The Phenomena of Dowsing or Witching

(September 2008)


          Dowsing, also known as rhabdomancy, divining, water witching, or doodlebugging, is an old practice of finding water or minerals by the means of a dowsing rod. A dowsing rod is traditionally a forked stick which is held firmly in one's hands in a way that allows the rod to swing up or down at the slightest impulse, supposedly indicating the presence of the sought-after material. The mechanism behind the detection is believed to depend on energy fields hitherto unknown to science. The hypothesis is that these energy fields are emitted by all objects at different frequencies and intensities. The origin of the practice is not clear, but the earliest sign of its usage dates from a 4500-5000 year old grave inscription in Brittany. 


Click here to see a one minute video of Linda using her coat hanger rods in the Lexington Cemetery.


Tips on How to Witch 

By Linda Heintzman


          Four years ago, while on a genealogy trip to Phelps County, Nebraska with a friend.  I was in the Prairie Home Cemetery looking for several graves of one family and could not find them.  There was a very nice woman named Marsha who was mowing and after talking to her I learned that she was the caretaker.  I told her my dilemma and she said she would go and check the plat for the cemetery and see if she could help me.  Upon her return we walked to the area that the plat indicated and no stones were there.  She was sure we were in the right spot, and replied to me she would be right back.  Returning from her truck, she was carrying two wires in her hand.  The gentleman that was helping her mow, smiled at me, rolled his eyes, and replied, "She's going to witch!"  I was so excited, I had heard of it before but never seen it done.  Well she did, and the number of graves I was looking for were on that plot of ground, and even the right number of males and females.  The wires would cross in front of her as she walked over a male grave and would come out to the side as she walked over the grave of a female, then returning to straight when not over a grave.  I asked if she would mind if I tried and she handed the two wires over to me.  I got so excited when they started to move I had to stop and catch my breath.  The first few times I did it, I will have to admit it was a very strange feeling, one I had never experienced before, but needless to say I was hooked!  She explained that not everyone can witch and that I seemed to be getting a strong reading which was good.  I asked her how I could make a set of wires like hers and she said she just used coat hangers.  She told me to straighten out a old metal coat hanger and cut off a straight piece 2 feet long, then bend one end about four inches up to make the handle, that was all there was to it.  I made the remark that I couldn't wait to get home so that my husband could make me a pair.  That is when this very nice woman handed me her pair and said "Enjoy!"


          That night after returning to the hotel I called my husband to tell him of my adventures.  His replay was, "You went looking for your ancestors in Nebraska and are returning a witch?"  He makes good fun of my hobby and tells people when I leave on one of my trips that I'm going off to dig up dead people!  My witching rods, as I call them, always go with me when I'm on trips doing genealogy now.


          I have learned that I can also do the length of a grave simple by the fact that the rods stop crossing as soon as you are no longer on top of it, which gives you an idea as to the age by the height of the person buried there.


          Then last year, I was in Piatt, Dewitt and Macon Counties in Illinois doing research and I met Bob Walters from Weldon, Illinois.  We were talking and the subject of witching came up.  He said that he volunteered at the DeWitt County Genealogy in Clinton, Illinois, and that they did a class each year on witching.  After talking for a while he had me go out with him to his truck where he gave me a pair of copper rods and a sheet explaining what they taught.


Here is the information:


          The only equipment you will need is two stiff copper rods of #4 bare copper ground wire 20 inches long.  They should be bent into an L-shape at six inches to form a handle.  The wire can be purchased at Lowes or Menards for less than a dollar a foot.  You will need 4 feet to make the two rods.


There are three basic rules for investigating a suspected grave site.


1.     Make a loose fist with both hands while holding the rods.  Allow the rods to swing freely in the hands.


2.     Hold the rods out level in front of you at a comfortable position about a shoulder’s width apart to give them plenty of room to swing.


3.     Walk slowly! 


          Many beginners violate all three rules in the initial attempts.  They grip the rods too tightly.  They hold the rods too close together and they walk too fast over the suspected grave sites.


Approach the grave site from either side.  The rods will swing towards each other and cross when you pass over the center of the grave.  At this point you have found the center of the suspected grave.  Push one of the copper rods into the ground at this center location.  (This is where you need the stiffness in the rods.) Back up and approach the rod in the ground again while holding the remaining rod out in front of you in one hand.  Either rod or either hand will work.  If the rod turns to the holder’s left, the burial was female.  If the rod turns to the holder’s right, the burial was a male.  You may cross the site and approach from the opposite direction.  You should get the same indication as the first crossing, to the holder’s left or right.


An approximate age can be determined by checking the length of the grave.  When checking the length of a grave, approach the head of the grave with both rods in front of you.  The rods will cross when you pass over the head of the grave and remain crossed until you pass over the foot of the grave.  A grave length of about three or four short steps would indicate an adult burial.  A grave length of two or three short steps would indicate a teenager or young child.  A grave of one or two short steps indicates the burial was a infant.


In summary, remember the three rules: hold loosely, shoulder’s width apart, and go slow.  You should be able to determine the exact grave location, the gender of the person buried there, and the approximate age of that person.  As with anything else, practice makes perfect.  Start with a family member or someone you knew to build confidence.


          I have also used the copper a few times and they do work, I haven't use these as much, so I still use my old witching rods most of the time as I feel I get a stronger reading with them.  I wondered if the copper rods would move out to the side, as the coat hanger rods do for a female, but so far they never have.  I guess this just means that there are several ways of witching a grave.


          I have recently heard that some people use small PVC tubes as holders for their rods to ensure no human muscle interferes with the rods.  I have not tried this yet, but you can believe I will be testing out this as well.



Below are links to learn more about grave witching


What is Dowsing?  Click for short article from to learn the basics.

                         Click for a journal entry of one man's experience with dowsing.


Pantagraph Article of November 2004   Click for a story of a demonstration in a DeWitt County Cemetery


Illinois Men Share Their Dowsing Talents  Click for article from the Illinois Country Living Magazine



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