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Women ‘witch’ for graves in North Dakota oil patch

Women ‘witch’ for graves in North Dakota oil patch

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Leann Pelvit

Leann Pelvit checks the sex of the deceased using an ancient but controversial method called witching near the old ghost town of Dore, N.D., on April 18.

DORE, N.D. – Buried somewhere between a hill and the old schoolhouse site here are the remains of two young siblings who succumbed to illness and were interred by their family nearly a century ago. Except for dim recollections of relatives generations removed, the Bauer children – a brother and sister – and their gravesites are all but forgotten.

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-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.

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.”

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