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Investigating Spirit Communications

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 8.3, September 1998

Talkign to Heaven

Thanks to modern mass media, old-fashioned spiritualism is undergoing something of a revival. Witness James Van Praagh’s bestselling Talking to Heaven (1997) and the talk-show popularity of Van Praagh and other mediums like Rosemary Altea, George Anderson, and John Edward.

Like Van Praagh before him, Edward was featured on the Larry King Live television show. King promoted Edward’s forthcoming video and book, both titled One Last Time — “meaning,” King explained, “saying good-bye to someone who is gone.”

Although purported communication with spirits of the dead is ancient (for example, the biblical Witch of Endor conjured up the ghost of Samuel at the request of King Saul [1 Sam. 28:7-20]), modern spiritualism began in 1848 at Hydesville, New York. Two young girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler. Although four decades later they confessed how their “spirit rappings” had been faked, in the meantime spiritualism had spread like wildfire across the United States and beyond. The great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) spent the last years of his life crusading against phony spirit mediums and exposing their bogus “materializations” and other physical phenomena such as spirit photography.

A case I investigated in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1985 illustrates the dangers that fake mediums risk in producing such phenomena. Laboratory analyses of certain “spirit precipitations” (Figure 1) revealed the presence of solvent stains, and a recipe for such “productions” from the book The Psychic Mafia (Keene 1976) — utilizing a solvent to transfer images from printed photos — enabled me to create similar spirit pictures (Figure 2). With this evidence, as well as affidavits from a few sëance victims, I was able to obtain police warrants against the medium, who operated from the notorious Indiana spiritualist center Camp Chesterfield (Nickell with Fischer 1988).

figure 1

Figure 1: Alleged “spirit precipitations” on cloth, produced at a 1985 sëance.

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Figure 2: Images produced experimentally by author.

Today’s mediums — whether charlatans, fantasy-prone personalities, or a bit of both — tend to eschew such physical phenomena. On my visits to New York’s spiritualist community, Lily Dale, I have been told that all such productions are now effectively prohibited there due to fakery in the past. Anyone claiming to produce authentic physical phenomena — like floating trumpets, slate writing, or apports (objects allegedly transported by spirits) — must pass the scrutiny of a committee. As a consequence, the dark-room sëance is becoming a thing of the past.

Like the mediums at Lily Dale (Figure 3), Van Praagh, Edward, and most others now limit themselves to the other major category of spiritualist offerings: “mental phenomena,” the purported use of “psychic ability” such as clairvoyance (inner sight), clairaudience (perceived voices), and clairsentience (extrasensory feelings) to obtain messages from the spirit realm.

Because such mediums avoid the tricks of producing physical phenomena, it is more difficult to expose spiritualist charlatans — that is, to distinguish between mediums who practice intentional deception and those who may be self-deceived (believing they really communicate with the dead). What can be done, however, is to focus not on the medium’s motives but on his or her ability, such as by setting up suitable scientific tests (e.g. to measure supposed clairvoyance) or by analyzing a medium’s readings.

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Figure 3: A medium giving readings at an outdoor service at Lily Dale, the western New York spiritualist colony. (photo by Joe Nickell)

When I appeared on radio programs to debate James Van Praagh (on “The Stacy Taylor Show,” San Diego, May 19) and Dorothy Altea (on “The Gil Gross Show,” New York, June 15), I began by inviting each to contact a deceased relative whom I named. Both declined my very open-minded invitation, saying they had nothing to prove to skeptics. (At one point I remarked to Van Praagh that I believed I could contact spirits as well as he — meaning not at all. He missed my point and challenged me to do a reading for him! I responded that I visualized the spirit of Abraham Lincoln who was telling me that Van Praagh had never contacted anyone “over there.” Van Praagh did not think this was funny.)

I did obtain a transcript of John Edward’s “spirit” pronouncements on Larry King Live (June 19, 1998), and the results are revealing. They suggest that if Edward really does communicate with the dead, the spirit world must be populated with entities who have little to do but heed the call of self-promoting mystics. And while they seem able to appear virtually on demand, irrespective of distance, they must have lost many of their other faculties — being plagued with poor vision, impaired speech, and faulty memory.

Consider the reading Edward gave to the very first caller on Larry King Live, a woman who wanted to contact her mother. “O.K., Linda,” says the glib Edward, “the first thing I want to talk about is, I know you’re looking for your mom, but I'm getting an older male who’s also there on the other side. I feel like this is somebody who would be above you, which means it’s like a father figure, or an uncle, and he passes from either lung cancer or emphysema, tuberculosis; it’s all problems in the chest area.” Edward continues: “O.K., that’s the first thing. And I feel like there’s a J- or a G-sounding name attached to this.”

Happily for Edward, Linda responds, “That’s my mother.” Unfortunately, despite the “hits” the woman is willing to credit, Edward is wrong on both counts, since he was not talking about the mother but some “father figure” Linda is unable to recognize. Edward does not correct the error, but proceeds. “She’s got a very dominant personality” (as most mothers are no doubt perceived by their offspring), and again Linda offers, “That’s my mother. Her first name starts with ‘G’ and she had emphysema.” Thus far, Linda’s persistent credulity notwithstanding, Edward has scored only one very weak hit but two clear misses, a foreshadowing of his overall performance.

Edward frequently asks questions — a ploy used by other self-styled mediums and psychics. By the information being provided in interrogative form it may, if correct, be considered a hit but otherwise will seem an innocent query. Questioning also keeps the reader from proceeding very far down a wrong path. And so Edward asks, “Does the month of August have a meaning for her, or the eighth of a month?” When Linda replies, “Not that I know of,” Edward uses another standard ploy, telling her to “write this down” and becoming even more insistent. This positive reinforcement diverts attention from the failure and gives the caller (or sitter) an opportunity to discover a meaning later.

Repeatedly, Edward offers data that is subject to many interpretations. With Linda, he returns to an earlier point, insisting that her mother’s spirit “is telling me that there’s a father figure that’s there, so I don’t know if your father’s passed [emphasis added] but there’s a father-type figure.” Still, Linda is unable to make the connection, replying, “No, my father — I just spoke to him on my son’s phone . . . . ” Edward helpfully suggests “a father-in-law” or at least “a male figure who’s there” but Linda still doesn't seem able to verify the claim.

Edward is bailed out of his dilemma by Larry King, who interrupts: “But the important thing is, how is she doing?” This gives Edward the opportunity to tell Linda, “Your mom is fine” — offering what I call a “moot statement” (one that cannot be proved or disproved).

In all, Edward gave eighteen brief readings on the show, offering (apart from a few ramblings) some 125 statements or pseudostatements (i.e. questions). As I score them, there were four instances of Edwards being unable to make contact or supply an answer and twenty-four unverified and sixteen moot statements. I counted forty-one misses. There were about the same number of hits, forty-two (only 33.6 percent of the total). Or perhaps I should say apparent hits: most, thirty-four, of these were weak hits (as when Edward envisioned “an older female,” with “an M-sounding name,” either an aunt or grandmother, he said, and the caller supplied “Mavis” without identifying the relationship).

Just six of the statements seemed worthy of being termed moderate hits. (For example, Edward told a caller, “there’s a dog who’s passed also,” and she responded by saying her mother “had a dog that passed.” I rated this only a moderate hit since dogs are common pets.) And there were just two statements I felt might be deserving of the unqualified label “hit.” (Edward asked a caller, who was seeking her husband, “Did you bury him with cigarettes?” and when she responded in the affirmative, queried, “Was this the wrong brand?” The information does seem rather distinctive, but in both instances was phrased as a question and the second one was, of course, a follow-up.)

As these results indicate, John Edward was incorrect about as often as he was right. And considering the weaknesses of his ostensible hits, his success seems little better than might be obtained from guessing. By taking advantage of human nature, simple probabilities, the opportunities for multiple interpretations, and the technique of asking questions as a means of directing the reading, among other techniques, mediums like John Edward may give the impression they are communicating with the dead. The evidence, however, indicates otherwise.


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