Fraud & Trickery

If you ask most people what they think about what happens in séance rooms—knocks or raps, levitating tables, ectoplasmic forms, disembodied limbs and so on—they’ll tell you it’s all bunk and superstition. Any skeptic will inform you that it’s all done by trickery carried out by skilled magicians to bilk the credulous. Ectoplasm? Nothing more than regurgitated cheesecloth.

Yes, there have been, and are, frauds and magicians who produce miraculous-seeming effects. They have been around ever since the Fox sisters and D.D. Home, who was never found to be fraudulent, began the mediumship craze in the mid nineteenth century. These frauds saw an opportunity to cash in on it and devised more and more sophisticated means of doing so.


In turn, debunkers became more knowledgeable in the “magicians” arts in order to keep up with them and root them out.  It’s the reason that many contemporary psi researchers are also magicians and scrutinize and test anyone who claims to have PK (psychokinesis) ability.

Today, sophisticated devices are used to investigate séances, such as infrared cameras that can record in near darkness, audio and video recorders, electronic sensors, etc.  Internet searches help as well:  recently a medium producing “unusual” ectoplasm and moving lights in his séances was found to have purchased some fake material, from a site that sole novelties, that he was extruding from his mouth.  He also bought a battery-operated device that could secretly flash the lights around the room.

(There have been “mixed” cases, where some phenomena produced are real, but the medium will fall back on trickery at those times he or she is not able to perform.)


Houdini demonstrated how tables could be surreptitiously levitated by sly swamis, especially if the sitters were uncritical bereaved families. He made a second career of debunking mediums, which may have been born from a desire to take vengeance on one who purported to give him a message from his mother.  When he found out this person was a fake he turned against mediumship.

Houdini in the Margery Box

Houdini in the "Margery Box"

He did unmask many fraudulent mediums, but of course Houdini didn’t let on that he used underhanded means to accuse medium Mina (“Margery”) Crandon of being a fake when he couldn’t prove it. He had a wooden box constructed into which she was obliged to be confined while she caused objects to move at a distance from it. Afterwards Houdini publicly removed a carpenter’s folding ruler, used before rolled tape-measures were invented, declaring that she used that to fake the movements. Of course he achieved his goal of “debunking” her–a charge which any computer search will attest is still believed.

What those searches don’t say is that the carpenter who constructed the box came forward later and testified that Houdini paid him to put the ruler in the box. Houdini probably cheated elsewhere but he got caught in this case when his accomplice confessed. Still the carpenter’s confession is little known and the public believes the magician’s illusion.


In our time, we had the (Not-so) “Amazing Randi,” the mediocre but flamboyant magician who made a lucrative career “debunking” anything to do with psi.  He became well-known when he claimed that he could show how Uri Geller bent spoons by trickery. (When he tried to demonstrate this trick in a psi lab, he was caught by one of the lab assistants.  So much for his sleight of hand skill!)

I was at a Parapsychological Association convention one year in which he was scheduled to appear with a panel of other magicians to lecture researchers on what to look for when testing subjects.  As Randi walked on stage, making a late entrance, flaring his cape as he sat, a spokesman for the magicians stood.

He read a statement, from his fellow magicians, chastising Randi for his underhanded, deceitful and dishonest methods.  It had no effect.

In other cases, that of Ted Serios, for instance, he out and out lied about being able to produce pictures under the same conditions as Serios.  He was challenged to do so by Jule Eisenbud, but of course, although he kept reiterating his claims, he never did.  However, with his flair for publicity the public believed, and most still believe, that he had “debunked” Serios.


Unfortunately people are misled by claims made by convincing liars who repeat their lies despite evidence to the contrary. This is especially true if doing so helps to fortify the beliefs with which the public is comfortable.

Those like Randi have done great harm to the progress of parapsychology and the study of other related areas.  They have strengthened the taboo against the study of anomalies in the scientific community and held back research in these fields.

They continue to smear and propagandize through their organizations and by controlling the output of informational sites like Wikipedia.

Historian Mitch Horowitz wrote a telling “dissenting obituary” when the old charlatan died at 92 stating:

I mourn Randi’s passing for those who loved him, and there were many. But his elevation to the Mount Rushmore of skepticism obfuscates a basic truth. In the end, the feted researcher was no skeptic. He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud. This has corroded our intellectual culture — in a Trumpian age when true skepticism is desperately needed. 

-From The Man Who Destroyed Skepticism by Mitch Horowitz

For more on this topic see “Some Thoughts on Rare Phenomena & Science”

For More on this Topic See A Note of Caution in Searching for Information on Psi