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Searching for bodies and water, Sedgwick County dowsers look for mysteries to solve

A cold north Kansas wind blew as strong as they come on the day Vince Marshall and Marvin Richards dowsed for graves in Wichita's Highland Cemetery.

Braided copper wires in their hands, the two men walked slowly across the century-old graves of the family of James Oakley Davidson, one of Wichita's wealthiest and earliest town boosters. Though some of the graves were marked, they were looking for others that might not be.

As Marshall and Richards came to a spot where a body was believed to be buried, the rods moved. In Marshall's case, they crossed. They went in opposite directions for Richards. Each dowser reacts differently to the unseen, Marshall said. It's about discovering what works for you.

Nearly two decades into the 21st century, dowsers are finding new ways to make the folk tradition relevant. Dowsing is essentially a form of extra sensory perception. Those who practice it use pointers — copper wires, a forked stick, almost anything — to see if there are any changes or responses to unseen forces. Those who believe in dowsing say the technique can be used to find water, graves, buried metals — almost anything underground.

Does it work?

"There is no scientific basis for it," said Wichita State University archaeologist Don Blakeslee. "Some people are good and can find water and where they think you ought to put a well. But finding anything else is pure fantasy. We are pestered with them all the time. "

Richards politely disagrees. The American Society of Dowsers has more than 2,000 members in the United States and across the world.

"To me, it's the mystery of life. Dowsing makes you wonder what it is. It really does," Richards said.

He's been a dowser for several decades. He sometimes uses the copper wires, but most often when searching for water, he'll use a willow stick nicknamed "Willy."

"The wires I can find streams and then I can take this willow stick and walk through and find the biggest pool," said Richards, 78, of Valley Center. "It will pull me right down to the ground. It's crazy! But it will do it!"

Two dowsing workshops led by Marshall are set for April 14, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. People can register by emailing dowsefiles@gmail.com. The workshops are hosted by the Midwest Historical & Genealogical Society, 11th and Main. There is no cost for the workshop, but $15 donations will be accepted to help support the society. The workshop will include dowsing at Highland Cemetery at 9th and Hillside and more dowsing at North Sim Park at 12th and Amidon.

"Noting that dowsing is an old folk practice — and a controversial one — I will emphasize, with a bit of a new twist, how one can use the unique procedure to detect history clues," Marshall wrote in an email to The Eagle. He will show participants how to use wires and sticks.

Marshall is retired from the KU School of Medicine-Wichita, where he worked in medical media. His interest in local history led him to search for historical unknowns and mysteries.

"I found that using a couple of dowsing rods, along with other tools and resources, was a very satisfying retirement pastime," he said. "I continue to interact with the most interesting folks who have family and community mysteries and unresolved history questions."

Richards started out dowsing nearly four decades ago by searching for water for a cabin he owned in Colorado. He says he has continuously found wells for friends, the most recent a few weeks ago.

"They wanted to pay me but I said, 'Shoot.' So far, I've never charged to do it. If you dig for a well and don't find water, there is nothing you can say to me about it."

Marshall said a dowser can use rods, wood, even paper to dowse. He uses Number 12 copper wire twisted together and formed into an "L" shape.

"They move real easy," he said.

He places old cattle bones on the ground and demonstrates how the copper wires turn when he walks near the bones.

"What's causing it? It must be some kind of radiation imagery," Marshall tells. "I'm picking it up with my body."

How many rural dowsers or water witches are still around is an open question. Dowsers have no trade unions. Few advertise or dowse full time. Dowsing is believed to depend on energy fields, which are emitted by all objects at different frequencies and intensities. The earliest signs of grave dowsing date back almost 5,000 years.

Some people think minerals in a person's body emit energy fields that pinpoint unmarked graves, while others think it has something to do with disturbance of the soil

At Highland Cemetery, as the wind whipped around him, Marshall walked through the Davidson family plot.

James Oakley Davidson was one of the wealthiest men in Wichita in the later 1800s, with $400,000 worth of assets in 1886. He developed the Riverside Land Co., organized the Citizens State Bank and opened a racing track west of the Arkansas River, in what is now Central Riverside Park. He built a bridge to Riverside, now the Murdock Street bridge.

The plot had a stone for Davidson's first wife, Ida Fitch Davidson, who died in 1883. It is a monument 14 feet high and more than five across. Buried in the Davidson family area were at least seven other people with markers and possibly three more children in unmarked graves.

An undocumented small grave near the large family stone might have been a family pet, Marshall thinks.

As Richards walks with "Willy" the willow stick, the stick makes an arcing motion near a creek bed and Richards appears to struggle to keep the stick from pointing down.

"You can hear my bones crack," he says grunting. "There is no getting into it. You either do it or you don't. I wish I knew how some can find things and others can't."

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