In reality, it’s just a tricked out version of a divining rod—typically a Y-shaped twig or bent metal wire used to witch for water. Dowsing, or water witching, is a centuries-old practice in which a person walks with a divining rod in hand until it moves due to unseen forces, indicating a source of water underground. For some, the rod bends downward. For others, it makes more of a bobbing motion. Boyd’s magnetomatic pipe locator likes to swing sideways.
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If this all sounds a little hokey, you’re not the first to think so. The practice of water witching has been debunked time and time again. More surprising is the number of people who credit it—you’d be hard-pressed to find a single well-drilling operation in the Southwest that doesn’t believe in and use water witching. This has been going on long enough that in 1917 the U.S. Department of the Interior, in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey, issued an official, book-length report to expose its baseless science.
In the report, written by the geologist Arthur J. Ellis, you can hear the raw frustration in Ellis’s prose as he tries, once and for all, to put the matter to bed.
“It is difficult to see how for practical purposes the entire matter could be more thoroughly discredited, and it should be obvious to everyone that further tests by the U.S. Geological Survey of this so-called ‘witching’ for water, oil, or other minerals would be a misuse of public funds,” Ellis wrote in his introductory note.
Ellis’s report traces the origins of water witching to German miners in the Harz mountains who used divining rods to find veins underground that might contain ore, though others claim the practice is as old as the Scythian and ancient-Persian empires. From the Germans, Ellis wrote, the delusion spread across Europe. Eventually, people would use the rods to locate water and minerals, among other things: grave sites, treasure, even murderers. In the 17th century, a French peasant used a divining rod to accuse a man of murder (he confessed), and later to hunt down other alleged murderers belonging to a persecuted ethno-religious minority, who were executed when found.
Ellis’s report, available for 10 cents at the time, was meant to be distributed, and its message disseminated. Yet, more than a century later, the custom of water witching has endured. And almost everyone has a story to tell.
One West Texan told me that his brother, a water witch, can’t wear watches, because they always break, thanks to his body’s internal magnetism. Another person told me that she’d been looking for years for a viable well on her land, and at her wits’ end she paid $75 to a water witch, who found one against the odds.
Walter Skinner, the owner of Skinner’s Drilling and Well Service in the neighboring town of Alpine, keeps several spare copper wires in his car just in case. He told me that when he was a young man, a water witch laid a hand on his shoulder and passed on his power. From that day forth, Skinner possessed the ability to witch, too.