A spirited investigation

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Grave hunter uses dowsing rods in search of pioneer burials

By Gene Sears

Some things simply defy explanation. Some things are even further out there.


A great example of the latter came to light last week, when Neal Du Shane from the Arizona Pioneer Cemetery Research Project arrived at Historic Fort Lupton, ostensibly to hunt unmarked graves on the site.

Du Shane’s weapon of choice? Two slim metal rods, roughly 2 feet long, with short handles bent into the ends.

Amateur historian and sleuth Du Shane is a grave dowser, a rare breed of tracker who searches out pioneer gravesites with the use of divining rods. Controversial in nature, the practice is nonetheless in use by numerous grave hunters across the country, who swear by the technique. Born and raised in Mitchell County, Iowa, Du Shane says he always had an interest in ghost towns, an interest that blossomed into an investigation of the settlements, or what remained. The first order of business was to locate the early sites, often with no visible clues remaining.

“I asked, ‘How do I find these old ghost towns, and where they exist in Mitchell County?’” Du Shane said. “And so we kind of scratched our heads, and I said, ‘You know, there had to have been cemeteries at these old sites.’ Then I took it a step farther, and I said, ‘About how far would those cemeteries be from the original town?’”

Basing his logic on an estimation of how far people were likely to walk to a burial site, Du Shane started looking for the cemeteries about a half of a mile to a mile out.

“Then we found those cemeteries, and could determine where those old towns were,” Du Shane said.

Aside from cemeteries, trail edges can be productive hunting grounds, since a large percentage of pioneer dead found their eternal resting spots beside the long and dusty, en route to the Wild West.

“The way people buried people back in the 1830s, 40s, 50s was, where you died was pretty much where they buried you, because there wasn’t embalming. Literally, it was imperative they buried them as quick as possible.

“I’m not a medium, I’m not from Mars, this is just what we do,” Du Shane explained. “You have heard of witching for water? This is very similar to that. My explanation, and this is my explanation only, is that all mammals have electricity in their bodies, and when we pass, that electricity or magnetism stays in our skeletal remains. What these rods are doing is picking up the magnetism between the two entities, the buried and the person standing above.”

The technique works on living humans as well, according to Du Shane, who demonstrated on volunteers from the South Platte Valley Historical Society. Approaching a male figure with the rods outstretched in front, Du Shane noted the crossing of the rod tips in relation to Du Shane’s closeness to the volunteer. Approaching a female, the rod tips swung outwards.

Not content with merely demonstrating his own abilities, Du Shane handed out sets of rods to each of the five members present, asking them to duplicate his results. Without fail, the society volunteers enjoyed success, and a dose of incredulity.

Using the rods to outline the grave’s shape, Du Shane said he is able to determine the relative size, and consequently, the approximate age of the occupant. He also claimed to be able to tell the orientation of the body by use of the rods, though that part of the equation might be the easy part. Christians tended to bury their dead in an west-east orientation, (head oriented to the west) so the deceased could witness the Second Coming of Christ as they arose on Judgment Day.

Not so easy to explain is Du Shane’s claim that he can find a specific person’s grave via use of dowsing by asking closed-ended questions and following the rod’s response. Du Shane might also ask about the date or manner of the decedent’s passing, but he tended not to give credence to the responses.

Using his methodology, Du Shane claimed to locate, with the group’s help, some 17 graves; 14 male and 3 female. He found most along what would have been the south wall of the original fort. The exceptions are one grave inside the fort purported to be Lancaster Lupton’s son, and three graves located to the northwest, along the riverbank near the site of the old ‘hanging tree.’

The hitch? Short of bringing in a backhoe to exhume the purported remains, there is no proof that Du Shane found anything, a conundrum he freely acknowledges. Since none of the volunteers on hand seemed ready to take shovels in hand, they took the results with a grain of salt, alternately dowsing on their own, talking with Du Shane about his research and enjoying the cool fall morning. Interesting, sure, but maybe not something to rewrite fort history over, at least at this point.  

Despite the controversy, Du Shane says he gets plenty of work, locating remains throughout the southwest to California, working with historical societies, cemetery curators and, on occasion, law enforcement.

“I tend not to publicize those,” Du Shane said. “Mostly because I don’t want some murderer coming after me after I show the police where a grave is.”

Contact Staff Writer Gene Sears at gsears@metrowestnewspapers.com