Dowsing for Lost Graves

Robert Schueler locating graves with dowsing rods in 1977

Dowsing, also known as divining, is the ancient practice of locating buried objects with twigs or metal rods. While the mind immediately conjures up old-time treasure hunters searching for buried loot, dowsing has traditionally been used to its greatest extent in the search for underground water. Even today, some utility workers use dowsing rods to locate buried pipes and cables-- much to the eye-rolling of "enlightened" skeptics.

Yes, the overwhelming consensus is that dowsing is a pseudoscience. The art of dowsing has never been shown to work in a controlled scientific experiment, and even famed skeptic James Randi tested the claims of numerous dowsers in the form of his now-defunct One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. Dowsers who participated in the challenge by agreeing to find buried water pipes under highly-controlled circumstances all met with utter failure.

However, there are some educated persons who maintain that dowsing really does work. After all, there are countless anecdotal reports of success while dowsing, and while some of these successes can be chalked up to luck or coincidence, there are other cases that fly in the faces of skeptics.
In these cases, some scientists have theorized that ideomotor movements are responsible for dowsing success. This is not a new theory; in 1852 a researcher named William B. Carpenter was the first to suggest that ideomotor effects were behind the movements of divining rods, pendants and pendulums used by dowsers. Carpenter and others theorize that ideomotor movements are involuntary, subconscious motor movements that are the result of subliminal expectations or prior suggestions.

In terms of divining for buried objects, dowsers hold their rods in front of them in a parallel fashion. The rods cross each other, seemingly by magic, whenever the dowser passes over the object they are trying to detect. Skeptics maintain that this occurs when the dowser knows where the object is buried, and this seems to explain why so many novice and first time dowsers report high rates of success when they bury an object in their back yard and then try to find it using divining rods. As James Randi demonstrated on numerous occasions, once the subject is "blind" to the location of the buried object, the success rate for experienced dowsers is no greater than that of the average person.

But dowsers disagree; some of Randi's subjects argued that the test had been intentionally designed to encourage failure. Some of the dowsers even blamed things such as sunspots and magnetic disturbances for their failures.

However, one inconvenient, indisputable fact still remains: Many dowsers have been so successful at finding buried objects that they have made careers out of practicing their craft.

One such man was a gravemarker salesman from Erie, Pennsylvania, named Robert Schueler (1914-1991). In 1977, Schueler-- and his divining rods-- played a key role in solving the mystery of the lost Erie County Poorhouse graveyard.

A few years earlier a real estate developer, Robert Ferrier, purchased a large lot in Erie with the intention of building an industrial park. While doing research on the property for a newspaper story about the planned industrial park, reporter Jeff Pinksi of the Erie Morning News made a startling discovery-- the land, it seemed, had once been the site of the county poorhouse. Since most poorhouses of 19th century had adjoining burial grounds, this was cause for concern.

Although most of the older residents of Erie recalled that the pauper's graves had been relocated to another local cemetery many years earlier, Pinski wasn't so sure. His investigative reporter instincts took over and he plunged headfirst into  the mystery. He was able to obtain a rare, handwritten register of the burials and Pinski eventually concluded that it was highly unlikely all of the human remains had been removed from the grounds.

Erie County Poorhouse

The register in itself would have made for a great blog post-- it contained highly personalized (and rather interesting) descriptions of the unfortunate paupers dating back to 1878. There was John H., with "out of his mind" listed as his cause of death. Another pauper, whose name has been lost to history, is described in poorhouse death records as "a perfect idiot". Another was identified only as "a disagreeable old Irishman". Many of the unknown dead were said to have died of "a general wearing out". But the most fascinating corpse was that of John M., age 94, who died "when he fell overboard while rowing with his girlfriend. He had been drinking."

Unfortunately for Jeff Pinski, no other records pertaining to the graveyard could be found, not even records from 1918, the year the poorhouse closed down and the graves were ostensibly relocated. Pinski was convinced that the plot of land purchased by Ferrier was teeming with corpses, but he had no way of proving it-- until he turned to Robert Schueler.

By this time Schueler was already a local legend of sorts when it came to finding human remains. Newspapers of the day invariably described him as an "expert grave finder", though, of course, many of so-called progressively-minded locals scoffed at the dowser's abilities. But as Schueler accurately pinpointed the precise location of grave after grave, even some of his biggest critics began to change their tune.

"To look at, you'd think it was fake," said Merle Wood, a neighborhood undertaker who had been hired to move the bodies. "But I have to believe him, because I don't have any other way to find the graves."

 A test dig confirmed Schueler's reliability as a dowser; Schueler immediately staked two locations where his divining rods crossed, and two bodies were found. He was then given free reign to "do his thing" and, by the time it was all over, 443 of the 600 suspected potter's field burials were located-- that's a success rate of nearly 74 percent. And if it was true that some of the graves had been relocated decades earlier, that would have made his success rate significantly higher.