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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Second Sight in the Berkshires

According to polls over the last few years, about three quarters of Americans believe in some form of paranormal experience, with more than half of all surveyed adults reporting having had at least one truly paranormal experience in their life.

Some advocates of the reality of Psi (psychic phenomenon) believe that it may be even more common in everyday life than many people have even considered. British biologist Rupert Sheldrake has attempted to muster evidence that such experiences as the sense of being stared at, or thinking of someone who just then telephones, are often examples of extra-sensory faculties complimenting the ordinary senses.

This all made this article difficult to write. I have wanted for some time to put together some verbiage summarizing some of the more colorful incidents in the Berkshires' "psychic" history, but the question of what to include hung over the enterprise. For reasons made obvious above, it would be impossible to give a true overview of every premonition, dream or divinatory luck any Berkshire resident may have ever had, and to relay every such story that has ever been related to me by someone locally would certainly put me over my allotted words. It would also probably be dull - often as not, one person's oracular epiphany is another's yawning cue to leave. I will therefore keep this history confined to a brief sketch of some of the more novel local occurrences drawn from newspapers and from the annals of psychical research.

People have always been interested in prophecies, predictions and all manner of mental mysteries for all of human history, but it was not until the second half of the 19th century that Americans en masse began expressing great interest in the psychic world. Following the table-rapping shenanigans of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, N.Y., in 1848, the spiritualism craze spread through the country like wildfire. In its wake came the very first efforts to study psychic happenings in an organized, scholarly way.

In 1880, a student at Williams College reported a "most singular dream." He had been recovering from an illness just a week before commencement, and while sleeping in the early evening on June 28, he had a feverishly vivid dream that he was on a steamer off of Long Island, watching another steamer burning. Its starboard wheelhouse was ablaze and all that could be made out of the name of the boat were the last three letters "AKA." The craft ran aground and people were leaping off, some drowning. A friend who'd come to check on him woke him, and he relayed the dream to him. The following evening, the friend returned, excited, and began quizzing him about his dream. He then took out a newspaper account of the disaster that had befallen the steamer Seawanhaka. Seawanhaka caught fire at about the same time as the dreamer been asleep - between 5 and 6:30 p.m. the previous day - while passing the "Hell Gate" of the East River, site of many lost boats. The steamer had run aground while burning up, and passengers had leapt off in panicked swarms, with nearly 50 drowning.

In 1914, psychic investigators Richard Hodgson and James Hyslop compared his written testimony about the dream with subsequent newspaper accounts offering more information on the Seawanhaka tragedy and identified many additional similarities of which the Williams College man and his friend were apparently not aware.

By the turn of the century, the Berkshires had become a favored spot for traveling mediums. North Adams in particular seems to have provided fertile ground for fortune telling. More than two dozen professional clairvoyants were advertising in the Transcript between 1895 and 1901. Some of the most colorful included M.Leo Balzac ("All diseases, mysterious feelings, habits, lost physical power etc. positively cured without medicine or the knife OR NO PAY!"), Madame Bartell ("tells the past, present and reveals the future"), Madame Drusilla ("63 Center St., Ladies fifty cents. Gent $1"), Karl von Roth-Hamong ("famous Palmist, Clairvoyant, Astrologist and Author"), and Ora the Mystic ("The Greatest Living Clairvoyant"). My personal favorite, Professor Delano (World's Greatest Life Reader, Clairvoyant and Palmist)," purchased large, lavishly

drawn advertisements - Marvelous Revelations! Magnificent Achievements! People are astonished - throughout the summer of 1899.

But not all would-be seers fared as well. The Eagle reports that in April of 1897, A.R. Devlin, medium and clairvoyant, left Dalton with a light purse, "as business was anything but rushing."

In the '30s and '40s, the most prominent psychic in the area was Clara Jepson of Pownal, whom I already profiled in The Advocate in November 2004. At the time of her reign, her closest competition was Mrs. Elmas Dicranian of Pittsfield. Whereas Clara was known mainly for her success in locating lost valuables, using a handkerchief to divine their whereabouts, Mrs. Dicranian was known primarily for her ability to locate water with a dowsing rod. On occasion, though, she also had visions, which she believed to be of a psychic nature, akin to what some scientists call "remote viewing." Three days after the Eagle interviewed Mrs. Jepson on her feeling on the Lindbergh kidnapping (she suggested that the boy was safe and that he was near his Hopewell, N.J., home - tragically, only the second part proved correct), Mrs. Dicranian told them her view, that he had been kidnapped by "a jealous flier friend of his father."

Likewise, shortly after Jepson was consulted on the disappearance of Paula Welden, Elmas took a bus to Bennington, where she attempted, unsuccessfully,

to lead a detective to the location of the missing girl's body. Meanwhile, in Lenox, psychic reader Mademoiselle Bathsheba Askowith was handling private consultations, dinner parties and lectures.

A number of other miscellaneous occurrences have made their way into paranormal literature. In October and November of 1920, Monterey was the site of two of a series of tests known as the Joan Dale Psychometry Experiments, conducted by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince. In these experiments, the subject Joan Dale (pseudonym) was able to divulge large amounts of previously unknown but verifiable details about a particular person by touching a sealed, shielded envelope.

In 1967, Francis Sibolski of Pittsfield wrote an article for Fate magazine detailing a recurrent vision he'd had over the years of two apparitional men fighting on his street corner alongside a vintage 1937 Plymouth taxicab. He later discovered later that there had been a nasty brawl identical to his vision at the spot between two men in 1938, one of whom died soon after. Some theorists call this type of experience retrocognition.

Many parapsychologists and other scientists at universities around the world maintain that various modern scientific research efforts - such as experiments at Princeton with the effect of the mind on random number generating machines, the remote viewing project run by the U.S. military and experiments with what is known as the Ganzfeld technique, which involves subjects in a state of slight sensory deprivation - offer sufficient evidence for the existence of some forms of Psi, though the mechanism by which it operates remains a matter of speculation. Skeptics, most notably psychologists Susan Blackmore and Ray Hyman, contend that is has not been proven, because many of the individual experiments which make up the available sample of evidence collected over the decades may have been flawed, leaving room for error, cheating and faulty analysis.

Some say that you have to witness a real psychic occurrence to believe it. Others find relevance in the old saying: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is sufficient." Maybe, but I've always preferred Thomas Huxley's suggestion that a "wise man apportions his belief to the evidence." In this case, that might mean that you can believe that psychic experiences are possible without necessarily buying into every carpetbagger who rides through town, or believing that any combination of psychic happenings could tell you all you need to know about your life.


Dennis A. said...

Can you give me any more information about Bathsheba Askowith? She was my great aunt and I would like to learn more about her?

Dennis Askwith
Gaithersburg, MD

rmneedham said...

I was going to ask the same question - Bathsheba would have been by great-great aunt.

Regina Schein Needham
Medford, MA