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Springer Psychic: A Study in ‘Clairvoyance’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 9.3, September 1999

On March 16, 1992, I appeared on The Jerry Springer Show with what were billed as “today’s outrageous psychics.” They included an “aura” photographer, a pet prognosticator, and the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest psychic,” who was introduced as “Mr. B of ESP.” Mr. B, promised Springer, would “use his extraordinary powers” to peer clairvoyantly inside a locked refrigerator. A uniformed security guard, baton in hand, stood dramatically beside the chained-and-padlocked appliance.

After engaging in a bit of banter with Springer and boasting further of his psychic prowess, Mr. B approached the refrigerator. He asked “everybody to concentrate on the power of my eyes,” adding with braggadocio that provoked smirks and giggles from some members of the audience: “If you can see these eyes, they penetrate through you and I will now do the same thing with the refrigerator and then I will come back and read you people like a book. . . . This I promise you.”

As he began, he said: “It’s kind of weird, ladies and gentlemen, because I'm not getting a clear vision, but what I'm getting here is-I'm looking at-looks like some apples are in here.” Also he said there was what “looks like a cantaloupe.” (There was some more banter as Springer, who had begun writing a bold list of Mr. B’s pronouncements, admitted he was unsure how to spell the last word and wrote “c-a-n-t-e-l-o-p-e.”) Mr. B continued, stating that he could see what “looks like jewelry, so I'm looking at some carrots,” he said; “I would relate that to jewelry” (apparently making a pun on carats). He went on to say that he saw a carton of low-fat milk and jars of spaghetti sauce.

Then he stated: “Basically, the last thing I'm going to say-which is totally incredible-is, I'm looking at a skull which looks to be almost like a human head.” Springer responded by announcing (to applause), “If you’re right we've got another show!” And Mr. B made a punning quip that “[I]t’s also a good way to get ahead in this world,” adding, “Anyway, I do see something that looks like a human head.” When Springer suggested, “Maybe it’s a head of lettuce,” Mr. B replied: “It could be. And this is basically-at this moment this is all I'm able to pick out.”

Springer then unfastened the padlock, removed the chain, and opened the refrigerator. Reaching in and holding up each item in turn, to applause, he brought out “the milk, low fat, two percent,” next an apple, a honeydew melon (not a cantaloupe but “pretty close,” Springer noted), then a bunch of carrots. Impressively, he next extracted a grotesque novelty head! During the hubbub that followed he also discovered a jar of sauce. Displaying the head, Springer gushed to Mr. B, “I swear to God, unless the staff is lying to me, you really didn’t know what was in here!” He added: “This guy’s special.” After a commercial break he stated, “I have to tell you, I'm blown away. I'm very, very impressed!”

After Mr. B had done readings for the audience and after the other psychics had given dubious performances, I was brought on. My anger showed: unknown to the audience, backstage I had had an exchange with a producer; I had expressed my suspicions about the refrigerator test, and his response was what I interpreted as a guilty look. After Springer introduced me, I made a skeptical statement about the lack of evidence for psychic ability and disparaged the readings that had been given. (A later analysis showed a very poor score.)1

I then suggested there was something odious about the “fridge” demonstration, to which Springer replied: “I have to tell you . . . I do not believe the staff would lie to me, but they swore to me that he did not know what was going to be put in there. That’s the only thing I can vouch for; I can’t vouch for anything else . . . but that I know, he did not know what was in that refrigerator.” Remaining unconvinced, I said, “That’s why I brought my own test,” explaining that in twenty years of investigation I had yet to discover anyone who could “reveal a simple three-letter word” under test conditions. Suiting action to words I produced a set of three envelopes (each containing such a target word) and a check for $1,000 which I offered as a reward for a successful demonstration.

The psychics were immediately defensive, claiming, among other things, that the TV studio did not represent test conditions. Springer seemed to shift from annoyance with me to delight at the sparks of conflict that had begun to fly. He pointed out to Mr. B that “You could tell us what was in the refrigerator, okay? With the studio lights and the live audience you could tell us what was in the refrigerator.” I added that, if it would help, I would draw a picture of a refrigerator on the front of the envelope! Mr. B did not appear to find that amusing but finally did attempt to divine the three target words. However, although he afterward rearranged letters and then words to produce a semblance of accuracy, in fact he failed completely, and during a break I tore up the check.

After the show I continued to be rankled over the suspicious demonstration, although I did appear on a later Springer episode (December 16, 1992) about guardian angels. Over subsequent years the show degenerated even further in quality as it soared in ratings. Episodes about cross-dressers and unfaithful lovers typically lapsed into on-camera brawls ("Springer” 1999). In 1998 as the fisticuffs and hair-pulling attacks proliferated, there were accusations that the fights were staged (Good Morning Sunday 1998). Indeed, former guests told Inside Edition (May 1, 1998) that Jerry Springer producers encouraged antagonism and promised combatants $100 per blow. Springer was dubbed “the ringmaster of TV’s best-watched circus” (Gray 1998). When ratings slipped from the top slot to a tie with Oprah, the magazine Broadcasting & Cable cited sources at the show who maintained the fights were even “turned up a notch” during the sweeps’ period ("Brawls continue” 1998).

Springer generally denied the charges, although he testified before the Chicago City Council (June 4, 1999): “Have we ever had a producer who made up a story or went over the line? I'm sure we have.” He responded to critics by saying he did not know what all the fuss was about, that his was only “a silly show” (Good Morning Sunday 1998). Certainly Jerry Springer has been no stranger to controversy. A one-time Cincinnati councilman, he left office after an FBI raid on a nightclub turned up a $25 check he had tendered for a “tryst with a prostitute” (Inside Edition 1998). (Undaunted, Springer went on to become mayor, then ran a failed campaign for governor before becoming a local TV anchor in the 1980s.)

In light of revelations that The Jerry Springer shows may have involved staged elements, I decided to reexamine the refrigerator-divination segment. First of all, recall that it was Springer himself who raised the prospect of fakery by using the phrase, “unless the staff is lying to me.” Obviously, the possibility had crossed his mind. Moreover, it would have been quite easy to rig Mr. B’s demonstration. All that would have been required would have been a few words relayed to the “psychic” before the show. Since producers invariably speak to guests prior to their appearing before the audience and cameras, this would have been easily accomplished.

In addition, as already indicated, a critical analysis of Mr. B’s audience readings and his failure in the envelope test indicate an utter lack of extrasensory ability. That alone raises questions about his fridge demonstration. So does his demeanor. He trivialized what was supposed to be a significant accomplishment by making silly puns about “carrots"/"carats” and “a head"/"ahead,” giving the distinct impression that he was doing nothing more than trying to entertain.

The most telling evidence, I think, comes from a careful analysis of what Mr. B claimed to “see” in the refrigerator, compared with what was actually inside it. If Mr. B did as Springer advertised (to “psychically look inside”) or as he himself claimed (to use the “power of my eyes,” eyes that “penetrate through” targets, etc.), he would be demonstrating a form of extrasensory perception (ESP) known as clairvoyance (from the French for “clear seeing”). More specifically, he would presumably be exhibiting a form known as “X-ray clairvoyance,” defined as “the ability to see through opaque objects such as envelopes, containers, and walls to perceive what lies within or beyond” (Guiley 1991)-hence the appropriateness of my envelope test.

If Mr. B indeed used X-ray clairvoyance, the resulting match of predicted items and actual objects in the refrigerator should be visually significant. On the other hand, if some other mechanism were employed (for example, information secretly imparted by a producer), the match might be only cognitive, consistent with a verbal communication.

That the latter is the case is shown repeatedly. For example, Mr. B’s first pronouncement is that “I'm looking at-looks like some apples are in here,” whereas, in fact, there is but a single apple, a visual non sequitur. Little can be made of the cantaloupe or the carrots, although the punning reference to “carats” works only verbally or cognitively-not visually.

The description of the next item, the milk, is telling. Whereas Mr. B specified a “carton” and gratuitously mentioned it “looks like it’s a little bit dented,” the actual article was visually quite unlike that description. It was instead a white plastic milk jug, with a handle. Mr. B’s statement that it “looks like some kind of skim milk or some kind of milk that’s not very high in calories” indicates confusion, that he may not have been quite sure of what was meant by “two percent,” the type of milk provided.

Then there were “jars of some kind of spaghetti sauce or-I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.” In fact, there was what Springer called “the sauce,” a single container, that looked like a jar of salsa. Once again, the match was a confused, cognitive one, not visually similar.

Finally there was the “skull which looks to be almost like a human head.” This was in fact not a skull at all, but a comically grotesque head with one bulging eye. Mr. B’s description indicates he did not know exactly what the object was, hence his agreement with Springer when the host suggested it might be “a head of lettuce.” Of course it looked nothing like that.

In addition to the visual inaccuracy of Mr. B’s alleged viewings, there is the fact that he missed some items: a large bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale (which stood beside the milk) and a bunch of bananas. If Mr. B was peering (psychically) into the refrigerator, he should have seen and named those items, but if he had been given a quick verbal list, it might have been incomplete or Mr. B might have only partially remembered it. Assuming the hypothesis that Mr. B was tipped off as to the refrigerator’s contents, we can almost reconstruct the wording of the list that would have been provided: “apple,” “melon,” “carrots,” “two-percent milk,” “sauce,” and “severed head.”

Of course, this is only one interpretation of the evidence. Mr. B might claim, for instance, that he was receiving information from spirits, who translated what they saw inside the fridge into verbal statements. Or there might be some other rationalization for the visual inaccuracy. For example, Mr. B’s guesses might have been only that. While such luck would seem phenomenal, all of the items in the refrigerator were rather common ones except for the head, and Mr. B might have thought of it for the same reason that a Springer producer probably did: contemporaneous news reports about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer told how he had kept the severed head of one victim in his refrigerator (Ubelaker and Scammell 1992).2 In any event the question is begged, why does the evidence not support what the “world’s greatest psychic” claimed to do? It would seem that the least likely interpretation of the results is that ESP was involved.

Acknowledgments

Thanks are due J. Porter Henry, Jr., of Cincinnati for generously transcribing the relevant portion of the Springer show and for providing a statistical analysis of the audience readings (see note).

Notes

  1. Mr. B gave readings for three women, offering about a dozen assertions for each in a rambling style but scoring only one or two “hits” with each. Even those were dubious: for example, he told one woman, “I'm getting some sickness vibes with you, as if you had been in the hospital not too long ago, had been through something that came close to being an operation.” He also said he saw a brother. She credited him with success by switching the focus from herself, saying (to applause), “I've a brother who had an operation and I've been in his hospital lately.”
  2. Dahmer’s grisly crimes came to light with his arrest on July 22, 1991; he was sentenced February 17, 1992 (see Croteau and Worcester 1993).

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.