Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Incest Capital of the World?

At the far eastern edge of Kentucky, nestled in Appalachia, resides Letcher County. In spite of its isolation and poverty (approximately 30% of the county's population lives below the poverty line), Letcher County has managed to grow at an impressive rate, from a population of just 9,172 in 1900 to a present-day population of nearly 25,000. However, even if Letcher County tripled or quadrupled its present population, there's still a pretty good chance that virtually all of the county's inhabitants would be related to each other-- thanks to one particularly fertile family whose astounding rate of reproduction can put even the friskiest rabbit to shame.

Around the year 1900, Letcher County was the home of a man by the name of Jason L. Webb, who made national headlines for having the one of the largest families in the world. According to newspaper reports of the era, Jason had 19 children, 175 grandchildren, and 100 great-grandchildren. Perhaps even more impressive was his b…

The Ticking Tombstone of Landenberg

If you look closely at a map of Pennsylvania, you'll see an anomalous semi-circular border at the extreme southeastern part of the state. This circle, known officially as the "Twelve Mile Circle", serves as the border between the Keystone State and Delaware. Much of the strange circle is surrounded by Chester County, one of the three original Pennsylvania counties created by William Penn in 1682. While there are many historical points of interest in Chester County, few are strange or as steeped in legend as the Ticking Tombstone.

Near the London Tract Meeting House in Landenberg is an old graveyard which contains a tombstone which is said to make eerie ticking noises, much like the ticking of a pocketwatch. Landenberg locals claim that the ticking is the result of two very famous surveyors who arrived in town during the 1760s- Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.  A young child supposedly swallowed a valuable pocketwatch owned by Mason and later died, and the boy's head…

Jenny Hanivers, Mermaids, Devil Fish, and Sea Monks

Three centuries before P.T. Barnum attracted flocks of crowds with his mummified Fiji Mermaid (which turned out to be a papier-mâché creation featuring a monkey's head and a fish's body), sailors around the world had already began manufacturing "mermaids".  Known as Jenny Hanivers, these creations were often sold to tourists and provided sailors with an additional source of income.  These mummified creatures were produced by drying, carving, and then varnishing the carcasses of fish belonging to the order rajiformes- a group of flattened cartilaginous fish related to the shark which includes stingrays and skates.  These preserved carcasses can be made to resemble mermaids, dragons, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures.


Jenny Hanivers became popular in the mid-16th century, when sailors around the Antwerp docks began selling the novelties to tourists.  This practice was so common  in the Belgian city that it may have influenced the name; it is widely believed …