Saturday, March 09, 2013

Isaac Funk and the Widow's Mite

One of the more interesting and better documented cases of surprisingly accurate information from a spirit medium that is described in Deborah Blum's fascinating book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (2006, Penguin Books), is the case of Isaac Funk and the Widow's Mite (pp. 260-262).

Funk, of Funk & Wagnall's Dictionary, had been visiting a medium in Brooklyn, New York in February 1903.  About his third visit, he subsequently described the following (in Isaac K. Funk, The Widow's Mite and Other Psychic Phenomena (1904, Funk & Wagnalls), pp. 159-160, now in the public domain due to copyright expiration):
About eleven o'clock the control named "George," in his usual strong masculine voice, abruptly asked: "Has anyone here got anything that belonged to Mr. Beecher?" There was no reply. On his emphatic repetition of the question, I replied, being the only one present, as I felt sure, who had ever had any immediate acquaintance with Mr. Beecher: "I have in my pocket a letter from Rev. Dr. Hillis, Mr. Beecher's successor.  Is that what you mean?" 
The answer was: "No; I am told by a spirit present, John Rakestraw, that Mr. Beecher, who is not present, is concerned about an ancient coin, 'The Widow's Mite.' This coin is out of its place, and should be returned. It has long been away, and Mr. Beecher wishes it returned, and he looks to you, doctor, to return it." 
I was considerably surprised, and asked: "What do you mean by saying that he looks to me to return it? I have no coin of Mr. Beecher's!" 
"I don't know anything about it except that I am told that this coin is out of place, and has been for a number of years, and that Mr. Beecher says you can find it and return it."
I remembered then that when we were making "The Standard Dictionary," some nine years before, I had borrowed from a gentleman in Brooklyn--a close friend of Mr. Beecher's, who died several years ago--a valuable ancient coin known as "The Widow's Mite."  He told me that this coin was worth hundreds of dollars, and, under promise that I would see that it was returned to the collection where it belonged, he would loan it to me. ... 
I said to the control, "The only 'Widow's Mite' that has ever been in my charge was one that I borrowed some years ago from a gentleman in Brooklyn; this I promptly returned"; to which the control replied: 
"This one has not been returned." And then, after a moment's silence, he said: "Do you know whether there is a large iron safe in Plymouth Church?" 
I answered: "I do not." 
He said: "I am impressed that this coin is in a large iron safe, that it has been lost sight of; it is in a drawer in this safe under a lot of papers, and that you can find it, and Mr. Beecher wishes you to find it." 
I said: "Do you mean that this safe is in Plymouth Church?" 
He said: "I don't know where it is. I am simply impressed that it is in a large iron safe in a drawer under a lot of papers, and has been lost sight of for years, and that you can find it, and Mr. Beecher wishes you to find it. That is all that I can tell you."
Funk goes on to inquire of his business manager, who insists that it was returned, and of Mr. Wagnalls and Wheeler, who knew nothing of the coin, but Wheeler, a skeptic, suggests that it's a good test.  Funk asks a cashier, who remembers the coin, but also says that it had been returned, to investigate.  After twenty minutes, the cashier returns with an envelope containing two "Widow's Mites," which was located in one of two safes (the large iron one), in a drawer under papers.

The two coins are a smaller light-colored one and a larger black one, and Funk recalls that the smaller one was used for the illustration in the dictionary and that it was the genuine article, while the other was a fake.  He returns to the medium, and asks which coin is the right one.  Contrary to his belief, the medium (as "George") says that it is the black one, and that the friend of Mr. Beecher's to whom it belongs is a man associated with a large ladies' school in Brooklyn Heights.  Funk recalls that it was borrowed from Prof. Charles E. West, head of a ladies' school in Brooklyn Heights.

Funk sends both coins to the Philadelphia Mint for examination, and they determine that the medium is correct, the black one is the correct one, and the wrong one was used for the illustration in the dictionary.

Funk notes that the preface of the dictionary notes, regarding the illustrations, contains the description "The Widow's Mite (which was engraved from an excellent original coin in the possession of Prof. Charles E. West of Brooklyn, N.Y.)."

Funk's book provides a number of affidavits supporting the recounting of events, including that only two people present with the medium knew of Funk's connection to the coin (Funk and Irving Roney, the latter of whom provided an affidavit), that no one knew that the coin had not been returned, and that the cashier staff had no knowledge of the coin which was in the safe in their office.

The coin was returned to West's son, who also provides an affidavit stating that he was unaware that the coin had not been returned and assumed that it had been.  Funk says he dined repeatedly with the elder West prior to his death, and the coin was never brought up.

Funk proceeds to list a series of facts about the case and some possible explanations (pp. 168ff), and finds difficulties with fraud, coincidence, telepathy and clairvoyance, and spirit communications as explanations, though he appears to favor the last of these.

Funk presented the case to a number of eminent scientists of the day, including William James, Alfred Russell Wallace, and William Crookes, of which those listed were all associated with the SPR or ASPR and each suggested spirits as a possible explanation.  Many of the other scientists and philosophers, however, suggested fraud or deception (see table in Funk's book, pp. 177-178).

As presented in Blum's book, this case seems more impressive than it does with all of the details in Funk's account.  What I find suspicious are that the medium is located in the same city as the person from whom the coin was borrowed, that the connection between the owner of the coin and the illustration was published in Funk's dictionary (omitted by Blum), and that although the son had forgotten about the coin being loaned out, he thought "it altogether likely that his father told at the time other members of his family, and possibly some persons outside the family" (Funk, p. 174).  All that it would take for the fraud hypothesis would be that the medium had heard, second-hand, about the never-returned coin, and speculated that it had been forgotten and was kept in a safe (and perhaps offered a guess about which coin was genuine; that information has no clear source from the details recounted).  Funk infers that because West never brought up the coin that he had forgotten about it, but that is an assumption on his part--perhaps West made periodic complaints about it not having been returned, but didn't mention it to his son.  Funk suggests, based on class distinctions, that no one in the medium circle other than himself would have known that West even existed, which seems a highly questionable assumption.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Decline (and Probable Fall) of the Scientology Empire

My talk from January 19, 2013 to the National Capitol Area Skeptics is now online!

Thanks very much to the NCAS for professionally recording and editing this video.

I've included some notes and comments below.

  • 0:50 & 42:29 "Advanced Teachings" available at all Advanced Orgs are up to OT V. Advanced Orgs can deliver through OT V; OT VI & VII can only be obtained at the Flag Service Organization (FSO) in Clearwater, FL, and OT VIII can only be obtained on Scientology's cruise ship, the Freewinds. See:
  • 8:01 German U-boat -- I should have said Japanese submarine
  • 9:14 Photo is often claimed to be from 1968 but is really from 1959-60, so Cleve Backster probably wasn't the source of Hubbard's claim, as I originally said in the talk (also see my previous blog post on this topic).
  • 10:53 Aleister Crowley is pronounced "crow-lee," not "craugh-lee" (I have apparently have not broken a bad habit of following Ozzy Osbourne's pronunciation).
  • 13:59 the Fraser Mansion, though referred to by Scientology as the "founding church" from the 1970s to 2010, wasn't the original building. The original building, at 1812 19th St. NW, is now a museum called the L. Ron Hubbard House (though his house was across the street), which the church acquired in 2004. The Fraser Mansion is now Scientology's National Affairs Office.
  • 14:11 The first use of the name "Church of Scientology" was by the Church of Scientology founded in Camden, N.J. in Dec. 1953; the first Church of Scientology corporation was in Los Angeles (Feb. 1954, which became the Church of Scientology of California in 1956), the Church of Scientology of Arizona was incorporated that same year. Hubbard's organization while he lived in Phoenix was the Hubbard Association of Scientologists, International (HASI), founded in Sep. 1952. All HASI assets were folded into the Church of Scientology of California in 1966.
  • 31:07 "Division 20" should have been "Department 20."
  • 32:43 "bad status" -- Scientology "conditions" are a scale, like the tone scale, that your "ethics" are in, which are positive or negative. For each condition there is a "conditions formula" you are supposed to apply to get to the next better condition. Those assigned to the RPF are put in a condition of "liability" (the rag on arm mentioned is a sign of the condition of liability). See:
  • 41:07 PIs following the Broekers--mainly Pat Broeker; after one apparent attempt to leave (described in Lawrence Wright's book, Going Clear), Annie Broeker remained in Scientology until her death. Tony Ortega describes the testimony of the two PIs, who spoke out for one day before their lawsuit with Scientology was settled:
  • 43:22 Lawrence Wright's book says that "Int Base" and "Gold Base" are two different bases at the same location; "Int" being the international headquarters and "Gold" named after Golden Era Studios.
  • 1:05:35 "dog was drowned" -- Judge Swearinger's dog, Duke, a miniature collie, drowned, it's not certain that it "was drowned."
  • 1:07:10 "unable to attend uncle's funeral" -- Hubbard died on January 24, 1986; the Challenger explosion was January 28, 1986.
  • 1:17:43 St. Louis Ideal Org.  The pictured Masonic Temple is not the St. Louis Ideal Org, which is still under construction. (Thanks to ThetanBait on YouTube for this correction.)
  • Narconon's drug purification program involves vitamin (esp. niacin) megadoses, but "injections" is not correct.