomology (her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology were from Duke). She had an amazing career, and she even had a species of assassin bug named for her (Salyavata mcmahanae), as well as a beetle (Neophilotermes mcmahanae). In 1970, she was awarded a Tanner Award for outstanding teaching, and in 1989 the NC Entomological Society’s Award of Excellence for contributions to entomology.


She gave me copies of this amazing series of books that she wrote about her life and work. They were full of the most charming illustrations, a couple of which I’ve reproduced here. The first one is of J. B. and Louisa Rhine taking some of the people at the lab and their children for a walk in the woods. In the second BettyMac is coming across a copperhead snake in the Duke forest.

BettyMac adored the Rhines. About J. B. she said, “I didn’t know any scientist who was more of a scientist.” And about Louisa, she once wrote to one of their contributors, “She is such a joy to talk to that is is customary for younger members of the Lab, in particular, to go out to the house just to discuss with her some of the idea they have recently picked up from their psychological readings.”

I have an extraordinary series of letters between her and the famous physicist John Archibald Wheeler, where she strongly defends Rhine from some unfair comments from Wheeler. Wheeler was mostly gracious, if I remember correctly. I plan to reproduce their letters here in the future.

There’s a recent video of BettyMac giving a talk at the Rhine Research Center on their website (scroll down).  Oh, and in addition to all her work which is contained in Parapsychology Laboratory Archives at the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, her papers are now at Duke in a collection titled the Elizabeth A. McMahan Papers, 1926-2008.

Sigh. I don’t know what else to say. Rest in peace BettyMac. You will be missed.