Since far back into history there have been those gifted individuals claiming to have vast powers of the mind far beyond the ordinary. Such powers take many forms, and they have always held a sense of fascination and even fear. Yet, many such stories are anecdotal, difficult to prove, and without any real investigation into how real they actually are. There are, however, certain individuals who have sought to prove their psychic abilities in controlled settings, who have been studied to various degrees and still left more questions than answers. One very notable such case was a woman with incredible powers that were chronicled in a series of experiments, written into a book, and still incite debate and discussion to this day.
The woman now known as Mary Craig Sinclair was born in 1882 as Mary Craig Kimbrough, and from an early age she was at least somewhat aware that she had certain peculiar psychic gifts, such as knowing what people wanted before they asked or having dreams that turned out to come true and predicting when someone was going to arrive at the house before they did. However, she never really gave much thought to these odd abilities, mostly keeping them to herself. She went on to meet her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair, who she would marry in 1913, and she would launch a writing career of her own, including various newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the books The Romance History of Winnie Davis and two collaborations with Upton called Sylvia and Sylvia’s Marriage. However, one of the most famous books she would be associated with was a book her husband would write when her alleged psychic abilities came out to the forefront once again.
It started after the death of one of Mary’s close friends, which seems to have had the effect of reawakening her psychic powers. Up until then, they were barely ever mentioned, and neither her nor her husband had any interest in such phenomena, or indeed the paranormal in general, being practical and grounded people. However, upon the death of her friend, Mary began having potent visions, which would wake her at all hours of the night and trouble her husband. These visions were apparently very vivid and real, and she would also claim that things that she had seen in the dreams had come to pass, even things that Upton had done. Upton was at first annoyed by these nightly intrusions and his wife’s bizarre claims, but after a while he was curious enough to informally test her out. To do this, he would draw something on a piece of paper without showing her what was on it, and much to his amazement she was able to reproduce it or describe it without seeing it. Upton would say of this, “Either there is some super-human mind or else there is something that comes from the drawings, some way of ‘seeing’ other than the way we know and use all the time.”
Mary would perform other amazing feats as well. For instance, she would go up to a bookcase with her back against it and draw out a random book, after which she would correctly describe the title and cover without either one of them looking at it. When something was lost, she had the uncanny ability to find it immediately. Very often she would announce the arrival of a visitor and who it was before they even knocked on the door. Upton decided to begin arranging for more and more controlled tests of these abilities. In one of the first such experiments they enlisted the help of her brother-in-law Bob Irwin, who lived about 40 miles away in Pasadena, California. The idea was that distance would have no effect on telepathy, and so on a certain time each day they would have Irwin draw a picture and concentrate on it while “sending” it to Mary. Allegedly, this worked on the first attempt, the image was a table fork, and Mary was right more often than she was wrong.
They graduated to other experiments as well. One of these entailed Mary and Upton sitting in two separate rooms, he would draw a picture of any random object and then concentrate on it before giving Mary the signal that the image had been “sent.” Mary would then draw or describe in words what she saw in her mind’s eye, and they more often than not were matches, or at the very least had some sort of correlation. An extension of this experiment was that Upton would draw nine pictures on cards or paper and seal them in envelopes or otherwise fold them so they cannot be seen and place them upon a table or around the room within reach. Mary would then take one of the drawings at random and hold it to her solar plexus until she had a clear picture of the image in her mind, before describing what she saw. She would explain this enigmatic process:
Ask someone to draw a half-dozen simple designs for you on cards, or on slips of paper, and to fold them so that you cannot see the contents. They should be folded separately, so that you can handle one at a time. Place them on a table, or chair, beside your couch, or bed, in easy reach of your hand, so that you can pick them up, one at a time, while you are stretched out on the bed, or couch, beside them. You must have also a writing pad and pencil beside you. The next step, after having turned off the light and closed your eyes and relaxed mind and body full length on the couch, is to reach for the top drawing of the pile on the table. Hold it in your hand over your solar plexus. Hold it easily, without clutching it. Now, completely relaxed, hold your mind a blank again. Hold it so for a few moments, then give the mental order to the unconscious mind to tell you what is on the paper you hold in your hand. Keep the eyes closed and the body relaxed, and give the order silently, and with as little mental exertion as possible.
These mental visions appear and disappear with lightning rapidity, never standing still unless quickly fixed by a deliberate effort of consciousness. They are never in heavy lines, but as if sketched delicately, in a slightly deeper shade of gray than that of the mental canvas. A person not used to such experiments may at first fail to observe them on the gray background of the mind, on which they appear and disappear so swiftly. Sometimes they are so vague that one gets only a notion of how they look before they vanish. Then one must ‘recall’ this first vision. Recall it by conscious effort, which is not the same thing as the method of passive waiting by which the vision was first induced. Instead, it is as if one had seen with open eyes a fragment of a real picture, and now closes his eyes and looks at the memory of it and tries to ‘see’ it clearly.
The results of these experiments with 290 drawings would be reported by Upton as 23% complete matches, 55% partial matches, and 24% failures. That might not seem particularly impressive, but considering that these were completely random images that were being drawn it seems fairly anomalous, especially since some of the “failures” actually turned out to not be so in retrospect. For instance, in one case Upton drew a mouse with its tail hanging down, which Mary misinterpreted as an elephant with a trunk, simply seeing something different in the image. In a more amazing “failure” Upton drew the head of a horse, while Mary drew what looked like an Oriental carpet. It seemed like a complete failure, until it turned out that Upton had copied the horse head image from a magazine, and on the opposite page was a picture of an Oriental rug. On other occasions, she would describe an image different from the one in the envelope, but it would turn out to actually be an image in another envelope in the same batch.
Upton would collect all of the results of his various tests, as well as various insights and testimonies from witnesses and Mary herself, and publish them as a book in 1930, entitled Mental Radio. The book received quite a bit of fanfare and supporters upon its release, with the data being praised as very credible evidence for telepathy by the likes of famed psychical researcher Walter Franklin Prince, and Duke University psychologist and parapsychologist William McDougall, who called the results “so remarkably successful as to rank among the very best hitherto reported.” The German edition of the book even contained a preface written by none other than Albert Einstein himself, who while not totally endorsing the psychic angle, still thought that something pretty strange was going on, of which he wrote:
I have read the book of Upton Sinclair with great interest and am convinced that the same deserves the most earnest consideration, not only of the laity, but also of the psychologists by profession. The results of the telepathic experiments carefully and plainly set forth in this book stand surely far beyond those which a nature investigator holds to be thinkable. On the other hand, it is out of the question in the case of so conscientious an observer and writer as Upton Sinclair that he is carrying on a conscious deception of the reading world; his good faith and dependability are not to be doubted. So, if somehow the facts here set forth rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychological interest. In no case should the psychologically interested circles pass over this book heedlessly.
Of course, there were skeptics as well. The experiments that were conducted by Upton were criticized as being not totally controlled or done by strict scientific protocols, and since he had no formal scientific training the results were dismissed by many skeptics. Upton was also accused of being gullible and too willing to jump to the telepathy angle, too credulous and biased in his conclusions. Yet another concern was that it could not be totally assured that Mary had not received some information of what was on the paper through sensory leakage of some form or simply through intuition or subconscious visual or conversational cues before the experiments, although Upton adamantly denied that this was a possibility. There was also the criticism that some results just didn’t seem very convincing. Upton strongly defended himself in the face of such skepticism, saying in part:
I surely know the conditions under which I made my drawings, and whether I had them under my eyes while my wife was making her drawings in another room; I know about the ones I sealed in envelopes, and which were never out of my sight. I don’t see how scientific training could have increased our precautions. We have outlined our method to scientists, and none has suggested any change. Anyone who wants to can go through the book and pick out a score of cases which can be questioned on various grounds. Perhaps it would be wiser for me to cut out all except the strongest cases. But I rely upon your common sense, to realize that the strongest cases have caused me to write the book and that the weaker ones are given for whatever additional light they may throw upon the problem. My friends, both radical and respectable, must realize that I have dealt here with facts, in as patient and thorough a manner as I have ever done in my life. It is foolish to be convinced without evidence, but it is equally foolish to refuse to be convinced by real evidence.
Sadly, the Sinclairs would withdraw from the spotlight and the public in general, partly due to scathing criticisms, but mostly due to Mary’s ailing health. They became recluses, rarely having visitors and their property surrounded by an imposing high fence. Towards the end, Mary was constantly plagued by chronic heart problems, physical pain, fear, and mental anguish to the point that she was barely able to function normally, with Upton once describing her as a “hideously tormented human being.” She eventually passed away in 1961 to take any secrets she had to the grave with her. We are left to wonder just how real any of her amazing abilities were, or whether she ever had them at all. What are we to make of Upton’s studies and the fantastic claims he and Mary made? Was there anything to this or was it all flawed and perhaps even a hoax? No matter what the case may be, Mary Craig Sinclair remains a force to be reckoned with in the history of psychic studies, a mysterious and tragic figure who we perhaps may never fully understand.