When a shadowy Rockport estate became the world epicenter of psychics and psychedelics.
By Andy O’Brien
One Sunday afternoon in August 1955, the world-renowned British author Aldous Huxley stepped out of a small commuter plane in Owls Head and climbed into a taxi bound for Rockport. The 61-year-old novelist and multiple Nobel nominee was struck by the beauty of the rockbound coast, but he hadn’t come to Maine for a vacation. That spring, at a gathering hosted by a well-heeled acquaintance in New York — a scion of the Astor family — Huxley had met a young scientist named Dr. Henry Puharich, a captain in the Army Medical Corps and a parapsychologist interested in extrasensory perception and the clinical application of psychedelic drugs. The charming doctor had excitedly described experiments he’d conducted, before his army hitch, with mediums, telepaths, and psychics, all at a remote compound on the Maine coast, a research facility he called the Round Table Laboratory of Experimental Electrobiology.
Huxley, best known for his 1931 dystopian novel Brave New World, had the year before published what would become arguably his second-most influential work, a book-length essay called Doors of Perception, detailing an experimental trip with the peyote derivative mescaline. A well-known spiritualist and seeker, Huxley was fascinated by Puharich and later wrote of the encounter, “Puharich is a lively bird, and I look forward to seeing what he does when he gets out of the army.”
The taxi delivered Huxley to a 45-room mansion overlooking the wooded inlet of Glen Cove, known locally as the Warrenton estate, where a freshly discharged Dr. Puharich had invited him to observe experiments he’d recently begun anew. Huxley wasn’t sure what he would find at the seaside campus. He knew, he later wrote, that Puharich had been giving lysergic acid, or LSD, to his volunteer research subjects. And the doctor had told Huxley about his fascination with a certain yellow-spotted psychoactive mushroom, native to Maine. In a letter to another psychedelic researcher, Huxley wrote that Dr. Puharich suspected the mushroom might “open the doors of ESP in a big way.”
“Provided,” Huxley added, almost as an afterthought, “it doesn’t first open the doors of an untimely grave.”
Few people alive today remember the enigmatic Round Table Foundation, which operated in Rockport from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. Even then, it was mysterious to outsiders, although it was well known within the tight circles of parapsychological researchers. The facility it funded hosted some of the 20th century’s most prominent and controversial psychics and mediums and even attracted the attention of the U.S. military, which saw potential in using the power of the mind to advantage the U.S. in its Cold War with the Soviets. Puharich, who died in 1995, has been hailed as the “father of the New Age movement.” In life, his work was celebrated by enthusiasts of the paranormal and condemned by skeptics. Today, the Round Table Foundation is routinely name-checked by both serious historians of Cold War–era covert research and tinfoil-hat types concerned with everything from extraterrestrials to the Illuminati to the Kennedy assassination.
Henry Puharich (who later in life adopted his childhood nickname, Andrija) first came to Maine in December 1947, after completing his medical doctorate at Northwestern University and a residency in Oakland, California. He was visiting an old family friend in Camden, the violinist (and fellow ethnic Croat) Zlatko Baloković, and his wife, Joyce Borden Baloković, an heiress to a family fortune made in dairy and industrial products. Puharich was taken with Joyce, who nursed an interest — not uncommon at the time among the East Coast’s elite — in mysticism and the uncanny frontiers of psychology.
“Spiritually, she was a live wire,” recalls Mary Bok, Joyce Baloković’s great-niece, who lives today at the Camden farm where Puharich first visited her great-aunt. “She did meditation regularly. I think that she was very interested in [parapsychology] and realized this was very new stuff coming to the surface — and she wanted to support it.”
Puharich, already interested in the electrochemical nature of consciousness, was captivated by Joyce’s views on subjects like extrasensory perception. He was impressed with Camden too, as his second wife, Bep Hermans, later described in a posthumous biography. “He felt a powerful and irrational conviction that he did not want to live anywhere else,” she wrote, “that he had to come back to establish a laboratory in Camden-by-the-Sea.”
The Balokovićs made this possible, introducing the young researcher to a circle of benefactors that included some of the country’s most blue-blooded surnames: Forbes, Cabot, du Pont. The check that got the Round Table Foundation off the ground was written by Alice Astor Bouverie, at whose New York residence Puharich would eventually meet Huxley. According to Pulitzer-nominated journalist Annie Jacobsen, who writes extensively about Puharich in her new book Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, Bouverie’s initial donation to Puharich totaled $106,000 — more than $1 million today.
In 1949, Puharich’s patrons established the 31-year-old scientist at Glen Cove, along with his wife, Jinny; one young daughter (and soon a second); and a team of assistants. His research over the course of the next several years tight-walked and transgressed the lines dividing legitimate science, the fringes of neuropsychology, and out-and-out occult pseudoscience. Puharich’s more traditional research concerned the five known senses. He ran experiments on the “psychology of taste” through a research fellowship with General Foods Corporation and studied audio waves and the nature of sound transmission in humans and animals. As Jacobsen writes, Puharich knew that some exceptional individuals could hear beyond most people’s typical audible range, and he wondered whether there might be a telepathic equivalent.
“Watch long trails of birds in migration, the unerring return of the homing pigeon, the struggle of the fish going upstream to spawn, the orderly movement of armies of ants,” he wrote in an introduction to his lab’s mission. Such movements in nature, he theorized, could be attributed to “a sensitivity to some forces, some of which we already know, some of which are unknown.”
Puharich’s more arcane research, meanwhile, involved gathering “sensitives” from around the world to stay at Glen Cove while volunteering for experiments on the nature of their abilities. His staff built a set of a copper-lined booths, known as Faraday cages, to block out radio waves and other electromagnetic interference, the better to isolate a potential psychic inside. One early Round Table resident was an Irish medium named Eileen Garrett, who’d held a series of headline-making séances in the United Kingdom. Puharich and his team placed her in a Faraday cage and asked her to guess the images in a set of cards and predict the results of a coin flip, among other tasks, then gauged her score as they charged her cage with various frequencies of electricity.
One Camden resident, now 68 and preferring anonymity, recalls a trip to a Faraday cage while visiting Glen Cove to play with Puharich’s daughters. The scientist found the girls in the kitchen, she says, and invited them into the lab, where she remembers being ushered into a lightless booth, read a list of five words, and asked to repeat them back. After a few minutes of this, the then–7-year-old got scared.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t like being in the dark,” she says. “So I said, ‘I have to go to the bathroom!’ They let me out, and I heard him say to somebody else, ‘She’s really not a good subject for this.’ My grandparents threw a fit when they found out.”
Alien messengers, shamanic trances, ancient Egyptian prophecies — as time went by, Puharich’s work at Round Table spiraled into territory that made ESP look mundane. He developed a fascination with a Hindu mystic, one of the lab’s many “sensitive” guests, who claimed to communicate with enlightened extraterrestrial beings. In 1953, after delivering a briefing to a Pentagon panel on potential military uses of ESP, he was conscripted into the U.S. Army. Puharich served a two-year stint at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland, and Jacobsen cites declassified documents indicating that his work there included “a research project described as an effort ‘to locate a drug that might enhance ESP.’ ”
When he returned to Glen Cove in 1955, Puharich was obsessed with a little-known mushroom he’d learned of during his army hitch, a hallucinogenic (and mildly toxic) fungus, allegedly used in shamanic cultures to incite out-of-body experiences. When Huxley visited that year, it was to witness the mushroom’s effects on one of Puharich’s subjects, a Dutch sculptor known to fall into trancelike states and scribble hieroglyphics while channeling a 5,000-year-old Egyptian prince named Ra Ho Tep.
Huxley, who stayed two weeks at Puharich’s “strange household,” recalled the experience favorably. “It was all very lively — and, I really think, promising,” he wrote in a letter, “for whatever may be said against Puharich, he is certainly very intelligent, extremely well-read, and highly enterprising. His aim is to reproduce by modern pharmacological, electronic, and physical methods the conditions used by the shamans for getting into a state of traveling clairvoyance and then, if it succeeds, to send people to explore systematically ‘the Other World.’ ”
But within a year of Huxley’s visit, the quest for the Other World in Maine began to unravel. Puharich’s wife, Jinny, had for years suffered depression and mental health issues. She was briefly institutionalized, and in the spring of ’56, she left Glen Cove to stay with family in Wisconsin. Puharich was, at the time, carrying on an affair with his children’s au pair, of which not all his benefactors approved. When Alice Astor Bouverie, Round Table’s primary patron, died unexpectedly in July 1956, Puharich’s research went into a financial tailspin. He left Maine to seek mystical mushrooms in Mexico, and the Round Table Foundation formally shut down in 1957.
Puharich’s career in paranormal research lasted decades more, until his death in 1995. He wrote books with titles like The Sacred Mushroom: Key to the Door of Eternity and traveled the world seeking people with unexplained abilities. In the ’70s, he came briefly to national prominence after discovering and promoting the Israeli psychic Uri Geller, famous for bending spoons on television. These days, you almost can’t google a paranormal conspiracy theory without Puharich’s name coming up.
Back in Maine, meanwhile, the former Round Table estate became the Glen Cove Bible School in 1959 (it has since turned into condominiums). The Egyptian-channeling sculptor, Harry Stump, settled in the midcoast and became a stalwart of the state’s arts community (Down East profiled him in July 1973 — no mention of Ra Ho Tep). In a biography of Stump, Maine journalist Lloyd Ferris quotes a former pastor who attended the Glen Cove bible college in the early 1960s. Administrators at the school burned all of Round Table’s papers and artifacts, he said, believing they were “occult works.” They also sealed off a tunnel leading to the ocean, where the seminarian believed Puharich’s Faraday cages were stored.
“I always had a funny feeling about that place,” the one-time minister told Ferris. “There were some negative vibes.”