Happy Holidays!

I tried to find a picture with a holiday theme and this was the best I could do. I scanned this at the Rhine Research Center. Or was it at the Special Collections Library at Duke? Now I’m not sure!

But I found the single-mindedness of it charming. What does this image have to do with Christmas? Burke Smith was at the Parapsychology Laboratory in the very beginning, while still a graduate student at Duke University (where he was awarded his PhD in 1947). Smith was involved with the early key experiments, and was a co-author on some of the more important books, including Extra-sensory Perception After 60 Years. He was later Elizabeth McMahan’s advisor at what then was Appalachian State Teachers College, and he was the one who first got Dr. McMahan (aka BettyMac) interested in parapsychology. Smith moved to Charlottesville, Va. in 1961, where he taught at the University of Virginia for two decades. He died on Aug. 23, 1998.


Here is Burke himself.


Another Psychic History Mystery

I was exploring the collection of digitized images at the New York Public Library, and I came across this picture of what was called The International School of Psychic Science at 135 West 124th Street. It’s dated 1932.

A quick search of Proquest only turned up a couple of ads. One for an astrologist who’d give a 14 page report for a $1 and another that called it by a slightly different name. It was The International Psychic Science Center, and they had two buildings, 133-135 West 124th, and Thomas R. Hall is listed as the director. “The ideal center for spiritualists, psychics, mediums and occultists” the ad reads. “Noted speakers and messages daily at 8 p.m.”

Just going by this one page of ads in 1932 you’d think everything to do with spiritualism was happening in Harlem.

Belief in the Supernatural is Going Up

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life provides yet more evidence that belief in things supernatural continues to rise.

“Roughly three-in-ten Americans (29%) say they have felt in touch with someone who has died. Nearly one-in-five say they have been in the presence of a ghost (18%), while 15% say they have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.”

In 1990, 17% said they were in touch with someone who had died, and 9% said they had seen a ghost. (The number of people going to psychics has not changed.)

There are other interesting findings about mystical and religious experiences, and those increases are even more dramatic. In 1962, 22% of the respondents said they had a religious or mystical experience and in 2009, the number had gone up to 49%. And 24% believe in reincarnation.

“In total, upwards of six-in-ten adults (65%) express belief in or report having experience with at least one of these diverse supernatural phenomena (belief in reincarnation, belief in spiritual energy located in physical things, belief in yoga as spiritual practice, belief in the “evil eye,” belief in astrology, having been in touch with the dead, consulting a psychic, or experiencing a ghostly encounter).”

The complete results can be found here.

[The picture came from the catalogue for the 2005 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled, “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.” It’s a 1938 shot of medium Colin Evans, photographed in complete darkness using infrared film.]

I’m Going to be on the Radio Tonight

I should have posted this sooner, but I’m going to be on the radio tonight, at 8:10pm, EST, on the show Signs of Life, which is produced by the Forever Family Foundation. If you follow that link I’ve included you can listen live on your computer.

I imagine they will be asking me what evidence the scientists at the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory found for live after death.

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.]