More Options

John Edward: Spirit Huckster

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 34.2, March / April 2010

“Psychic medium” John Edward is reemerging from relative obscurity after his popular television show, Crossing Over with John Edward, ended in 2004. He appears on another cable show, gives tours, has a Web site (Infinitequest.com), and generally makes his living claiming to communicate with those who have “crossed over.”

I was invited by Central New York Skeptics to join them in Syracuse, New York, for an evening with Edward. (It was held at Mulroy Civic Center on Sunday, October 11, 2009. I was accompanied by CNY Skeptics president Lisa Goodlin, David Harding, and Brian Madigan, all of whom afterward shared insightful observations on what we had witnessed.) The glib Edward—real name John Edward McGee, Jr.—held forth for more than two hours. He began with a joke to the effect that although he is psychic, he nevertheless needed a GPS to get to the site. The highly credulous, adoring crowd found every gag hilarious, every platitude profound, and every lucky guess or shrewd deduction proof of communication with the dead.

Old ‘Spirits’ in New Bottles

Edward is part of the new breed of spiritualists (like Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh) who avoid the risky physical mediumship of yore. During the heyday of Spiritualism, magicians such as Houdini and Maskelyne used to catch mediums at their dark-room séance deceptions, such as slate writing, floating spirit trumpets, and full-bodied “materializations.” The investigators gave public demonstrations of the trickery. “Do Spirits Return?” a Houdini poster asked. “Houdini says No—and Proves It” (Gibson 1977, 157).

The new “psychic mediums” opt in­stead for the simpler, safer mental mediumship, the supposed production of messages from the Great Beyond. This itself is nothing new, but now instead of the flowery language supposedly channeled from talkative Vic­torians, we get fragmented bits of data from spirits seeming to have diminished memories and limited speech: “I feel like there’s a J- or G-sounding name at­tached to this” is a typical Edward offering (Nickell 2004).

Styles change even in supposedly talking with the dead. Today’s mediums employ the old fortuneteller’s technique of “cold reading”—so named because the sensitive has no advance information about the sitter. He artfully fishes for information from the person, often asking a question which, if the answer is yes, will be treated as a “hit” but otherwise will become only part of the lead-up to a statement.

Not surprisingly, Edward has a background in fortunetelling. His mother, he acknowledges, was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties.” Advised by one visiting clairvoyant that he had “wonderful psychic abilities,” Edward began doing card readings for family and friends as a teenager. He progressed to giving readings at so-called psychic fairs. There he soon learned that names and other “validating information” could sometimes be better fitted to the dead than the living. Edward eventually changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999), setting him on the road to financial success.

The Group Approach

Edward’s audiences typically find him accurate and convincing. However, a study I made of one television transcript1 revealed he was actually wrong about as often as not (Nickell 1998). In Syracuse, for example, no one seemed to relate to a cat named Smokey. Never­theless, in such cases Edward can still toss out something he “sees” or “feels,” and he may get lucky. Besides, the onus is on his listeners to somehow match his offerings to their lives, and if one person can’t oblige, someone else will give it a try. Thus, when no one seemed to be “going to Thailand,” Edward doubled his options, suggesting the trip was for adoption. Finally, one woman shouted out that she had adopted a child from Korea. When no one had experienced an Edward-visualized tattoo removal, a young lady helpfully supplied her adventure of an excised mole. Edward then looked for validation of an imagined spirit named Lily: She soon morphed into a cat of that name, still living!

Edward sometimes joked his way out of a dilemma. For instance, when one woman’s late husband had not had the envisioned “foot surgery,” Edward quipped, “Do you have any other husbands?”

Joking aside, this group approach has been a boon to modern mediums. On occasion, when multiple sitters acknowledge a particular offering, the medium can simply narrow the choice to a single person and then build on that success—a technique definitely employed by John Edward (Ballard 2001).

Getting Burned with ‘Hot’ Reading

According to respected journalists, epi­sodes of Crossing Over were edited to make Edward appear more accurate than he was (Ballard 2001), even to the point of apparently splicing in clips of one sitter nodding yes “after statements with which he remembers disagreeing” (Jaroff 2001).

Rarely, when the opportunity presents itself, Edward may turn from “cold reading” to the much more accurate “hot reading.” Although I have no evidence of him using that technique in Syracuse, he was caught cheating with it on a Dateline NBC episode for which I was both a behind-the-scenes advisor and an on-camera interviewee. Edward was exposed passing off knowledge he had gained from a Dateline cameraman during a shoot hours earlier as otherworldly revelation during a reading session. He feigned surprise that his alleged spirit gleanings applied to the cameraman. As Dateline’s John Hockenberry subsequently told an evasive Edward, “So that’s not some energy coming through, that’s something you knew going in” (Nickell 2001).

In his book, Crossing Over, Edward disparaged Hockenberry who, he said, “came down on the side of the professional skeptic they used as my foil . . . Joe Nickell” (2001, 243). Edward also referred to Hockenberry’s “big Gotcha! moment.” That’s right, John, we Gotcha! You were caught cheating. And your claimed psychic powers didn’t even let you see it coming.

Fast Talker

In his stand-up act, Edward keeps things going at such a pace that there is little time to critically analyze what is occurring. The average person is not much better equipped to avoid being fooled by John Edward’s sleight-of-tongue tricks than the artful illusions of a stage magician. Careful analysis of a recorded session by one knowledgeable of the techniques employed will prove more effective than the testimonials of someone fooled by the deceptions.

And so Edward’s Syracuse audience regarded their belief in otherworldly communication as fully vindicated. There appeared to be only about four skeptics in the audience. Ironically, Edward seemed not to know they were there—even though one has been a particular thorn in his side. Couldn’t he feel all those bad vibes coming from an area of the orchestra? l

Acknowledgments

In addition to those mentioned in the text, I am also grateful to Barry Karr, CSI executive director, for providing finances for my trip to Syracuse and to Timothy Binga, Center for Inquiry Libraries director, for research assistance.

Note

  1. This was the June 19, 1998, Larry King Live show on CNN.

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.