18 May 2016

Roll up for the Wonder Horse



Milbourne Christopher 1970

Mediums, dowsers, fire-walkers and clairvoyants all appear in Milbourne Christopher's 1970s look at the unexplained and fraudulent, along with a sagacious Goose, several learned pigs and this horse...
Anyone wanting to predict whether we are likely to see Donald Trump installed as leader of the free world could do worse than to seek out the services of a horse like the one called Lady, who amazed passing motorists in rural Virginia during the 1930s with her powers of prediction. Lady was able to answer questions and make predictions by using her nose to manipulate large cards with letters on them that were attached to a metal framework devised by her owner Claudia Fonda.
As well as giving advice in the form of answers to personal questions of love and marriage, Lady was also adept at predicting sporting results, including horse races. In 1932, she hit national headlines by predicting the success of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Presidential election even before he had won the Democratic nomination.
Fonda charged a modest fee for consultations with her precocious horse, which must have helped out in the days of the Great Depression and beyond. Lady lived to a grand old age and had one other nationwide hit in 1952, when she was credited with pinpointing the whereabouts of a missing 4-year old boy. The link between the words Lady nuzzled out and the place where the boy’s body was actually found was tenuous enough for sceptics to dismiss her talents. But believers insisted that Lady was a glowing example of an animal possessing Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP).
The story of the fortune-telling horse appears, along with many other tales of mediums, dowsers, poltergeists and the like in a book called Seers, Psychics and ESP that appeared in 1970. It was written by Milbourne Christopher who was himself a well-known illusionist and president of the Society of American Magicians.
In 1956, when Lady was 32 years old, Christopher was asked if he would accompany a reporter on the Saturday Evening Post who was going to do a story on the wonder horse. Christopher agreed on condition that he could go under an assumed name. When they got to Virginia, they were taken to see Lady in her barn with the contraption that she used for choosing letters all set up. Claudia Fonda stood to one side with a riding crop in her hand and invited them to ask questions.
Christopher asked the horse, ‘What is my name?’ Lady dutifully nudged at the relevant levers with her weary old nose to spell out the name ‘BANKS’ that Christopher had chosen for his pseudonym. He then asked ‘When will my brother come back from Europe’, to which Lady replied ‘SUMMER’. And this was strange because Milbourne Christopher had no brother.
As a historian of magic and illusion as well as a practitioner in his own right, it was clear to Christopher that Lady had been trained to respond to very subtle prompts from his owner. Fonda appeared to use tiny movements of the rod she was holding to get the horse to nudge the right letters and numbers on the contraption she had invented.
Christopher had come across this sort of thing many times before in his researches. The name he had chosen on his visit to Virginia was a reference to John Banks who, in the 17th century, exhibited a horse called Morocco, which had a remarkable ability to answer questions by stamping his hoof. And it wasn’t just horses. Down the centuries there have been talking cats and dogs, mathematically gifted mynah birds, a goose who could do card tricks and any number of learned pigs – including the one owned by a Mr. Nicholson who toured Scotland in 1787 accompanied also by a turtle that could fetch things on command, a hare that would beat on a drum and six turkey cocks who performed country dances.
All of them would have been given meticulous training to bring out their supposed talents. In 1805, WilliamFrederick Pinchbeck revealed some of the tricks of the trade after several years promoting his own psychic porker. In his book The Expositor; or Many Mysteries Unravelled he set out a series of lessons so that anyone could train up their own “Pig of Knowledge”. Perhaps because of guilt at his years of deception, he said that he wanted the book to “oppose the idea of any supernatural agency” in these phenomena. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t explain how Lady (or Claudia Fonda) managed to predict F D Roosevelt’s victory or the many sporting results they apparently got bang on.

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