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It’s doggone unbelievable
Memory of Missouri’s famous Jim is preserved in Marshall park

The park in Marshall that preserves the legend of Jim is a curious stop in Marshall./E. Counts photo
By Joan Gilbert
Published: Jul/Aug 2000

During these dog days of summer, it’s appropriate to remember a puzzling retriever known as Jim the Wonder Dog, one of Missouri’s favorite legends. In Jim’s hometown, Marshall, Mo., you’ll find a life-size bronze statue in a landscaped garden on the spot where he lived with Sam and Pearl VanArsdale. An adjacent historic building holds Jim memorabilia.

And why does Marshall–located 85 miles east of Kansas City–feel a dog merits this attention? Jim, apparently, was a clairvoyant canine.

The Llewellyn setter, born in 1925 in Louisiana, came from top performers but missed his breed’s standards. As a joke, the breeder sent Jim to VanArsdale, a serious hunter who traveled North America. VanArsdale later claimed 5,000 quails were shot over Jim, which outdoor magazines called the greatest record in history. Jim didn’t need tips on where to seek quail. He went to birds without searching.

But Jim amazed his owners even more as a house pet and constant companion. They said he understood their conversation and at times seemed to read their thoughts.

Clarence Dewey Mitchell, who in 1942 wrote a book about Jim, said it became a game with friends and hotel guests (the VanArsdales owned the Ruff Hotel in town) to test the dog’s uncanny skills. Questions began simply, like “Which lady has a blue dress?” Jim would go to her and put his foot on hers. Then testers found that Jim could locate cars by color, make or by a license number written on a card. He did this even if the car was a block away, out of sight.

After this, Jim began making predictions, choosing names or numbers from cards placed before him. He went from the sizes and sexes of the hotel cat’s expected family to the same predictions for humans. He foretold Franklin Roosevelt’s election and for seven straight years, reportedly, World Series winners.

Performing for the state legislature, Jim correctly interpreted Morse code and shorthand messages, neither of which VanArsdale understood. As all this developed, Jim became famous beyond Missouri, attracting travelers from many states.

Naturally there were scoffers, too, since “wonder” animals have been known to depend on subtle clues from humans. But Jim often worked without VanArsdale present. His most conclusive evidence came in Kansas City, during a week at an animal hospital operated by Dr. J.C. Flynn, first president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. With Flynn, Jim responded to questions. Flynn also said that Jim, free in the building, invariably came to the phone for VanArsdale’s daily calls. These came at no set time, but Jim was always front and center before receiver was lifted on his owner’s voice. Otherwise, he ignored the phone.

Jim’s most systematic testing came at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1933 before a large gathering of veterinary students and doctors and, we’re told, for the newsreel cameras of Paramont Studio. The late Dr. A.J. Durant, one of UMC’s most highly and widely respected professors, said that after telling Jim to honor requests, VanArsdale stood, cigar in mouth, hands in pockets, to show that he was not directing the dog. Jim correctly interpreted questions given in several languages, none of which VanArsdale knew.

Physical examination revealed nothing unusual about Jim. Doctors, some formerly total skeptics, ruled out scam or trick. Among their comments: “this animal’s intelligence or use of intelligence is beyond humankind’s present understanding” and “no dog could be trained to do what Jim did.” Dr. Durant said, “I am convinced that Jim possesses some sort of occult power…”

VanArsdale rejected many offers to buy Jim or lease him for use in advertisements or movies. Unwilling to subject the aging dog to stresses of travel and continual public performance, he also felt this proved something. “If I’d taken this much trouble to set up a good scam, I’d make all I could from it, wouldn’t I?” he said.

Jim died of a heart attack on March 18, 1937. He’d lived 12 years. Dozens of floral tributes came and 500 condolence messages. Caretakers at Ridge Park Cemetery say Jim’s grave has always been more decorated than any grave there.

Evelyn Counts, a Marshall resident and principal fundraiser for the park, which was dedicated in May 1999, says her efforts to help immortalize Jim rise from “heartfelt certainty that he existed for a purpose…and it would be a terrible shame if he were forgotten.”

For more information, contact the Marshall Chamber of Commerce at (660) 886-3324.

Joan Gilbert is a contributor from Hallsville, Mo.

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