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WHO KNOWS? RADIO AND THE PARANORMAL

Label of 16″ transcription disc of the March 13, rehearsal of “Who Knows? Bill Cook Collection, Library of Congress.

Who knows “Who Knows?”? This program was produced for the Mutual Broadcasting System from March 16, 1940 through August 29, 1941. Few sources on old time radio mention it, which maybe a reflection of its short run and somewhat narrow distribution.

The weekly 15-minute program explored the world of psychic phenomena. On early broadcasts, announcer George Lowther described it as “a series of dramatizations based on the case records of Dr. Hereward Carrington, internationally recognized authority in the study of psychic phenomena.”

Lowther then extolled the show’s sponsor, Griffin Manufacturing and their shoe polish line, before yielding the microphone to Jack Johnstone, the show’s creator, writer and director, who elaborated, “in the study of clairvoyance, telepathy, premonitions and other psychic phenomena, one of the world’s greatest authorities is Dr. Hereward Carrington, author of over 100 books on the subject. He’s come to the conclusion that by far the greater percentage of so called psychics are fraudulent.”

Carrington (1880-1959) was indeed a prolific author of everything from “The Boy’s Book of Magic: Including Chapters on Hindu Magic, Handcuff Tricks, Side Show and Animal Tricks, Ventriloquism, Etc.; Together with Numerous Sleights, Now Published for the First Time” to “Modern Psychical Phenomena; Recent Researches and Speculations.” He specialized in exposing and debunking dishonest mediums and spiritualists, and had even starred in a series of silent films for Bray Studios in 1918 titled “Unmasking the Mediums.” Nevertheless, Carrington believed passionately that some psychic phenomena were real. At times, the show was a primer for discourse on the paranormal. Carrington would describe concepts such as “premonitions” or “sorcery” with a story from his research, and cast members would act out a short drama that fit neatly in the show’s 15 minute time limit.

Some of Hereward Carrington’s books,from the 1920 edition of his “TheComing Science,” New York, Dodd &Mead. Internet Archive.

Today, and perhaps also then, many of these reflected familiar ghost story tropes. To illustrate the phenomenon of “retrocognition,” “Who Knows?” spun the tale of a man searching for an old house he’s inherited. Late at night, he’s welcomed into a candlelit antebellum mansion inhabited by a woman who talks as though the Civil War was a current event. The next day, the local sheriff helps him find his house, and it turns out to be the mansion from the night before, decaying and tumbling down.

Other shows repeat legends with uncertain foundations. The show on premonitions presents two stories. One concerns Mark Twain’s dream about the death of his brother Henry, which Twain recounted himself. In the other, President Lincoln, shortly before leaving for Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, tells his wife that he is too upset by the war and the dream he’s had about his own death to go. Historians doubt the legend of this dream, and most accounts of Lincoln’s last day have him in good spirits because of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender days earlier.

Much more interesting was the tale of a phony medium whose assistant rebels when his aunt is slated to be the next victim. In a rehearsal for a séance, the medium, one “Edmund Blackmer” recites and demonstrates several of the methods in his bag of tricks. This show also gave a demonstration of the sound effects artist’s bag of tricks. Blackmer says that he’s going to play a record of a departed man’s favorite song on his Victrola. Union regulations forbade the use of pre-recorded music on radio shows, so this “record” is actually the show’s regular organist playing through a filter, with a bit of surface crackle layered over it.

Radio & Television Mirror, March, 1939; Library of Congress

Jack Johnstone (1906-1991) entered radio in the early 1930s as a scriptwriter for the “Adventures of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” and was soon directing the show as well. Over the years, he would produce, write and/or direct many classic programs including “Hop Harrigan,” “Superman,” and “Crime Doctor.” He’s best known and justly revered for his work on the classic “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” mystery series, conceiving the five day a week schedule of fifteen-minute episodes that followed Johnny’s cases from beginning to end. One week-long series in 1956 recalled Johnstone’s days on “Who Knows?” and concerned “The Matter of The Medium: Well-Done.” A few years earlier, he directed and hosted a series that offered cash rewards to listeners who could help solve cases that had stymied the police called “Somebody Knows.”

The surviving recordings of “Who Knows?” are actually dress rehearsals, and have the occasional flubbed line or cough, but are fully produced with organ accompaniment by Lew White and sound patterns by Bill Hoffman. They are generally tight and professional and are probably pretty much what the audience heard on the eventual broadcast.

When “Who Knows?” premiered, it was carried by only four of Mutual’s affiliates: WOR in New York, CKLW in Cleveland, WGN in Chicago, and WOL in Washington, DC. The first three were 50,000 watt clear channel stations that gave “Who Knows?” a good reach in much of the Northeast and Midwest, but “Who Knows?” was never picked up by any other Mutual affiliates, and sponsor Griffin dropped their support after the 75th show in the series aired on August 29th, 1941. There are sixty-nine recorded dress rehearsals in the Library Congress recorded sound collection, of which fifty-two have been digitized and are available for listening in the Library’s Recorded Sound Research Center. Some programs were recorded on glass-backed discs that were damaged over the years and have not yet been transferred.

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