A man in Arkansas needed a well to provide water for his family, so he did what many people in the area do. Harold McCoy went “water witching” — he let dowsing rods guide him to water underground. This mysterious process, still commonly practiced in many parts of the United States and the rest of the world, would later help him find much more than just water.

Harold McCoy went “water witching” — he let dowsing rods guide him to water underground, and later to other things.

The late Harold McCoy, former president of the American Society of Dowsers. (Courtesy of Gladys McCoy)

In Oakland, California, a Berkeley professor with a strong faith in science and little use for anything beyond it, was on a desperate search for her daughter’s stolen harp. Dr. Elizabeth Mayer’s 11-year-old daughter was distraught at the disappearance of her harp after a concert; she was deeply unsatisfied with conventional pedal harps after becoming accustomed to her lever harp made by a master harp-maker.

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer tried all the usual channels to find her daughter’s stolen harp, before trying the mysterious art of dowsing for lost objects.

A file photo of a woman playing a harp.
A file photo of a woman playing a harp.

Mayer tried all the usual channels to find the rare harp — notifying the police, scouring the concert hall where it was last seen, putting ads out, checking instrument dealers, and even getting her message out through a CBS TV news story.

Without any further recourse, she listened to a friend who suggested she try a dowser. “Finally, I acted on what amounted to a dare,” Mayer said during a talk recorded before her death in 2005 and posted to YouTube.

Dowsers not only find water, some of them can also find lost objects, this friend told her. “If you really want that harp back, you should be willing to try anything,” the friend said.

Mayer enlisted the help of McCoy, then-president of the American Society of Dowsers.

A file photo of a dowser. (Public domain)
A file photo of a dowser. (Public domain)

McCoy’s widow, Gladys, described to The Epoch Times how her husband worked to find the harp. He got a map of Oakland and its neighboring city, Berkeley; two rulers; and a pendulum. He did what’s called “map dowsing.”

“Oakland and Berkeley is a very large area, and the map took the whole dining room table,” she said. “It took him a long time [to dowse the map].” He sectioned off parts of the map using the rulers and asked the pendulum to indicate if the harp was in the area represented by that part of the map.

The pendulum would “swing back and forth, like a person shaking their head ‘yes,'” Gladys said, indicating where the harp was.


In so doing, he narrowed it down to one street, then to a specific house. He told Mayer precisely where the harp was.

She couldn’t very well knock on the person’s door and accuse him or her of theft based on the word of a dowser alone. She told the police she had a “tip” that the harp was there, she recalled with a laugh, but it wasn’t enough for them to confront the residents of the house.

Instead, she posted flyers within a two-block radius of the house, offering a reward for the harp. Three days later, she got a call from a man saying his next-door neighbor had shown him a harp he recently acquired. It was the exact harp on her flyer.

Turning for help to the intuitive power of dowsing, Mayer retrieved the harp within a week. “This changes everything,” she thought.

By all normal means of searching, the harp was lost. Turning for help to the psychic, intuitive power of dowsing, Mayer retrieved the harp within only a few days.

Mayer recalled her thought at the time: “This changes everything.” McCoy’s precision “irrevocably changed my familiar world of science and rational thinking,” Mayer said.

The incident with the harp occurred in 1991, and Mayer dedicated herself thereafter to studying such phenomena. She wrote a book titled, “Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind.”

Scientists have tried to prove or disprove dowsing works.


Dr. Hans-Dieter Betz, professor emeritus of experimental physics at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, conducted the most heavily cited experiments on dowsing in the 1980s. His analysis showed dowsing is effective.

However, the late James Enright, an emeritus professor of behavioral physiology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, published his own analysis of Betz’s data. He said it does not show dowsing is effective.

And yet, Suitbert Ertel at the University of Göttingen, published another analysis of Betz’s data in the German, peer-reviewed science journal Naturwissenschaften. Ertel’s paper was titled “The Dowsing Data Defy Enright’s Unfavorable Verdict.” Not only did he dispute Enright’s conclusions, Ertel even found a stronger dowsing effect than Betz did.

The most common argument against water dowsing is that there’s water everywhere and thus there’s a good chance a dowser will hit on it accidentally. The rods move due to so-called “ideomotor action,” an involuntary movement of the hands. The same explanation is applied to Ouija boards.

Gladys, who is also now a dowser and who teaches others to dowse, said: “There is water everywhere, that’s true. … But a dowser doesn’t find just water, they find underground streams of water that flow year-round and never go dry.” The rods aren’t even necessary, she said, it’s just about following intuition.

Some dowsers, like McCoy, have apparently been able to revive springs that have stopped flowing and to divert underground streams to flow in different directions.

“I don’t believe it could be proven,” Gladys said. Dowsing relies on a person’s intuition, beliefs, and unique mental approach to the task, she said. It would be practically impossible to find enough dowsers who could complete a uniform task set out by scientists.

Gladys added that dowsing is usually, but not always, effective: “I’m not 100 percent and I don’t know a dowser who is 100 percent.”

In her book, Mayer expresses a similar opinion regarding conventional scientific studies of such phenomena:

[They put] figuring out a way to play by the rules of conventional science ahead of asking whether anomalous mental capacities actually play by those rules. Maybe the quirks are in their nature—because that’s what makes them anomalous.

More than a hundred years ago, William James identified the problem brilliantly, long before any course was set for experimental research into extraordinary knowing. He’d called for the scientific study of those capacities, to ‘enlarge the scope of science to include the study of phenomena that are random, non-repeatable, and dependent on universal personal capacities and dispositions.’ He’d called for a science that could handle all the ways anomalous mental capacities might not play by the rules. In naming the key variables as random and nonrepeatable, he was asserting that there would be quirks in a science of such capacities and that would cut to the heart of conventional scientific method as he knew it—and as we know it still today.

Dowsing remains popular, Gladys said, and she even knows of dowsers who work for oil companies to find oil. The earliest known use of the practice was among German miners who used dowsing to find ore and who brought the practice to England in the 16th century. It eventually spread to English colonies.

In 1692, dowsing was used to find a murderer, creating a great sensation.

A depiction of dowsers from Agricola's "De re metallica," 1580.
A depiction of dowsers from Agricola’s “De re metallica,” 1580.

A peasant of Dauphiny, France, named Jacques Aymar used dowsing rods to follow the trail of three men who had fled a wine-shop after a murder in 1692. Aymar led authorities to one of the men, who did indeed confess to the murder and was the last person in Europe to suffer the brutal punishment of being broken at the wheel.

English physicist Sir William Barrett wrote in his book, “Psychical Research” in 1911: “Strangely enough the depositions made at the trial showed that Aymar was correct in every detail, witnesses testifying to the flight and halting places of the culprits in the very places Aymar had indicated.”

Barrett said Aymar “was however, subsequently somewhat discredited owing to his failure in some tests devised by the Prince de Conde.” Aymar faced the same replication problem faced by dowsers today. But dowsers say the results are proof enough.

“We don’t feel like we need to prove it,” Gladys said. “We know it works, because you show the evidence that it’s worked when a well is drilled and the water comes in.”

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In Beyond Science, Epoch Times explores research and accounts related to phenomena and theories that challenge our current knowledge. We delve into ideas that stimulate the imagination and open up new possibilities. Share your thoughts with us on these sometimes controversial topics in the comments section below.