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Lady Wonder 1952

Lady Wonder 1952

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In December 1952, Richmond’s Lady Wonder indicated that a mute 6-year-old Rhode Island boy, missing for more than two months, was alive but hurt and could be found in Kansas. Lady had developed a reputation as a psychic horse (visit the From the Archives blog to read about her), and the boy’s mother, who read about Lady and was desperate for help, arranged for her to field questions about the case. Tragically, the child’s skull was found a year later only 1 mile from his Rhode Island school.

There is far more to this story than I can even put here in this blog, but I am going to try. Below, I'm going to paste two stories for you: one is a column that Larry Hall wrote for us in 2003 that explained the whole story of Lady Wonder. The other is a story written by Gary Robertson in 1993. While these two stories do a valiant job of giving Lady her due, you may want to spend some time looking at some of our other coverage. While not all of our stories about Lady Wonder will be available in our searchable microfilm archive (she died in 1957, and our archive, at this moment, stops in October 1954), you should be able to use it to search and find many articles written about her, and all of the classified ads that were run for her services through the years. You can access that archive at this link. It is free to search, but there will be a small fee for retrieving pages.

If you have any memories of Lady Wonder, stories you can share with us, please do so in the comments below. I am fascinated by her, and would love to hear more personal stories about her!

Lady Sparked Wonders About Her Intelligence

by Larry Hall, Times-Dispatch Librarian/Researcher, 7/16/2003

In local news 50 years ago this week:

Lady Wonder never was just another pretty, young filly. From an early age, the horse demonstrated greater intelligence than most animals. Richmond City Council agreed. In 1942, after the city annexed the portion of Chesterfield County where the mare lived, Richmond began charging her owners $50 annually for having a "trained and educated horse."

But she had more than ordinary intelligence. Although Lady Wonder's predictions sometimes were wrong, her mind-reading abilities and prognostications frequently were amazingly accurate. She had enough success in knowing the unknowable to convince many visitors she was either a gifted psychic or a practiced con artist.

The July 13, 1953, editions of The Times-Dispatch reported that another skeptic had finished an investigation of Lady Wonder's talents. Edward Staib of Nebraska, a professional horse trainer, said he had come to see if the celebrated mare truly was superior to the horses he trained to do tricks.

Although Staib announced his findings "not conclusive," he was sufficiently impressed to challenge Clarence and Claudia Fonda, Lady Wonder's owners, to a contest between his trained horses and Lady Wonder.

If Lady Wonder won, Staib said he would pay the Fondas $1,000. They said, "not interested," adding, "we've never made any claims."

Lady Wonder's doubtful inquisitor was inspired to test her after she received national press coverage in December 1952 for providing clues that led to the discovery of the body of a missing 4-year-old Massachusetts boy. But the accuracy of Lady Wonder's prognostications already was well-known in Richmond.

Lady Wonder was born in 1924, the offspring of siblings. The Fondas acquired her when she was weeks old and named her Lady. They soon noticed that all they had to do was wish the horse to come, and Lady would gallop to the house in short order.

Impressed by her ability to perceive, Claudia Fonda began using children's blocks to try to teach the horse the alphabet so they could communicate.

Lady quickly mastered letters and numbers, so Clarence Fonda constructed a makeshift "typewriter" resembling a xylophone with letters and keys. Lady used her nose to hit the padded keys which lifted letters or numbers painted on rectangular pieces of tin. In this way, the horse communicated by spelling words or selecting numbers to answer questions.

As the Fondas demonstrated her talents to friends and neighbors, Lady began to provide answers that she or the Fondas could not logically have known. Her reputation as a psychic quickly spread. By 1928, the public had come to know Lady as Lady Wonder.

As Lady Wonder's celebrity grew, scientists, psychologists and paranormal investigators came to assess the extent of her abilities.

In 1927, three Richmond-area experts visited the horse and posed questions. One took a coin from his pocket and looked at the date. No one else present could see the face of the coin. He asked Lady Wonder the date, and she correctly responded, "1-9-1-4."

Another adjusted the time on a clock, being sure no one else in Lady Wonder's shed could see what time it showed. The horse gave the clock's time precisely.

After the tests, the three experts agreed there could be no trickery involved and that the horse's abilities were amazingly real.

In December 1928, two scientists journeyed from Duke University. One of them was Dr. J.B. Rhine, a leader in the field of psychic research who popularized the term "extrasensory perception." After a week of testing that at times involved blindfolding all eyes present including the horse's, the two investigators departed, convinced of Lady Wonder's gifts.

Although Claudia Fonda insisted on standing nearby as Lady Wonder was questioned, the Duke investigators witnessed no communication between horse and owner and stated the horse's powers could not be a hoax.

Rhine later altered his assessment slightly, saying he sometimes had detected subtle signals from Claudia Fonda that the horse may have responded to, although he never explained how the horse was able to give correct responses to things Fonda could not have known.

In the 1990s, The Times-Dispatch interviewed a former neighbor of the Fondas who believed Claudia Fonda was the real psychic of the team and communicated with the horse by telepathy. Genuine or faked, the performance was mystifying.

Lady Wonder died in 1957, three years after the date she predicted. She is buried at Pet Memorial Park in Henrico County. Claudia Fonda died two years later.

The strange case of Lady Wonder - the wise horse who spelled "I love you" to favored visitors - closed with many unanswered questions surrounding the human-animal bond and the abilities of both species to sometimes know the unknowable.

A Different Type of Horsepower: Lady Wonder, the 'Psychic Mare'

by Gary Robertson, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer, 10/18/1993

She was just a horse, of course.

But what a horse.

A spelling horse.     An adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing horse.

And, as many fervently believed, a mind-reading horse. A horse with the gift of prophecy.

She was Lady the Wonder Horse.

For nearly two generations of Richmonders, she was everything from sideshow amusement to a messenger of God.

Lady Wonder died on March 19, 1957, at the age of 33. The Richmond News Leader carried the death notice of "Richmond's famous mind-reading horse

. . . the city's psychic mare" atop the front page, as prominently as if she had been the governor.

Outside of Secretariat, the legendary Triple Crown winner, perhaps no Virginia horse was as famous in her day as Lady Wonder. And, of course, Secretariat didn't answer questions.

The mystery of Lady Wonder's unique powers died with her, and with her owner and companion, Mrs. C.D. Fonda, who died two years later.

"She wasn't a pretty horse, nobody would ever say," said 88-year-old Ivey Stone. "Just an old sway-backed mare. There wasn't anything special about her except . . . "

A long pause.

"Well,  it was, just how did she learn her ABC's? Everybody said it seemed like she knew what you were thinking. I remember that before she'd answer, she'd look you in the eyes. Like human eyes, I'd say."

Stone was a neighbor of the Fondas for years, and she still lives on Ruffin Road a block or two from the old Fonda farm, which has become a city subdivision. She said the Fondas had no children and kept to themselves.

But the Fondas never lacked company, as a steady stream of people came to ask Lady Wonder questions about everything from romance to missing children.

Lady Wonder answered the questions put to her -- at the rate of three questions for $1 -- on a homemade typewriter the size of a piano. Fonda had her husband, a worker at the old Tredegar Iron Works, build it out of scrap metal.

The horse communicated by using her nose to nudge two rows of keys capped with sponge rubber. When a key was tapped, it released a bracket, and a tin card emblazoned with a letter or digit flipped up.

The Fondas never disclosed profit figures, and no accurate estimate exists of how many people came to their door. But Stone said sometimes hundreds appeared in a single week, many of them seeking help from the horse in playing illegal numbers games.

"They had an old shed up there, and that's where you went in," Stone said. She noted that Lady Wonder correctly had predicted the gender of Stone's sister's unborn child and had helped her resolve a personal problem.

In her own mind, Stone believes that Fonda, who would stand by the horse whenever anyone asked questions, had a psychic gift.

"I think she passed it through the horse. That's what I think," Stone said.

Lady Wonder's reputed abilities as a mental telepathist peaked the curiosity of scientific researchers, including Dr. J.B. Rhine of Duke University, then the nation's leading authority on extrasensory perception.

Over a week's period, he conducted 500 tests on the mare. In the end, he could find no hoax and declared that the horse had considerable psychic abilities.

In later years, he observed that perhaps Fonda had been subtly signaling Lady Wonder, though he would not elaborate.

Rhine was not the only one to test Lady Wonder.

An eminent New York psychiatrist who had exposed several fortunetellers once came, but Dr. Thomas Garrett went away a believer. For one thing, Lady Wonder told him where to find his lost dog.

Leslie Kuhn, an expert on hypnotism, thought that perhaps questioners were being mesmerized. Yet, he could find no evidence of it, and when he posed his most perplexing question -- What Greek word is a letter of the alphabet, a noun, a numeral and a symbol? -- Lady Wonder typed out the letters O-M-E-G-A.

One of the lay testers was Paul Duke, then a correspondent for The Associated Press and now host of the PBS public affairs show, "Washington Week in Review."

Duke said then that the horse "flabbergasted me" by correctly pecking out the letters of his name, the college he had attended and "the exact dollars and cents figure" of his weekly paycheck.

Fonda originally had bought Lady Wonder as a plow horse, but she said the mare soon began exhibiting an extraordinary ability to anticipate what someone was going to tell her. And when it mastered alphabet blocks as a young colt, Fonda knew she had something.

In 1927, Lady Wonder made national headlines when she correctly predicted that Gene Tunney would upset the heavily favored Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight boxing championship.

She later would predict earthquakes, political elections and shifts in the stock exchange. She also was often wrong, but over the years she retained a legion of believers.

Leon O. Story, an area insurance agent, remains one of them.

He recalled his first encounter with Lady Wonder. He was an airman on leave in the late 1940s and went to the mind-reading horse on a lark. He thought he had the foolproof question, one that nobody could guess.

"I asked ol' Lady to tell me the name of the girl I had been dating in Oklahoma," Story recalled. Lady Wonder hesitated, then typed out F-R-A-N-C-E- S.

"That was it," Story said, still with a sense of amazement in his voice. "I said what the . . . !"

In other visits, Story, a military aviator who had dreams of becoming a commercial pilot, was told that he would go into sales. Some further questioning produced the answer I-N-S-U-R-A-N-C-E.

"I know this sounds crazy, but I'm not crazy," Story said. "It was that horse."

Story, now 64, said his most important question to Lady Wonder came after his brother, then a deputy sheriff in the Lake Gaston area, asked for help in locating the children of a prominent merchant from North Carolina.

The children, a brother and sister, had gone out on the lake in a small sailboat but never returned. Days of searching produced nothing. So Story went to the Fonda farm.

"I told her two children had disappeared and I asked her if they were still alive. And she spelled out D-E-A-D.

"I didn't tell them they had been out on a lake. But when I asked where we could find those children, she spelled out D-A-M.     "My brother said they'd already looked by the dam. Anyway, they went out and dragged it again. Lo and behold, that's where they found those children's bodies."

Lady Wonder also helped find other missing people, including a Massachusetts child in 1952. A prosecutor said that, without the horse's help, the child, who had drowned, never would have been found.

That bit of work prompted a national media frenzy around the horse. Over the years, Time, Newsweek and Life were among the major publications that sent correspondents to Lady Wonder's stall. And after the horse's involvement in the Massachusetts case was disclosed, they all came again.

Movie and television producers also came, and Stone said Fonda told her that she would have gone to Hollywood "but her health wasn't too good."

Lady Wonder died after being stricken with a heart attack. About 25 people attended the funeral, and she now rests unpretentiously in Henrico County's Pet Memorial Park, where Fonda erected a monument to her longtime companion.     Whether Lady Wonder was a psychic, a mind reader or a fortuneteller is a question now left to the ages.

But at least it was settled to the satisfaction of Richmond City Council.   When the city annexed the Fonda farm from Chesterfield County in 1942, it licensed Lady Wonder for $50 as "an educated horse."

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