Issue 23 / Fall 2020
Hear now the legend of Lady Wonder: tell her nothing, and she tells all.
There she was and is and always will be, cross-tied and magisterial in her box stall, watching Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda of Chesterfield, Virginia disappear into the tack room, where their equipment is locked nightly to deter teenage thieves and the wary neighbor women who sashay past the Fonda pew, crossing themselves against the evil eye.
First Mrs. Fonda wheels forth the sawed-off kinderklavier with its soldered-on doll’s chair, cushioned throne of Pudgy the Pomeranian, canine virtuoso. Yapping, he weaves between Mrs. Fonda’s legs as she wheels his instrument into the barn’s sitting area. This lurid island of orange upholstery is where she knits when business gets slow, Pudgy snug in her lap.
Next comes the typewriter/xylophone. Handcrafted by Mr. Clarence Fonda, a miner for the Tredegar Iron Works, the contraption boasts thirty-six hinged tin keys, one for each letter of the alphabet, plus all ten digits, padded with sponge rubber. Portable, it clatters and squeaks across the barn floor on repurposed furniture casters. But the racket doesn’t spook Lady Wonder, for whom the world’s only typewriter/xylophone is as familiar and friendly as a halter and lead.
The horse snorts, expecting breakfast: two flakes of timothy hay is enough roughage to occupy her until noon, when they open up shop. But Mrs. Fonda doesn’t feed her. Instead, she leaves to smoke a cigarette in front of the roadside sign she had Clarence repaint yesterday: LADY WONDER WILL SPELL AND SUBTRACT MULTIPLY DIVIDE TELLS TIME ANSWERS QUESTIONS. She frets about the white smudge he left under the Q.
Lady Wonder knows all, but that doesn’t mean she can divine why Mrs. Fonda reenters the barn reeking of tar and unease, then busies herself rearranging a vase of silk flowers. Lady Wonder whinnies disapproval, and receives a harsh shush. She can’t tell that Mrs. Fonda is dressed for company, her ebony hair pinned with a rhinestone peacock, her patent leather shoes buffed to a beetle shine. What Lady Wonder can sense is Mrs. Fonda’s anxiety. She stretches her muzzle toward the padded keys. Working her lips around the lever, she flips the letter Y into place with a tinny click. Then she reaches for the worn E, and finally S—a familiar pattern that gets results.
This done, Lady Wonder butts her bony forehead against Mrs. Fonda’s midsection, snuffling at her coat. But Mrs. Fonda does not praise her, or draw a linty knuckle of carrot from her pocket. Instead, she resets the letters, shaking her head.
Below is a facsimile of a business card enclosed in numerous letters sent unsolicited to Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, care of Duke University’s Psychology Department, by the worried citizens of Chesterfield, Virginia.
Note the revised hours scrawled onto the card’s side, the injunction that tax is included: both amendments are Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda’s concessions to neighborhood paranoia. There are church murmurs about cars coming and going all hours, rumors that the Fonda mattress is stuffed with ill-begotten dollars—or worse, talking horse as Biblical harbinger, modest Chesterfield seat of imminent apocalypse.
Of course, for every doomsayer, there’s another local who enjoys the horse’s antics for what Mrs. Fonda says they are: entertainment. One voluble man-on-the-street, quoted in the July 18, 1927 Richmond Times-Dispatch, even declared Lady Wonder the heroine of her kind:
“In this age, when horses have lost caste due to the automobile, she gets my respect. I mean, imagine a flivver telling you the square root of 81!”
Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, a young botanist who history remembers dimly as “the father of parapsychology,” is driving his Studebaker Dictator down the back roads of Chesterfield, Virginia. He has thick black eyebrows that bristle like terrified caterpillars and a wild-eyed urge to debunk something.
Dr. Rhine only became the father of parapsychology after his wife, Dr. Louisa Rhine, and he attended a public lecture titled, “Proofs of Immortality,” given in Chicago in 1922 by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Rhines went for laughs, planning to mock the swooning matrons clutching their Sherlock omnibuses.
But when Sir Arthur intoned, with quavering ecstasy, that famed Boston medium Mina Crandon had channeled his dead son, spoken in his childlike voice, uttered his own innocent words, Dr. Rhine was blindsided by possibility. For he, like most scientists, existed in a state of perpetual longing, craving the rush of discovery. If there was even a seed of truth in what Sir Arthur (himself a medical man, an optometrist) swore was real, he told Louisa, ferreting out proof would be a worthier life’s work than the pond scum and lichen that filled his lab hours. If the mind did indeed survive the body in a soul-like state, then they had to be separate entities. Dr. Rhine thought this division could be proven by confirming the existence of “extrasensory perception,” which he defined as the acquisition of knowledge through non-physical means. Though Louisa had managed to talk him out of attending seminary, he found he still wanted to “do for religion something like what the germ theory did for medicine,” and uncover the physical forces behind miracles.
Still, Dr. Rhine knew that for any positive ESP results to be considered, he must first cultivate a reputation of unimpeachable objectivity. Only by exposing hoaxes could he speak as an authority when actual paranormal phenomena occurred.
His crusade began when he co-authored an article with Dr. Louisa Rhine for the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Published in 1927, the Rhines’ debut exposed the “teleplasmic hands” which oozed from Mina Crandon’s nethers during her séances as bits of cow trachea, sewn into tentacular fingers by her accomplice husband and placed in her vagina ahead of time.
This triumph over charlatanism made international headlines. The sensation that followed made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself take out a full-page ad in the Boston Herald denouncing Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine as “a monumental ass.” This backhanded endorsement of Dr. Rhine’s objectivity cemented his reputation. Thus, the field of parapsychology was first plowed. Duke University added both Rhines to their psychology department, sheltering their upstart discipline under its well-funded wing.
At the Duke Parapsychology Lab, the Rhines conduct probability tests with dice and playing cards, searching for telepathy in curious student volunteers. Under Dr. Rhine’s watch, several undergraduates have exhibited psychic abilities beyond mathematical chance. But the scientific community likes skeptics, not crusaders. Whenever Dr. Rhine proves ESP’s existence, his methodology is called to the carpet, and he is accused of the very chicanery he’s famous for exposing. He is accused of sensory leakage, card counting, unconscious signals, tells, and cheats.
Alas, these fears are not unfounded. A knot of cardiganed co-eds from Dr. Rhine’s hypnotism class told him his ESP cards are a hit at parties, since in certain light you can easily see through to whatever shape is on the other side: red cross, blue circle, black square, green star. Dr. Rhine reminded them that all test subjects in his laboratory are isolated behind corkboard screens, unable to see the cards he holds, let alone look through them. He got so angry, he pounded his fist on the doorjamb of his office. His students told him to have a nice weekend and disappeared snickering down the hall.
What follows is a transcript of a conversation between Lady Wonder, equine oracle, and one Reverend Lloyd Parker, a God-fearing man from nearby Bellwood, Virginia. He mailed it to the Rhines’ lab thirty times between 1925 and 1927, begging them to exorcise the beast.
“What is the date on this penny in my hand?”
“How do you like what you do?”
“Is my wife true to me?”
“What do I have here in my pocket?”
“Would you like to be a human?”
“How do you do it, Lady Wonder?”
Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda doesn’t ride or drive, so Lady Wonder has never known the bovine heft of a saddle, or tasted steel. A wedding present from her husband, Clarence, Mrs. Fonda’s orphaned filly was bottle-fed and coddled on their parlor rug. As far as she’s concerned, she’s a dog or a person, so Lady was confused when she grew too big to fit through the Fondas’ front door. They moved her into the pasture alongside the house. But Mrs. Fonda noticed the horse showed up whenever she thought of her, just as if she’d whistled. She’d be on the porch wringing laundry, think of Lady, and here she’d come cantering up from the fire pond, clods of earth flying in her hoofed wake.
Mrs. Fonda’s kept Pomeranians since she was a girl, and she’s always taught them tricks because “a dog likes a job.” It was natural to wonder if Lady could learn something. Mrs. Fonda ordered a set of wooden alphabet blocks from the Sears catalogue and showed the filly how to spell simple words by turning them over with her nose: yes, no, horse, dog. Then she had Clarence build the typewriter/xylophone, and once Lady mastered that, they added “Wonder” to her name and hung out a shingle.
“But we’ve never made any claims,” Mrs. Fonda concludes with a flourish.
Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine fidgets on the orange sofa, regarding the barn, which he’d imagined would look more like a fortuneteller’s tent and less like a stable, gauzy drapery, drippy candles, the works. And Lady Wonder is not the black charger depicted on her card. The horse stands half-asleep behind her strange alphabet, reminding him of a cow waiting to be milked.
“The Lady’s an educated horse, is what we’ve always said. No more, no less,” Mrs. Fonda tells him. “People ask her questions, what they do with the answers is their business, not mine. We make a little pin money here, not the millions people say. I don’t open Sundays. And I turn away gamblers on moral principle—I want that in writing.”
“I’m not here to shut you down, Mrs. Fonda. Only to observe and record.”
“Is that what you told Mina Crandon?” she asks, tremulous.
“Well, Mina Crandon made claims,” says Dr. Rhine.
Abashed, Mrs. Fonda sinks into her wing-backed chair and pats her lap, causing Pudgy the Pomeranian to abandon his kinderklavier. He has obediently plinked out “The Bells of St. Mary’s” since Dr. Rhine’s Studebaker Dictator motored up the drive.
“How shall we begin?” she asks, petting Pudgy.
Dr. Rhine says he’ll start by seeing Lady Wonder perform as she usually would, as a control. Seeming relieved, Mrs. Fonda takes her place well behind the horse’s left shoulder. She draws a ratty riding crop from an umbrella can welded to the typewriter/xylophone, then raises the business end to the level of her eyes to begin her usual pre-show patter. He may ask Lady Wonder three questions: tell her nothing, she tells all. Dr. Rhine clears his throat and looks the mare in the eye.
“What is two plus two?” he asks, feeling absurd.
Lady Wonder emits a low ungulate moan. Stirring, her massive triangular head weaves back and forth over the tin letters, the cups of her ears trained on Dr. Rhine, her goundy eyes rolling. Finally, the mare lowers her flaring nostrils to the third row, where the digits are ranged 0 to 9. Her eyelids droop as she works whiskery lips around the lever that flips forth the 4. Then she nods, folding her wide tongue over itself with a vulgar slurp.
The whole act takes just under a minute. Once Lady Wonder has answered, Mrs. Fonda resets the typewriter/xylophone. There is no physical contact between them at any point. No treats or positive reinforcement are employed. But that was a softball question, Dr. Rhine reminds himself—he asked something others surely have before, as a warm up.
“What is the sum of eight and seven?” asks Dr. Rhine. This time he watches the woman, not the horse. Again, Mrs. Fonda’s crop remains still while Lady Wonder sways over her array of letters, neck crooked like a dowsing rod. Finally, she drops her nose to the number row to nudge forward the 1 and the 5.
Dr. Rhine clears his throat with authority, feigning disinterest.
“And what is my name?”
“R-I-N-E,” spells Lady Wonder, roving among the keys with a typist’s precision.
“Sometimes she neglects silent letters, especially with the H and the I so close together,” apologizes Mrs. Fonda, rooting in her coat pocket for a carrot.
Lady Wonder paws and nods, baring calcareous teeth. She snatches the treat Mrs. Fonda offers and crunches down, spraying wet orange flecks on her mistress’s coat. Dr. Rhine silently compares what he’s just seen to a paper he reread in preparation for the occasion: Oskar Pfungst’s 1907 report on the Clever Hans case, in which a German trotter appeared able to count, but was later found to be offering conditioned responses, cued by the trainer.
“She’s remarkable, Mrs. Fonda,” is what he says, though, because validation makes a subject feel at ease. “Will she answer again?”
“She will until she’s tired,” says Mrs. Fonda. “A horse has limits.”
What follows is a selection of the 150 questions put to Lady Wonder, alleged equine clairvoyant, by Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, father of parapsychology, between December 8th and 10th, 1928, in the Fonda barn outside of Chesterfield, Virginia.
It is worth noting that, had Dr. Rhine paid the going rate for the mare’s services during this inquisition, Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda would have made enough to order an ermine coat from the 1928 Sears-Roebuck catalog.
“Spell doctor as I’ve written it here.”
“Who was our first President?”
“And what have I written down here?”
“Who will win the next election?”
“How did I get here today?”
“What time is it?”
According to Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine’s field notes, several variables changed throughout his interrogation of Lady Wonder. For a time, he had one of his corkboard dividers placed before the horse, to prevent Mrs. Fonda from reading the answers he wrote in his notebook. Lady Wonder did not falter. Next, he removed the woman’s riding crop, which she relinquished with a smile. The mare’s answers remained mostly correct, and witty when they weren’t, even with Mrs. Fonda’s hands crossed behind her back.
After several wrong answers in a row, Mrs. Fonda would say the Lady was getting tired, or hungry, or mareish, and turn her loose for a gallop and a roll in the pasture. At first, Dr. Rhine thought this was a cover for the animal’s stubborn disobedience of hidden commands. But as the process continued, he too grew to note the mare’s changeable moods—an irritated flick of the ear, hind leg cocked to kick the wall.
Dr. Rhine’s field notes from the Lady Wonder case are written in a sober hand. What they don’t record is how his heart leapt as each correct letter tumbled forward, again and again, beyond the vicissitudes of chance. Like a stalagmite, his belief accreted with each question. Still, one variable remained.
On the third and final day of his investigation, Dr. Rhine asked Mrs. Fonda if she would leave the barn, so he could rule out the possibility of signaling between woman and horse once and for all. He expected the horsewife to resist with a carnival barker’s dodge, calculated to ensure the show could go on. Instead, Mrs. Fonda agreed to go up to the house, saying she wanted to start fixing lunch anyhow.
“I’ll be in the kitchen if the Lady needs me,” she told him, cool as gin.
Surprised to overcome her, Dr. Rhine considered his plan of attack. Lady Wonder seemed unaffected by her mistress’s departure, bored even, snuffling her nose along the edge of the typewriter/xylophone. Drawing near, he gazed into the brown syrup of her eyes and found his own face reflected there, bent, as though seen in a spoon.
“Lady Wonder,” he intoned, “What is my wife’s name?”
Stirring, Lady Wonder roved over the first row of her typewriter/xylophone. As she moved, she watched her guest, who held his breath when she dropped to the second tier of tin letters to hover above the L. It seemed right to give the horse every chance to succeed, so Dr. Rhine pictured his beloved as he’d first seen her: skimming duckweed off an aquarium in the graduate botany lab. He saw Louisa’s mauve high heels perched on the stepstool she used to reach the tank. He saw Louisa’s crooked grin as she turned to say hello. He stared at Lady Wonder until his vision swam, the six letters in Louisa a mantra in his mind, a cheerleader chant.
Satisfied somehow, Lady Wonder brought her nose down hard on the L, flipping it forward with a decisive snap. The O and the U she found faster, but switching rows to choose the letter I seemed to throw off her rhythm. Lady Wonder paused, tongue slurping against corn-colored teeth, watching Dr. Rhine as if she wanted something from him. Then she doubled back to bump the E, spelling “L-O-U-I-E.” This was his private nickname for Louisa, something the horse couldn’t know on its own.
Dr. Rhine leapt to his feet, giddy with possibility, aflame with eureka.
In a tea-toned photograph taken at the conclusion of Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine’s 1928 visit to the Fonda family farm in Chesterfield, Virginia, Lady Wonder and Mrs. Fonda stand framed before a canvas tent, their coats bathed in white winter sun. The father of parapsychology himself is behind the lens. He has tossed his hat aloft to make Lady Wonder turn to face the camera: ears quirked alert, white blaze aglow.
Mrs. Fonda is radiant, wearing nylons and Mary Janes despite the barnyard mud, a wool cloche hugging her dark curls. While Lady Wonder watches Dr. Rhine’s hat hurtle back to earth, Mrs. Fonda proudly grins at her fuzzy cheek. She is smiling in this photograph because she has just learned that Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, famed debunker of Mina Crandon’s vaginal hand, destroyer of livelihoods, really believes her pet horse is psychic.
Or, as he later wrote in the Journal of Parapsychology: “There appear to be no loopholes, no reasonable possibility of signaling, either of a conscious or unconscious character. There is left only the telepathic explanation, the transference of mental influence by an unknown process. Nothing was discovered that failed to accord with it, and no other hypothesis seems tenable in view of the results.”
These claims made Dr. Rhine the laughingstock of the discipline he created, which is quite an achievement. Fringe science supported the search for ESP in human beings, but telepathy in a dumb horse? Absurd. Undeterred, Dr. Rhine continued to claim positive cases of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis in the Duke student body well into the 1970s. However, none of his experiments were ever successfully reproduced outside his lab, and several of the Rhines’ graduate assistants were found to be botching results, having seen the cards and dice and thought it was all a game.
Apologists like to read the father of parapsychology’s final decline as an about face—evidence that as the separation of his own body and soul drew near, a necessary skepticism crept into him. Some titles among Dr. Rhine’s late papers do hint at a cowed repentance: “Security Versus Deception in Parapsychology,” “How Does One Decide About ESP?” and lastly, “Parapsychology: A Correction.”
The truth is, Dr. Rhine’s mind so commingled science and religion that, for him, denying the existence of ESP meant admitting there were no souls to ascend to heaven. His faith in the Lord was as absolute as his confirmation bias. Indeed, they were one and the same. This is why, sitting on an orange floral sofa in a Chesterfield, Virginia backyard barn, he leapt right to thinking God had walked through the room.
Raised in the automotive era, Dr. Rhine had no concept of a horse’s state of mind. Having never ridden, he didn’t know that a rattling leaf could jolt a whole herd into a blind stampede, or understand how a mount tenses under a nervous rider, searching for the threat signaled by their breath and legs and voice. Mrs. Fonda had simply trained Lady Wonder to aim this natural anxiety at the customer. Each time the mare swayed serpentine over her typewriter/xylophone, she read subtle changes in her interviewers’ respiration, scent, and body English as she neared each longed-for letter—a held breath, a whiff of sweat, a fist knuckled into the orange sofa, rigid with anticipation. The more a person wanted to believe in Lady Wonder, the better she spelled. Thus Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, a man always already waiting for the stone to roll away, was an ideal subject.
Other images of Lady Wonder, equine sphinx, remain. Nearly all depict the mare alongside Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda, at various stages of their long career in backyard showbiz. Together they sustained the Fonda fortunes long after Clarence suffered an injury at work, breadwinners in an era when most women weren’t allowed to be.
The last few photos of the two, taken for LIFE magazine in the 1950s, depict a puffy Mrs. Fonda and a swaybacked Lady, the woman’s riding crop held aloft as the raggedy mare spells Y-E-S on her old typewriter/xylophone. These were taken after Lady Wonder allegedly channeled Leroy Baker, a missing three-year-old boy. When questioned by police, the horse spelled out “P-I-T-T-S-F-I-E-L-D-W-A-T-E-R-W-H-E-E-L.” The child’s waterlogged body was eventually found in the Field-Wilde quarry, which was a kind of pit with water in it, according to Mrs. Fonda. Later, she refused to let her aged pet name the boy’s killer, declaring Lady Wonder retired from public investigation.
“You can’t use the word of a horse to accuse anybody of a crime,” said Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda, in her last printed statement on Lady Wonder. “Besides, we’ve never made any claims.”
J. Bowers’ work appears or is forthcoming in The Indiana Review, cream city review, Zone 3, Redivider, StoryQuarterly, The Portland Review, and other journals. She writes and teaches writing at Maryville University in St. Louis, MO. “Lady, the Mind Reading Mare” previously appeared in The Cossack Review in 2015. Follow Bowers’ work on her website.