by Robert A. Waters
In September, 1952, various newspapers across the country reported the following dialog, not between two humans, but between a woman and a horse:
Claudia Fonda: “Is Gary Hayman alive?”
The horse, named Lady Wonder, touched rubber discs with her nose until the letters H-U-R-T popped up.
“Where can the little boy be found?”
“Where is the truck?”
Lady Wonder touched the discs again.
“Can Gary Hayman be found?”
This bizarre scene might have seemed comical except for the seriousness of the occasion. Gary, a nine-year-old mute, had vanished from his neighborhood in Exeter, Rhode Island. Weeks of searching turned up only one clue: his clothes, neatly folded, lay beside a small stream near his home.
Soon after, Gary’s distraught mother, Mrs. Benjamin Hayman, heard about Lady Wonder. Some cops claimed that the mare could read minds, having helped to solve at least one case concerning a missing child. Mrs. Hayman called Fonda and implored the woman to ask her horse a series of questions about the vanished boy. Fonda, from Richmond, Virginia, agreed, prompting the newspaper articles quoted above.
Fonda asked the horse a final question: “Is Gary with good people or bad people?”
Based on this information, Mrs. Hayman requested that the Kansas State Police search for her son in that state.
Claudia Fonda bought the two-week old filly in 1925. Three years later, she said, she discovered its psychic powers. After some experimentation, Fonda built a “typewriter” on which the letters of the alphabet were spread out in front of Lady Wonder. The horse operated this device by lowering her muzzle onto levers that flipped up, showing letters to the audience.
Fonda charged $1.00 for three questions. Over the years, more than 150,000 paying customers dropped by to question the horse.
Several college professors studied the horse, concluding that Lady Wonder did indeed have psychic powers. At least one egg-head journal, “Abnormal and Social Psychology,” published an article about the horse. The authors (whose names I will mercifully not publish) concluded that the horse had “telepathic” powers through “the transference of mental influence by an unknown process.”
A skeptic named John Scarne decided to check out the talking horse. He later published an article concluding that Claudia Fonda was a fraud.
Scarne visited Fonda and, after giving her various clues, asked the mare several questions. He then carefully observed Fonda and Lady Wonder as the horse answered.
Scarne wrote the following paragraph describing how Fonda manipulated the horse to pick out certain letters: "Mrs. Fonda carried a small whip in her right hand, and she cued the horse by waving it. I detected Mrs. Fonda doing it every time the horse moved the lettered blocks with the nose. This method of doing the trick might have puzzled me if I hadn't known that the placement of horse's eyes on either side of the head gave them wide backward range of peripheral vision. Therefore it offered no problem for me to detect. Mrs. Fonda, when cueing Lady Wonder, stood about two-and-a-half feet behind, and approximately at a 60-degree angle to Lady's head. The shaking of the whip first time was the signal for Lady to bend her head within a couple of inches to the blocks. A second shake of the whip was the cue for Lady to continuously move her head in a bent position back and forth over the blocks. When Lady Wonder's head was just above the desired block Mrs. Fonda made the horse touch the block with her nose by shaking the whip a third time. It was as simple as that."
Alas, the case of Gary Hayman did not turn out as predicted by Lady Wonder. In December, 1953, hunters discovered a skull found in the woods near his home. A coroner identified the skull as that of the boy, and ruled his death accidental.
Unfortunately, Gary Hayman was not in Kansas being cared for by “good” people.
In 1957, Lady Wonder died of a heart attack. Buried in a local pet cemetery with about thirty mourners in attendance, a minister read the poem, “An Arab’s Farewell to His Horse.”