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.

A New Magazine: EdgeScience

I’m so excited about this new magazine EdgeScience! And it’s coming out from the Society for Scientific Exploration. You can download the first issue for free.

There’s an article about the Global Consciousness Project by Roger D. Nelson that I look forward to reading. Consciousness is one of the areas I’m most curious about.

The article has a great Pierre Teilhard de Chardin pull quote. “It is our duty—as men and women—to behave as though limits to our ability do not exist. We are collaborators in creation of the Universe.”

(Brief aside: I once did a piece for NPR about the Vatican’s search for a patron saint for the internet. A lot of people wanted Pierre Teilhard de Chardin because of his ideas about the Noosphere, and I did too, but he wasn’t eligible because he is not, and likely never will be canonized a saint.)

Here’s why I think this magazine is good news. I was asked to write a “PS” section for the paperback edition of my book. One of the things I go into briefly is the loss to science when anomalies are dismissed. I used the discoveries about audio hallucinations made by Dr. Louisa Rhine as an example. Had the scientists of Dr. Louisa Rhine day paid attention to her papers the recent “discoveries” being made in this area today—that people hear voices more than we knew, and that it isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness—would have begun fifty years ago and we would be that much further along in understanding what is happening and why.

It reminds me of this professor at Hunter who once got up at one of J. B. Rhine’s lectures and denounced him. Rhine kept his cool and invited the professor, Dr. Bernard Reiss, to try the experiments himself. Reiss did and got statistically significant results. Later, at an APA conference, Dr. Reiss was criticized by a Dr. Britt for publishing his results so soon. Reiss stood and said:

“I undertook the experiment as a way of demonstrating to my classes that ESP did not occur. I did not succeed in that,” he told the crowd. “I do not know whether Dr. Britt believes in throwing away good data just because he doesn’t precisely understand the full implications of that data, but I felt they should be reported.”

A new publication to report findings that would otherwise be ignored or belittled is something to celebrate. So check out EdgeScience!

BettyMac Takes on John Archibald Wheeler

In 1986, Dr. Elizabeth A. McMahan, a former Duke Parapsychology Lab scientist, confronted the preeminent physicist John Archibald Wheeler, motivated in part by a wrong Wheeler had done J. B. Rhine six years before. Dr. McMahan, aka BettyMac, gives the back story and reprints their correspondence in her memoir Warming Both Hands Before the Fire of Life, Vol. III, and I’m reprinting that section here.

In my opinion, Wheeler was kind in his replies, and just a little condescending, but at least he wasn’t hostile, and given where he was coming from that may have been the best he could summon. Everything that follows, except for the headlines, was written by Dr. McMahan.

Wheeler Accuses J. B. Rhine of Cheating

In 1979 the AAAS held its annual meeting in Houston. On January 8th one of the panel sessions was on the topic “Physics and Consciousness.” Parapsychologists were among the speakers, as was John A. Wheeler, a top theoretical physicist then at the University of Texas, who had consistently opposed parapsychological research. In his 1998 autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam, Wheeler describes his “surprise and dismay” when he discovered before the talk that at the AAAS meeting he would have to “share the podium with several parapsychologists.” He gave his own paper on the quantum theory of measurement and then distributed to the press two appendices that he had prepared to “escape guilt by association.” One was called “Drive the Pseudos Out of the Workshop of Science” and the other was “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Smoke.”

That’s about all he reports in this 1998 book about that AAAS meeting besides saying that he later wrote to William Carey, the AAAS president, trying to establish a panel “to decide whether it was time to eliminate parapsychology from the organization” and the fact that his appendices, plus the letter to Carey, “reached a large audience when they appeared in the New York Review of Books in May, 1979.” He failed to mention a crucial part of that AAAS panel discussion, a part that put him, to my mind, in a very bad light. When he was asked by his audience to be more specific about his criticisms of parapsychology, Wheeler gave an account of an experiment with rats carried out 50 years earlier for Dr. McDougall by a research assistant at Duke who, Wheeler said, had manipulated the experimental conditions to produced false results. He said that another observer, T. S. (by 1979, a well-known biologist) had disclosed this deception to Dr. McDougall, and the work was never published. Wheeler announced that the assistant who had carried out the deceptive experiment had been J. B. Rhine, the founder of Parapsychology. The implication was clear. The accusation was a bolt from the blue, and no one at that AAAS meeting challenged the scurrilous statement.

Accusation Proven Untrue, Wheeler Apologizes

Dr. Rhine was in his 83rd year at that time; he had not attended the AAAS meeting. When returning attendees reported Wheeler’s diatribe, he must not have been terribly shocked. He had long since learned that scientists, even lauded ones, are not immune to prejudice and error, but he knew he had to answer such calumny, and he procured a transcription of the AAAS seminar tape. Meanwhile the “witness” to the supposed deception in the rat experiment, Dr. T. S., wrote directly to Wheeler, entirely rejecting the charges he had made. On April 12th, 1979, Wheeler wrote an apology to Dr. Rhine, and letters from both Wheeler and Rhine were published in the July 13, 1979 issue of Science. Wheeler’s retraction letter to Science was, I thought, grudging and meager, and Dr. Rhine’s letter had the burden of explaining what the entire matter was about. He said that he was glad to know from the AAAS that Wheeler’s “statement of retraction will be sent to all those who have already purchased tapes containing a record of [his] charge against me, and further that the Wheeler charge will be deleted from tapes and records of the symposium being distributed by the AAAS in the future.”

The Correspondence

I was outraged at Wheeler’s behavior and carried the anger for a long time. But one day in 1986, six years after Dr. Rhine’s death, I read in the July issue of The American Scientist an article by Wheeler. It was his reprinted “Hermann Weyl Centenary Address.” He had summarized Weyl’s contributions to science, and he expressed his admiration for Weyl’s emphasis on “the unity of knowledge” and his fascination with the great mysteries that science still seeks to clarify. I started the article grudgingly, for I hadn’t forgotten Wheeler’s 1979 AAAS performance, but I soon was struck by the writing and the subject matter. When I finished, I decided to write to Wheeler (who naturally didn’t know me from Adam). The Weyl article made me have a more kindly feeling toward him, and it occurred to me that a scientist so honored in his field would have to be a better man than the one the AAAS meeting had stamped Wheeler as being. Surely that episode had seared his soul with shame. I felt real sympathy for one who maybe needed a second chance.

This is the letter I wrote to Wheeler on July 17, 1986, on Department of Biology stationery, and sent to his University of Texas address.

Dear Professor Wheeler:

I have just read your Hermann Weyl Centenary Address reprinted in the latest American Scientist. It makes my heart beat fast at the mysteries it expounds and the “unity of knowledge” it contemplates. Your fascination with these greatest of mysteries is obvious, showing the depth of your perception and intellect. But in my admiration I find myself even more sadly perplexed regarding your bitter scorn of Professor J. B. Rhine’s lifelong commitment to the same mysteries. He came to them through his background of Biology and Psychology, you through Mathematics and Physics, both using the methods of science. His, of course, was the more difficult way for it was cluttered with credulous and often fraudulent believers impatient with his insistence on experimentation. He is my hero, as Weyl is yours. Both had that passion to understand. There have been and will be other contributors to the eventual clarification of these soul-stirring mysteries that touch our hearts more deeply than the orthodox religions can do. To all of you I feel deep gratitude for your magnificent obsession.

Sincerely yours,
Elizabeth A. McMahan
Professor of Biology

In a couple of weeks I had a reply, handwritten on a Swiss post card and mailed from his home in Maine at High Island:

“Thank you for your thoughtful letter of July 17 and for telling me that the great mysteries stir you too. Bravo! And as for Rhine: ‘scorn,’ no; ‘bitter scorn,’ still less; only sadness that he was so misled, and misled so many others. As I wrote about ESP, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke.’

Warm regards from a former UNC [professor] to a present one!
John Wheeler”


He seemed more approachable than I had feared, but I couldn’t let the matter rest there. On August 5th I wrote him again, and this time to his Maine address.

Dear Professor Wheeler:

Forgive me if I respond immediately to your very nice card of July 30. I am glad indeed that I was wrong in attributing to you bitter scorn for Dr. Rhine. It is, of course, no surprise to find disagreement with his findings. One of the assets of being a parapsychologist is the opportunity continually to find oneself on the defensive and in the role of second-class citizen. It is an experience everyone should have. I wonder if even you may not have suffered the sidelong glances of suspicion from fellow scientists that you have left the firm footing of facts for ‘far out’ dreamings. In any case, my admiration for you and my loyalty to Dr. Rhine and to the scientific method he espoused impel me to send one more letter. (Now is the time to toss it into the dust bin.)

[The following paragraph is my favorite.]

The phenomena Dr. Rhine investigated were interesting to him because they seemed to fall outside the usual framework of physics, indicating a higher magnitude of importance than any botanical or other scientific problem he had hitherto encountered. I consider them tantalizing sparks thrown out by the universe—hints of how it is put together. Hints that should be followed up in our intense desire to clarify the magnificent mysteries of existence. Naturally we will put incorrect interpretations on them, especially at the beginning. But every piece of the puzzle is important, and eventually will join with other pieces, provided by other disciplines, to reach the final solution. Because I believe in the unity of knowledge, I believe that progress toward an understanding of the great mysteries can be reached by following any serious field of inquiry, so long as we use all the science at our disposal. We can make this progress through quantum physics and through studies of precognition. It is unfortunate that the field of parapsychology has been so much associated with the lunatic fringe. Dr. Rhine had to fight it every step of the way.

To him more than to anyone else I owe my love of science, my determination to keep an open mind on matters unknown, and my sense of awe for the magnificence of the mysteries of the universe. For every thinker he may have misled, he was to many another a shining example of devotion to science, of courage, and of honor.

If I actually send this letter I will be over-riding a strong inner cautionary feeling. Already it may be lying in the waste basket. On the other hand, I may as well be hanged for killing a sheep as for killing a lamb, so I think I will even enclose a copy of a chapter I wrote a few years ago for a memorial volume in Dr. Rhine’s honor. If you should read it, it would not alter your opinion of him. It would probably only give you feelings of disappointment in my naiveté. But it might explain why he continues to be my hero. With the special perceptiveness you possess, had you had the opportunity to meet on neutral ground I believe you each would have recognized in the other a kindred spirit. You will understand that, from me, it is the highest of accolades.

I had not realized that you once were associated with UNC. It is another feather in our cap.

Elizabeth A. McMahan

I mailed with the letter a copy of my nine-page chapter, “Joseph Banks Rhine, Teacher and Friend” [from  J. B. Rhine: On the Frontiers of Science.  K.R. Rao, Ed. McFarland Press. 1982].

Wheeler’s reply was written in longhand on August 14.

Dear Professor McMahan,

What a splendid article is your “Joseph Banks Rhine, Teacher and Friend”—and what a tribute it is, too, to the qualities of mind and heart of both of you! Bravo!

Hutton and Lyell and Darwin, those wonderfully independent-minded people to whose findings we owe so much, remind us how essential it is for the advance of science to have people who will think for themselves!—And after they’d thought for themselves and written what they thought, check[ed] it out with critical minded friendly colleagues before publishing! I’m so happy to read that Rhine had some of that “check out” in his makeup. After all, we know nobody can be anybody without somebodies around!

When some day you visit Austin and I have the pleasure and honor to take you to lunch, I’ll show you the approximately 40 pounds of ESP materials I’ve collected lovingly over the years, of which your warm tribute to JBR will form a precious part.

Thank you so much.
Sincerely yours,
John Wheeler

I never had a chance to visit Austin or take him up on his invitation to lunch. I’d like to have seen what was included in his 40 pounds of ESP materials. It was not until nearly 16 years later that I fully realized that other theoretical physicists were also reading the parapsychological literature for possible hints, apparently, as to how the puzzling contradictions innate in quantum mechanics may be expressed in everyday life. A bookstore I visited in Auckland during a freighter voyage in January 2002 was advertising Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Universe in a Nutshell, and mentioned this interest of theoretical physicists in parapsychological literature. I then recalled Wheeler’s ESP collection.

In our 1986 correspondence, Wheeler had seemed to show a more accommodating spirit toward parapsychologists than I had been aware of hitherto, but my wish to meet him halfway evaporated again when I read his autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam. A Life in Physics, written with Kenneth Ford in 1998. By that time Wheeler was in his 80’s, and perhaps I should not try to hold him strictly accountable for his apparent reversion to his old uncompromising attitude toward the “pseudoscientists.” In this autobiography, as I’ve said, he mentioned that 1979 AAAS meeting in Houston, but utterly failed to tell the full story. [Italics mine.]

BettyMac’s Vision of the Future

The Wheeler contact and its ramifications have contributed to my belief that the fields of parapsychology and theoretical physics will merge some day. I have filed the original Wheeler correspondence with the Elizabeth A. McMahan Special Collection in Duke’s Perkins Library as a nugget that some future historian may find of interest when he writes the history of that merger.

Without having the breadth of knowledge or the mental acuity to undergird my belief, I now have the feeling that the greatest future progress in understanding parapsychological phenomena will be made by theoretical physicists. According to their research, the universe seems to be split into two separate realities: that of the subatomic world and that of the everyday world in which we normally operate, each world following its own set of rules. Reconciling the two, making quantum theory make sense for large-scale senarios as well as for subatomic ones, is a major scientific goal. According to quantum theory, subatomic particles have a fuzzy essence. Electrons can be in an infinite number of places at the same time. Subatomic objects can be influenced at a distance. Photons can be both waves and particles. That humans do function in this strange Quantum world is already suggested by recent brain research, which indicates (according to K. N. Shanor’s The Emerging Mind, 1999) that consciousness may be identical with the quantum field of information and energy.  [Roger Penrose (The Road to Reality, 2005) says, as I understand him, that gravity may hold the key to such unification; that applying its laws to subatomic particles as well as to larger entities may tweak the essential mathematical formulae into showing us that we already have the true and unifying “Theory of Everything.”]

Perhaps the strange phenomena studied by parapsychologists will also have a role to play in the eventual bridging of the present apparent disjunction between the two worlds of reality. How I wish that I could be present to welcome the future’s promising discoveries in this regard.

When Dr. Rhine said that the phenomena of parapsychology did not follow the laws of physics, it was classical (Newtonian) physics he meant. Quantum mechanics was scarcely known by anyone outside theoretical physics in those days. But now, every popular scientific magazine gives accounts of the totally counterintuitive phenomena studied by theoretical physicists. Quantum physics might appear to require that parapsychological phenomena exist.

Wheeler used to say, “Little steps for little people,” showing a willingness to make bold interpretations about the universe that went beyond those dared by most theoretical physicists. He said, “The universe is a self-excited circuit. As it expands, cools and develops it gives rise to observer participancy. Observer participancy in turn gives what we call tangible reality to the universe.” It is an expression of one interpretation of quantum physics: that physical reality does not exist objectively independent of the participating observers. Wheeler could give this concept of the universe no mathematical translation, so he used a diagram to represent it: a big U, with an eyeball on one arm (representing consciousness and observer participancy) and the big Bang on the other. William Press in a review of Studies and Essays in Honor of John Archibald Wheeler  (1988) said that this example of Wheeler’s provocative intuition is “a style of science that profoundly offends some, profoundly inspires others.” I am one inspired by such provocative thoughts, but I wish that Wheeler’s style had also permitted a more open mind where Parapsychology was concerned.

Pictures. The first is a cover from the AAAS publication Science. The next are pictures of Dr. Elizabeth McMahan, followed by a picture of Wheeler, then a picture of Albert Einstein, Hideki Yukawa, John Wheeler, and Homi Bhabha, and last is a picture of J. B. Rhine.

Extreme Paranormal and Bonita City

Someone I know has a tv show!  It’s called Extreme Paranormal and it’s on A&E.


(I know the guy in the middle!) What I really appreciated about this show was the new stories. Usually you hear about the same ghost stories again and again.

In one episode they went to Bonita City, New Mexico and the site of a 19th century murder. It was an old mining town that is now underwater, which made for a unique investigation (you have to see it). But I found this story so intriguing I was googling it all night.

On May 5, 1885, this young guy Martin Nelson went on a rampage, killing seven people. He was staying in Bonita City’s only hotel and he started with the family who ran the hotel. They were Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Mayberry, their 17 year old son John, and their 7 year old son Eddie. He also shot the Mayberry’s 14 year old daughter Nellie, but she begged for her life and survived. Also killed was a guest of the hotel, Dr. R. E. Flynn, and two people who came running to help, Pete Nelson and Herman Beck.

I think this story got to me because I’ve been reading Willa Catha lately and her books like O Pioneers. I’m more aware of how hard life was out west back then. For instance, this was Bonita City’s general store. Is this not the saddest general store you’ve ever seen?

And this was the post office.


These pictures don’t even really capture it. The lack of food, losing crops, animals, the meagre protection against the elements. To have to fight the way they did for existence and then suffer this kind of tragedy on top of everything else. Especially the children. It’s always harder when children die. And the two guys who ran to help and were murdered for their kindness and bravery? It must have completely demoralized the small town.

But Bonita City doesn’t exist anymore. The building of Bonita Dam put the town underwater, and the remains of the victims were moved to Angus Cemetery.


I was really hoping to be able to find out what became of Nellie Mayberry. Children who lose their parents at a young age usually carry that pain in some form or another for life, sadly, and she lost her parents—her entire family—to murder. Where did she go? Who took her in? Did she find happiness somewhere, somehow? But I didn’t manage to find out anything yet. Women are harder to track down because they change their names when they marry.

I would also love to find out more about Martin Nelson. What brought him to this sad little place? What was wrong with him to cause him to go off like that? In all the accounts it took everyone by surprise, he was a nice, polite young man until that night. I wish he didn’t have such a common name. It’s going to be pretty much impossible to figure out anything about his past.

In another Extreme Paranormal episode they went to the now abandoned New Mexico State Penitentiary, where 33 inmates were killed in 1980. It amazes me that 33 people were killed and I never heard about this either. Congratulations on the show guys! And keep up the great work uncovering these stories!

UPDATE: I didn’t google enough! Fiona Broome researched and wrote up this story and you can read it her website, Hollow Hill. She did an amazingly wonderful job! Now I have to browse the rest of her site!! Thank you, Fiona. I know a lot of people were curious to learn more about this.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A descendant of Nellie Mayberry has responded in the comments section. Apparently the stories that have been published both here and elsewhere are riddled with inaccuracies. I’m sorry for my part in perpetuating them and I would love the opportunity to post the real story.

Photo credits. I found the General store shot here. The Bonito City post office shot is from the book, Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico by James and Barbara Sherman (the picture is from 1904). And the grave shot is from Find A Grave and the photographer is listed as Ron.

Opium Live Event Tomorrow

I’m doing this event tomorrow:

Opium Magazine and the Thorstein Foundation’s live interview series returns this month. Featuring Stacy Horn (author of Unbelievable), the multi-talentist Joseph Keckler, special guests and prizes.

Saturday November 7th
$5 USD
Bowery Electric at 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30)
327 Bowery (@ Joey Ramone Place)
(212) 228-0228.
B/D/F/V to Broadway/Lafayette or 6 to Bleecker.

Opium Live is a literary and artistic interview series that features interviews between artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers with plenty of twists (including audience participation), all followed by an exclusive 5-minute tribute to the guests’ work by other artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers.

Here’s the Facebook invite if you’d like more information and to RSVP.