Fraud in the Occult

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©1993
In the world of the occult, incidents of fraud are almost as pervasive as the tragedies. Fraud may result from a number of factors: e.g., the simplicity of fraud and human gullibility or the lessened moral responsibility occultism brings. Fraud may also result from the mercurial nature of occult powers themselves.


Fraud in the Occult

While we have indicated the reality of occult powers and their consequences in other articles, in the world of the occult, incidents of fraud are almost as pervasive as the tragedies. In this article we will show how deception may be employed in this area. Fraud may result from a number of factors: e.g., the simplicity of fraud and human gullibility or the lessened moral responsibility occultism brings. Fraud may also result from the mercurial nature of occult powers themselves. Since these unreliable powers often fail even in genuine occultism, the practitioner may be tempted to resort to legerdemain to retain credibility, or when monetary recompense is involved.

Dr. Nandor Fodor calls fraud “the greatest element of danger in psychic research.” He notes that “many mediums are hysterics and when they feel their mediumistic power ebbing they cannot resist the temptation of supplanting it by artifice.” Psychic surgeons, who as a group constitute exceptionally powerful mediums, are among the worst offenders.

On the other hand, fraudulent techniques can be employed as a principal means of livelihood (i.e., the occult practitioner is simply a charlatan). Finally, fraud may also result from the lies and deceptions of the spirits themselves, such as the widely publicized falsehoods of “Mafu” or the spirits speaking through Edgar Cayce, as noted by his biographers Joseph Millard and Thomas Sugrue.

With millions of people seeking the advice of spirits today, there is no lack for tales of woe and deception. When Jesus spoke of Satan as a liar and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44), He certainly told us the truth. Why occultists themselves are usually the last to realize this is a mystery left perhaps to then-own pondering.

For example, the dangers to life and limb in an area such as psychic diagnosis and healing should be obvious. Many cases of false diagnosis complicate the physical condition by delaying proper treatment. There are many incidents of wasted time and money spent seeking out useless psychic healers or “surgeons,” not to mention the fact that even genuine psychic healing often erects a worse problem on a spiritual level.

Whatever the situation, it is the pocketbook of the believer which is often the first casualty. The New York Times reported on a case where a wealthy woman was instructed by “the spirits” to give her friend, the operator of a Ouija board, nearly $60,000. Kent Jordan observes, “The history of Spiritualism is, unfortunately, cluttered with similar cases: Spirit voices urging the often bereaved, elderly and lonely sitters to give or will then-money to the medium, the ‘blessed instrument of this communication,’ to buy them houses, finance vacation trips, or be otherwise lavish with gifts.” Margaret Gaddis, a writer with a 50-year interest in psychic research, remarks, “At best, mediumship is a dubious blessing, usually deteriorating the health, and severely straining integrity when [psychic] powers fluctuate in financial crises.”

For example, Dr. Fodor refers to the nineteenth-century medium Eusapia Paladino who, when the power was weak or absent, deliberately cheated even though she knew she would have recourse to great power when it was available. “Practically every scientific committee detected her in attempted fraud, but every one of these committees emerged from their investigations quite convinced of the reality of these phenomena, except the Cambridge and American investigation which ended in exposure.”

The noted psychic investigator Dr. Hereward Carrington went so far as to confess that unless spiritism can be ethically justified, it is better left alone:

But it is not good developing something which leads one ultimately only into a mire of harmful results and a false philosophy…. It is very important, therefore, for the Spiritualist to have his belief founded in correct ethical principles, for, as I have before pointed out, the reproach has been raised against Spiritualists that “they are everything but spiritual.”

This is precisely the problem. Mediumism and all forms of occultism are known for being unethical; their reputation justly precedes them wherever these are found.

Regardless, those who result to deliberate imposture suffer no lack of variety in the methods available to them. Fodor discusses the methodology of fraud:

The ways and means of fraudulent production of phenomena has a literature of its own. Carrington aptly states “the ingenuity of some of these methods is simply” amazing, and in some respects the race between fraudulent mediums and psychical investigators has resembled that between burglars and police —to see which could outwit the other. It may be said, however, that these trick methods are now well known. To take one simple example, it may be pointed out that Mr. David O. Abbot’s book Behind the Scenes with the Mediums and my own Psychical Phenomena of Spiritualism have between them explained more than a hundred different methods of fraudulent slate-writing.

Of course, a good stage magician can duplicate much mediumistic phenomena. There are currently several professional magicians, such as James Randi, who are following the tradition of Houdini in attempting to debunk most or all occultism as fraudulent. The fraudulent methods can be truly impressive as seen in, for example, the books of journalist and stage magician Danny Korem, but by no means can they account for the production of the genuine supernatural phenomena found in the occult.

In Powers Korem reveals how he exposed the famous psychic James Hydrick. He also reveals, “I have encountered very few verifiable cases of real supernatural powers in relation to the number of reports I received.” Further, after 15 years of research into supernatural claims, he is convinced that human psychic abilities don’t exist at all and that “God is the author of good supernatural powers and Satan is the perpetrator of evil supernatural powers.”

M. Lamar Keene was, at one time, one of the world’s highest-paid mediums. He was also considered one of the most proficient and would routinely produce alleged spirit messages, materializations, psychic healings, clairvoyance, trumpet mediumship, apports, etc. But he was a fraud. For over 13 years he practiced his wares before his conscience got the best of him and he decided to confess his unethical methods. In The Psychic Mafia he tells his story. “The average person is exceedingly easy to fool,” he says.

In Chapter 5, “Secrets of the Séance,” Keene reveals many of the tricks of the trade. Nevertheless, even after he publicly confessed his fraudulent practices, the will to believe persisted. Most of his sitters and even the church board of directors either refused to accept his confession or kept attending the faked séances of Keene’s associate!

Not surprisingly, Keene’s reaction was one of shock. After telling them the “spirits” did not exist, that they were fakes, people continued to respond to him on the basis of what they learned from the “spirits”! He recalls, “I was crushed. I knew how easy it was to make people believe a lie, but I didn’t expect that the same people, confronted with the lie, would choose it over the truth.”

Why did these people continue to believe? Because they wanted to. Belief was more comfortable than unbelief; this is precisely why so many cults and spiritual cons flourish everywhere in America today. David Koresh and the Waco, Texas, tragedy is only one of many recent examples.

Nevertheless, Keene knows firsthand that there is rampant fraud at spiritists’ retreats, although he asserts there may also be genuine mediumism. He refers to what he calls a “network of organized mediumistic espionage” taking in millions of dollars per year. He himself collected 18 thousand dollars one Sunday in his church and knew another fake medium who made 40 thousand dollars a year “extra income” merely selling “blessed healing” cloths “magnetized” with spirit power.

On the other side, both Gasson (a former medium) and Carrington (who exposed false mediums) believe that while fraud cases are probably in the relative minority, it is also probably true that most cases are never detected.

Near the end of his book, Keene mentions some relevant facts as to why he made his dramatic public confession. Virtually all of the mediums he knew had ended their lives in miserable fashion:

Looking ahead, if I stayed in mediumship, I saw only deepening gloom. All the mediums I’ve known or known about have had tragic endings.

The Fox sisters, who had started it all, wound up as alcoholic derelicts. William Slade, famed for his slate-writing tricks, died insane in a Michigan sanitarium. Margery the Medium lay on her deathbed a hopeless drunk. The celebrated Arthur Ford fought the battle of the bottle to the very end and lost. And the inimitable Mable Riffle, boss of Camp Chesterfield—well, when she died it was winter and freezing cold, and her body had to be held until a thaw for burial; the service was in the Cathedral at Chesterfield. Very few attended.

Wherever I looked, it was the same: Mediums, at the end of a tawdry life, dying a tawdry death.

He reflected, “I was sick and tired of the whole business—the fraud bit, the drug bit, the drinking bit. The entire thing.” He went on to point out that his conscience would never let him entirely abandon his more noble instincts:

With all the money flowing in—with the glamour, excitement, and adulation of being a successful medium—was I happy? No. For one thing, I was always aware, like all mediums, that most people looked down on us, that we weren’t really respectable…

Then there was the little matter of conscience. Most mediums probably are what psychiatrists call sociopathic. They have a moral block, a defective conscience. Things that other people consider wrong, they consider legitimate. Cheating, lying, stealing, conning—these are sanctified in the ethics of mediumship as I knew it.

Though most mediums apparently manage to anesthetize their consciences (if they have any), I couldn’t. Not completely. Looking in the mirror, I’d feel a pang of something I recognized as shame (it has been so long since I’ve acknowledged the feeling that it was unfamiliar).

But what was perhaps most discouraging for him was that after telling his story to the IRS, FBI, and state attorney general, “No police investigation of any medium was launched as a result of my action nor, to my knowledge, did the Internal Revenue Service look into the matter of mediumistic bookkeeping. As a matter of fact, my former partner is doing better than ever.”

Keene’s story also provides an inside look into the heartless cruelty of much mediumship and the morality accompanying it:

The mentality that is capable of such heartless manipulation of people’s most wounded feelings is in my judgment capable of even more. I am not being melodramatic, but factual when I report that since renouncing mediumship I have received threatening phone calls. “Lay off the mediums, or else,” muffled voices warned.

On one occasion, he was the victim of an apparent attempted murder. Nevertheless, he concludes by asking the following question:

Who can measure the human misery that spiritualism and its false claims and broken hopes leaves in its murky wake? I know of one elderly woman who gave thousands to our church, now shut away friendless and penniless in a nursing home. Another woman—and how many more like her?—suffered a stroke induced at least in part, I’m sure, by the conflicts and upheavals caused by preying mediums. I know scores of people, professionals such as doctors and teachers, who were so enamored of the fantasies of spiritualism that they tore up roots and relocated half-way across the country to be near a favorite medium. (Many did this because of me.) The personal and family dislocations, the emotional pain, the career setbacks and financial, losses, are incalculable.

But séance mediums are hardly the only class of occultists who prey on the gullible. If we include the collective toll taken by fake astrologers, channelers, gurus, healers, dowsers, psychics, and many others, the resulting misery would make the mediums’ collective deception seem mild by comparison.

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