8. The FBI Investigated the existence and power of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP)
In the late 1950s, several proponents of ESP drew attention from numerous US government agencies and the US Army. Among them was one William Foos, who with his daughter Margaret conducted demonstrations of the use of ESP to overcome handicaps. Foos believed that he could use ESP to train the blind to “see” using extrasensory perception, to the point where they would be able to drive an automobile safely, among other life skills. He also believed, or at least claimed, that through the use of ESP the blind could read (without resorting to Braille), play chess or checkers, distinguish colors, and in short do all which the sighted could do. Foos was just one of several proponents of ESP who drew the attention of the FBI. The FBI’s interest in Foos and ESP is documented in the Unexplained Phenomenon Extra-Sensory Perception file, released to the public in 2006.
The reason for the government’s investigation into ESP is obvious given the context of the times. The late 1950s and early 1960s was the height of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the West. Eastern Europe was under Soviet domination. Cuba had not yet fallen to the Communists, but it was in crisis. American and Soviet spies sought information on each other’s nuclear weapons programs, nuclear submarines, and the development of rockets. And the United States had just publicly acknowledged the existence of the Cosa Nostra. ESP provided a potent weapon in the war against organized crime and in the covert war against Soviet espionage. The FBI’s Extra-sensory Perception file opens with an interoffice memorandum dated July 16, 1957.
9. William Foos demonstrated his abilities using his daughter before several government employees
In the memorandum describing the abilities of William Foos, he is described by the writer as a “…high school graduate employed in a minor capacity with the C. and O. Railway” (Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad). The memorandum notes that Foos did not claim any supernatural abilities and that being uneducated in science and psychology could not offer technical explanations. Instead, Foos claimed to be entirely self-taught in the use of ESP, through private experimentation. He also claimed to have taught more than two-dozen people in the Richmond, Virginia, region to develop their own extra-sensory powers, including teaching “…persons completely blind, to see with 100% efficiency”. Foos demonstrated his abilities by using his daughter, who was blindfolded with cotton balls over her eyes, secured with an elastic band. She then demonstrated an ability to read, from materials selected by her father.
Margaret also demonstrated considerable manual dexterity by playing jacks while blindfolded. The observing FBI employee, identified as W. A. Branigan, expressed near ecstasy in his observations, forwarded to his seniors. “There is no limit to the value which could accrue to the FBI”, he wrote, listing the ability to read mail without opening it, including the documents in diplomatic pouches. He recommended the FBI further investigate the abilities demonstrated by Margaret and William Foos, “bearing in mind the tremendous potential to the FBI should these claims be well-founded.” He also attached a summation of newspaper articles which had appeared in Richmond papers, describing demonstrations offered in the region prior to the demonstration he attended in Washington. Among the newspaper articles was one which described Foos as having received a State Corporation Commission Charter for ESP Research Inc.
10. The ESP files are heavily redacted in some cases
Some of the documents in the FBI’s ESP files are heavily redacted, both in the identification of correspondents and the contents of the documents. One document which is nearly completely readable addresses a demonstration given by Foos to representatives of Army intelligence on August 6, 1957. The memorandum suggests a similar demonstration by Foos for the CIA held on August 8. The memorandum reports Army intelligence had not determined whether the demonstration proved Foos’ claims, and cited several others who determined the claims had not been proven. Among them were the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Physically Handicapped, the Blind Veterans Association, and the Veteran’s Administration, the precursor of today’s Department of Veterans Affairs. The latter pointed out that Foos had declined to submit to scientific testing and analysis in rejecting his claims.
Another memorandum describes the August 8 demonstration, attended by an FBI Special Agent at an Arlington, Virginia, motel. The agent summed up the demonstration by first noting his lack of qualifications, “…to judge on the ESP ability of any person in the demonstration”. He then went on to note, “…that all demonstrations were merely tricks and can be explained logically by qualified performers in this field”. Clearly the Special Agent writing the memorandum remained unimpressed with Foos’ ESP abilities, relegating them to the field of the illusionists. Yet FBI interest in ESP continued. It also expanded into the field of telepathy, the ability to convey messages through thoughts. CIA and military intelligence agencies conducted parallel research into the fields at the same time. The FBI conducted investigations into those investigations.
11. The Air Force attended demonstrations of mental telepathy in 1957
Henry Puharich was an American-born parapsychological researcher, who obtained his MD from Northwestern University in 1947. In the early 1950s, he presented several papers on the subject of parapsychological research, drawing the attention of the CIA and defense intelligence agencies. The interest of the CIA and military intelligence drew the attention of the FBI. In September 1957, FBI agents interviewed the Chief of the Aero Medical Division, Air Force Offices of Scientific Research, one Dr. Savely. Dr. Savely stated he had visited Puharich at his facility in Maine, described as “…a 20-room mansion on a 60-acre estate at Glen Cove, Maine”. Among the subjects discussed were from whence Puharich obtained his funding for his research, and what sort of experiments were carried out.
From Dr. Savely, the FBI learned that Puharich was funded mostly through private donations and that his experiments were largely in the area of communication through mental telepathy. He also stated, according to the memorandum describing the interview, that Puharich, “…appears to be dedicated to the study of the science of transmitting messages from one person to another through mental telepathy”. Dr. Savely was also of the opinion that Puharich’s “…work is worthwhile and that Puharich could do some good in this field”. Evidently, Puharich’s political leanings were also discussed because the reporting agent noted that Dr. Savely, “…knows nothing of a derogatory nature or anything concerning SUBJECT’s political feelings or affiliations.”
12. Hoover was informed of the investigations into parapsychology in 1957
September 6, 1957, memorandum addressed to Clyde Tolson, the Number 2 man in the bureau and J. Edgar Hoover’s long-time companion, describes the demonstrations by William Foos. It also notes the interests of the CIA and military intelligence in the demonstrations. It also describes demonstrations to the CIA in which a boy, unidentified, demonstrated the ability to read the contents of a closed briefcase, as well as being able to read documents in another room. In other word, Foos had demonstrated the ability to read through walls. The document points out the bureau “…conducted a discreet background check on Foos and has found that Foos is regarded as a well-respected person”. It has long been known that anything which went to Tolson went on to J. Edgar Hoover, though often without leaving a corresponding paper trail.
Evidently, orders went down to learn more about the miraculous ability to read papers in closed brief cases or through walls. Another memorandum, not addressed to Tolson but to Alan Belmont, then the Number 3 man in the FBI hierarchy, is in the file. It states the ability to read through walls is “…strictly a rumor which has been circulating around the government”. The same memorandum stresses the opinion, “…Foos has not come up with any capability which could be of assistance to US intelligence”. The memorandum notes however that according to an identity redacted, “CIA, nevertheless, plans to follow any additional reports concerning Foos’ work”. By late 1957 the FBI, evidently, was unimpressed with Foos but continued to investigate his activities regarding other agencies of the government and report on his findings internally.
13. The military continued to pursue uses of telepathy and ESP
In June 1960, the New York Journal American published an article by Ruth Montgomery, “Spying by Mind-Reading!”. It described research and experimentation conducted by the US Army Intelligence Service into the use of mental telepathy. The article speculated the Army envisioned reading the thoughts of Soviets as far away as the Kremlin, using agents trained for the purpose. Apparently, it caught the eye of J. Edgar Hoover. A memorandum from Alan Belmont in the file states Hoover asked, “Is there anything to this?” The memorandum summarizes the Foos investigation years earlier as evidence that there was little to the subject of value to the FBI. It also states the FBI’s famed Laboratory experts claimed, “…informed scientific opinion at the present time is that there is no basis in science for the validity of extrasensory perception as described in this article”.
Another memorandum addresses Hoover’s interest in ESP experiments conducted at Duke University. Research and experiments in the field had been conducted at Duke since 1934, making them one of the world’s leading authorities in the field. According to the memorandum, dated June 28, 1960, “Belief in ESP has gained little acceptance among psychologists and fails test of common experience”. Nonetheless, Hoover’s interest continued, leading FBI investigations into the field to go on. The FBI continued to monitor the CIA and defense intelligence agencies as to their interest in the field of parapsychology, as well as the increasingly suspect William Foos. FBI files indicate that foreign police agencies, including those of London and the Netherlands, were queried over their opinion of the usefulness of ESP and clairvoyants during the early 1960s.
The FBI became involved in a long-standing conspiracy theory among ufologists in the 1980s. Majestic 12 has many descriptions, depending on which conspiracy theorist is presenting his or her version, but it contains crashed UFOs, alien bodies, and varying versions of the US Government’s coverup of the event. The 12 refers to a special committee allegedly established by President Truman in 1947 to deal secretly with all matters regarding UFOs. Among the more well-known names on the twelve-man committee were James Forrestal, then Secretary of Defense, and Hoyt Vandenberg, for whom Vandenberg Air Force Base was named. In the 1980s two FBI offices were presented with documents, marked with appropriate classifications, describing the crash of a UFO and the existence of the committee. The document is identified as a briefing for then President-Elect Eisenhower, dated November 16, 1952.
The two FBI offices which received the documents both indicated questions as to their authenticity, but when Air Force Intelligence provided some corroborating information, they forwarded them to FBI headquarters for investigation. The FBI determined the document to be an elaborate hoax, one of several regarding the alleged 1947 crash of an alien vehicle, which led to the recovery of alien bodies. The entire document can be read online here, though with some difficulty as the word “BOGUS” appears across each page. Although the Majestic 12 file is in fact an explained event covering a fictional crash, the FBI Vault carries the file in its Unexplained Phenomenon section, along with its several other files regarding UFOs and little green men.
15. The Hottel memo may have been over the so-called Roswell Incident
Since 1947, when an object crashed to earth in New Mexico near Roswell, ufologists have created various stories covering crashed UFOs and alien bodies in the possession of the USAF. In March 1950 Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Guy Hottel sent a memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. According to Hottel, an informant, described as an Air Force investigator, told an FBI agent that three UFOs had been recovered by the USAF. Each of the three contained three crew members, “…dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture”. The bodies were further described as being “…of human shape but only three feet tall”. The ships from which they were removed were described as “…circular in shape with raised centers, approximately fifty feet in diameter.
It was these bodies later described as being held by the Air Force at Wright-Patterson, along with the wreckage of their ships. The memorandum became famous among ufologists as proof of the existence of alien spacecraft visiting Earth, and it remains popular among ufologists and conspiracy theorists. Hottel explained the crash of the three ships as being caused by powerful radar installations operated by the Air Force (according to the informant). The radio waves emitted by the installations had an adverse effect on the aliens’ control systems, causing all three to crash. The agent reporting the information to Hottel had undertaken no further investigation into the matter, and his name, as well as that of his informant, is redacted from the memorandum which can be read here.
16. Silas Newton was a confidence man who may have been the informant in the Hottel Memo
As early on as September 1938, the FBI had information on Silas Newton. Newton had an extensive arrest record at that time, in multiple states, which included stock fraud, wire fraud, grand larceny, bail jumping, and other crimes. Yet Newton portrayed himself as a wealthy oil man and investor. By 1950, Newton was a self-described expert on the popular subject of UFOs and was cited as a source in one of the early books on the subject, Behind the Flying Saucers, by Frank Scully. He claimed multiple personal UFO sightings, including the crashed UFOs held by the government. Newton’s claimed knowledge of UFOs and the aliens which flew in them led him to numerous speaking engagements, but could not surpass his taste for out and out swindling. Along with a partner, Leonard GeBauer (known as Dr. Gee, but in reality an electronics salesman) he announced the development of a mineral seeking device based on alien technology.
Denver industrialist Herman Flader agreed to invest in their device, called the doodlebug, believing the minerals it found would easily recoup his investment of $50,000. Flader thought his investment sound since he received one-third of the company which would produce doodlebugs for an estimated $800,000 each. Other investors were taken in as well. Some doodlebugs were actually produced, using cheaply obtained Army surplus radio parts. They did not detect much of anything, and the actual cost was less than four dollars. As it became evident that Newton’s doodlebug was a scam, he and his partner Dr. Gee simply made off with the money. Some experts believe Newton may have been the informant who told the unnamed FBI agent of the three downed flying saucers in New Mexico, though that may have been mere speculation. Both Newton and Gebauer were convicted of fraud in 1953.
17. Newton’s fraud did not end with UFOs and doodlebugs
Throughout his tenure has a self-appointed expert on UFOs and aliens, Newton carried with him a piece of metal. He claimed it to be indestructible. He also claimed it to be from one of the crashed UFOs he had seen. Eventually, it was tested by the authorities and found to be aluminum. By then, Newton had begun stepping away from his role as an authority on UFOs and alien bodies. He changed his stories, claiming he had not actually seen the UFOs but was repeating the descriptions told to him by people who had. He made the same claim regarding the alien bodies he previously claimed to have seen in a secret government facility. Though he downplayed his expertise on UFOs as they were debunked by science (he once claimed UFOs flew at twice the speed of light) he continued to be cited by ufologists. His tales were repeated and embellished within the UFO community.
In 1969 he appeared again, in yet another fraudulent scheme. This one used decidedly dated technology, repeating a scam which occurred frequently throughout history. He engaged in a mine salting scheme for the purpose of defrauding investors. Indicted for the crime in 1969, he entered a guilty plea. The mine salting scheme took place while Newton was under charges of fraud related to oil wells in California. The FBI’s files in the Unexplained Phenomenon category describe Newton’s long history of operating as a confidence man and grifter. The true unexplained phenomenon regarding Newton is probably the fact that he got away with it for so long a time, in several industries, without evidently ever serving any significant time in jail. Newton died in 1972, but many of the UFO myths he perpetrated continue today.
18. The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP)
In October 1956, a group of ufologists, many of them high-ranking retired military officers, formed the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP). Retired US Marine Major Donald Keyhoe became director of NICAP in 1957. Another prominent name which appeared on the organizations’ board of directors was retired Vice Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter. The Admiral had previously served as the first head of the CIA. Despite the group’s name, which lent it the appearance of being a government agency, it was entirely privately funded. Operating funds came from the membership fees, donations, and subscriptions to published magazines. Speaking fees from appearances added to the budget, but the group was often starved for cash in the 1950s. It became known to the FBI early in its existence. In 1957 the FBI received a handwritten letter, from a gentleman questioning NICAP’s legitimacy.
The letter also asked for confirmation of the information promulgated by NICAP in a lecture presented in Florida two years earlier. While the content of the lecture is not present in the file, NICAP throughout the 1950s and early 1960s routinely published content claiming the USAF and other agencies were withholding UFO information from the public. The FBI replied to their queries stating that the information in its files, “…is confidential and available for official use only”. It did not address the issue of NICAP’s standing. It is the first of a long string of correspondence in the FBI’s files addressing the issues raised by NICAP. Most of them regard the FBI participating in UFO investigations, both with and separate from the Air Force, as well as participating in efforts to keep the results of the investigations secret. By 1958 Donald Keyhoe was a frequent subject of discussion within internal FBI memoranda.
19. The Air Force suggested using an arcane law to shut down NICAP
In 1960, a federal law was enacted to prevent debt collectors and private investigators from using names for their businesses which presented them as being official agencies of the US Government. That year a woman was arrested by the FBI for operating a debt collection agency under the name of the National Deposit System. Reports of the arrest appeared in the newspapers. In August 1960, J. Edgar Hoover received a letter from the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force which cited the arrest and the law. The Air Force also pointed out that NICAP had been using a name which implied government association for “several years”. It also asked Hoover if the same law could be used to, “…curtail the activities of this organization”. The Air Force enclosed a newspaper clipping describing the arrest of the debt collector, and hinted a similar action against NICAP was desirable.
Hoover replied a week later. His letter informed the Air Force that the law under which it desired FBI action against NICAP did not apply. Hoover’s reply pointed out the law was limited to skip-tracers and debt collectors. In an added note, the FBI acknowledged correspondence with NICAP, usually in response to the latter’s persistent requests for information, and that it had received no complaints regarding the organization which warranted an investigation. In another matter involving NICAP, a correspondent asked the FBI directly if NICAP was a communist organization by affiliation or funding. Hoover replied in March 1961, “This bureau has conducted no investigation of the organization about which you inquired”. The accusation, even just implied, of communism was a red flag for J. Edgar Hoover, but in the case of NICAP, he exhibited little interest in following it up.
20. The FBI’s Unexplained Phenomenon files are mostly bureaucratic give and take
Throughout the Unexplained Phenomenon files, there is a noted absence of unexplained phenomena. Instead, there is a wealth of correspondence and internal documentation describing the bureau’s action or inaction regarding the requests of others. Despite files regarding UFOs making up the bulk of the vault’s contents, the FBI repeatedly states in its records that it does not investigate UFOs. Such activities were entirely the responsibility of the United States Air Force. But the FBI definitely hovered around those investigations, meticulously documenting what they learned from observation, informants, and even the press. J. Edgar Hoover expressed interest in press reports on several occasions, directing his agents to obtain further information and clarification. Often the requests were over articles about UFO sightings, or lectures on the subject given by ufologists.
Hoover’s interest in the activities of all branches of the US government and its supporting contractors is well-documented. It was an obsession. He wanted any scrap of information known by any other branch or agency of the government to be known to the FBI, no matter how small. The result is an unexplained phenomenon file which describes the known activities of other investigators, but very little content of unexplained phenomena. The long flirtation with ESP, mental telepathy, and other parapsychology is just one example. Hoover wanted to know what the CIA and military intelligence were up to, without sharing with them what his beloved bureau was doing in the same fields. As in nearly all things, his highest consideration appears to be protecting his bureau from potential public scorn. For most of his life, he succeeded in that mission.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: