Superstar "psychic medium" John Edward is a stand-up guy. Unlike the spiritualists of yore, who typically plied their trade in dark-room séances, Edward and his ilk often perform before live audiences and even under the glare of TV lights. Indeed, Edward (a pseudonym: he was born John MaGee Jr.) has his own popular show on the SciFi channel called Crossing Over, which has gone into national syndication (Barrett 2001; Mui 2001). I was asked by television newsmagazine Dateline NBC to study Edward's act: was he really talking to the dead?
The Old Spiritualism
Today's spiritualism traces its roots to 1848 and the schoolgirl antics of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Katie. They seemed to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler by means of mysterious rapping sounds. Four decades later the foxy sisters confessed how they had produced the noises by trickery (Nickell 1994), but meanwhile others discovered they too could be "mediums" (those who supposedly communicate with the dead).
The "spiritualism" craze spread across the United States, Europe, and beyond. In darkened séance rooms, lecture halls, and theaters, various "spirit" phenomena occurred. The Davenport Brothers conjured up spirit entities to play musical instruments while the two mediums were, apparently, securely tied in a special "spirit cabinet." Unfortunately the Davenports were exposed many times, once by a local printer. He visited their spook show and volunteered as part of an audience committee to help secure the two mediums. He took that opportunity to secretly place some printer's ink on the neck of a violin, and after the séance one of the duo had his shoulder smeared with the black substance (Nickell 1999).
In Boston, while photographer William H. Mumler was recycling some glass photographic plates, he accidentally obtained faint images of previous sitters. He soon adapted the technique to producing "spirit extras" in photographs of his clients. But Mumler's scam was revealed when some of his ethereal entities were recognized as living Boston residents (Nickell 1994).
The great magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) crusaded against phony spiritualists, seeking out elderly mediums who taught him the tricks of the trade. For example, while sitters touched hands around the séance table, mediums had clever ways of gaining the use of one hand. (One method was to slowly move the hands close together so that the fingers of one could be substituted for those of the other.) This allowed the production of special effects, such as causing a tin trumpet to appear to be levitating. Houdini gave public demonstrations of the deceptions. "Do Spirits Return?" asked one of his posters. "Houdini Says No-and Proves It" (Gibson 1977, 157).
Continuing the tradition, I have investigated various mediums, sometimes attending séances undercover and once obtaining police warrants against a fraudulent medium from the notorious Camp Chesterfield spiritualist center in Indiana (Nickell 1998). The camp is the subject of the book The Psychic Mafia, written by a former medium who recanted and revealed the tricks of floating trumpets (with disembodied voices), ghostly apparitions, materializing "apports," and other fake phenomena (Keene 1976)-some of which I have also witnessed firsthand.