Leann Pelvit and Romana Raffaell, armed only with old wire coat hangers and comfortable shoes, are determined to find the children’s final resting places and other lost graves along the North Dakota-Montana border. The grave-seekers’ mission is to chronicle the sites with GPS and to protect them from being disturbed from the explosion of development spurred by the region’s oil boom.
“We want to make sure everything is marked so that someone’s final resting place is not disturbed,” Pelvit said. “A lot of these people have no one to remember them. Someone has to care about them.”
The women are members of the Sidney, Mont.-based MonDak Historical and Arts Society. They have been seeking the forgotten in unmarked graves using an ancient technique they call witching. The controversial method, also known as dowsing, divining or doodlebugging, employs the use of bent rods or forked sticks to detect underground objects from oil and water to treasures and corpses.
Bill Whittaker, an archaeologist based at the University of Iowa, called dowsing a delicate issue that’s often used by cash-strapped historical societies to locate lost graves or by those who have the thankless duty of maintaining old cemeteries.
“I have met numerous people who dowse for graves and I have no questions about their sincerity or honesty,” said Whittaker, who also knows of people who have used dowsing to find the perfect spot to plant pumpkin seeds.
“The fact that dowsing is used to find everything is evidence that it finds nothing,” he said.
The so-called witching sticks or dowsing rods are supposed to cross when a grave is encountered. Witchers or dowsers also claim they can identify the gender of the interred by suspending an L-shaped rod on their fingertips like a pendulum. If it spins clockwise, it’s a male; counterclockwise, a female.
Despite being discounted by scientists and skeptics as nonsense, the women say it works. They claim to have found 25 unmarked graves in the region in the past two years, some dating back to the late 1800s.
“I don’t know how it works,” said Pelvit, 52. “I just know that it does work.”
Some dowsers believe the secret lies with magnetism, gases from decaying corpses or supernatural communication.
“Many of the explanations given as to how dosing works were either illogical or ran contrary to fundamental principles of physics,” Whittaker said.
Whatever, says Raffaell, a frank-talking, chain-smoking 70-year-old. “I don’t know how to explain it, it just happens,” she said.
To demonstrate the method, Raffaell “witched” two supposed graves of the same man at separate cemeteries miles apart in eastern Montana. At one cemetery, Raffaell’s witching sticks crossed as she slowly walked over the grave and realigned after moving past it. At the other, the sticks remained parallel as Raffael took baby steps over the grave, indicating an empty plot.
“He ain’t home,” Raffaell declared at the second gravesite.
Whittaker and professional skeptic D.J. Grothe said dowsing believers actually are experiencing the so-called ideomotor effect, a psychological phenomenon that happens when someone makes motions unconsciously.
“Dowsing works but not in the way dowsers think,” said Grothe, a former professional magician and president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit that debunks supernatural claims. “The dowser himself moves the rods.”
The group has a long-standing offer of $1 million to prove dowsing is legitimate. No one has claimed the money, Grothe said.
Many of the lost graves the women have found along the North Dakota-Montana border have been marked by depressions, or have perennial flowers such as irises growing atop them, planted by loved ones in some cases more than a century ago.
In Dore, a ghost town that has seen resurgence of industry and population due to an historic oil rush, there are no such clues. The schoolhouse is gone and the area where the Bauer children are thought to be buried is overgrown with waist-deep prairie grass and 10-foot-high tangles of chokecherry bushes.
Little is known about the children other than they died at a very young age of an unknown illness, Pelvit and Raffaell said.
Two attempts to find the children’s graves have come up empty due to weather conditions, the women said. Wind on one occasion and excess groundwater on the other made the women’s witching sticks perform erratically, moving them every which way, they say.
The women intend to come back with their sticks to the town that has quickly become a hub for oil activity in the region. They’re worried the graves could be covered with make-shift housing for oil workers or unknowingly dug up during the construction of a commercial building or gravel pit.
Merl Paaverud, superintendent of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, said graves have been accidentally unearthed in the state over the years but none has been reported disturbed from oil production.
Rural North Dakota has several cemeteries that have been forgotten and overgrown after the towns died and were abandoned, Paaverud said. Scores of other unremembered graves are at old farmsteads throughout the state, he said.
Paaverud called the women’s attempts to document the lost graves in the oil patch commendable and their method interesting. But he says there is a better way and the state is prepared to offer the technology to help find the graves of the Bauer children and others.
“I’ve talked to people who swear by dowsing,” Paaverud said. “But we use a more scientific method of ground-penetrating radar that shows where these things can be.”