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John Edward: Hustling the Bereaved

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 25.6, November / December 2001

Superstar “psychic medium” John Edward is a stand-up guy. Unlike the spiritualists of yore, who typically plied their trade in dark-room séances, Edward and his ilk often perform before live audiences and even under the glare of TV lights. Indeed, Edward (a pseudonym: he was born John MaGee Jr.) has his own popular show on the SciFi channel called Crossing Over, which has gone into national syndication (Barrett 2001; Mui 2001). I was asked by television newsmagazine Dateline NBC to study Edward’s act: was he really talking to the dead?

The Old Spiritualism

Today’s spiritualism traces its roots to 1848 and the schoolgirl antics of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Katie. They seemed to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler by means of mysterious rapping sounds. Four decades later the foxy sisters confessed how they had produced the noises by trickery (Nickell 1994), but meanwhile others discovered they too could be “mediums” (those who supposedly communicate with the dead).

The “spiritualism” craze spread across the United States, Europe, and beyond. In darkened séance rooms, lecture halls, and theaters, various “spirit” phenomena occurred. The Davenport Brothers conjured up spirit entities to play musical instruments while the two mediums were, apparently, securely tied in a special “spirit cabinet.” Unfortunately the Davenports were exposed many times, once by a local printer. He visited their spook show and volunteered as part of an audience committee to help secure the two mediums. He took that opportunity to secretly place some printer’s ink on the neck of a violin, and after the séance one of the duo had his shoulder smeared with the black substance (Nickell 1999).

In Boston, while photographer William H. Mumler was recycling some glass photographic plates, he accidentally obtained faint images of previous sitters. He soon adapted the technique to producing “spirit extras” in photographs of his clients. But Mumler’s scam was revealed when some of his ethereal entities were recognized as living Boston residents (Nickell 1994).

The great magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) crusaded against phony spiritualists, seeking out elderly mediums who taught him the tricks of the trade. For example, while sitters touched hands around the séance table, mediums had clever ways of gaining the use of one hand. (One method was to slowly move the hands close together so that the fingers of one could be substituted for those of the other.) This allowed the production of special effects, such as causing a tin trumpet to appear to be levitating. Houdini gave public demonstrations of the deceptions. “Do Spirits Return?” asked one of his posters. “Houdini Says No-and Proves It” (Gibson 1977, 157).

Continuing the tradition, I have investigated various mediums, sometimes attending séances undercover and once obtaining police warrants against a fraudulent medium from the notorious Camp Chesterfield spiritualist center in Indiana (Nickell 1998). The camp is the subject of the book The Psychic Mafia, written by a former medium who recanted and revealed the tricks of floating trumpets (with disembodied voices), ghostly apparitions, materializing “apports,” and other fake phenomena (Keene 1976)-some of which I have also witnessed firsthand.

Mental Mediumship

The new breed of spiritualists-like Edward, James Van Praagh, Rosemary Altea, Sylvia Browne, and George Anderson-avoid the physical approach with its risks of exposure and possible criminal charges. Instead they opt for the comparatively safe “mental mediumship” which involves the purported use of psychic ability to obtain messages from the spirit realm.

This is not a new approach, since mediums have long done readings for their credulous clients. In the early days they exhibited “the classic form of trance mediumship, as practiced by shamans and oracles,” giving spoken “'spirit messages’ that ranged all the way from personal (and sometimes strikingly accurate) trivia to hours-long public trance-lectures on subjects of the deepest philosophical and religious import” (McHargue 1972).

Some mediums produced “automatic” or “trance” or “spirit” writing, which the entities supposedly dictated to the medium or produced by guiding his or her hand. Such writings could be in flowery language indeed, as in this excerpt from one spirit writing in my collection:

Oh my Brother-I am so glad to be able to come here with you and hold sweet communion for it has been a long time since I have controlled this medium but I remember how well used I had become to her magnetism[,] but we will soon get accustomed to her again and then renew the pleasant times we used to have. I want to assure you that we are all here with you this afternoon[-]Father[,] Mother[,] little Alice[-]and so glad to find it so well with you and we hope and feel dear Brother that you have seen the darkest part of life and that times are not with you now as they have been . . . .

and so on in this talkative fashion.

“Cold Reading”

By contrast, today’s spirits-whom John Edward and his fellow mediums supposedly contact-seem to have poor memories and difficulty communicating. For example, in one of his on-air séances (on Larry King Live, June 19, 1998), Edward said: “I feel like there’s a J- or G-sounding name attached to this.” He also perceived “Linda or Lindy or Leslie; who’s this L name?” Again, he got a “Maggie or Margie, or some M-G-sounding name,” and yet again heard from “either Ellen or Helen, or Eleanore-it’s like an Ellen-sounding name.” Gone is the clear-speaking eloquence of yore; the dead now seem to mumble.

The spirits also seemingly communicate to Edward et al. as if they were engaging in pantomime. As Edward said of one alleged spirit communicant, in a Dateline “He’s pointing to his head; something had to affect the mind or the head, from what he’s showing me.” No longer, apparently, can the dead speak in flowing Victorian sentences, but instead are reduced to gestures, as if playing a game of charades.

One suspects, of course, that it is not the imagined spirits who have changed but rather the approach today’s mediums have chosen to employ. It is, indeed, a shrewd technique known as “cold reading"-so named because the subject walks in “cold"; that is, the medium lacks advance information about the person (Gresham 1953). It is an artful method of gleaning information from the sitter, then feeding it back as mystical revelation.

The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit. (For more on cold reading see Gresham 1953; Hyman 1977; Nickell 2000.)

It should not be surprising that Edward is skilled at cold reading, an old fortunetelling technique. His mother was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties,” one of the alleged clairvoyants advising the then-fifteen-year-old that he had “wonderful psychic abilities.” He began doing card readings for friends and family, then progressed to psychic fairs where he soon learned that names and other “validating information” sometimes applied to the dead rather than the living. Eventually he changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999). The revised approach set him on the road to stardom. In addition to his TV show, he now commands hundreds of dollars for a private reading and is booked two years in advance (Mui 2001).

“Hot Reading”

Although cold reading is the main technique of the new spiritualists, they can also employ “hot” reading on occasion. Houdini (1924) exposed many of these information-gathering techniques including using planted microphones to listen in on clients as they gathered in the mediums’ anterooms-a technique Houdini himself used to impress visitors with his “telepathy” (Gibson 1976, 13). Reformed medium M. Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia (1976) describes such methods as conducting advance research on clients, sharing other mediums’ files (what Keene terms “mediumistic espionage”), noting casual remarks made in conversation before a reading, and so on.

An article in Time magazine suggested John Edward may have used just such chicanery. One subject, a marketing manager named Michael O'Neill had received apparent messages from his dead grandfather but, when his segment aired, he noted that it had been improved through editing. According to Time's Leon Jaroff (2001):

Now suspicious, O'Neill recalled that while the audience was waiting to be seated, Edward’s aides were scurrying about, striking up conversations and getting people to fill out cards with their name, family tree and other facts. Once inside the auditorium, where each family was directed to preassigned seats, more than an hour passed before show time while “technical difficulties” backstage were corrected.

Edward has a policy of not responding to criticism, but the executive producer of Crossing Over insists: “No information is given to John Edward about the members of the audience with whom he talks. There is no eavesdropping on gallery conversations, and there are no 'tricks’ to feed information to John.” He labeled the Time article “a mix of erroneous observations and baseless theories” (Nordlander 2001).

Very Hot

Be that as it may, on Dateline Edward was actually caught in an attempt to pass off previously gained knowledge as spirit revelation. During the session he said of the spirits, “They're telling me to acknowledge Anthony,” and when the cameraman signaled that was his name, Edward seemed surprised, asking “That’s you? Really?” He further queried: “Had you not seen Dad before he passed? Had you either been away or been distanced?” Later, playing the taped segment for me, Dateline reporter John Hockenberry challenged me with Edward’s apparent hit: “He got Anthony. That’s pretty good.” I agreed but added, “We've seen mediums who mill about before sessions and greet people and chat with them and pick up things.”

Indeed, it turned out that that is just what Edward had done. Hours before the group reading, Tony had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot (recording him at his hobby, ballroom dancing). Significantly, the two men had chatted and Edward had obtained useful bits of information that he afterward pretended had come from the spirits. In a follow-up interview Hockenberry revealed the fact and grilled an evasive Edward:

HOCKENBERRY: So were you aware that his dad had died before you did his reading?

Mr. EDWARD: I think he-I think earlier in the-in the day, he had said something.

HOCKENBERRY: It makes me feel like, you know, that that’s fairly significant. I mean, you knew that he had a dead relative and you knew it was the dad.

Mr. EDWARD: OK.

HOCKENBERRY: So that’s not some energy coming through, that’s something you knew going in. You knew his name was Tony and you knew that his dad had died and you knew that he was in the room, right? That gets you . . .

Mr. EDWARD: That’s a whole lot of thinking you got me doing, then. Like I said, I react to what’s coming through, what I see, hear and feel. I interpret what I'm seeing hearing and feeling, and I define it. He raised his hand, it made sense for him. Great.

HOCKENBERRY: But a cynic would look at that and go, 'Hey,' you know, 'He knows it’s the cameraman, he knows it’s DATELINE. You know, wouldn't that be impressive if he can get the cameraman to cry?'

Mr. EDWARD: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Not at all.

But try to weasel out of it as he might, Edward had obviously been caught cheating: pretending that information he had gleaned earlier had just been revealed by spirits and feigning surprise that it applied to Tony the cameraman. (And that occurred long before Time had suggested that an Inside Edition program-February 27, 2001-was probably “the first nationally televised show to take a look at the Edward phenomenon.” That honor instead goes to Dateline NBC.)

In his new book Crossing Over, Edward tries to minimize the Dateline exposé, and in so doing breaks his own rule of not responding to criticism. He rebukes Hockenberry for “his big Gotcha! moment,” adding:

Hockenberry came down on the side of the professional skeptic they used as my foil. He was identified as Joe Nickell, a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which likes to simplify things and call itself CSICOP. He did the usual sound bites: that modern mediums are fast-talkers on fishing expeditions making money on people’s grief-"the same old dogs with new tricks,” in Hockenberry’s words.

Edward claims to ignore any advance information that he may get from those he reads, but concedes, “it’s futile to say this to a tough skeptic” (Edward 2001, 242-243).

Edward may have benefitted from actual information on another occasion, while undergoing a “scientific” test of his alleged powers (Schwartz et al. 2001). In video clips shown on Dateline, Edward was reading subjects-who were brought into the hotel room where he sat with his back to the door-when he impressed his tester with an atypical revelation. Edward stated he was “being shown the movie Pretty in Pink” and asked if there was “a pink connection.” Then he queried, “Are you, like, wearing all pink?” The unidentified man acknowledged that he was. Yet Edward had thought the subject was a woman, and I suspect that erroneous guess was because of the color of his attire; I further suspect Edward knew it was pink, that as the man entered the room Edward glimpsed a flash of the color as it was reflected off some shiny surface, such as the glass of a picture frame, the lens of the video camera, etc. I challenge Edward to demonstrate his reputed color-divining ability under suitably controlled conditions that I will set up.

Inflating “Hits”

In addition to shrewd cold reading and out-and-out cheating, “psychics” and “mediums” can also boost their apparent accuracy in other ways. They get something of a free ride from the tendency of credulous folk to count the apparent hits and ignore the misses. In the case of Edward, my analysis of 125 statements or pseudostatements (i.e., questions) he made on a Larry King Live program (June 19, 1998) showed that he was incorrect about as often as he was right and that his hits were mostly weak ones. (For example he mentioned “an older female” with “an M-sounding name,” either an aunt or grandmother, he stated, and the caller supplied “Mavis” without identifying the relationship; see Nickell 1998.)

Another session-for an episode of Crossing Over attended by a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, Chris Ballard (2001)-had Edward “hitting well below 50 percent for the day.” Indeed, he twice spent “upward of 20 minutes stuck on one person, shooting blanks but not accepting the negative responses.” This is a common technique: persisting in an attempt to redeem error, cajoling or even browbeating a sitter (as Sylvia Browne often does), or at least making the incorrect responses seem the person’s fault. “Do not not honor him!” Edward exclaimed at one point, then (according to Ballard) “staring down the bewildered man.”

When the taped episode actually aired, the two lengthy failed readings had been edited out, along with second-rate offerings. What remained were two of the best readings of the show (Ballard 2001). This seems to confirm the allegation in the Time article that episodes were edited to make Edward seem more accurate, even reportedly splicing in clips of one sitter nodding yes “after statements with which he remembers disagreeing” (Jaroff 2001).

Edited or not, sessions involving a group offer increased chances for success. By tossing out a statement and indicating a section of the audience rather than an individual, the performing “medium” makes it many times more likely that someone will “acknowledge” it as a “hit.” Sometimes multiple audience members will acknowledge an offering, whereupon the performer typically narrows the choice down to a single person and builds on the success. Edward uses just such a technique (Ballard 2001).

Still another ploy used by Edward and his fellow “psychic mediums” is to suggest that people who cannot acknowledge a hit may find a connection later. “Write this down,” an insistent Edward sometimes says, or in some other way suggests the person study the apparent miss. He may become even more insistent, the positive reinforcement diverting attention from the failure and giving the person an opportunity to find some adaptable meaning later (Nickell 1998).

Debunking Versus Investigation

Some skeptics believe the way to counter Edward and his ilk is to reproduce his effect, to demonstrate the cold-reading technique to radio and TV audiences. Of course that approach is unconvincing unless one actually poses as a medium and then-after seemingly making contact with subjects’ dead loved ones-reveals the deception. Although audiences typically fall for the trick (witness Inside Edition’s use of it), I deliberately avoid this approach for a variety of reasons, largely because of ethical concerns. I rather agree with Houdini (1924, xi) who had done spiritualistic stunts during his early career:

At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.

Of course tricking people in order to educate them is not the same as deceiving them for crass personal gain, but to toy with their deepest emotions-however briefly and well intentioned-is to cross a line I prefer not to do. Besides, I believe it can be very counterproductive. It may not be the alleged medium but rather the debunker himself who is perceived as dishonest, and he may come across as arrogant, cynical, and manipulative-not heroic as he imagines.

As well, an apparent reproduction of an effect does not necessarily mean the cause was the same. (For example, I have seen several skeptical demonstrations of “weeping” icons that employed trickery more sophisticated than that used for “real” crying effigies.) Far better, I am convinced, is showing evidence of the actual methods employed, as I did in collaboration with Dateline NBC.

Although John Edward was among five “highly skilled mediums” who allegedly fared well on tests of their ability (Schwartz et al. 2001)-experiments critiqued elsewhere in this issue (Wiseman and O'Keeffe, see page 26)-he did not claim validation on Larry King Live. When King (2001) asked Edward if he thought there would ever be proof of spirit contact, Edward responded by suggesting proof was unattainable, that only belief matters: “. . . I think that to prove it is a personal thing. It is like saying, prove God. If you have a belief system and you have faith, then there is nothing really more than that.” But this is an attempt to insulate a position and to evade or shift the burden of proof, which is always on the claimant. As Houdini (1924, 270) emphatically stated, “It is not for us to prove the mediums are dishonest, it is for them to prove that they are honest.” In my opinion John Edward has already failed that test.

Acknowledgments

I appreciate the assistance of Tom Flynn who helped me analyze the video clips mentioned in the text and refine the hypothesis that Edward may have glimpsed a reflection. I am also grateful to Tim Binga, Barry Karr, Kevin Christopher, Ben Radford, and Ranjit Sandhu for other assistance.

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.