How An Extraordinary Dog In Depression-Era Missouri Made People Believe In Magic

Mar 21, 2020
Originally published on March 22, 2020 7:19 am

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In 1920s Missouri, many people were experiencing acute and crushing economic hardship. And then along came a dog with incredible powers who captured everyone’s attention.

“This dog could do everything and like nobody knows about it!” says Frank Schloegel, a 21st century fan of Jim the Wonder Dog.

Jim the Wonder Dog earned his name from his ability to predict the future, and answer questions that should be otherwise unanswerable for a dog (or even a person in some cases): from allegedly predicting the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the World Series to knowing the gender of unborn babies.

A reknowned quail hunter, this Lewellin setter became the official State Wonder Dog of Missouri (a distinctive title no other state has).

Not much is documented about Jim’s life, save for a book written in the 1940s by an author named Clarence Dewey Mitchell, who had met the dog and his owner. The book is inexplicably told from Jim’s point of view.

“I well remember the home where I was born,” read the opening lines. “It was an ordinary kennel... Facing the south, with a large side door. For bedding we had some straw, and over this, some old rag, which had formerly been a blanket used in the master’s home.”

Another book about Jim the Wonder Dog was published in 2018 by Nancy Dailey, who used previous research and old news articles to write a more credible biography of Jim, this time from a third-person perspective.

Historical accounts say Jim originally came from Louisiana. The dog belonged to Sam Van Arsdale, who was in the hotel business and loved to hunt. In 1925, Van Arsdale was living in West Plains, Missouri, when he received a mysterious delivery: a puppy.

Van Arsdale’s niece raised Jim as a young puppy before they sent him to a trainer. That’s around the time when people started to take notice of Jim.

Aside from his black head, floppy ears and white snout and chest, Jim’s most striking features were his eyes.

“He had riveting, human-like eyes,” said one interviewee in a 1997 documentary made by Missouri Valley College. The documentary gathered oral histories from people who had first-hand encounters with Jim the Wonder Dog. By now, any person who would have met Jim has since died.

According to Nancy Dailey, most accounts say that Jim also stood out because of his behavior, even early on when he was training to be a hunting dog.

“He’d go under a tree and lie down in the shade, Dailey says. “He watched the other dogs. He would never do anything involved with the training.”

But when they actually went out on a hunt, Van Arsdale noticed that instead of doing the usual zigzagging to first pick up a trail, Jim would just go directly to the quail he was hunting.

The first time Van Arsdale really noticed Jim’s extraordinary talents was during a hunting expedition. Feeling hot and tired, Van Arsdale said out loud that he wanted to rest under a tree. And Jim, the Llewellin setter with human-like eyes, went and sat down right at the exact tree.

“So he asked him to find an elm tree, and Jim went to the tree,” Dailey says from her research. “He asked for an oak, and Jim went right to an oak. And then a walnut. … Every single time, whatever, whichever tree was asked to find, he did.”

A frequent traveler around the Midwest, Van Arsdale would often take Jim along with him on his trips and show off Jim’s talents to intrigued onlookers. One retired attorney and former circuit judge in Marshall, Missouri, recalled witnessing some of these talents in the Missouri Valley College documentary.

“So Mr. Van Arsdale had the dog do some things for us,” Bill Bellamy said in the documentary. “Among other things, he had us pick out the lady with the red coat, which he did; and pick out the engineer, who was my uncle, which he did. And of course I figured both of those things could be hand signals or something else.”

Bellamy particularly remembers Jim picking out license plate numbers—one of his best-known tricks—in which Van Arsdale would write down a seemingly random license plate number and then Jim would find that car with the exact license number and place his paw on it.

In other instances, Van Arsdale would ask Jim to find a Bible, and Jim would respond by putting his paw on the preacher in the crowd. And when the two encountered a group of traveling salesmen, Arsdale asked Jim to pick the man with the most change; and he did.

Jim’s biographer Nancy Dailey says people were hungry for this kind of entertainment.

“They were losing their homes, they were losing farms, there wasn’t much of anything to do,” she says. “And so if you were in town and saw Jim, this was, first of all, free. And second of all, amazing. And it would take their mind off of the troubles they were going through.”

It’s no secret that Van Arsdale relished in Jim’s psychic abilities. In fact, according to the Sedalia Democrat, in 1931, they went to Columbia, Missouri to be tested by a faculty member from the veterinary school and another from the school of agriculture at the University of Missouri. While a physical exam turned out fairly normal, Jim’s performance of his usual tricks piqued the testers’ curiosities.

While Jim’s tricks inspired wonder and awe, many were skeptical of Van Arsdale, wondering just how Jim could do what he did. And after running multiple tests on Jim, the university professors were also stumped, and could only conclude that Jim was the smartest dog they had ever seen.

“And they said it was something we may never see in a number of years again,” Dailey says.

As more people saw Jim, Van Arsdale began to receive different offers to show off his wonder dog and make money off his astounding abilities. He was once offered a contract to spend a year in Hollywood and work on movies with Jim.

“And he turned it down,” Dailey says. “He wouldn’t do it. He was offered dog food commercials and he would not do it.”

Jim, Sam Van Arsdale, and his wife Pearl eventually moved to Marshall, Missouri, to manage the Ruff Hotel (Ruff!), where Jim would perform tricks in the hotel lobby and the town square.

At 12 years old, Jim collapsed and later died at the vet in Sedalia. The Van Arsdales tried to get Jim buried in Ridge Park Cemetery in Marshall, but couldn’t because the cemetery was meant for people, not dogs. As a compromise, they arranged to have Jim buried right outside the cemetery. And now, after years of expanding, the wonder dog’s grave is now the cemetery’s most visited.

Jim’s legacy lives on to this day, especially during the celebration of Jim the Wonder Dog Day in Marshall, hosted by the Friends of Jim the Wonder Dog organization. About 40 people and their dogs attended the festival in June of 2019.

Chris Delaney, a member of the Friends of Jim organization, traveled to Marshall from South Carolina. With tears in his eyes, Delaney said Jim’s story propels him to be kind every day.

“It’s healing, it’s just a beautiful story,” he said. “It’s something that lifts our spirit.”

The how behind Jim’s stunning abilities remains a mystery—and will likely always remain a mystery—but writer Nancy Dailey says that's part of the fun.

“There are many things out there in this world that we have no answer for, but we should accept it and enjoy what we can from it,” Dailey says. “And this is something you could say Sam and Jim gave to the world.”

Celisa Calacal is a freelance contributor at KCUR 89.3.

Suzanne Hogan is the host and producer of KCUR's podcast A People's History of Kansas City. Email her at suzanne@kcur.org.

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