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.

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