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Psychic Sleuthing: The Myth-making Process

Joe Nickell

September 26, 2005

A July 2005 Pittsburgh news magazine cover story, “The Psychic Force” (Newhouse 2005), presented a rather confusing picture of the effectiveness of so-called psychic detectives—those who purport to assist police in solving crimes through clairvoyance.

On the one hand, the reporter quoted me as branding the practice “mumbo-jumbo” and challenging psychics to find the latest high-profile missing persons: “Where are these psychics when they are really needed? Where are their successes? There aren’t any.”

However, the article also presented a 1988 case supposedly resolved by a psychic named Nancy Meyer. Citing an “impressed” Monroeville, Pennsylvania, police detective, Will Greenaway, the reporter told how the seeress drew maps and “pinpointed” the site where the body of a missing elderly man, Sylvester Tonet, would be found. “One month after Tonet disappeared, she and Greenaway attempted to reach the body, but cold weather conditions prevented the two from reaching the site. The next day, [1] Greenaway returned to the location with search crews and they found Tonet’s body in the place where Meyer had described” (Newhouse 2005).

Wow! I felt like one of those 1950s sci-fi-movie scientists who declared, “Giant ants? There are no giant ants!” while moviegoers could see, behind him, humongous insectoid antennae poking over the horizon. I had insisted psychics had no clairvoyant successes, but readers had just read of one.

As it happened—perhaps not surprisingly—there was more to the story than readers were told. I went to a file cabinet and took out a folder for “Nancy Meyer”—earlier known as Nancy Anderson, then (at the time of the Tonet disappearance) known as Nancy Czetli. I learned Czetli claimed to have gotten images of the missing man through psychometry (or psychic object-reading), in this case by clutching a knit cap that had belonged to Tonet (Lyons and Truzzi 1991, 137). (Like other forms of alleged ESP, psychometry can be scientifically tested for, yet it has never been validated by mainstream science. The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a million dollars for proof of any psychic phenomenon.).

Newspaper articles on the Tonet case described the police department’s then-Corporal Greenaway as being struck by how close Czetli had come to the missing man’s body: he was found just 150 yards from where police, together with the reputed psychic, had last searched (Evans 1988). Yet when investigators Arthur Lyons and Marcello Truzzi (1991, 138) subsequently spoke with Greenaway by telephone, they discovered him much less enthused, saying, “It always comes out in the news different.”

Further,

Greenaway told us that he did not believe in psychics and had been “unimpressed” with Czetli’s pronouncements, saying what she told them was “general stuff.” She had said the body would be found near a body of water and railroad tracks, but there are railroad tracks all over the area and she never specified if the body of water was a pond, a lake, or what. As for the picture she drew of the area, Greenaway told us that out of curiosity he dug another picture out of the police files that had been done by another psychic for a different case twelve years before. “It was the same trees, the same damn picture. There are always trees and a body of water. It could be a puddle or a pond.”

Greenaway’s fellow detective on the case, William McClelland, was also “unimpressed” by Czetli.

While media accounts had emphasized that Czetli led police away from where they had been directed by bloodhounds, in fact, an eyewitness had placed Tonet in the general area where his body was finally discovered. Police had recently been focusing their efforts there—a fact made known to Czetli (Lyons and Truzzi 1991, 138). [2]

Greenaway (1989) conceded he might have been “influenced” by media reports. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Wow! She was right on!’ You start to think, well, maybe she was.” Apparently Czetli’s contribution to the case was essentially one of motivation: Greenaway admitted that they might not have again searched the area except for Czetli’s involvement, since they had combed it several times before.

Investigators Kenneth L. Feder and Michael Alan Park (1994) have shown how such a case almost predictably becomes “mythologized.” The myth-making process begins almost at once and, over time, makes a story more dramatic and magical through exaggeration. Policemen may be as desirous as others to witness the “unexplained,” and reporters and their publishers and producers know that good stories are saleable to a credulous public.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Tonet case is becoming mythologized. It has now been featured on Court TV’s Psychic Detectives, a series that systematically offers mystery-mongering “recreations” that seem to trump science and reason. Newspapers are following suit. As to Detective Greenaway, now retired: “I never believed in that stuff before. I don’t know if I still do, but what she did—her assistance in that case—was really something” (Newhouse 2005).

So a psychic’s clever generalization technique, informed by an eyewitness’ input, has become mythologized into a tale in which she “pinpointed” the location of a missing man’s body. Stay tuned: soon we may be told angels whispered in her ear. . . .

Notes

  1. Lyons and Truzzi (1991, 138) say the search was resumed “the following week,” not “the next day.”
  2. Czetli did impress Greenaway by her apparently clairvoyant knowledge of some features of the area. For instance, she asked if police had searched in a nearby ravine, whose existence searchers had been unaware of. Greenaway thought that might just have been coincidence, but some psychics study maps or make unannounced searches on their own. Note that Czetli purportedly “saw” the ravine but could not see whether or not the missing man’s body was there.

References

Joe Nickell

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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.