Witching Wands and Doodlebugs

A consultant in mining geophysics in Reno, Nevada, H. K. STEPHENSON, attended Mount Union College, got his Ph.D. from Princeton, and was engaged in a variety of scientific work for the Army in most of the war theaters.


ONE of the most invidious influences to combat with logic and reason is that of the witching-wand practitioner, commonly known as the water-douser or water-witch. Usually associated with the search for underground water supplies, the proponent of this type of activity will (for a fee) make his passes over an area and give his judgment as to the most likely location for a well. The trappings of the trade are a model of simplicity. The water-douser merely hunts up the nearest peach tree (or willow or hazel or whatever suits his purpose) and cuts his wand with a pocket knife. Often this wand is in the form of a Y-shaped twig, two arms of which the operator grasps in suitable manner. The “witching" then consists of traversing the ground until the twig, drawn by some irresistible attraction to a buried aquifer, points down and signifies the end of the quest. The labor of digging the well and proving the find is generally up to a less gifted, but more muscular, individual.

Discussing the whys and wherefores of his methods with a practitioner is like arguing the merits of a ouija hoard. The believer simply and dogmatically says, “It works,” and an investigator with an analytic turn of mind is left to his own devices.

In the mining industry one encounters a similar variety of individual, who has some mystic contraption or occult power for locating ore deposits. Claims are advanced of ability to locate any and every type of ore deposit, but most of the effort, as might be expected, is directed at locating gold, the prime goal of the get-rich-quick’er.

Occasionally a partisan will show up who applies the witching wand as such, but the complexity of ore problems leads to a corresponding complexity of the gadgetry. The ramifications of the cult have led to the use of a general term — “doodlebug artists” or “doodlebuggers” — for those who use simplified methods of ore location.

The methods employed by doodlebuggers are often highly individual. There is the man with the sensitive feet, encountered by a geophysicist on a field survey in the Lake Superior iron range country. This man discovered his power one day when he was walking through a mining district. At first puzzled because his feet seemed to “vibrate" at certain spots, by wondrous powers of deduction he concluded that the vibrations were due to hidden ore deposits beneath him. From then on he was a professional, and offered to market his services to any hopeful citizen who wanted to locate a mine.

There is the “baited" gadget, which can be preloaded with the object of the search (gold nuggets, iron ore, oil, or other desirable items) and thereby automatically becomes sensitive to the chosen substance. This variety of device is usually offered for sale to prospective prospectors.

A machine of this type attracted so much attention in a Western mining area that a test was arranged by a representative of a mining school. The claim was that the “little black box” would locate gold, so typical samples of high-grade gold ore from the school’s collection were placed in suitable hiding places around the laboratory. The prospector was then turned loose and asked to find the samples.

By chance he actually did find a couple of the hiding places. When he had satisfied himself and ‘lowed he had found all the specimens, it was pointed out that he had failed to indicate a large stock of high-grade gold ore and nuggets located only a few feet away in the next room. His reaction was to stamp off with his gold-finder and the ejaculation, “Tests! All you want is tests!”

A group of Southwestern businessmen were once beguiled by a gifted gent whose ore-finder was simply a small wooden wand that he waved about like an orchestra leader. He claimed the ability to locate a variety of ores, but in that particular district he was after tungsten. Whatever indications the little wand gave were a mystery to everyone except the operator, but his prospecting could be done at long range and while riding in a car.

The businessmen, to prove the method, took him for a drive through a mining district, with instructions that he was to point out any areas where he got ore indications. Apparently he pointed out enough operating mines to convince them of the worth of the method, for they next started out in virgin territory. The prospector following the instructions of his wand, the businessmen following the prospector, they were led to the top of a high, rocky ridge. Finally they came to the goal, where the operator marked a location, predicting ore at a depth of thirty feet.

Elated, the backers arranged to have a mine shaft sunk at the spot. In due course this was done, and at the thirty-foot depth they encountered solid, barren rock, the same as at the surface. Then, to assuage their discouragement, the wand proponent took another “reading” and decided that the ore was a little deeper. After several bouts of this kind, in the end the group abandoned a shaft over a hundred feet deep and as barren of ore as the sands of Cape Cod.

In the Canadian gold fields a young fellow turned up with a laborsaving device for prospectors. Since there were large potential areas for prospecting in the region, some means was needed to narrow down the quest. This lad’s technique was to secure a map of the area in which his interest centered at the moment, spread it out. on his desk, then make a series of passes over the map with an ordinary surveyor’s plumb bob suspended on a string. By this means he got “indications” of the most promising spots. So far as is known, he did not set out to promote the idea, but used it only in an attempt to further his own prospecting.

A gentleman in Illinois once printed and distributed a pamphlet concerning a marvelous device “about the size and shape of a fountain pen” which could be had in return for fifteen dollars. This tricky little gimcrack would locate all types of ores, and was especially handy as a treasure-finder. Since treasure is traditionally buried in an iron kettle, the promoter added to his prospectus a statement that when an iron pot is buried, then dug up and removed, its effect remains at the spot, and his instrument would still give its buriedtreasure sign. Thus, presumably, he had an out whenever a disgruntled and treasureless purchaser of the gadget, showed up.

A California practitioner took a diathermy machine on vacation with him and, while fooling around with it, discovered by some obscure means that he could tune it to the “vibrations” of metallic ores, particularly gold. He claimed to be able to locate a gold deposit twenty miles or more distant. The machine, operated in a hotel room, would give him a rough direction from which the gold vibrations were coming; then he would bundle the machine into his car and trace the indication down to the exact spot. In the available records there is no indication that he ever dug at a spot picked by his machinations. Before receding into obscurity he made a nuisance of himself at a Western university with his repeated requests to be allowed to “measure the vibration rates” of all the minerals in their collections.

The files of mining engineers, geologists, and geophysicists would yield many examples of similar crackpot schemes and ridiculous contraptions. They provide a fascinating study of the imagination and gullibility of the human organism. Some of the ideas and devices are dreamed up with the deliberate intent of fleecing the citizenry either by selling them the methods or by promoting the stock of worthless mining properties. Others of the faithful sincerely believe in their techniques, and spend years of their lives in an effort to prove that anyone with the foresightedness to believe their tall tales can have the world’s riches at his feet.

At the present time reserves of the metallic ores have been markedly depleted by war demands, and many mining corporations are turning to established geophysical prospecting methods as the only practical means of finding buried ore deposits of which no evidence appears on the surface. With such a trend it is a certainty that the doodlebug artist will become more active than ever, and his ingenuity will be stimulated to new heights (or depths).