In the early 1920s, a Richmond, Virginia woman named Claudia Fonda started noticing something unusual about her horse, Lady Wonder. The animal would often come to her without being beckoned, as if she knew, telepathically, that Fonda was looking for her.
Believing that she had an exceptional animal in her care, Fonda started to train Lady to move lettered and numbered children's blocks with her nose, eventually even designing a piano-sized contraption with a double row of keys. A touch of her snout on a lever would cause a tin card with a letter or number to pop up, and through that system, Lady was purportedly able to solve math problems and spell words. It was the gateway to a phenomenon, because Lady was not merely smart, she was also supposedly psychic.
An estimated 150,000 people would eventually seek counsel from Lady Wonder, each paying $1 to ask three questions. Her achievements reportedly included telling married women their maiden names, guessing the sex of unborn children, predicting oncoming tractors, knowing the date on a coin hidden from view, discovering oil, and calling elections, horse races, ball games, and boxing matches—most famously, Gene Tunney’s defeat of Jack Dempsey in 1927 for the world heavyweight championship.
After hearing about the boxing prediction, researchers from Duke University including Dr. J.B. Rhine visited the farm to test Lady. Rhine’s simple exam involved writing words on pieces of paper and, while still hidden, asking the horse to spell them out. Lady largely succeeded, even with longer words like "Mesopotamia" and "Carolina."
The future-telling, mind-reading mare’s best-known feat didn’t come until more than two decades later. In 1952, Lady was called upon as a sort of last-ditch effort in the search for a missing Massachusetts boy. She spelled out "Pittsfield Water Wheel” when asked for his whereabouts, and after some initial confusion (“Pittsfield Water Wheel” didn’t exist), authorities wondered if the letters were instead supposed to be Field and Wilde Water Pit—a nearby abandoned quarry. They took the search there, and found the missing boy’s body.
Lady Wonder wasn’t always correct with her answers—in fact, she was often wrong—and she garnered as many skeptics as believers. A professional horse trainer named Edward Staib checked out the horse and called the results "not conclusive.” While psychologist Thomas L. Garrett believed there was "no trickery involved,” New Jersey professor John Scarne believed Fonda was cueing the animal. Magician Milbourne Christopher agreed, determining that Lady Wonder was very well-trained, but not telepathic or clairvoyant.
Others still simply didn’t know what to make of the so-called psychic horse. A researcher named Dr. Gayle told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "I am perfectly willing to admit that I have no idea how she arrives at the correct answers to our questions. There is no conscious trickery here, I am convinced. But I am not converted to the mind-reading theory. What's the solution of the puzzle? I don't know!"
Lady Wonder died in 1957, and Fonda followed two years later. We’ll never know if the animal had otherworldly abilities, or a very keen mind and obedient tendencies, but we do know that Fonda also had a piano-playing Pomeranian named Pudgy, so you can draw your conclusions from that.
[h/t Strange Company]