Oliver Lodge

One June 29, 1940, just under two months before he died, the physicist Oliver Lodge wrote J. B. Rhine. The first half of the letter is typed and the rest is handwritten with a very shaky hand.

Dear Dr. Rhine,

I have heard so much about your experiments in telepathy that I rejoiced to get an authoritative account, and especially to know that a University Professor of Psychology was taking up the subject. And now I find that you were aware of my own work in the same direction, although it was carried on in a back-stairs manner and had no University status At the same time I was personally convinced of the reality of what you have rechristened E.S.P.

I desire no more evidence; only now the subject is on the way to becoming respectable, treated in a handsome volume, published by Henry Holt, & vouched for by several Professor as a branch of Psychology.

Yours faithfully,
Oliver Lodge


Lodge is referring to the book Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, which was co-written by J. G. Pratt, J. B. Rhine, Burke M. Smith, Charles E. Stuart, and Joseph A. Greenwood. I double-checked and was happy to see that Rhine had credited all the telepathy experiments that Lodge had undertaken before Rhine. The Lodge letter was very gracious and Rhine was thrilled and proud to get. He wrote a very admiring and grateful letter back.

Ah, the last paragraph from Rhine says this: “I hope, as most Americans do, that the Nazis can be kept from carrying out their threat of destruction of English civilization. I heartily wish we were allied with you on this as we were in 1917.” A year and a half later he would get his wish.

Harry Houdini

This is just a snippet from a 1954 letter from J. B. Rhine to his daughter Sally, where he briefly mentions a meeting with Houdini. His letter seems to indicate that the encounter was completely friendly, respectful and civil. Since Houdini died in 1926, this meeting would have taken place when Rhine was just starting out in parapsychology.

“I do not think Houdini ever claimed he was doing anything but magic. When Mother and I had our talk with him he showed a serious attitude toward the scientific investigation of psychical matters. That might have been because our sponsor, Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, was with us and he and Houdini were old friends. Dr. Prince claimed that Houdini was really quite open-minded on telepathy and was not sure had had not had some such experiences himself.”

In 1926, Houdini and William McDougall (Rhine’s soon to be mentor) had arranged for a psychical research symposium at Clark University. So that would have taken place just before Houdini died. I remember reading the address McDougall made at Clark. It included this:

“ … it [parapsychological research] runs the risk of leading its students into a slough of despair, or entangling them in a quagmire where no sure footing is found, where will o’ the wisps gleam fitfully on every hand, provoking hopes that are destined to disappointment and emotions that blind us to the dangers of this obscure region … Let it be admitted then that this is no field for the causal amateur … It is a field of research which at every step demands in the highest degree the scientific spirit and all around scientific training and knowledge.”

Not very hopeful! 1926 was also the same year that the Rhines had attended a seance conducted by medium Margery. Shortly after they would publish a paper declaring her a fraud. Houdini had come to the same conclusion two years before. So they had that in common.

Commander McDonald to Captain Rickenbacker

On November 1, 1943, Commander Eugene F. McDonald, the founder and president of the Zenith Radio Corporation, sat down and wrote WWI hero Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who was then working for Eastern Airlines.

My Dear Eddie:

“… I am enclosing a copy of my letter to Dr. [Joseph] Banks Rhine of Duke University written in March of this year. This letter I wish you would stick in your pocket and read at your leisure. I wrote the letter to encourage Dr. Rhine to carry on in his work and not be stopped by scientific scoffers.”

“In 1923 I put on the first program that was ever produced for radio on the subject of telepathy on our radio station WJAZ. I did this with the cooperation of Dr. Robert Gault, head of the Department of Psychology of Northwestern University, and Dr. Gardner Murphy of Columbia.”

“In 1938 I put on a program on extra-sensory perception which program was supervised not only by Dr. Gault but also by Dr. [Joseph] Banks Rhine, who was then starting his work at Duke University on extra-sensory perception. This program I put on the national chain and carried it on for nearly a year. There was no faking. It was a sincere attempt to make extra-sensory perception a subject which should be discussed …”

“Before I used Dr. [Joseph] Banks Rhine I called a number of scientists out on my yacht each Sunday to interview him and ascertain whether or not in their opinion they thought he was conservative.”

“I’ll never forget what our great physicist, Dr. Arthur Compton, said. After he talked with Dr. Rhine for over three hours on my yacht he said, “Rhine, I was asked out here to ascertain whether or not you were conservative enough. My answer is going to be that you are too conservative. You’re trying to explain everything by the laws of science. You can’t do that. There are too many facts which we must accept cannot be explained by the now known laws of science.”

McDonald then closed his letter by asking Rickenbacker to keep his letter to Rhine confidential.
Rickenbacker said he read the letter to Rhine with interest, but I have to say, he doesn’t sound very enthusiastic in his answer. He sounds like he was just being polite.

But after googling him for a while I see he had a few psychic experiences during the war (and near-death experiences) so he was definitely open-minded about the subject.

Also, McDonald mentions a recent American Magazine article of Rickenbacker’s titled: When a Man Faces Death. McDonald said it was one of the most inspiring articles he has ever read, but he makes an interesting correction. He says Rickenbacker made a mistake that “so many people make in referring to the science as ‘mental telepathy.’ All telepathy, as we know it, is mental.” So Rickenbacker must have written about telepathy in the article.

I want to add that I love the story McDonald told about Compton saying Rhine was too conservative. Years later Rhine would say that Compton was too credulous.

I’m Reading this Sunday, April 4, 3PM

Sunny’s is a great old bar on the Red Hook, Brooklyn waterfront.

The best picture I found of it came from Sam Horine’s website, I hope he doesn’t mind. He’s an extremely talented photographer who takes pictures of my favorite subjects, forgotten and abandoned places. Not that Sunny’s is forgotten. But it’s off the beaten path.

Reasons to get off the beaten path, besides me: Ted Conover, Ken Wishnia, and just the area period. Bring your camera.

Directions. Sunny’s is at 253 Conover Street (between Beard & Reed Streets).

There’s the IKEA water taxi that’s free from Pier 11, and it leaves every 20 minutes. If you promise to shop at IKEA I think it’s okay to take it. Pier 11 is at the corner of South Street & Wall Street. To get to Pier 11 take either the 2,3,4 or 5 train to Wall Street and then walk east. Seriously, if you’re going to go out there you should go to IKEA. I plan to pick up some bowls I saw there last time.

Or, you can take the B61 toward Red Hook from Atlantic Ave. & Court St. (or from the A train midtrain exit at Jay Street Borough Hall). Get off near the end of the line at Van Brunt & Beard streets., walk 1 block right and 1/2 block left.

Or take the B77 bus down 9th Street from Park Slope (or from the Smith and 9th Street F train stop–exit at the rear of the train and come down the stairs to street level and the corner bus stop.) Take the bus in the direction of Van Brunt Street and Red Hook.