The Psychic Mafia – Part 4
Chapter 4, Continued
We were going to confer on special contributors to the New Age Temple titles of nobility: Lord and Lady, Prince and Princess, Duke and Duchess. These honorifics, similar to papal titles, if you like, were to derive their distinction partly from the social status we expected the church to have in the community, but more distinction from the fact that they were to be conferred on the express instructions of the great Master Teachers from the exalted spirit planes. Besides elevating the titles beyond mere human honors, this would also let us, the mediums, off the hook when it came to explaining why this member was a Prince while another was merely a Lord.51
There were to be rites of investiture in the church laden with pomp and pageantry and solemn mumbo-jumbo. Each title would carry with it distinctive medals and ribbons to be worn at special social functions.
I got the idea for all this partly from Father Divine’s love feasts and partly from the titles of nobility dreamed up by another black messiah in Detroit a few years ago, Prophet Jones. But the final embellishments were to be my own.
My innovation would have been a gold mine. And the other mediums would have hated me even more, because they had lacked the imagination to do it first. But when they realized how it brought in the money, they would have borrowed the idea.
Most mediums come to tragic, tawdry ends, but they rarely die poor. . . 52
Secrets of the Seance
Or, Giving the Spirits a Helping Hand
The source of all the gold, adulation, and sometimes fanatical devotion that surrounded me was the seance room and my prowess therein.
It was my inexplicable floating trumpet, through which the spirit communicators spoke with their families and friends still here on earth; my shimmering spirit forms, which not only spoke to the living but touched, even embraced them; my shatteringly accurate clairvoyance, which proved that the spirits followed the day-by-day existence of their loved ones, aware of the most trivial things in their lives– it was these mysterious psychic phenomena that kept the people coming and, most important, the money flowing in.
Oh, they liked the nice-nice sermons my partner and I preached. They enjoyed getting caught up in the rousing congregational singing. They reveled in the special music– the melodies of the piano, organ, and harp which spoke of comfort and hope. But what they really came for, lived for in many cases, were the spirit manifestations.
Take the seance room out of spiritualism and you reduce it to another drab religion. That dark room, a mystic womb wherein unique wonders unfold, is to the Spiritualist what baptism is to the Baptist, the Sabbath to the Seventh Day Adventist, or the cult of Mary to the traditionalist Roman Catholic. Central. The heart of the matter. And so hundreds of people who waited upon my spirits for advice in marital, legal, medical, and other problems of their lives built their existence here, and their hope of a future one hereafter, on a mere magician’s bag of tricks!
But what a bag of tricks! I’ve described some of the spectacular phenomena I created as the superdramatist of the seance room; now I’ll tell you how they were accomplished.
To get information on sitters, we had a variety of methods, all devious. I’ve already mentioned pilfering purses and billfolds and picking pockets in the darkened seance room to dig out such data as social security numbers or bankbooks. We also made a rule that anyone wishing to be at a private or group seance had to attend three public church services beforehand. That way they could be observed and we could gather information on them from the billets they wrote. Each billet was stamped at the top, “Please address your billet to one or more loved ones in spirit, giving first and last names, ask one or more questions and sign your full name.” One billet thus made out gave us enough leads to come up with a file on anybody.
There were two small rooms on either side of the platform in the sanctuary, used only by the mediums, and these had two-way mirrors through which we could observe the congregation before a service, determine who was there, and prepare our spirit messages accordingly. When a person got an evidential message he could always say to a skeptic, and no doubt often did, “The mediums didn’t even see me before the service; if they need prior research for their messages,
how could they have known to prepare one for me?” We made a point of knowing people better than they ever imagined we did.
Also, I had an electronic sound collector– a device for picking up sounds at a considerable distance, positioned in a house we owned across the street from the church. By aiming this at the church before a service we harvested delicious bits of conversation that later were woven into startling messages.53
My billet-reading, which was done with my eye taped like a mummy’s, I’ve already explained: I merely squinted down the side of my nose and read the billet by maneuvering them close to my body where I could catch a glimpse of them. Sounds childishly simple, perhaps, but it was a helluva impressive performance. I used to watch mentalists on television and in clubs and felt I needn’t take a back seat to any of them.
Sometimes I read billets in sealed envelopes. Then, of course, I wore no blindfold; the problem here was to read the billet through the envelope. There were two methods popular among mediums, both of which I used.
One was to have a concealed light behind the pulpit against which the envelope could be held and which made it virtually transparent. The billet was of such a size that it fitted into the envelope without folding and thus could be read easily against the light.
Another method employed lighter fluid. Smeared on an opaque envelope, this makes it momentarily as transparent as cellophane. The fluid dries very quickly and leaves no detectable trace, so that the envelope could be returned to its original owner after the demonstration and proved to be still sealed and intact. Very impressive, especially when performed with dramatic flair.
Sometimes I would pull a dramatic variation on the standard billet-reading procedure. At the public sessions in the Cathedral at Camp Chesterfield, the billets normally were collected in a basket, carried to the pulpit, and handed to the medium just as he started his demonstration. I had one of the workers (who was “open”) filch a couple of billets before the demonstration and bring them to me behind stage. Then I prepared spectacular messages for the writers of those
Later, as the basket containing the billets was being brought up the aisle in full view of the large congregation, I would dramatically exclaim, “Stop!” All eyes were upon me.
Even before donning my blindfold, I explained, the spirits were working and had told me the questions asked by two of those who had just written billets. I then proceeded to quote the billets (and give appropriate answers) while they ostensibly were yet in the basket on which I hadn’t placed a finger.
This was always the cue for a tremendous ovation, which I accepted with touching humility.
Of course, the evidential quality of my phenomena was cumulative; even if one performance– my blindfold billet-reading, say– wasn’t in itself totally convincing to an individual, it tended to be accredited by the other phenomena which were convincing to him. If the sitter was convinced that I could materialize spirit forms, why should he think that I would need to stoop to cheating in any other phase of my mediumship? This line of reasoning served to strengthen any weak links in my chain of mediumistic performances.
Well, what about my utterly uncanny materializations? Stripped of the ectoplasm, here’s what happened.
Let’s move into the seance room for a typical reunion between the living and the dead. There was a semicircle of chairs in front of the “cabinet.” The cabinet is a venerable institution in spiritualism, comparable to the baptismal font or the altar in other churches. It’s simply a curtain drawn around an area, say eight feet by six feet, to make a closed-off cubicle; sometimes the curtain is simply drawn across the corner of the room.
The cabinet, according to the hifalutin’ nonsense of spiritualism, serves as a kind of condensing chamber for the psychic force and ectoplasm (the mysterious substance drawn from the medium’s body and the sitters’) which enables the spirits to materialize. In actual fact, of course, it serves as a place where the medium can carry on his hanky-panky– get in and out of his gauzy spiritual raiment.
The sitters were invited to inspect the cabinet before the lights were turned out to see for themselves that there was no trap door or other secret entrance. (If there had been, and in many cases there are, the sitters won’t find it.) In our seance room we had a hidden entrance, but not in the cabinet; it was in another part of the room, and in the dark provided access for a confederate if he were needed.
Besides the cabinet, sitters were invited to inspect me to determine that I had nothing on my person to aid me in impersonating the spirits. Sometimes this search was perfunctory, sometimes more thorough.
When we were ready to proceed, I would enter the cabinet, in which was placed a single chair (or two if my partner and I were doing a double materialization– this was supposed to provide more power), and draw the curtains. The lights were turned off– except for one large red bulb controlled by a dimmer switch which cast enough glow to illumine the ectoplasm. Then the sitters sang a hymn.
For materialization sittings I wore black socks and pants which didn’t show up at all in the dark. Then, while the sitters were singing, I would don my chiffon spirit garb. My outfit for a basic spirit (nothing fancy like a Master Teacher, who was “higher”) resembled a baptismal robe. It opened at the back to slip my arms into the sleeves, then was secured by a simple snap. It covered everything from the neck to the floor. I used various types of gauze headgear. When I was ready– which could be in as little as ten seconds if necessary– I oozed from the cabinet trailing clouds of ectoplasm.
But how did I get my spirit raiment into the cabinet? There were several ways.
Usually there is present at every materialization seance a “cabinet attendant,” who is actually the medium’s bodyguard. Spiritualists explain his or her role as that of protecting the medium from malicious intruders who might try to grab the ectoplasm and thereby cause the poor medium grave injury, even death. (Heartbreaking stories were told to the faithful about mediums who had suffered internal hemorrhages and writhed on the floor in agony after some heartless nave grabbed their ectoplasm. The official dogma was that rude touching of ectoplasm caused it to recoil into the medium’s body with savage force– like being hit in the gut by a giant rubber band.) Anyway, the cabinet attendant or keeper was there to discourage any tampering with the ectoplasm– and also, in many cases, to provide the ectoplasm.
Most cabinet attendants were women and carried large handbags big enough to contain a hundred feet of tightly packed chiffon. The stuff was simply passed to the medium inside the cabinet after the lights were turned out.
There were other methods. The average person has no conception of how compressible chiffon is; enormous quantities of it can be wadded into a ball small enough for a man to hide in his undershorts. On occasion I was searched down to my underwear and my contraband ectoplasm never found.
There are other, even less detectable ways of hiding it. Some mediums have used body cavities. One woman medium told me her technique when she really wanted to confound some “smartassed investigator” was to stuff the chiffon into a condom and hide it in her vagina.
It’s amazing what effects can be created in the dark manipulating yards and yards of chiffon and gauze which appears to shimmer in the unearthly glow of the ruby light. What I did was what magicians call “black art.” The parts of me not covered by ectoplasm were garbed totally in black and were quite invisible in the dark. (For trumpet sittings, which I’ll explain next, I wore a head-to-foot black outfit, including a mask over my face which rendered me as unseen as The Shadow used to be in his famous adventures.)
Standing in the seance room in my invisible outfit I would deftly unroll a ball of chiffon out to the middle of the floor and manipulate it until eventually it enveloped me. What the sitters saw was a phenomenon: a tiny ball of ectoplasm sending out shimmering tendril which gradually grew or developed into a fully formed materialized spirit. Unless you have witnessed the effect under seance conditions, you’ll find it hard to grasp how eerily convincing it can be.
The ectoplasmic figure could disappear the same way it appeared. I simply unwound the chiffon from my body slowly and dramatically, then wadded it back into the original tiny ball. What the sitter saw was the fully formed spirit gradually disintegrate, and evaporate into a puff of ectoplasm.
The variations were endless. By standing in front of the cabinet and pulling the black curtains out and around me then manipulating them I could create the illusion of the spirit form undulating; varying in width from a mere inch to many inches; shooting from two feet to six feet in height (and if I stood on my toes, considerably more) and then crumpling back to four feet, three, two, one . . . and through the floor. A whooshing sound added to the illusion of the form
melting into the floorboards.
Often I combined astral music with the materializations. After one of the church musicians died I had recorded music of his harp-playing piped into the dark room, and the sitters believed they were being serenaded by an angel.
One striking and very popular feature of our seances were astral duets played on the organ and piano (which were in the seance room and quite physical). Since Raoul, my partner, couldn’t play anything but the radio, it fell to me on such occasions to perform a duet solo. An interesting challenge!
I managed it by tape-recording organ music prior to the seance and then, in the pitch-darkness, accompanying the organ music live (or dead, if you like) on the piano. I introduced spontaneous little bits of business– such as interjected remarks– to demonstrate to the sitters that the piano actually was being played at that moment by a materialized spirit form and disarming suspicions that the whole thing was recorded.
I may be the only medium in history who regularly played piano-organ duets with himself!
We sometimes permitted infrared photographs prove the reality of the materialization phenomena. These were snapped only when the spirits gave the signal, guaranteeing that only what we wanted was captured on the film. Sometimes the photographs show spirit forms, sometimes ectoplasm dribbling out of the medium’s mouth or nose or ears while I lay slumped in my chair as though in trance.
With other mediums in black stealthily entering the room, we could and at times did produce a host of materialized spirits– sort of an ectoplasmic convention. By myself I could produce other spirits by whirling around on the end of a stick a piece of chiffon sprayed with luminous paint. Coat hangers draped in ectoplasm also made a passable spirit, sort of half-materialized.
To portray a child I got down on my knees in the darkness. Sometimes sitters were invited to approach the spirit closely to peer directly into its face. I had variety of face masks of men, women and children for all such occasions. These could be enormously convincing.
One medium at Camp Chesterfield was an enormous, grotesquely obese woman, yet in her materialization seances tiny spirit forms three or four feet tall skipped around the room, playfully touched the sitter, sometimes even climbed up on their laps and kissing them. Often there were three of these diminutive spirits visible at the same time.
This was amazing! But only to the sitter who didn’t know that the medium, Martha Lomax, had three children and that there was a trapdoor in the floor of the seance room.
Besides being at home in my own well-equipped seance room, I was also a past master of the impromptu materialization. Give me any room, turn off the lights, and I’ll produce spirit forms. My partner and I showed we could do it and do it well.
Once we conducted a materialization sitting at the home of an eccentric woman physician. There were fifteen sitters, whom we had insisted make reservations, so we were armed with plenty of research. Our cabinet from which the ectoplasmic forms were to emerge was simply a curtain flung over a wire across a corner of the living room.
My partner and I were both in a dangerous mood that night– bored with the standard effects and itching for some hellry– and we decided for fun to make the materializations out of our hostess’s own items.
The way the cabinet was positioned, we had free access out through the back of it to a nearby bedroom. We stripped the pillowcases and used them for ectoplasm. Later, the crazy doctor remarked on how much whiter and more dazzling the spirit forms had been than in previous materialization seances.
Of course, thumbing your nose at the sitter is a dangerous temptation for a medium, since it can make him careless. I tried never to underestimate my sitter’s intelligence even if he appeared the stupidest one I’d had yet.
In the house seance just mentioned, an incident occurred which showed how psychology can conquer dogma. I recognized two of the sitters as a mother and daughter. The daughter’s husband, a fervent Pentecostal, was fanatically opposed to spiritualism as a thing of the Devil, and I knew that he had driven his wife and mother-in-law to our church in Tampa but sat outside in the car, refusing even to set foot in Satan’s domain. Later we found that he had sought an injunction to prevent the seance in the doctor’s house. Anyway, I had one of the materialized spirits that night tell his wife, “Your husband is really a very fine man and you’re fortunate to be married to him. Please tell him that!”
She did, and two weeks later he was in our church and soon became a member.
My real contribution to the science and art of mediumship was in creating an original trumpet phenomenon. The standard trumpet sitting takes place in the familiar darkness– sometimes with the red light, sometimes without– and voices heard speaking through the tin megaphone are said to be those of the spirits.
Some mediums just sit or stand in the darkness and talk through the trumpet, but these show little initiative or imagination. Our trumpets had a luminous band so that the sitters could see them whirling around the room, hovering in space, or sometimes swinging back and forth in rhythm with a hymn.
The trick was the old black art business. My partner and I, and other confederates if we needed them, wore head-to-toe black outfits which rendered us invisible in the darkness. We could handle the trumpet with impunity even in a good red light and with the luminescent bands giving off a considerable glow.
The trumpets, as I’ve mentioned earlier, were made in sections and were extendable to a total length of about four feet. Thus they could be swung around with considerable speed. The sitter, thinking the trumpet was only a foot long and seeing it whizzing around, close to the ceiling, assumed that it had gotten up there by defying gravity.
Some skeptics, of course, suspected wires or threads, but my special trumpet effect really bamboozled them. It bamboozled everybody and may be justly described as one of the few truly original phenomena in mediumship.
The sitter’s experience was of holding the trumpet in his or her hands and feeling it vibrate with voice sounds. Yet there were no wires, no cords– nothing.
We had one man at Camp Chesterfield who considered himself a skeptic and an expert on mediumistic tricks, but he couldn’t fathom my vibrating trumpet. This man, in the darkened seance room lit by the glow of the ruby bulb, took the trumpet which had gently descended into his lap, put his hands on it, shook it, collapsed it, reassembled it, placed it under his chair– and still he could feel the tin quivering.
“My God,” he said to his wife, “the voices are still coming out!”
At that, the Indian chief who was speaking through the trumpet boomed from under the chair, “Of course, you damned fool, what did you expect? I’m a spirit!”
Other mediums, including some big names in the spook business, offered me thousands of dollars for the secret. But the secret is so simple it eludes detection. This is how it was done.
I did not talk through the trumpet nestling on the sitter’s knee but through another trumpet, painted black so as to be invisible in the dark. Dressed in my head-to-toe black outfit, I spoke in the dark through the black trumpet which I held a short distance– three or four feet– from the other trumpet in the sitter’s lap. My voice, passing through the black trumpet and striking the other trumpet, caused it to vibrate. Try it for yourself!
We used to pull this stunt along with five or six other trumpets bouncing around in the air, simultaneously. This added to the confusion, and before long sitters were going away and telling others that in our seances six trumpets spoke at the same time!
Of course, I would be dashing around the room in the dark, throwing my voice from here, there, and everywhere. The overall impression was of a fantastical evidential seance with trumpets talking to beat the band and the room jumping with psychic energy.
With experience I became as stealthy and nimble as a cat in the dark. Never once did I trip or stumble. Who knows– maybe I’m psychic?
It might have been fun sometime to match wits with a parapsychologist– a professional ghost-hunter. Our only experience with a self-styled parapsychologist– how valid was his claim to the title is doubtful– started when a young man presented himself at the church and said that he was affiliated with Dr. J. B. Rhine of Duke University, the high priest of ESP. He was intrigued by reports of our trumpet sittings, the young man told us, and he proposed a test in which the trumpet was to be coated with a special powder (the idea being, of course, that if we ourselves were manipulating the trumpet, telltale stains would stick to our fingers).
The first thing we did was to contact Rhine. We discovered that he had no knowledge of anybody by the name his alleged associate had given us. But Raoul and I decided it would be amusing to string the would-be scientist along. We agreed to his “test” seance.
Before the sitting the young investigator, with exemplary diligence, made a thorough search and satisfied himself that only he and I were in the seance room and that there was only one trumpet, which he proceeded to coat with his powder. Then the lights were turned off.
In a moment, spirit voices were heard from the trumpet, which performed its usual gyrations. The young investigator was shocked and embarrassed when the spirits told him that they were aware of his lie that he was not associated with Dr. Rhine nor ever had been. Then they assured him that the results of his “test” would be a vindication of spiritualism.
After the lights came on, the incipient parapsychologist examined carefully both the trumpet and our hands. The powder on the trumpet was undisturbed and there were no stains on my fingers.
The young man was shaken. He seemed to fear that he really had been tampering with some higher force! How had I pulled off the trick?
Easily. I managed it without assistance from Raoul or another confederate. All I needed was another trumpet, or quasi-trumpet, besides the one coated with the powder. So before the seance I rolled a large piece of pliable cardboard around my leg and hid it in place by tucking it into the elasticized top of my sock.
Later, in the darkness of the seance, this piece of cardboard became a makeshift megaphone.
For all I know that zealous young investigator may have written a technical report in some learned journal of parapsychology about his successful test.
An added attraction we sometimes offered in trumpet sittings was the levitation of the sitter. This was accomplished with the utmost ease.
The room was in total darkness. Raoul and I both worked out with weights and were very strong. So in our invisible black garb we simply took hold of the sitter’s chair– made of sturdy steel–and lifted her in the air. To hoist a chair with a 130-pound woman sitting on it was for us no problem at all. As we each gripped two legs of the chair, it slowly rose in the air. We usually got it so high that the sitter could reach up and touch the ceiling.
Time after time we performed this stunt and the sitters were convinced they had been made to float by the same psychic power that made the trumpets airborne.
I was also a whiz at apports. These were gifts from the spirits: sometimes they were worthless trinkets like rings or brooches; other times, more impressively, they were (as I’ve already described) objects we had stolen from the sitter.
The apports, as previously described, sometimes arrived in full light and other times tumbled out of the trumpet in the dark. In exotic variations I arranged for apports to turn up in a newly baked cake, in a sandwich, or inside a shoe.
Once at a church function I told a woman the spirits had apported something for her into a chocolate cake, and when she cut into it and found her necklace, she screamed, “Oh my God, this was at home in my drawer when I left to come to church!”
The truth was that we had pilfered it from her purse more than a month before and she evidently hadn’t missed it.
Some mediums apported only certain kinds of apports, which they bought cheap in bulk. One woman specialized in silly little bits of colored glass– “spirit jewels.” A male medium I know apported only arrowheads, which he dug up somewhere by the hundreds. I have invoices for large purchases of items such as costume jewelry that made good bread-and-butter apports. To special customers, however, I gave something more impressive.
My partner and I apported practically everything but a live cobra, and we might have gotten around to that eventually. Orchids, roses, plants of various shapes and sizes– these were common. Once I apported a huge thistle plant bristling with wicked thorns. Another time I apported a fresh, whole thistle plant, including the root, to every sitter at the seance. I also apported live animals– mice, gerbils, kittens– and Indian arrowheads by the hundreds.
The apports were smuggled into the room under cover of darkness by my black garbed confederate. The only one he really complained about handling was that giant thistle. He said the damn thing nearly pricked him to death!
Since the room was in total darkness the sitters were unaware of my confederate’s coming and going and believed that the spirits had materialized the apports out of thin air.
Among my followers a favorite phenomenon was spirit card writing. Blank cards were given to each sitter, and he or she was supposed to sign his or her name. The cards were then collected and placed on a table in the center of the room, and the lights were lowered. A hymn was sung, the lights were turned on, and voila! The cards now bore spirit messages, signatures of dead loved ones, Bible verses, poems, personal reminiscences, and other heartwarming evidences of life after death.
There were two ways of doing this. The cards signed by the sitters could be removed from the room in the dark by confederates and the messages added, then returned before the lights were turned on. The other way was to have cards prepared in advance, including look-alike forgeries of the sitters’ signatures, and simply switch these for the blank cards.
A variation was to have the spirits put on the cards the name and signature of the sitter’s Master Teacher and a drawing of him, (Everybody who attended our seances eventually was assigned a Master Teacher: an exalted spirit being, wise, beneficent, and immensely powerful, who functioned more or less like the traditional guardian angel. People grew very attached to their Master Teachers and often prayed to them as Catholics do to the saints. Materializing them was
fun. We didn’t need to worry about evidential details– except to be careful not to have the Great One contradict too blatantly something that he had said on a previous occasion– and we could deck ourselves out with beards, headgear, jewels, and other fancy trappings of an astral VIP.)54
Occasionally, just for variety and a different kind of challenge, I would do spirit precipitation on silk. It was a good seller because it gave the sitter something to take away with him as a tangible token of spirit power.
The sitters were each given a piece of silk before the seance started. They were told to hold these and meditate on the spirits to try to attune themselves to the etheric vibrations. Then all placed their pieces of silk on a table in the center of the room, and the lights were dimmed.
When the lights came back on, after ten, twenty, or thirty minutes of hymn-singing, each of the pieces of silk bore a spirit image. Sometimes the face would be that of a loved one, often that of an unidentified spirit who, we explained, must have some deep psychic affinity with the sitter.
The trick here was to prepare the silks in advance. I used to cut pictures out of old magazines or use snapshots of spirits known to the sitters if I had them, soak the picture in ammonia for thirty seconds, place it on bridal silk, put a handkerchief over it, and use a hot iron. The image impregnated the silk.
Sometimes, to anticipate suspicion or skepticism, I would have the sitters sign their pieces of silk, then have those removed in the dark by confederates who did the impregnating of the images in an adjacent room and returned the silks before the end of the seance.
Actually, we found that bridal satin took the pictures better and was easier to iron, but we still called it spirit precipitation on silk.
Once at Camp Chesterfield, while doing precipitations, I got lazy or careless or both and caused a minor crisis. Sick of cutting out and ironing the damn things, I used any picture that was handy, one of a little girl on a recent cover of Life magazine. The woman who got the silk recognized the picture and went to Mamie Schultz Brown, the president of the camp that year. Mamie was very excitable; she almost fainted when the woman confronted her with the silk and the
incriminating picture from Life.
However, we smoothed it over by telling the woman that sometimes the spirits did mischievous things like that just to remind us they were still human and liked a joke.
One of the garden-variety miracles we purveyed that required no paraphernelia was predicting the future. Our prophecies were based on logic, reasonable inference from known facts, and common sense. Sometimes, just for the hell of it, we would take an absolutely wild guess and come up with a zinger.
We constantly made predictions for people about their personal lives. And annually, just after the new year, we had a sort of gala prediction party where the spirits gave a glimpse of coming political and world events. We had maybe a hundred people at five dollars a head turn out to hear this preview of the news.
We always gave ourselves an out, of course, in the event that the prophecy didn’t materialize. The “vibrations” had changed, we would say, or people’s prayers had averted the gloom and doom that we had warned about but that hadn’t come to pass.55
Actually, our track record as prophets wasn’t bad. We predicted that John Kennedy would be elected president.56 The year that California had a really big fire, we had predited bad fires in that state. We even called one of the California earthquakes several months before it happened.
One medium I knew, based in Washington, D.C., specialized in political predictions and often was very astute. There was at least one senator among his sitters and I’m sure he had other excellent contacts with the Washington grapevine.
I was very good at predicting events for individuals. Some of them almost surprised me.
I warned one woman in the church that her children would try to tie up her financial assets and railroad her into a rest home. This would happen, I said, after her husband’s death. Well, her husband did predecease her; sure enough, her son, a doctor, tied up everything financially, and the woman is now in a rest home in Florida. These developments I predicted seven years before the event.
What about horse races, lotteries, and football games?
My standard reply when people asked me to predict these, and they did, was that my concern was with spiritual things and not crass materialism.
One woman came to a seance and, when the lights were out, asked to speak to her Master Teacher. She said, “I want to go to Las Vegas and I want you give me some numbers to play. When I return I’ll give half of everything I win to the church.”
Master Teacher replied, “Well, I have a better idea. Why don’t I give the medium the numbers and let him go to Las Vegas; when he returns, he can give all the winnings to the church!”
One thing I haven’t explained is my eating glass in front of the congregation without killing myself. In the first chapter I described how I emptied a glass of water over some flowers, wrapped the glass in a handkerchief, broke it, and munched on the pieces– while the congregation bellowed a hymn. Actually, some of them were too shocked to sing. I thought my poor uninitiated mother57 would have a stroke! But, of course, I was unharmed because I was protected by spirit power.
What really protected me was that before the service I had placed a dish containing ice inside the pulpit. What I crunched with such obscene gusto (right into the microphone, so that it sounded as though I was devouring the whole water-glass) was a piece of ice.58
Not all mediums were as adept as I was.
In December, 1974, William Rauscher and Allen Spraggett visited The Peoples’ Spiritualist Church in St. Petersburg. That night, the pastor, the Rev. Mamie Schultz Brown, was doing billet-reading. It was such a blatant imposture that the aged medium, unable to use a blindfold because she can’t see without her thick glasses, didn’t make even a pretence of covering her eyes. She just went through the billets, opening them more or less surreptitiously (though what she
was doing should have been obvious to a wide-awake 10-year-old) and reading the question. Then she gave stock answers.
Bill Rauscher submitted a billet with a phony question: “Will my Uncle Sherwood’s estate be settled by the end of the month?” Needless to say, Bill Rauscher has not, nor ever has had, an Uncle Sherwood, incarnate or discarnate. The medium’s answer to this planted question showed both her total lack of ESP and her semiliteracy.
“Yes, your Uncle Sherwood’s estate will be settled in a month,” the medium intoned, “Also, I just seen much blessings around you. And your Uncle Sherwood is saying, `I didn’t mean no harm? What I sometimes said didn’t mean nothin’.’ Do you understand what your uncle means?”
Bill Rauscher nodded gravely that he did and the medium smiled at another customer she had conned (or so she thought).
Many of the wonders I purveyed I created myself. But later, after leaving mediumship, I discovered that there actually had been many precedents. The motley crew at Camp Chesterfield, and my phony spirits, are nothing new to spiritualism.
No, nothing new at all. . .
Mediums and Fraud
Or, “Spooks-a no come”
How did modern spiritualism– a movement whose philosophy is on the whole more sensible than that of many religions– come to be infested with fraud?59
Is wholesale spiritualist fraud exclusively a contemporary phenomenon? A freakish departure from a past purity of faith? An aberration?
Is it an accident of history? Did spiritualism in the United States just happen to fall into the hands of a bunch of amoral adventurers who perverted it to their own uses, as the papacy fell into the hands of the Borgias and the Medicis and other unsavory types?
Well, it would be comforting perhaps to be able to take this view, but it doesn’t fit the facts. The facts are that from its very beginning modern spiritualism has been riddled with fakery, humbug, and deceit.
Let’s take a look at this bitter legacy, which has borne its rankest fruit in our day.
It started with the founders of modern spiritualism, Kate and Maggie Fox, who as young girls in their home near Rochester, New York, began experiencing strange raps that were said to come from spirits.60 Many groups, including scientific committees, investigated the Fox sisters and their spirit raps and were baffled. One committee, which included the famous author Horace (“Go West, Young Man”) Greeley, concluded that “whatever may be the origin or cause of the rappings, the ladies in whose presence they occur do not make them.”
Then in 1888, both sisters confessed that the raps were a hoax produced by cracking their toe–joints. This explanation already had occurred to some skeptics, but nobody had been able to produce raps as convincing as those of the Fox sisters. After her confession, Margaret, in a demonstration at New York’s Academy of Music, showed exactly how she had bamboozled scientists. Standing on a little pine table on the stage, wearing nothing on her feet but stockings, the co-mother of modern spiritualism caused raps to be heard throughout the auditorium.
“As she remained motionless,” said a contemporary account, “loud distinct rappings were heard– now behind the scenes on stage, now in the gallery.”
The varying locations of the raps were actually a trick of acoustics (something Maggie and her sister had often relied upon). The sounds all came from the medium’s feet and were caused by her snapping the joint of her big toe.
“I began the deception when I was too young to know right from wrong,” Maggie told the audience on that occasion.
(It should be noted that later Maggie and Kate Fox repudiated their confessions and said they had been bribed to make them by enemies of spiritualism. But so far as I’m concerned, and many others, the confessions are too damning to be explained away.)61
Materializations of spirits developed early in the history of modern spiritualism, sometime during the 1860s, it seems. And one of the first mediums to produce full-form materializations (in which, of course, I specialized ) was none other than Leah Fish Underhill, nee Fox– younger sister of Kate and Maggie. Nothing like keeping fraud in the family.
Two of the brightest stars of early spiritualism and, by the way, the inventors of the “spirit cabinet”— that sanctuary within which, free from prying eyes, the physical medium can prepare his tricks– were the Davenport Brothers, Ira and William.They were securely tied with ropes and bound hand and foot, and the doors of their cabinet were shut. Almost immediately it was hellzapoppin’. Musical instruments played, bells rang, and hands appeared at the windows of the cabinet. Yet when the doors were opened a moment later, the Davenports were firmly tied, and the handfuls of salt placed in their clenched fists as a test were still there.
The brothers never claimed to be spiritualists, but on the other hand they didn’t go out of their way to discourage the idea, either. They just let audiences make up their own minds; meanwhile, the shekels rolled in. Now we know that to stage their supernatural shenanigans the Davenports employed as many as ten confederates at one time.
It wasn’t only in the United States, spiritualism’s native land, that fraud abounded. The new movement had spread early to Britain, where it attracted a relatively strong following among the educated middle class. But before long British mediums were being caught red-handed in chicanery, just like their American counterparts.
The most famous of materialization mediums, Florence Cook– though she managed to convince a scientist, Sir William Crookes, that she was genuine– was repeatedly exposed in fraud. Florence had been trained in the arts of the seance by Frank Herne, a well-known physical medium whose materializations were grabbed on more than one occasion and found to be the medium himself.
Another Victorian medium, Mrs. Guppy, specializing in apports, delighted in bringing her sitters fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers (remember my thistle plants?). On one occasion Mrs. Guppy claimed to have been “teleported” across London a distance of three miles and dropped down through the ceiling of a room smack into the middle of a seance– all without a scratch, of course. Hmmm.
William Eglinton was a celebrated English physical medium who produced not only materializations but also– a new twist– self- levitations. Eglinton’s own body, it was said, became buoyant and rose into the air, sometimes as high as the ceiling. Always in the dark, of course.
Eglinton was exposed so often it must have gotten boring. On one occasion a false beard and a quantity of muslin were found in his trunk by an investigator, Archdeacon Colley. Nobody except spiritualists believed that the medium was simply getting ready for a masquerade party.
In 1880 another famous medium, Madame D’Esperance, was exposed– literally. Ectoplasm grabbed in the dark by a sitter turned out to be the medium in total dishabille. After that embarrassing interlude, Madame D’Esperance apparently became more careful since she wasn’t busted again for thirteen years.
Such a series of exposures shook the faith even of spiritualists, and by the turn of the century physical mediumship, once the movement’s glory and wonder, had declined to the point of virtual extinction. Then, like the flu that always seems to come back worse than before, physical mediumship revived.
In the early part of this century and into the 1920s, and to an extent the 1930s, spiritualism enjoyed a new vogue, and with it the mediums who could float tables and make trumpets talk and ghosts walk. The law of supply and demand wrought its inevitable result: mediums suddenly rediscovered physical phenomena.62
One of the biggest stars was a semiliterate Neapolitan woman, Eusapia Palladino, whose spirit hands and levitations were exposed so often as tricks that they would hardly be remembered if the medium hadn’t also had a fantastic ability to bounce back. No sooner had she been debunked by one committee than she returncd bigger and bolder than ever, with a new army of convinced believers, including psychical researchers, traipsing along behind her.
In 1910, after being exposed and rehabilitated a dozen times by different committees, Eusapia gave six sittings in New York. At first the phenomena were wonderful. In the dark the table lifted, bells rang, raps and thumps were heard. However, unknown to the medium, two spies dressed in black crept into the room after the lights were out, crawled along the floor, and saw her tip the table with her toe, ring the bell with a free hand which she had wriggled loose from control, and produce the bangs with her hands and feet.
Palladino never tried another comeback. Maybe she was too old or too tired. Anyway, she returned to sunny Naples and spent the rest of her life presumably making spaghetti instead of wonders.
However, Eusapia returned after her death, appropriately enough, through another Neapolitan medium, one Nino Pecoraro, who claimed the great Palladino as his spirit Guide.
In 1922 Pecoraro gave a sitting in New York for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife in which objects flew around and the voice of the deceased Eusapia offered spirit greetings. Sir Arthur, a spiritualist who believed everything, was impressed because during the seance Pecoraro had been securely tied to a chair with picture wire, he said.
Well, Houdini, who was then ghost-busting, rushed into the fray and challenged Pecoraro to produce phenomena after he, Houdini, had gotten through tying him. The young medium unwisely agreed.
This time the tying was done with short pieces of fish line, and Houdini supervised it. When the lights were turned out, the sitters waited for the spirits to come . . . and waited . . . and waited . . .
Finally, the apologetic voice of the medium was heard from the cabinet, uttering the words for which he became famous: “Spooks-a no come.”
Exit Nino Pecoraro.
During the late 1920s and the 1930s, one of the stars of spiritualism was an unusual woman called by some the Blonde Witch of Boston, and by others “the most beautiful medium in the world.” Her name: Mina Crandon, alias Margery the Medium.
Margery produced just about everything: apports, globs of ectoplasm, some of which looked like hands; spirit lights; spirit voices; and automatic writing. Her spirit guide was a deceased brother, Walter Stinson, who had an undisguised hostility toward skeptics.
“Houdini, you goddamned sonofabitch, get out of here!” was the way Walter greeted the famous magician, accusing him of trying to frame the medium.
In Margery’s seances, sitters often felt the touch of spirit fingers light as a cobweb. Once the wooden cabinet she was in broke apart under the violent force of the psychic energy. And on another occasion a live pigeon was apported fluttering into the locked seance room. Spectacular stuff!
Many investigators, such as Professor William McDougall and J. B. Rhine, said Margery was fraudulent and suggested ways in which she probably produced her effects. But nobody ever quite caught her in the act of cheating.
The worst blow to Margery’s mediumship came after she began demonstrating a new type of phenomenon: the formation of imprints in dental wax of the thumb of her spirit guide, Walter. These thumbprints were quite unlike those of the medium. What was eventually established, however, was that they matched exactly those of a friend of Margery’s, a dentist named Kerwin who was very much alive. It was he who first suggested the use of dental wax to obtain such spirit thumbprints.
Later, a scientist showed that from a given set of fingerprints it is not difficult to make dies by which the prints can be transferred to any object.
When Margery was on her deathbed, psychical researcher Nandor Fodor asked her to set the record straight. How did she produce her amazing phenomena?
Raising herself from the pillow, she muttered, “Go to Hell. All you psychic researchers can go to hell.
“Why don’t you guess how I did it? You’ll all be guessing . . . for the rest of your lives.”
Spoken like a true medium . . .
Today mediumistic chicanery isn’t confined to the citronella circuit of American spiritualist camps or down-at-the-heels storefront churches. It exists, as you have seen from my own story, in posh churches attended by well-to-do people. And it still goes on in Britain, as here, just as it did in Victorian times.
One of the slickest recent operators in British spiritualism was a character named William Roy who in 1958, when his exposure as a fraud was imminent, sold his confessions to the London Sunday Pictorial for a tidy sum. (It should be noted that in this case the exposure was instigated by sincere spiritualists, chiefly Maurice Barbanell, then editor of the periodical Two Worlds.)
Roy was a cunning customer who, judging by the accounts, might have made a good partner for me in my heyday. He specialized in “direct voice,” by which the spirits spoke with or without a trumpet. He also went in for materializations on a grand scale, including those of such personages as Gandhi, Napoleon, and apparently even Christ. Like me, he majored in evidential messages which stunned with their accuracy.
And like me, Roy, as revealed in his confessions, kept card index files on sitters, went through their purses and billfolds to get useful information, and bugged pre-seance conversations to pick up juicy tidbits. In addition, he used the standard gimmicks of the physical medium: the chiffon ectoplasm, the reaching-rods to manipulate the trumpets in the dark, and the black-garbed confederates in the seance room.
The sequel to Roy’s story is significant. And depressing. After a period of exile abroad, this self-confessed fraud returned to Britain and, according to reports, resumed his mediumship under another name, Some of those who frequent his seances apparently know his past but prefer to believe that he once had genuine powers, lost them through faking, but now has recovered them.
There is a will to believe. . . .
A medium still riding high in England is Leslie Flint, famed as an exponent of direct voice. William Rauscher and Allen Spraggett, who attended a sitting Flint held in 1970 in New York, told me that it was the most abysmal flop of any seance they had endured. All the spirit voices sounded exactly like the medium and displayed an incredible ignorance of nearly everything pertaining to the sitters. The “mediumship” was second-rate ventriloquism.
A medium who died not too long ago was one of the most colorful and successful necromancers in the United States. His name was Frank Decker, and he was a friend not only of Arthur Ford, the famed psychic, but also of Joseph Dunninger, the master mentalist.
In 1932 Decker accomplished a coup which many mediums have dreamed about but never succeeded in bringing off: he passed a test imposed by a magician. Or at least he said he did.
At the seance in question, attended by twenty-four sitters, one of them announced himself as M. Taylor of 1427 Broadway, member of the Society of American Magicians, and said that he had come to issue a challenge to the medium. Producing a brand-new United States mail sack, Mr. Taylor challenged Frank Decker to perform spirit phenomena while locked inside it. The medium accepted the challenge and stepped into the mail bag. It was drawn up over his head, fastened, and locked. The lights in the room were then turned out.
Almost immediately Patsy, the medium’s spirit guide, cheerfully declared that the medium was okay and that if the magician would promise to let Decker keep the mailbag as a memento, the spirits would release him posthaste, Mr. Taylor gladly complied with the request.
Within twenty minutes the mailbag dropped on the magician’s lap, as though deposited there by the spirits. When the lights were turned on the medium was still in a trance, sprawled on the floor.
Later, examination revealed that the lock on the mailbag was intact, showing no evidence of having been tampered with.
The story of Decker’s triumph over the magician made sensational news in spiritualist journals and was soon soon repeated in a book by a physician, Dr. E. F. Bowers. However, Dr. Bowers was forced to delete the reference to the incident from his book under threat of a lawsuit by the Society of American Magicians. The magicians had investigated and found that they had no member named M. Taylor, nor had anyone of that name resided at the address given in Decker’s
However, Martin Sunshine, a magic dealer at that same address, gave the Society of American Magicians an affidavit declaring that he had sold Frank Decker a trick mailbag, such as stage escapologists use, and had acted as the medium’s confederate by pretending to be M.Taylor, a magician.63
Sometimes, a phony medium goes too far and is caught by the sincere spiritualists themselves. These confrontations can be colorful to say the least.
Here’s an account of such an exposure of a fraudulent medium, described in an open letter to interested parties by the Reverend Frances Converso, president of the Temple of Wisdom Church, Baltimore, and its vice-president, the Reverend Walter Sutton.
“We regret,” says the statement, “that such an incident as occurred at Camp Boynton on Memorial Day was caused by the trickery and deception of someone associated with the Church.
“In order to expose this fraudulence, responsible members of the congregation found it necessary to obtain the help of the detectives present that night, May 30, 1969.
“Pictures were taken and many individuals present at that time were able to see Mr. White wrapped in cloth at what purported to be an Outdoor Materialization of `Red Feather,’ an Indian Spirit. Mr. White had announced that the materialization would consist of `Ectoplasm’ manifesting by drawing it from the medium but not motivated by his own physical body.
“At the time of exposure Mr. White [supposed to be in trance] ran shoeless a couple of hundred feet into the woods, Rev. Sutton saw what was transpiring and pursued him.
“As Reverend Sutton approached, Mr. White [minus robe] came out of the thicket. Reverend Sutton escorted Mr. White back to the rock where the Materialization was held, voicing to him and the congregation the fakery, until he was set upon by a few individuals.
“In the company of a witness Reverend Sutton went to where Mr. White came out of the thicket and found glossy white robes and an Indian head dress attire. Seeing this, Mr. White tried to retrieve the `Costume.’ Reverend Sutton avoided his tackle and proceeded down the hill displaying the costume to those still gathered there. Some of Mr. White’s friends and a couple of misinformed individuals threw Reverend Sutton to the ground and managed to rend most of the costume from him.
“Shortly thereafter, Mr. White ordered the costume, which he belatedly claimed was `Planted’ in the woods [at the spot to which he ran] to be burned, thus destroying this portion of the evidence.
“The above account has been attested by numerous individuals present who have volunteered to be witnesses in this matter.
“We wish malice to none but the Temple of Wisdom cannot and shall not tolerate acts of deceit by anyone under the auspices of said Church; realizing fully that this incident is a deplorable reflection upon us, we hope that no one becomes disillusioned but that all will continue to pursue Truth and the benefits of our religion.”
The last I heard, “Red Feather” was slinging hash in a diner in Ocean City, N.J.
Don’t knock it. It’s an honest living . . .
A never-before-told episode in which a phony materialization and trumpet medium was unmasked involved the late controversial Bishop James Pike.
Pike, an ecclesiastical maverick whose sensational heresy near-trials won him headlines, also attracted world attention when he went on television with the late medium Arthur Ford and became convinced that he had talked with his dead son.64
That Ford cheated in that seance, by doing extensive prior research, was eventually discovered by Canon William Rauscher and Allen Spraggett, who published the facts in their biography of Ford. In the light of a forthcoming biography of Pike (which, by the way, exposes some pretty explosive facts about his private life, as well as going into great detail about who may have duped him about the psychic before Ford did– the biographers suggest it was his former secretary) this hitherto unrevealed episode takes on added interest.65
The facts, as recalled by Allen Spraggett who was there, are these: In February 1968 Bishop Pike and several other people had a series of seances with medium from Southern California. He said he could produce materialized spirit forms, and spirit voices from a trumpet under test conditions.
The sittings– there were four– took place over a two-day period in a hotel room in Santa Barbara. The group included, besides Pike, his then secretary [and wife] Diane Kennedy, Dr. Ian Stevenson,66 then head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School [a respected parapsychologist], and Allen Spraggett and his wife Marion.
The medium reneged on his promise to perform under “test” conditions by permitting only an excruciatingly dim red light in the pitch-black seance room [instead of the bright one agreed upon], and refusing to allow infrared photographs of the materialized forms. He said that if the group was satisfied with the initial manifestations the spirits would permit more freedom at later seances.
Anyway, from the accounts, he was a real artist.
A big, tall he-man looking type [appearances can be deceptive67], he was accompanied by his inevitable cabinet attendant [read, accomplice], a matronly, rotund woman who wore a hat like a potted plant and a fake fox fur wrap.
The medium rigged up a cabinet by stringing a black curtain across a corner of the hotel room, sat inside it and the curtain was drawn and the lights turned out.
In a few moments what looked like streams of luminous, almost vaporous substance extruded from under the curtain, ebbing and flowing. Then a whirling column of “ectoplasm” formed and reached a height of more than six feet. It undulated, pulsing as though alive and varying from a few inches across at times to three or four feet. Then it dwindled and seemed to sink through the floor.
The guy was good, no doubt about it, and the sitters were intrigued. Then followed a procession of forms, from a giant Indian named Shimmering Leaf to “a three-foot idiot child spirit named Ivy [with a face which Diane Kennedy examined from only a few inches away and said looked amazingly human].
Later the group of sitters– somewhat less credulous than the usual breed– conducted an inquest on the seance.Marion Spraggett, who had a good vantage point because she sat at right angles to the cabinet [a mistake on the medium’s part] was able to confirm the others’ suspicions that the undulating forms were
produced by the medium manipulating the curtains. The child figure with a face was, they decided, the medium on his knees [draped in chiffon, of course] and wearing a mask.
The medium was careless. One sitter spotted that the pig-tails of the Indian spirit were identical to the long stringy moustache of an Eastern Master [the medium had made the same piece of equipment do double duty].
Anyway, the group decided to string the medium along to see more.
The guy, it developed, had a drinking problem [to put it mildly] and the spirits who spoke through the trumpet at the next seance were slightly tipsy. As the seances continued the spirits got progressively drunker.
Before the final seance Bishop Pike and Ian Stevenson told the medium he must submit to a search. They found nothing suspicious on his person [Pike’s slightly ribald comment was: “Well, he’s all there!”]
It was also agreed that Diane Kennedy was to sit inside the cabinet with the medium.
This last seance was a madhouse. No spirits appeared while Diane was sitting in the cabinet [I’m not surprised] though the medium did manage to produce a small pinwheel of light, possibly by having coated a small piece of cloth with phosphorescent spray and then twirling it in the darkness.
After Diane Kennedy left the cabinet the real fun started. The trumpet spoke and the spirits were drunkenly belligerent. At one point Pike asked an august ecclesiastic [Bishop Somebody], who was speaking, to recite the Greek alphabet backwards– a cinch for such a great scholar– and the spirit politely told him to go to hell.
When Spraggett raised objections to something a spirit said, the trumpet, in the darkness, began beating him about the head, whereupon Pike tried to grab it and the trumpet flew through the air and landed at Marion Spraggett’s feet. She, realizing the medium was manipulating it by an extension rod, promptly stepped on the trumpet, bringing the seance to an abrupt conclusion.
Ian Stevenson frankly told the medium that in his medical judgment he was a terminal alcoholic and probably already had suffered brain damage. With true kindness he offered to give the medium psychiatric treatment if he would accept it.
The medium, a drunken, maudlin mess, refused to acknowledge his fakery but was forced to sign a statement that he would never attempt to exploit Bishop Pike’s name in connection with his mediumship. He hastily scrawled his signature on the notarized form and crawled away.
The last Pike and the others saw of them, the medium and his cabinet attendant were staggering down the main street of Santa Barbara at one in the morning. She was carrying her shoes and the black curtain and he was wearing her potted-plant hat and her fur wrap and exclaiming at the top of his lungs: “Wendy, this reminds me of the time they ran us out of Moscow, Idaho!”
Pike’s comment on the whole mad business was: “If anybody so much as mentions the word ectoplasm to me for a month I’ll kill’em!”
That poor sucker of a medium was different from scores of others only insofar as he bit off more than he could chew.
I never made that mistake . . . but then, I was smarter.
51. The similarity between these and Scientology levels (“O.T.,” “clear,” “pre-clear,” etc.) should be evident. Not only do the titles and degrees have a kind of appeal, but they also encourage the believer to pay more money to reach the higher levels.
The psychology behind it all is fascinating. After reaching a few of the lower levels, the believer feels that they’ve made an investment to reach them; and when he or she expresses doubts, they can be told, “Look how far you’ve come already!”
52. One question kept coming to mind when I was reviewing this chapter– why aren’t I making this kind of money? What’s to keep me from using some of the methods described in this book from starting my own spiritualist church and making some of this fantastic money? The idea of owning a couple of homes in warm climates is pretty damn APPEALING, and the fact that a lot of it is off the tax records is even more so. (Figure it: a safe deposit box containing fifty grand
and a passport under another identity. . . Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of escape hatch if the shit hits the fan?)
The massive Camp Chesterfield had substantial real estate assets and financial influence in the local areas, and was thus able to protect itself. A small Spiritualist church, such as the one started by Keene and Raoul, runs a higher risk of being busted by the local police. One has to be very politic to avoid being busted.
In other words, it takes a lot of work and a lot of risk to reach the scale Keene operated on.
It should be mentioned that, in an interview with James Randi in 1977, Keene admitted that his tricks didn’t need to be very sophisticated. His followers were willing to accept nearly any excuse. So maybe it’s not that difficult.
53. One can’t help but wonder what high-tech methods phony psychics, mediums, trance-channellers and the like might be using today. Extensive databases can be maintained by personal computers, and surveillance equipment (including directional microphones and cheap video cameras) is now more easily available.
One can also access useful information by checking a person’s credit card number against a credit service, such as TRW. If one can obtain them, itemized lists of credit-card purchases can provide a great deal of insight, or at least a nice thing to reveal to a sitter (“You’ve purchased a very expensive blouse recently…”).
It’s also a matter of course that one has to book an appointment with a medium about two weeks in advance. During that time, there’s a lot of `Research’ the could be going on. . .
It should be said, though, that impressive psychic `Readings’ can be performed without recourse to such high-tech gewgaws and flywheels. Suspecting that a psychic or medium uses surveillance techniques has an element of melodrama (not to mention paranoia), but Keene’s book reveals that it’s a suspicion not without a basis in fact.
54. This illustrates not only why trance-channelling is more popular these days (it takes less research), but it also underscores how lazy today’s channellers are– they don’t even use costumes.
55. Every year, the Bay Area Skeptics assemble the predictions made by psychics in the tabloids, and evaluate how well they did. Success rate: zero, so far.
56. Jeane Dixon, who has a somewhat undeserved reputation for prophecy, claims to have predicted Kennedy’s assassination. In reality, she predicted, in 1959, that the President elected in 1960 would be assassinated– but she also predicted that Kennedy would not get the Democratic nomination, and that the winner of the election would have blond hair. In other words, Keene, an admitted fraud, has a better track record than Jeane Dixon.
57. Keene’s getting ahead of himself here. The whole story regarding his adoptive mother, and the reason he left Spiritualism, is told in Chapter 8.
58. Oddly enough, it is possible to eat broken glass. B. Premanand, convenor of the Indian Skeptics and an experienced investigator of psychic claims, demonstrates eating pieces of a broken light bulb in his lectures. (I’ve seen him do this at close range, with professional magicians even placing the glass on his tongue.)
Premanand explains that the glass-eater must eat thick and substantial food beforehand, such as a banana, so the glass doesn’t settle in the stomach. The glass itself must be chewed very carefully until it’s dust. (It also makes sense that an unfrosted light bulb is best to use; a thick piece of glass is more likely to have tiny, sharp edges that could slice open your mouth.)
This is not to say that glass-eating is a safe practice, and do not try it at home; but it’s not as dangerous as the reader may think.
59. Given the childish mumbo-jumbo that mediums use to cover up– which Keene has described in such detail– it’s hard to see just why this `Philosophy’ is so `Sensible.’
60. Keene does not supply a date: the Fox sisters began their `Rapping’ in 1848.
61. The full confession of Margaret Fox appeared in the New York World of October 21, 1888. The full text was reprinted in A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology, Paul Kurtz, Editor. (Prometheus Books, 1985)
62. It’s always been a truism that belief in paranormal claims– ranging from Spiritualism to prophecy to religious revivals– is connected to periods of economic hardship and social upheaval. I tend to doubt this. The 1920s were a very prosperous time for the United States. Similarly, while World War II raged, paranormal beliefs seemed to go into decline, Hitler’s reliance on astrology notwithstanding.
The resurgence of psychic claims in the 1970s can be argued either way; the social upheavals of the 1960s were in the past, yet the country was varying widely in terms of its economy. Even the 1970s look good next to the New Age 1980s, under Ronald Reagan’s mismanagement of the economy (and his own belief in astrology notwithstanding). Frankly, I doubt any judgements can be easily made about the linking of social, economic, or political changes and uncertainties and the popularity of paranormal claims.
63. This business about magicians being the acid test for a medium or psychic deserves comment. Granted, many magicians (such as Harry Houdini, James Randi, Richard Busch, and others) are good spotters of fraud; however, being a professional magician doesn’t make someone immune from being misled.
Case in Point: Donald Michael Kraig, editor of Fate magazine, is also a professional magician, and makes much of his `Ability’ to spot fraud. However, in a recent column about Uri Geller, he describes how Geller had someone pick a book at random and choose a word at random. Geller correctly guessed the word.
I’ve seen magicians do this stunt, too. But Kraig apparently sees this as a convincing example of psychic abilities. He may do magic shows, but this one example makes me more than a little doubtful of his abilities to spot fraud.
64. Bishop James Pike is one of the more fascinating and tragic footnotes in the history of spiritualism. Biographical data on him is available in Appendix 1.
The late Philip K. Dick based one of his last novels– The Transmigration of Timothy Archer— on Pike, who was a close friend of his. The Anonymous Typist cannot recommend Dick’s visionary novels highly enough, especially Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner), Valis and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
65. The biographers, of course, are Allen Spraggett and William Rauscher. Their book is reviewed in Appendix 1, and provides great insight into the abilities of these two to spot psychic fraud.
The Anonymous Typist recommends reading the review soon after finishing this passage regarding Bishop Pike. I also suspect that Keene didn’t write this section– after all, Spraggett’s in a far better position to tell the story.
66. Dr. Stevenson is best known for his books on various cases suggestive of reincarnation. The Anonymous Typist will refrain from commenting on these works, as he hasn’t studied them enough to make an informed opinion.
67. Allen Spraggett makes a habit of making veiled comments to the effect that certain other people are homosexual; it’s my guess that Spraggett’s hinting at that here. What this has to do with investigations of psychic claims, only the spirits know.