IBM and ESP Part Two

J. B. Rhine always dreamed of building an ESP machine. In an earlier post I talked about how he first wrote IBM about it all the way back in 1938, and they were excited. “There is no question in my mind,” IBM staffer (and well-known inventor) Reynold Johnson wrote back enthusiastically, that “it would be possible to develop a machine along the lines that you outline.” Nothing ever came of it that I could find.

But in 1961, with Rhine’s help, IBM in Canada conducted an ESP test with Maclean’s, a weekly magazine, and a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio series called ESP.


A card was inserted in the July 29, 1961 issue of Maclean’s and readers were given instructions. According to letters I found between Rhine and IBM in Canada, the results were inconclusive, and the experiment was not refined or repeated. I tried to find records for the experiment. I contacted Macleans and IBM archivists, and they did their best to locate them, but it looks like nothing from this test has survived.

(You can read IBM and ESP Part One here.)


A Message From Beyond from John Thomas. Maybe.

In the summer of 1962, someone passed along a message to J. B. Rhine that was supposed to have come from the ghost of “Johnnie Thomas.” John Thomas was the name of the man who first brought the Rhines to Duke University in order to study communications from his dead wife. Among other things, the ghost claimed that Rhine, “has not advanced much above all of these other material things, and he cannot go on indefinitely in this …”

Rhine was getting a lot of grief at the time about his lack of progress in finding evidence for life after death, and I had to laugh when I read that because apparently even the dead were anxious for progress.


Thomas would have been even more dismayed by Rhine statements in the Parapsychology Bulletin that year. He announced that, “for many years there has been a sharp decline of interest in the survival problem, with a considerable dimming of hope that parapsychology can produce a definite answer.”

That was true of the scientific community, who were never terribly interested in survival in the first place, even if they were, for a time, curious to see what he’d come up with. What Rhine saw was an end to whatever leeway they had extended.

But everywhere else interest was increasing and it’s been increasing slowly ever since. I just checked the most recent Harris and Gallops polls. I’m disappointed that they no longer ask about ESP or telepathy, and now only ask about belief in ghosts, the devil, reincarnation, and so on. Nonetheless, here is what I found:

– 42 percent of the respondents in a 2009 Harris poll said that they believed in ghosts (up from 40 percent in 2005).

– 71 percent believe in the survival of the soul after death (up from 69 percent in 2005).

EdgeScience and Robert Lanza

The second issue of EdgeScience is out. You can download it for free here. There’s an interesting article about healing with intention by William F. Bengston.

I also wanted to talk about Robert Lanza who is going to be on Coast to Coast on March 26th. I read Lanza’s essay A New Theory of the Universe when it came out a couple of years ago in American Scholar and I was very excited by it. I tried to find out what kind of reputation Lanza had. Was he respected? He also has a book which came out last April, Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the Universe. I’m curious what the reception has been to this as well. (I’m guessing the scientific community was generally negative about it.) I need to get a hold of a copy of this and read it.

From the Lab’s “Haunted House File”

In 1958, CBS aired a television program about a poltergeist case that the Parapsychology Lab had investigated earlier in the year. A huge outpouring of letters to the lab followed the broadcast and lasted for months. A woman named Elma Serton wrote them about a haunted house in upper Manhattan. She didn’t give the address unfortunately, but she described the house well enough that I thought there was a chance I could find it.

When I got uptown however, based on the description, the houses on the Bronx side of the river seemed like the best candidates. But the woman had clearly called her ghost a “Manhattan ghost.” I wondered if by any chance this area was once considered Manhattan, and it turns out it was!

I found a house that seemed like it could be the one she described, but who knows what other houses lined the river back then. There’s also another spot that I want to go back and check.

I looked for Elma Serton, who described herself as an artist by training, and I believe I found her, but the Elma I found died in 1992, in Maine. She said that she wrote up the account like a story, but everything in it was true except for one sentence (which I removed) and while her mother was no longer living to confirm her story, her father and sister were. If any friends or relatives of Elma’s are still living I’d love to hear what she was like, or more about this story!

What follows was written by Elma Serton. I’ve included some of the photos I took while searching for the house. The second photograph was taken behind the house I thought might be the one. Although it’s in ruins now, it could have once been a lovely garden.

Ghost in Manhattan

“Quite some years ago we moved in the early fall into the downstairs apartment of a two-family house in upper Manhattan. The house was rather uniquely situated, jutting out high above the Harlem River and overlooking Baker Field and Inwood Park. A bend in the river, where [Spuyten Duyvil] cut off the view, just barely prevented us from seeing where it flowed into the Hudson. One could sit in the garden and see the boats passing. At night one heard their far-off whistle as they rounded the bend, warning the bridge keeper to open the bridge at 225th Street so they could be on their way to the East River piers with their loads of sand and stone.


“The house was built with love because of the view and had been converted into a two-family dwelling. Any Manhattanite was bound to feel fortunate indeed to be living in this spacious-roomed apartment where the smell of ripe grapes came in through the open windows that fall and an occasional ruby-throated hummingbird darted in and out of the vines which grew against the walls to leave a tiny scar on each grape it pierced.

“In the garden there were tomatoes and there were corn, Country Gentlemen and Golden Bantam. There were also peaches and green peppers and, of all things, luscious dark purple figs with their delicate flavored pink meat and beautiful large leaves. In the late summer the day lilies spread burnt-orange petals, like butterflies, all over the garden and cosmos nodded in the breeze.

“Renters of the apartment usually stayed for many years, just as we did, for where would one find as sunny and airy a place on the whole of Manhattan. One would be loath to leave this house unless forced by circumstances which would give one more advantages. This feeling of not wanting to leave must have been rather strong for we felt at the time that whoever had been living there had left out of necessity and not because they wanted to. This was later confirmed by our landlady.

“Although we loved the apartment and everything connected with it we now and then had the strange feeling of not quite belonging, a feeling as if the apartment was not completely ours, a sense of unrest, almost as if someone had just left the room on hearing one of us enter and resented the intrusion. This feeling persisted and grew stronger as we went into our first summer there. I think it was my mother who first remarked that she heard a sound like the impatient snapping of fingers in the dining room. Our cat would suddenly stop washing her face, her paw in mid-air, to stare around the room as if at someone passing who had rudely distracted her from her task.


“One night my sister woke up because of someone coughing loudly right near her ear. We told her she must dreamt or imagined it but she insisted that loud coughing had done it. However, as we by that time all had heard the snapping of the fingers I started thinking and now and then my mother and I discussed the matter.

“My mother learned [from our landlady] that a family of two sisters and two brothers, all elderly, had lived in our apartment. They had all loved it but the sisters had been compelled to move when the brothers died in short succession. Our landlady, herself well along in her seventies and still full of zestful life, who believed the superstition that where two had died a third must follow, was very reluctant to talk about the former tenants because she did not want to lose us. She first carefully broached the subject of her superstitious viewpoint and when she realized that we did not share it [she] tentatively admitted that she would never live in an apartment where two people died.

“A few weeks after our landlady’s revelation both my parents were awakened in the night by loud persistent rapping on their bedroom window and my father got up to open the front door thinking that an urgent cable might have arrived, but there was no one there. He told my sister and myself rather puzzledly but at the same time with glee about the incident for he still considered it all a joke and he likes jokes.

“All was peaceful for a while and we all enjoyed the warm summer nights coming in from the garden where, a lonely firefly now and the shot through space, into the apartment with all its open windows and the moonlight splashing on the oak floors.

“Then, on one of those warm moonlight nights I woke with a terrific start because the door of my room flew open with a crash. I remember looking at the gaping doorway and seeing the curtains billowing out as if caught in a gust of wind. I heard someone walking in the kitchen and immediately quieted down thinking that my mother was walking around and [I was] expecting her to appear in the doorway. Imagine my shock when a small man wearing a striped bathrobe and something like a turban wrapped around his head peered seemingly curiously at me. “Thieves!”, I thought in panic and my heartbeats must have been almost audible. I caught myself blurting out, “Who’s there!” The figure withdrew and I waited for the footsteps, my eyes riveted on the black space in the door frame … Once more the little man appeared, this time only his head, staring at me from around the corner, then silence … while I was waiting … waiting … for the footsteps which never came.

“How long I lay like that I do not know. The clock striking three gave me the courage to get up and wake my sister in the adjoining room. I told her that there was a thief in the house and we cautiously tiptoed down the hall toward my parent’s room. Like most mothers, my mother had already sensed something or heard us in the hall and [she] came to meet us. We then all three proceeded to the kitchen and then inspected the rest of the apartment where nothing was out of place and no silver was missing, nor were any window screens gone or cut.

“We looked at each other and then we knew … this was it, or whatever it was! “This has got to stop,” my mother said and her plan of action was born on the spot.


“During one of the ensuing days when I was home I heard my mother walking through the apartment from room to room talking to someone it seemed to me. I felt embarrassed as I knew there was no one there and that she was full of what had happened, so I listened from a distance. She was talking to someone whose name seemed to be Fitz Simmons and whom she frequently accosted as such. I learned that she pressed our landlady into telling her the name of the former tenants. It was Fitz Simmons [maybe it was the last name Fitzsimmons and not a first and last name the way Elma has it written] and there had been two brothers, the one tall, who had been an actor and the other small, who had been rather grouchy because of frequent headaches for the relief of which he used to wear a towel wrapped around his head. He was the one who would often potter around in the kitchen at night cooking something for himself.
“My mother immediately came to grips with Fitz Simmons. She told him in no uncertain term to get out and stay out! We were the rightful tenants now and he was on another plane. He had nothing to seek in our apartment anymore to which even to human law he had no right since both his sisters had moved. If he wished to see them he should go there. This went on for several days.

“Needless to say Fitz Simmons never appeared again as long as we lived there and from then on our apartment was really ours. The atmosphere cleared; no more impatient snapping of fingers; no more staring cat. We lived for more than ten years there, after which we moved into our own home.

“Once in a while we recall with wonder this unusual incident which really and truly happened here in Manhattan, a borough of New York City.”

– Elma Serton

I am now looking in the Inwood or Marble Hill area of Manhattan for a Fitz Simmons, or someone with the last name Fitzsimmons, who lived there long before 1958. The only clues I have are that one of the brothers was an actor, and they had two sisters.

Thomas R. Tietze

I was sorry to read that Thomas R. Tietze died last October. Tietze wrote an excellent book about the medium Mina Crandon titled, Margery; An entertaining and intriguing story of one of the most controversial psychics of the century. He wrote other books as well, but this is the one I read while researching the Parapsychology Lab.

There’s an obituary here. He was only 62! And apparently he was an English teacher for 32 years. “He loved a good laugh, a good book, and a good pipe.” I’m sorry I didn’t think to write him a note to thank him for his great research (I did credit him in my book, though). My condolences to his family and friends.

Missed One Entry From my Timeline

1959. Rhine speaks at NYU’s Institute of Philosophy. “I was one of the discussants of a paper given by Norbert Weiner,” Rhine wrote. “The audience was mostly philosophers, mathematicians, and computer experts. I do not think I made much impression on them. On the other hand, there was no show of opposition or criticism. I suppose one could say they have their own bonnets full of their own bees.”


That one caught my eye because Norbert Weiner was a mathematician I studied when I was a grad student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and he was particularly interesting to me at the time. I should try to find out what paper he was presenting in 1959.

A Relatively Untapped Gold Mine

I wanted to talk about the Parapsychology Laboratory Records which are housed at the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University. There are over 700 boxes of records there and it was impossible for me to go through them all. It just kills me, thinking of all the stuff I must have missed.
I employed my version of something called data sampling. I learned this in my telecommunications days. For every decade of records, I looked at a certain number of boxes, and then within those boxes, I looked a certain number of papers. I hoped my sampling rate was high enough to give an accurate picture of the history of the Parapsychology Lab.

But I know I must have missed tons of great finds. For instance, had I picked up a different folder I would have missed the letter from Einstein. Or the one from the priest in the Exorcist case. What is in all the boxes and folders I didn’t look at??

I copied much of what I looked at and brought it all back to New York. Then I started making timelines, lots and lots of different timelines, some general, some focusing on different areas. Here’s one where I was highlighting letters from the military and business.

This is just one decade, and focusing on one area, and yet look at the richness of activity. And that was just a sample!! What was in the thousands and thousands of letters I didn’t look at??

1956. Scientists at the Army’s Cambridge Electronics Laboratory become interested in testing the practical communications possibilities of ESP.

1957. A colonel from the Army’s Intelligence Board writes Rhine about a psychic girl in Virginia who gave them a demonstration. Rhine says she is a fraud. [I plan to do a post about this girl later. The FBI investigated her too.]

1958. An engineer from Convair’s Radio Astronomy Project asks Rhine if he’s “ever attempted to correlate the variation in the ability of good ESP subjects with the variation of sunspot numbers?” Rhine’s response: No.

1958. A chemist from the Army’s Ordinance Missile Command writes about a guy making claims in Italy. Rhine doesn’t take the Italian’s claims seriously.

1958. General Precision Laboratory invites Rhine to confer with them about ESP possibilities.

1959. Vernon Walsh, the Vice President of Communications at General Dynamics, says that ARPA called him about using parapsychology for defense. Walsh visits Rhine.

1959. Rhine speaks at NYU’s Institute of Philosophy. “I was one of the discussants of a paper given by Norbert Weiner. The audience was mostly philosophers, mathematicians, and computer experts. I do not think I made much impression on them. On the other hand, there was no show of opposition or criticism. I suppose one could say they have their own bonnets full of their own bees.”

1959. Rhine addresses the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on ESP, at the Western Union Telegraph Company auditorium, 60 Hudson Street. It was part of a night all about communications.

1960. Pratt meets briefly with a Colonel in the Air Force, Rhine follows up with a proposal for an Air Force ESP test.

1961. In response to repeated letters from Rhine, a colonel from the Office of the Chief of Research and Development for the Army says they can’t find any evidence of any contract with Puharich. But Rhine responds that he has found out and there is a contract, but he was sworn to secrecy.

1961. Someone from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory tells Rhine that Charles Radar said his intention was to disprove Rhine’s results.

1961. IBM conducts an ESP experiment in Canada. Rhine works with them as a consultant. [I’m going to do a post about this test later.]

1961. Rhine addresses the Institute of Radio Engineers in California. A colonel from the Air Force is in attendance and says he’s going to try “to stir up something there.” He talks about their work with drugs.

1961. Hughes Aircraft writes about this computer they’re using to calculate missile hit probabilities. He’s concerned that PK could affect missile guidance systems.

1962. A psychologist from Army Recruiting who had discussed hypnosis and ESP with Aldous Huxley writes Rhine at Huxley’s suggestion.

1962. The Defense Academy of Japan sends an assistant professor to the Lab.

1965. Sylvania Electronic Systems, then a subsidiary of General Telephone & Electronics Corporation, contacts Rhine. They want to set up a parapsychology research program and could he suggest someone to manage the project which would emphasize techniques to enhance ESP.

1965. Rhine hears about Bob Monroe, who would go on to found the Monroe Institute.

You could pick any decade, or any year, and get a wonderful snapshot of activity. I would have loved to have spent a few more years looking. There is just so much in there. You can see for yourself here!

The picture is of the building that houses Special Collections. It’s a beautiful place. And, the librarians there are some of the nicest, most helpful librarians in the world (but all librarians are saints, though).