The Zener Cards of Upton and Mary Sinclair: A Story of Psychical Research

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Upton Sinclair, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer perhaps better known for his novel The Jungle, a scathing critique of the meat-packing industry, was a sometime investigator of occult and mystical phenomena. In 1930, Sinclair published Mental Radio, a book that purported to demonstrate evidence of his wife Mary Craig Sinclair’s telepathic powers. The respected, and often skeptical, psychical researcher William McDougall wrote the introduction for the book’s English edition and Albert Einstein introduced the German edition.

Mary claimed to have developed telepathic abilities after the deaths of several close friends. Initially, her husband was irritated by his wife’s gifts which would manifest, inopportunely, in the middle of the night and Mary would wake him in order to recount her visions which often featured her husband doing everyday activities. Eventually, however, Sinclair decided to test his wife’s claims in a methodical manner and this investigation formed the basis of his book. Sinclair would draw whatever came to mind on a piece of scrap paper and would put each scribble on his wife’s belly. His wife, who could not see these drawings, would then reproduce or describe her impression of them.

Concerning these phenomena, Sinclair concluded: “Either there is some super-human mind or else there is something that comes from the drawings, some way of ‘seeing’ other than the way we know and use all the time.”

The Lilly Library’s archive of Upton Sinclair’s papers is comprised of over 150,000 items, including the original research notes and drawings for Mental Radio.

Several items of correspondence in the Lilly’s collection add further insight into the story of Mrs. Sinclair’s alleged telepathy.  On March 18, 1935, Upton Sinclair received a letter from J.B. Rhine, founder of the parapsychology lab at Duke University.  Rhine was a psychologist who helped found the (now largely discredited) branch of science known as parapsychology, a discipline concerned with investigating paranormal and psychic phenomenon.  He was one of the scientists who published articles against the famous Boston medium Mina Crandon, known a “Margery.”  These skeptical revelations led Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent believer in spiritualist phenomenon, to publish an article in a Boston newspaper titled “J.B. Rhine is an Ass.”  But despite his early attempts to debunk paranormal phenomenon, Rhine himself became quite caught up in his own beliefs in psychic phenomenon, particularly Extrasensory Perception (ESP).  In 1934 he published a book on the subject based on research using Duke students.  The book made him something of a celebrity, and he received letters from all over the world asking him to investigate their paranormal experiences.  The research was supported by institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation and individuals such as Alfred P. Sloan, the CEO of General Motors.  During the mid-20th century, it genuinely appeared as though parapsychology was on its way to becoming a recognized scientific discipline.

One of Rhine’s tools in his ESP experiments was a set of cards designed by his colleague Karl Zener.  These cards had five different symbols on them: a circle, a plus sign, three wavy lines, a square, and a star.  Most people today recognize these cards from a scene in the 1984 film Ghostbusters in which the parapsychologist Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) conducts an experiment with the cards, shocking his male subject even when he guesses correctly and letting his pretty female subject pass with flying colors.  The cards were used by Rhine to test subjects for ESP.  The experimenter would look at the symbol on the card, and the test subject would then try to guess what symbol was on the card.  Any percentage higher than that of pure chance (20%) was considered significant.  Unlike the character in Ghostbusters, Rhine did not use electric shocks in any way, and his research turned up a number of test subjects with high hit rates.  Even the CIA was interested and purchased some of these cards to conduct their own tests.

Many factors can lead to high hit rates, including poor shuffling of the deck, sensory leakage (in which the subject can see the card in a reflection, see through the card, or pick up on cues from the experimenter), or outright cheating.  In short, these experiments have now been shown to have dubious scientific validity.

J.B. Rhine’s letter to Upton Sinclair asked him if he would mind testing his wife with the Zener cards.  That letter and the deck of cards is now held in the Lilly’s archive.  Sinclair responded promptly and enthused that his wife had “had one of those experiences when she was absolutely sure that he had got the correct answers.”  Without even looking at the cards, he alleged, she had been able to correctly guess the symbols.

Rebecca Baumann, Reference Associate, The Lilly Library

L. Anne Delgado, Lecturer, Department of English

 

Sources consulted:

Mock, Geoffrey.  “Synchronicity at Duke.” Duke Today.  March 23, 2009.  http://today.duke.edu/2009/03/rhine.html

“Zener ESP Cards.” The Skeptic’s Dictionaryhttp://www.skepdic.com/zener.html

 

 

 

A New Exhibition at the Lilly Library: Spiritualists, Sorcerers, and Stage Magicians

Banner_Sun_v7-editedJoin us this week as the Lilly Library’s summer exhibition, “Spiritualists, Sorcerers, and Stage Magicians: Magic and the Supernatural at the Lilly Library,” makes its debut. The exhibition will run from June 2 to August 30, with a special reception on Saturday, June 21 from 6:00-8:00 PM.

The exhibition showcases the Library’s wide-ranging and eclectic holdings on magic and the supernatural, from 17th-century treatises on witchcraft to modern-day comic books.

Stay tuned to the Lilly Library’s blog and website for details about upcoming special events and blog posts throughout the summer highlighting items in Lilly’s collection such as discussion of spiritualism in the correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Lilly’s recently-acquired issues of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and annotated editions of books by the self-styled black magician Aleister Crowley.

The Curious Story of the Electropoise

The Electropoise was a fraudulent medical device invented and patented by huckster Hercules Sanche, the self-proclaimed “Discoverer of the Laws of Spontaneous Cure of Disease.” Initially marketed in the early 1890s (sources differ on the exact date), it was the first of several devices that provided “gas pipe therapy,” and its story provides an interesting portrait of late 19th –century American alternative medicine, the power of advertising, and the potent mix of gullibility and desperation that allows quack cures to flourish.

rz420-b7_00014 There is nothing electric about the Electropoise, and the “Plain Directions” (which are actually anything but plain) that accompany the object tell its user, “Do not expect any sensations of current or shock. Nature does not work that way.” The Electropoise is simply a brass lozenge called the “Polizer” to which is attached at one end a flexible uninsulated cord. At the end of the cord is a small metal disc with an elastic band, which the user attaches to her ankle for a general cure or to whatever part of the body ails her for specific therapy. The user is directed to put the tube in a bucket of cold water (the exact temperature of the water and the amount of time for the therapy being determined by a complex series of disease classifications and formulae) and then let healing oxygen flow through the cord and into the body. The instructions claim that “[t]he oxygen … is carried into the general circulation and oxidizes the blood, thus burning out all manner of poisonous impurities, destroying bacteria and preventing their further propagation.” Of course in reality, the Electropoise did absolutely nothing at all. Its makers relied on the principle that a portion of those who are sick – and, more importantly, those who believe they are sick – will get better without any treatment. A contemporary promotional feature in an 1894 issue of The New York Evangelist promises that the Electropoise could cure “an alphabet of ailments” from abscesses to vertigo. The brochure that accompanies the instrument includes seventy pages of testimonials from satisfied customers who believe they have been cured of headaches, insomnia, “female complaints,” rheumatism, malaria, pneumonia, paralysis, nervous disorders, consumption, and cancer. The directions include further serious ailments that the device is supposed to cure; for example, they advise that sufferers of “apoplexy, apparent death, congestion of the brain … drowning and epilepsy” can be aided by “chang[ing] the plate from one wrist to the other every twenty or thirty minutes during continuous application.”

According to an advertisement in an 1895 issue of The Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Illustrated Magazine, the cylinder is filled with, “a composition, the nature of which is not made public.” In the December 1, 1900 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, N.C. Morse, M.D. writes, “I have had it sawed into sections and alas, like the goose that laid the golden egg of fable fame, there is nothing in the carcass!” However, despite its literally hollow claims, the Electropoise was very popular, so much so that the Electrolibration Company, founded in Birmingham Alabama, soon added offices in New York and London and began marketing new devices such as the Oxydonor, which was the same as the Electropoise except that instead of being hollow, it contained a stick of carbon inside. Other companies followed with their own versions. In 1899, Sanche tried to prevent the sale of the rival Oxygenor but it was held by the court that there was insufficient evidence to show that Sanche’s invention was useful or valuable enough to be afforded protection. The American Medical Association released official statements, such as a 1915 book on “Mail-Order Medical Fraud,” condemning this kind of ersatz medical treatment.

As well as being potentially dangerous, the Electropoise was also expensive. Advertisements from the period indicate that this model of the Electropoise was priced from $10 to $35. The booklet included with the Lilly Library’s copy lists the price of the pocket model as $25 and the standard model (a large device which was mounted on a wall) as $50. This may sound like an inexpensive cure for all ills, but $25 at the turn of the century was comparable to several hundred dollars today. The testimonials included in the literature make it clear that consumers could pay in installments. The two books included with the Lilly Library’s copy of the Electropoise are undated. The book which includes testimonials has the name L.A. Bosworth on the cover, and many of the testimonials are addressed to him in the form of letters. Bosworth was a reverend in Boston, MA, but his connection with Sanche or the Electrolibation Company of Birmingham is not clear.

rz420-b7_00002So who used the Electropoise? The illustration included in the literature that accompanies the device gives us a clue. A woman in the “Gibson Girl” style lounges prone on a settee, reading a book while the cord of the Electropoise snakes delicately from her ankle into a vase on the floor. This woman in her lacy dressing gown is the perfect consumer for the product. She is clearly of the middle or upper-middle class and she has leisure time in which to convalesce. While the testimonials reveal that both men and women used the product, it would have been especially appealing for vague “female complaints” or the ubiquitously-diagnosed condition of “hysteria” – in other words the types of ailments that may well be “cured” by a device that doesn’t do anything except make the sufferer believe that he or she will get better. The Electropoise enjoyed its reign of popularity at the same time that the vibrator was invented to “cure” hysterical women by means of genital massage – a method practiced manually by doctors and midwives since the times of Galen and Avicenna and brought into the age of electricity in the late 19th century by enterprising inventors who aspired to save doctors the trouble of inducing “hysterical paroxysm” manually. In the Paris Exposition of 1900, over a dozen medical vibratory devices were available for the perusal of visiting doctors, from low-priced foot-powered models, to the $200 elaborately-designed “Chattanooga.” The Electropoise was perhaps a distant cousin of these devices designed to cure hysteria, the great bugaboo of 19th-century medicine, a catch-all for everything from serious mental illnesses to boredom and sexual frustration. The instructions for using the Electropoise includes a section for female complaints and advises that “[i]n many cases the internal female generative organs can be treated more successfully by local application to the organ itself. For this purpose the Uterine Electrode [a long metal rod that could be attached to the device] should be used. Agents can furnish it. Price, $2.50.” Specific male complaints, including hydrocele, varicocele, and “self abuse” could be treated by applying the metal disc to the scrotum. In its promise to provide relief to even the most intimate of problems, bypassing the process of visiting a real doctor, this curious little device illustrates the allure of quack medicine and is not so different from placebo products shilled on late night infomercials today. There will always be a market for the phony miracle cure.

Rebecca Baumann, Reference Associate

Sources Consulted:

American Medical Association. Medical Mail-Order Frauds. Chicago: American Medical Association, 1915. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

“The Electropoise.” New York Evangelist. December 6, 1894. ProQuest American Periodicals.

“The Electropoise.” The Cosmopolitan: a Monthly Illustrated Magazine. 1895. ProQuest American Periodicals.

Rachel Maines. The Technology of Orgasm : “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

N.C. Morse. “Modern Empirical Inventions.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Volume 35, part 2. December 1, 1900. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Carolyn Thomas de la Peña. The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American. New York: New York University Press, 2003.