Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory

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Rain barrels that refill themselves. Psychic horses. Mind-reading Cold War spies. For many, these phenomena are evidence of an unseen world just beyond the grasp of our five senses. For a group of scientists at Duke University, such mysteries demanded further investigation. From 1930 to 1980, under the leadership of Dr. J. B. Rhine, often considered the Einstein of the paranormal, the scientists at the Duke Parapsychology Lab attempted to test the bizarre, the frightening, and ...

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Rain barrels that refill themselves. Psychic horses. Mind-reading Cold War spies. For many, these phenomena are evidence of an unseen world just beyond the grasp of our five senses. For a group of scientists at Duke University, such mysteries demanded further investigation. From 1930 to 1980, under the leadership of Dr. J. B. Rhine, often considered the Einstein of the paranormal, the scientists at the Duke Parapsychology Lab attempted to test the bizarre, the frightening, and the unexplainable against the rigors of science.

In Unbelievable, Stacy Horn reveals the strange, lost history of these first attempts to prove—or disprove—the existence of the para­normal, bringing to light a half-century's worth of ghost stories, poltergeists, and paranormal activity. The Duke scientists were queried by the likes of Albert Einstein, Richard Nixon, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Helen Keller; the U.S. Army and blue-chip corporations such as IBM and Zenith seized upon their findings.

Investigating telepathy, clairvoyance, ghosts, poltergeists, and the myriad other strange phenomena that people claim to have experienced, the scientists did find proof that the human mind can exhibit telepathic powers—but their discov­ery would put them at odds with both the scientific community and the community of believers at large, beginning a multidecade battle among unyielding critics, die-hard believers, and scientists themselves. Yet Horn reveals that between the power of belief and the promise of scientific investigation, there is room for everyone to acknowledge that the truth is out there.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For almost half century (1931–80), the Duke University laboratory of J. B. Rhine and his colleagues formed the epicenter of research of parapsychology. In fact, Rhine not only coined the term "parapsychology" himself; he almost single-handedly created the methodology and procedures in this controversial field. Stacy Horn's Unbelievable ventures into the realm of concepts such as ESP and psychokinesis "that the Rhine lab tested experimentally, but still remain controversial after all these years. Despite widespread skepticism, Duke parapsychology research attracted the interest of notables including Albert Einstein, Richard Nixon, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Russian Cold War leaders. An exceptionally interesting tour through paranormal history.
Kirkus Reviews
A sympathetic, somewhat rambling history of parapsychology investigations at Duke University. All Things Considered contributor Horn (The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad, 2005, etc.) begins in the mid-1920s, when J.B. Rhine and his wife Louisa arrived in Boston to research psychic phenomena. Their scathing expose of the popular medium Mina Crandon set off a storm among believers in the occult; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bought ads in the Boston papers declaring Rhine to be "an ass." The protests brought Rhine to the attention of John Thomas, a public-school administrator who had lost his wife and was trying to establish contact with her spirit. Thomas arranged for Rhine to join the psychology department at Duke, where he would remain for nearly 40 years. Horn gives the broad outlines of Rhine's basic work, most of which involved experiments in which students tried to guess which of five symbols appeared on a card chosen from a deck. Especially in the early years, his researchers achieved some provocative results that drew widespread press attention and floods of mail from those seeking advice. Rhine was determined to produce scientifically sound work, the author notes. As a result, he declined to investigate many of the cases brought to his attention by the public, specifically those involving ghosts, poltergeists and other phenomena that could not be subjected to rigorous experimental conditions. Horn looks at several psychics who injected themselves into murder investigations, although Rhine had little to do with those cases. Ironically, despite Rhine's insistence on scientific rigor, his work was frequently challenged for inadequate statistical analysis andinsufficient safeguards against cheating. In latter days, his backers grew impatient with his failure to find proof of the afterlife, and funding dwindled. He left behind some intriguing results and many unanswered questions about how the mind works. A bit unfocused, but solid on the details of Rhine's life and work. Author events in Boston, New York, Raleigh/Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C.
Bust Magazine
“Some of the explanations here, backed by scientific fact, will send shivers up readers’ spines.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616836122
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/10/2009
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Stacy Horn, a contributor to National Public Radio's All Things Considered, is the author of The Restless Sleep, Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Memoir, and Cyberville. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory

Chapter One

Before a small, unknown Methodist college was transformed into Duke University in the late 1920s, the city of Durham had been a backwater, known mostly for minor league baseball and cigarettes. The outskirts were bleak, and the sickly sweet smell of tobacco leaves being cured in warehouses was everywhere, wafting down the streets and on past the run-down shacks that housed the factory workers. Duke University's campus, however, was a lush, green, magnolia-scented paradise. An infusion of millions of tobacco dollars had created a rebirth, coinciding with the arrival of J. B. and Louisa Rhine, who'd been searching the country for just such an academic haven. Duke was the clean slate where they could begin their scientific pursuit of the paranormal away from the darkened parlors of charlatan mediums and under the guidance of an enthusiastic and protective mentor, Dr. William McDougall, the head of Duke's nascent psychology department. In the midst of all the building and revitalization that surrounded them, J. B. Rhine and Dr. McDougall talked mostly of death.

Rhine had spent the past six months studying the desperate and repeated attempts of a public school administrator named John Thomas to communicate with his recently deceased wife through mediums. The results were thrilling—the mediums were frequently able to provide facts known only to Thomas. They inspired a suspension of Rhine's hypercritical disbelief, but after all his efforts, Rhine was at an impasse. He'd done everything he could toverify the facts contained in the mediums' messages, even traveling hundreds of miles to a small centuries-old cemetery in upstate New York to confirm a few obscure séance-transmitted details. The information the mediums were communicating was almost always correct. But the number of verifiable facts, however staggering, did not prove that the mediums were getting their information from beyond the grave. While he had eliminated the possibility of fraud or a few good guesses, Rhine knew there could be another explanation. Telepathy is the ability of one mind to communicate directly with another without the use of any of the known senses. The mediums could have gotten their facts from the man's dead wife, but they could also have gotten them from the mind of someone living, like the husband himself.

So which was it, dead wife or telepathy? There was no way to answer the question scientifically—Rhine obviously couldn't get the dead wife into a laboratory, and while there had been some work toward substantiating telepathy in the past, the current "status of experimental telepathy" was nowhere near the point of explaining the mediums' results. But McDougall disagreed. The evidence for telepathy was "astonishingly good," he insisted. The problem was, a consistently reliable experiment under controlled settings hadn't been found. The two men decided that before he did anything else, Rhine had to design just such an experiment. McDougall, it turned out, was in a unique position to help make that happen. The study of the paranormal and life after death was as much a passion of his as Rhine's, and he'd left a prestigious position at Harvard for the promise of funding and support for psychical research from the president of Duke University himself. McDougall would do everything in his power to further Rhine's search for proof of life beyond death. Before a decade was up Durham was no longer just a tobacco town. By 1934 Duke University and Rhine's amazing experiments in what would come to be known as ESP, extrasensory perception, would captivate a nation. "The success of Rhine's E.S.P. work," McDougall proclaimed, "is about the only bright spot in a dark world." It was the first hard evidence that the elusive proof of life after death might be out there.

The journey to Duke had started in a dimly lit parlor in Boston, Massachusetts, with a beautiful woman who claimed she could talk to the dead. It was 1926, and mediums were all the rage, but Boston's Mina Crandon, the wife of the respected surgeon Le Roi G. Crandon, had every medium in America beat. In séances conducted in a fourth-floor parlor in fashionable, relentlessly respectable Beacon Hill, the captivating Mina, who went by the pseudonym Margery, held out this promise: You will never die, never disappear forever, and now, come close and hold my hands, and my feet, just to reassure yourself that this is all real, it's not a trick, and death is not the end. Mina often wore only slippers, stockings, and a dressing gown, which her husband would part so her guests could stare, in the name of science and discovery, to see the ectoplasmic emissions that sometimes came from her mouth, her ear, and from between her legs. Sex and immortality. What could be more irresistible? Some didn't know how to react. But then Dr. Crandon would invite them to reach out and touch her. At very special sittings, held in near total darkness, Crandon would flash a red light, and from between the spread legs of a now naked Mina would emerge what was described as a frightening "flaccid," "tongue-like projection." The Crandons proclaimed it the ectoplasmic emission of the hand of Mina's brother Walter, who had died in a railroad accident in 1911. It was horrifying. According to an account written by Thomas R. Tietze, one witness said the end "was broken up irregularly like amputated fingers." But no one looked away. Do you want to touch it, Dr. Crandon would ask. Many recoiled, although one sitter said it felt like a woman's breast. Others said it felt like cold, raw beef or wet rubber. These were very effluent times, and the paranormal was frequently wet, dripping, and organic. Other mediums would expel goose fat–lubricated cheesecloth. Harvard professors later concluded that Mina's "hand" was constructed from the lung tissue of an animal. Professor McDougall, then still at Harvard, was the first to state the obvious. "The more interesting question is—How did it come to be within the anatomy?" Mina never permitted the kind of inspection needed to answer the question, but she did once ask Hereward Carrington, a researcher on the committee from Scientific American, "Wouldn't you like to kiss me?" The magazine had offered twenty-five hundred dollars to anyone who could prove they had psychical abilities, and Carrington was there to investigate her claims. "What was I to do? She was there in my arms," Carrington later pleaded for understanding. "She was making advances to every man in sight," another visitor confirmed. Carrington would sit with Mina forty times.

Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory
. Copyright (c) by Stacy Horn . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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