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Exposing the Faith-Healers

Special Report

Robert A. Steiner

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 11.1, Fall 1986

My grandfather was a minister. When my grandmother was diagnosed as being a diabetic, they turned to faith healers. They attended all sorts of revivals, hoping to cure her illness. Thinking she had been cured, she consumed [foods her doctors had advised against], which eventually killed her. She died on my birthday.

—Name withheld by request

A VISIT BY James Randi is always interesting and exciting. This past February we pulled out all the stops. He would be staying with me at my Bay Area home for more than a week.

I had scheduled an appearance on a radio talk-show. The following day he gave a talk for the general public on "The Joys and Perils of Psychic Investigation." And the day after that, in a lecture for magicians, Randi explained some new techniques—to be used for entertainment purposes only.

The big news was that Randi was investigating faith-healers. On February 23, we would be attending the Peter Popoff Crusade in San Francisco. Randi had discovered Popoff's methods, but he needed proof.

He requested that I round up a number of trusted people. We would go to Popoff's presentation in an attempt to gain further information and have one of our people chosen for a "healing." To obtain proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, would be a monumental job. To have one of our few people chosen from among the more than 1,000 who would attend was a long shot. I accepted the assignment and got to work.

On that Sunday morning, 25 people convened at my house. These trusted, dedicated individuals were enlisted from the Bay Area Skeptics and the Society of American Magicians. After a briefing by Randi, we were on our way to the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, where the Reverend Popoff would present his "crusade." We arrived early, in order to observe, set up, and attempt to be accepted for healings.

While the others in our group were finding strategic places in the auditorium, I joined Alexander Jason, an electronics expert. Alec had brought with him $20,000 worth of equipment and a million dollars worth of knowledge and experience. He and I set up a table in the hall on the second floor, behind the balcony of the auditorium. As people passed by, they saw Alec wearing headphones as I listened intently to an earphone plugged in my ear. We tried to keep the scanners, tape recorders, aerials, and other equipment under cover.

There we sat, listening, scanning, searching, and adjusting. While Alec worked with the equipment, I kept a watchful eye for anyone who might interfere. The time dragged. Now the service inside the auditorium was about to start; we had searched for more than an hour, and we still hadn't found what we were looking for.

Then Alec got excited. He literally jumped out of his seat and then gave me the thumbs-up sign. What he had tuned into, and what we have on tape (and what was subsequently revealed by Randi nationwide on Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show) was a behind-the-scenes broadcast from Elizabeth Popoff to her husband. It began: "Hello Petey. I love you. I'm talking to you. Can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble."

Randi had told us about his discovery that Popoff wears a "hearing aid" inside his ear. He had gathered enough circumstantial evidence to surmise that someone was broadcasting the information for the "healings" to Popoff. Our assignment was to obtain the absolute documentation, the hard evidence, the proof. And here it was: the secret method by which the Reverend Peter Popoff obtains the information he disseminates to the assembled folks as coming from God.

Mrs. Popoff became very businesslike as she continued: "I'm looking up the names right now."

The information for Popoff's so-called healings among the audience came from secret radio transmissions from Elizabeth Popoff backstage. She obtained the information from "prayer cards" filled out by the attendees, as well as from her conversations with those present before the start of the formal proceedings. The Reverend Popoff then reveals the information to the assembled crowd as divine messages from God.

The following example of a healing was taken from our tape of the Popoff Crusade a few weeks later in Anaheim, California, on March 16, 1986.

Peter Popoff calls out: "Virgil. Is it Jorgenson? Who is Virgil?"

After a man in the audience identified himself as Jorgenson, Popoff continued: "Are you ready for God to overhaul those knees?"

The spectator appeared to be in his sixties and walked with a cane. When he reacted to Popoff's "healing," Popoff went on: "Oh, glory to God. I'll tell you, God's going to touch that sister of yours all the way over in Sweden."

Popoff then took the spectator's cane and broke it over his (Popoff's) knee. The spectator walked about the auditorium, praising Popoff and God.

Now let's look behind the scenes. With the benefit of our electronics technology, we hear the entire conversation.

Elizabeth Popoff transmits to Peter Popoff: "Virgil Jorgenson. Virgil." Peter Popoff calls out: "Virgil."

Elizabeth: "Jorgenson."

Peter (inquiringly): "Is it Jorgenson?"

Elizabeth: "Way back in the back somewhere. Arthritis in knees. He's got a cane."

Peter: "Who is Virgil?"

Elizabeth: "He's got a cane."

Peter: "Are you ready for God to overhaul those knees?"

Elizabeth: "He's got arthritis. He's praying for his sister in Sweden, too." Peter: "Oh, glory to God. I'll tell you, God's going to touch that sister of yours all the way over in Sweden."

There are many more such conversations on our tapes.

So impressive was the "healing" of Virgil Jorgenson that Peter Popoff used the film clip for three consecutive weeks on his television show.

Popoff assures the folks forcefully and often that his information comes directly from God. As a matter of fact, he even claims to have visited Heaven for some weeks and to have personally spoken to God.

An important part of our investigation in San Francisco was to obtain proof not only that Popoff's claimed method of obtaining information was false, but also that the information itself is sometimes false. This would strengthen our case in proving that the information does not, as claimed, come from God. Enter Don Henvick.

Don Henvick is program coordinator for Bay Area Skeptics and president of Assembly #70 of the Society of American Magicians.

From the thousand-plus people assembled in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, "Tom Hendrys" was one of only about fifteen persons selected for healing. Hendrys, who was "healed" of nonexistent alcoholism, was in reality Don Henvick. "Marty Post" was also healed; he is Ivars Lauersons, another Bay Area Skeptics activist.

Weeks later, while we were waiting at the airport for a flight to Anaheim to attend Popoff's presentation there, Alec pointed to a gentleman who appeared to be in his sixties. He inquired, "Bob, do you recognize that man?"

I replied I did not.

Alec pursued the matter: "Wasn't he at the Popoff Crusade a few weeks ago?"

"I don't know," I responded. "There were more than a thousand people there."

The "stranger" was Don Henvick. He had shaved off his beard, his moustache, and most of the hair on his head and had colored his remaining hair gray. He limped around with a cane. Since he had been healed in San Francisco by Peter Popoff, Don had added several decades to his appearance, as well as having acquired a severe problem with walking. It was this superb skill in out-conning the con artist and his wonderful acting ability that got Don "Virgil Jorgenson" Henvick shown on the televised Popoff show for three weeks running. He was now on his way to be "healed" again.

We investigated other faith-healers as well. This report has focused on one of them to give the flavor of such performances. While they differ in style and method, the concept is always the same. They claim miraculous knowledge from God and that God works through them to do miraculous healings.

The Reverend David Paul healed Don "Tom Hendrys" Henvick of nonexistent alcoholism in Stockton, California. W. V. Grant healed Don "Abel McMinn" Henvick of a nonexistent prostate condition and nonexistent arthritis in Philadelphia. And Peter Popoff healed Don "Bernice Manicoff" Henvick in Detroit. Yup, adorned in woman's garb and seated in a wheelchair, Don Henvick was "healed" of uterine cancer by Popoff. (Need I point out that Don does not have uterine cancer?)

The television show "A. M. San Francisco" (Channel 7, KGO-TV), contacted me the day before faith-healer "Amazing Grace" was to appear on the show. All the advance promotion was about Grace. The format called first for an interview with Grace. The second segment was to consist of healings by Grace. I was to come out in the third segment and, in her presence, attempt to discredit the entire thing.

Advice from friends was not to go. The deck was stacked. The audience would be packed with true believers and Grace's followers. With her exclusive appearance in the first two segments, I had to lose, they said.

But they did not know about my secret weapon.

When I first came out, I asked for and received clear assurance from Grace that she had the Gift of Knowledge, that her information came directly from God, and that God never makes a mistake.

I then produced my secret weapon. The first person she had chosen to "heal" was (Are you ready?) Don Henvick. By exposing the fact that Grace healed him under an assumed name of a nonexistent ailment, I was able to show that her claim was false, that her information does not come from God.

The "faith-healers" uniformly claim or imply that their information comes from God and that the "healings" are done by God and Jesus, working through them. Yet we know for a fact that the information comes from data supplied by the attendees. Furthermore, several of the faith-healers have called out some persons using false names, identified disease symptoms that did not exist, and cured them of these nonexistent diseases. Clearly such false information could not have come from God or Jesus. Neither of them would make such elementary mistakes. The representations to the public are false. The "faith-healers" have knowledge that they are false. They do it for the purpose of obtaining money.

This is not religion. This is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This is a con game.

Robert Steiner is founder and past chair of the Bay Area Skeptics, a professional magician, a lecturer, chairman of the National Occult Investigation Committee of the Society of American Magicians, and a certified public accountant. He is a CSICOP Fellow. This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the Summer 1986 Free Inquiry magazine, a special issue on faith-healing.