I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Divining or dowsing is the supposed gift some people claim to have for finding things that have eluded the searches of others. Despite the strong belief of millions, scientific proof that such powers exist has never turned up.
Jacques Aymar Finds a Body
Already possessing a solid reputation as a dowser in the Dauphiné region of south-eastern France, Jacques Aymar was out looking for water one day in 1688. When his divining rod began twitching, he thought his search was over.
A paper published by the Institut des Sciences de l’Homme, Lyon, France picks up the story: “When he dug at the appointed spot, instead of water he found the remains of a woman. Indeed, a woman from the village had been missing for four months, and Aymar went to the house where she had once lived.”
He pointed his rod at each of the people in the house, and it moved when near the dead woman’s husband. The man fled, so establishing, it seems, his guilt.
Also established was Aymar’s alleged skill at picking out criminals.
Villain Finder Helps Police
Aymar’s talent came to the attention of police and they called on him for help in difficult cases.
In their 2004 book, The Divining Rod: An Experimental and Psychological Investigation 1926, Sir William Barrett and Theodore Besterman discuss another of Aymar’s “successes.”
In July 1692, a wine merchant and his wife in Lyons were robbed and murdered. Police were stumped and called in Aymar and his trusty diving rod. The authors write that, “Aymar then retraced the steps of the fugitives, always by using the dowsing rod, locating the houses they entered, the beds they slept in, the chairs on which the sat, and the glasses from which they drank.”
Still following the trail dictated by the rod, the search party ended up at a prison where Aymar pointed to a man who had just been arrested for theft. Faced with a vivid description of the minute details of his journey from the wine shop, the man confessed and was sentenced to be broken on the wheel, a particularly gruesome form of execution.
Aymar Acquires a National Reputation
Solving this case made Jacques Aymar a national celebrity. Others claiming to possess the same powers came forward to steal some of the spotlight.
But, not everybody was convinced that Aymar and others were the real deal. Aymar was invited to Paris by the Prince de Condé to have his extraordinary talent tested in a number of ways. James Randi, in his 1982 book Flim-Flam notes that “he failed them all.” Despite this “he is still touted among the faithful as a powerful operator.”
Crime Fighting by Dowsing
Today, police often receive offers from dowsers to help find missing persons or locate a murderer. In general, they turn down the offers but, occasionally, when completely baffled by a case they may turn to the pseudoscientific field in desperation for clues. The results are almost always embarrassing failures although some practitioners claim success where there is none.
Such was the case with California's Hillside Strangler.
California dowser Verne McGuire boasted that by swinging a pendulum over a map he helped police locate and apprehend the Hillside Strangler (there were in fact two killers working together). He made his claim in an interview with the Ridgecrest Daily Independent newspaper.
Police tell a different story, as recorded by James Randi’s Educational Foundation “the Los Angeles police, who actually solved the case … reported that McGuire’s description of how and where the killers were found is quite fictional.” But that initial newspaper report has been picked up by others and repeated so often that, for believers in divining, it’s true.
There is no scientific evidence that dowsing works, and a fair bit to show that it doesn’t. However, stories such as those of Jacques Aymar and Verne McGuire take on a mantle of truth with constant retelling and they perpetuate the notion that some people have “magical” powers to perceive what others can’t.
Nella Jones and the Stolen Masterpiece
In Britain, a woman who claimed to have psychic powers came to prominence when she helped solve the theft of a Vermeer painting in 1974.
Nella Jones was not a dowser but British police did call on her from time to time when they were up a blind alley on a case. Depending upon whose accounts you believe, the skeptics or believers, she had been successful in developing leads in some crimes.
The doubters say Nella occasionally had blind luck and point to her failure to have any success in the Yorkshire Ripper case. Supporters include Detective Chief Inspector Arnie Cooke of Scotland Yard who told The Daily Mail “Nella gave invaluable assistance on a number of murders. Her evidence was not the type you can put before a jury. But senior investigating officers have got to take people like her on board and accept what they are saying.”
Journalist Lynne Truss interviewed Nella Jones and came away with this quote about her talents: “The nearest way I can describe what I do is that there’s part of me that walks in the other realm.”
- Dowsers sometimes call themselves “water witches.”
- Dowsing skeptic James Randi says it’s not too difficult for dowsers to find water as it is within a drillable distance under 96 percent of the Earth’s surface. Since 1964, Mr. Randi has offered a prize of more than a million dollars to anybody who can prove paranormal powers. Eighty percent of those who have taken up the challenge have been dowsers and they’ve all failed to prove their claimed skills under science-based testing.
- On the other hand, The Denver Post quotes retired chemist Duane Kniebes as claiming “conventional science does not explain dowsing,” but, he says, “amazingly enough, it works.”
- “The ‘Physical Prophet’ and the Powers of the Imagination. Part II: a Case-study on Dowsing and the Naturalisation of the Moral, 1685-1710.” Koen Vermeir, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Vol. 36 No 1, pages 1-24, 2005.
- “The Divining Rod: An Experimental and Psychological Investigation 1926.” Sir William Barrett and Theodore Besterman, Kessinger Publishing, October 2004.
- “Flim-Flam.” James Randi, Prometheus Books, 1982.
- “Divining Intervention: The Growing Popularity of Dowsing.” Jason Blevins, Denver Post, June 5, 2009.
- “Could there be Proof to the Theory that We’re ALL Psychic?”Danny Penman, The Daily Mail, January 28, 2008.
- Lynne Truss. 1994.
- “Divining for Water: A survey of Field Tests Worldwide.” Geoffrey Dean, undeceivingourselves.org, undated.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor