Spiritualism is unique as a religious community. In no other
religious group have substantive charges of fraud played such
a large part, and within no other group has the need to confront
fraud had such an effect upon its development. Soon after
the founding of the movement charges of deliberate fraud were
leveled against a growing number of mediums, and the movement
itself was charged with complicity in the fraud and a refusal
to rid itself of obviously fraudulent leaders.
The frequency with which mediums were exposed in acts of
trickery and even convicted of fraud induced many people—
concluding the bulk of the phenomena to be fraudulently produced—to
abandon both the movement and psychical research.
The era of systematic research on Spiritualist phenomena
came to a close in the 1930s when psychical researchers
concluded that there was little, if anything, real in physical phenomena.
Psychical research was gradually superseded by laboratory-oriented
parapsychology. In most countries Spiritualism
was pushed to the fringes of the community of people
interested in paranormal phenomena and has never regained
its credibility. It is conspicuously absent from the New Age
The question of fraud is an interesting and complicated one,
however, worthy of the student’s attention. Simple deception
practiced for money was founded, but there were also many instances
of apparently deliberate trickery in which there was no
reward to be obtained, and even some cases in which the medium
seemed entirely innocent and ignorant of the fraud.
The great majority of fraud was related to the production of
physical phenomena, especially materialization, apports, and
the levitation of trumpets and other objects. A significant portion
of the mental phenomena remains that provides an interesting
arena for research and explains the continuing fascination
with the paranormal.
Conscious and Unconscious Fraud
It is helpful to distinguish between conscious and unconscious
fraud, although at times one seemed to shade imperceptibly
into the other. During the century (1850–1950) when researchers
turned their attention to Spiritualism, conscious
fraud most often appeared in connection with physical phenomena.
Almost at the outset of the spiritualistic movement
(i.e., in 1851) three doctors demonstrated that the rappings
that attended the Fox sisters were produced by manipulation
of the knee and toe joints, a fact that was soon afterward corroborated
by a relative of the Fox family. In the wake of the sisters’
Fraternitas Saturni Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
contradictory claims, confessions, and recantations the evidence
was declared inconclusive, but the possibility of fraud
had been shown.
After that many mediums have at one time or another been
detected in fraud, and every phase of physical mediumship was
eventually discredited. Slate writing, spirit photography, and
materialization were all in turn exposed, and now exist only in
the fringes of Spiritualism, primarily at Camps Chesterfield in
Indiana and Silver Belle in Pennsylvania and in the several
churches associated with them. A major exposure of materialization
fraud was published as late as 1960 in the Psychic Observer
by Andrija Puharich. The result of the exposure was the
bankruptcy of the periodical. In the 1970s Lamar Keene, a
Spiritualist medium heavily involved in the production of
fraudulent phenomena, left the profession and published his
memoirs. In the 1980s magician James Randi discovered several
faith healers operating on the fringe of the Pentecostal
community using some old conjuring tricks to convince their
audiences that miracles were occurring.
Time and again, sitters beheld the form and features of the
medium in the materialized spirit; shadowy figures in filmy
draperies were shown to be dummies wrapped in muslin. False
beards and white draperies were found on the medium’s person.
Apports—jewels, flowers, perfumes, objects d’art—were
smuggled into the séance room in order to be showered upon
the sitters by generous ‘‘spirits.’’ Threads and human hairs
were used to move furniture and other objects. More elaborate
and complicated machinery was sometimes provided, but more
often the fake medium depended upon sleight of hand and
skillful suggestion to accomplish his ends. Some of the mediums
were so skilled that professional magicians admitted to séances
failed to discover the modus operandi of the phenomena,
which would only be revealed at a later date.
Fraud can also be illustrated by many instances of self-styled
clairvoyance where the medium acquired information by muscle-reading,
or by judicious inquiry before the séance. Fraud
of this kind may have been either conscious or unconscious.
A large group of automatic phenomena occuring when the
medium was in a trance state must be classed under the heading
of unconscious fraud. In many of the more pronounced
cases of automatism, the agent was not consciously responsible
for his or her acts. There was a slighter degree of automatism
where the agent may have been partly conscious of, and responsible
for, the phenomena. The latter state, if frequently induced
and if the automatist’s willpower was somewhat relaxed,
may have passed into the more profound stage, so that fraud
that was at first conscious and voluntary may have become unconscious
and spontaneous. Thus it is extremely difficult to
know when an accusation of fraud was fairly brought against a
There is evidence that many trance mediums reproduced in
their discourses information subconsciously acquired at some
more or less remote period. The trance utterances of Leonora
Piper, Rosina Thompson, and others revealed this peculiarity.
It is true that extensive and apparently fraudulent arrangements
were sometimes made before a séance. It is possible,
though unlikely, that such preparations were made automatically
in a state similar to the mediumistic trance.
Spiritualists themselves were often called to face exposures
of undoubted fraud, and on such occasions various apologies
of a more or less ingenious nature were sometimes offered for
the fraudulent medium. Sometimes it was said that the medium
was controlled by a mischievous, lying, or lower spirit who
made use of the medium’s physical organism to perform tricks
and deceptions, an apology that opened Spiritualists to charges
of demonic possession from Christian detractors. It was sometimes
stated that the medium felt an irresistible impulse to perform
the action that he or she knew was in the mind of the control.
Italian medium Eusapia Palladino sometimes extended her
hand involuntarily in the direction in which movement of furniture
was to take place, although without actual contact. Perceiving
that the spirits desired to move the object, she was impelled
to attempt a physical (and fraudulent) forestalling of the
action, it was said. Other investigators who examined this medium’s
phenomena declared that their production caused Palladino
a great deal of pain and fatigue, and that she therefore
seized an opportunity to produce them easily and without trouble.
Such an opportunity, they held, only presented itself when
their rigorous precautions were relaxed.
The same explanation was given in connection with other
mediums. Following cases of materialization séances when the
spirit form was grasped and found to be the medium, apologists
attempted an elaborate if ultimately unsatisfying explanation.
A certain amount of the medium’s physical energy, it was
suggested, was imparted to the spirit. If the latter was roughly
handled, spirit and medium would unite for their joint benefit,
either within or outside of the cabinet. If the medium possessed
the greater amount of energy she drew the spirit to herself. If
most of the energy belonged to the materialized spirit the medium
would instantly be attracted to the spirit. The fact that the
latter invariably happened had no significance for committed
Alternatively, Spiritualists suggested, as did Sergeant Cox,
on one occasion, that the medium was controlled in order to
impersonate a spirit entity.
Whatever the reason for fraud, it became clear to psychical
researchers that even the most honorable medium could not be
trusted without reserve, even if his character in normal life was
blameless and there was no apparent objective for committing
fraud. Investigators had to rely on the strictest vigilance and
the most up-to-date scientific methods and apparatus.
The Mechanics of Fraud
While some Spiritualists were apologists for the most questionable
phenomena and proved themselves the exponents of
an intense ‘‘will to believe,’’ a few manifested an eagerness to
challenge and expose fraudulent mediumship and proved
themselves far from gullible. On a few occasions Spiritualists
joined in the exposure of fraudulent colleagues, such as the celebrated
rogue William Roy, although these instances were
From the time of the Hydesville phenomena many mediums,
including most all the physical mediums, were accused of
cheating and fell victim to compromising exposures. In the attempt
to test the genuineness of the extraordinary claims of
Spiritualism, mediums were pursued both by people who
hoped the phenomena proved true and skeptics eager to uncover
fraud. The means of fraudulent production of phenomena
has a literature of its own. Hereward Carrington aptly stated
‘‘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 slatewriting.’’
More efficient controls evolved with the development of the
science of deception. Wooden sleeves and pants were tied on
the Davenport brothers in Bangor, Maine. Augustus Politi was
brought before the psychical research society of Milan in a
woolen sack. Elizabeth d’Esperance, Mrs. C. E. Wood, and
Annie Fairlamb were meshed in nets like fish to prevent masquerading
during their séances of materialization. Florence
Cook was closed into an electrical circuit. Charles Bailey was
shut in a cage with mosquito netting. Eusapia Palladino was
tied by Enrico Morselli to the couch with a thick, broad band
of surgical tape like that used in asylums to fasten down violent
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Fraud
lunatics. Rudi Schneider was under a formidable triple control
while being tested at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.
From the simple method of holding the medium (one of the
most efficient methods of control) to the electrical indicators
and infrared cameras of modern psychical research laboratories
(as in the Institut Métapsychique), a long line of evolution
might be traced to the point where fraud was reduced to a negligible
factor. To operate fraudulently under the conditions
thus imposed might be a far greater marvel than a genuine
physical phenomenon.
With mental phenomena the control was more laborious
and fraught with many psychological difficulties. There is no
doubt, however, that persevering examination of an imposture
inevitably leads to the discovery of the source of deception.
Through the early twentieth century many physical mediums
avoided detection primarily because of the ineptness of the observers.
As early as 1894 pioneering researcher F. W. H. Myers divided
séance-room phenomena into three classes. The first and
by far the largest class consisted of tricks whose mechanism was
perfectly well known—as well known as the way in which the ordinary
conjurer produced the rabbit from the hat. These tricks,
indeed, were generally on a lower level than those of the conjurer
at a fair, but in spite of repeated exposures they deceived
the great mass of seekers hoping and expecting to contact the
The second class consisted of phenomena somewhat similar
to those of the first class, but that confounded the average magician,
who was unable to reproduce the phenomena. If these
phenomena were genuine, the first class may be called imitations
of them. If they were fraudulent, they indicate that here
and there a so-called medium had professional secrets of his
The third class consisted of a few rarely attested phenomena,
of which Home fire-tests are examples, which were not imitated
with any kind of plausibility, even by the most accomplished
conjurers. This leads to the hypothesis that genuine
mysterious phenomena have occurred, or, equally interesting,
that some kind of hallucination was induced in the observers
in some readily imitable manner.
In the past, charges of fraud often resulted from a lack of
knowledge of unsuspected possibilities. William H. Mumler,
the first spirit photographer, was promptly accused of trickery
when, instead of the spirit of the dead, the double of the living
appeared on his plate. The famous third limbs or ‘‘pseudopods’’
of Eusapia Palladino were first ascribed to movement of
her hands.
The suggestion that a mysterious substance, ectoplasm, existed
as an agent for physical phenomena provided some critical
examples of the problem of fraud in psychical research. For
example, in his experiments with the Goligher Circle, William
J. Crawford posited the existence of ectoplasm to account for
some otherwise odd phenomena carring minute particles of
fresh paint discovered on objects and on the medium’s body.
It was later discovered that the phenomena in the circle was
fraudulently produced. The idea of ectoplasm was later abandoned
altogether, but before that searching out the substance
and attempting to define its properties proved a formidable
task for psychical researchers.
Charles Richet, for example, suggested that ‘‘there is a
quasi-identity between the medium and ectoplasm, so that
when an attempt is made to seize the latter a limb of the medium
may be grasped; though I make a definite and formal protest
against this frequent defence of doubtful phenomena by
the spiritualists. More frequently the ectoplasm is independent
of the medium, indeed, perhaps it is always so.’’
Apologies for Fraud
The resemblance of the materialized phantom to the medium
was a frequent source of the accusations throughout the history
of materializations. The more dedicated argued that the
double of the medium served as a model for the first materialization
and appeared before the manifestation of true phantoms.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suggested that the medium’s double
served as a pattern on which the temporary new body was
built. He carried the suggestion too far, however. In pointing
out that in certain cases so much ectoplasm was taken from the
medium that hardly anything was left behind than an invisible
simulacrum, he conjectured that when a materialized figure
was seized it might not dematerialize into the simulacrum but
absorb the residue of the medium. The acceptance of such a
naive explanation would have opened the gates of fraud and
made it nearly impossible to present evidence in case of brazen
The problem, however, was not so complicated as Doyle
suggested. The simple truth was that nearly all materializing
mediums were from time to time exposed by spirit grabbing.
The ‘‘ectoplasm’’ was often seen to disappear, but quite often
the medium was found in undergarments and without shoes,
so that conscious or unconscious masquerade appeared to be
It was suggested that many genuine mediums, when they felt
their powers ebbing, could not resist the temptation of supplementing
then by artifice. Some, in an extreme state of suggestibility,
might have obeyed the secret urging of a deceitful person.
Such was the defense of Eusapia Palladino in an instance
in Genoa before Cesare Lombroso. Julien Ochorowitz said,
‘‘When it is understood that the medium is but a mirror for reflecting
and directing the nervous energies of the sitters to an
ideoplastic purpose, it will not be found surprising that suggestion
should play an important part. With controllers imbued
with the notion of fraud the medium will be dominated by the
suggestion of fraud.’’
Gustav Geley was forced to declare that ‘‘when a medium
tricks the experimenters are responsible.’’ Hereward Carrington’s
advice in the case of genuine mediums who resorted to
trickery was ‘‘to say nothing but to let the medium see by one’s
manner that one is displeased and the phenomena evidently
not convincing. If she perceives that such attempts are useless,
she will settle down, pass into a trance, and genuine phenomena
will be obtained.’’ In his Mysterious Psychic Forces (1907), Camille
Flammarion notes
‘‘One may lay it down as a principle that all professional mediums
cheat. But they do not always cheat; and they possess
real, undeniable psychic powers. Their case is nearly that of the
hysterical folk under observation at the Salpétrière or elsewhere.
I have seen some of them outwit with their profound
craft not only Dr. Charcot, but especially Dr. Luys and all the
physicians who were making a study of their cases. But because
hysterics deceive and simulate it would be gross error to conclude
that hysteria does not exist.’’
Unconscious fraud was facilitated by the anesthetic condition
observed by William James in automatic writing, which
involved the medium’s hands and arms to a considerable degree.
James H. Hyslop found this as an explanation when, with
the medium’s consent, he made several flashlight photographs
of the production of physical phenomena. The medium was
dumbfounded when the pictures were shown to her. They
plainly showed that she produced every manifestation.
The unconscious impulse to cheat is sometimes quite beyond
control. Laura I. Finch, editor of the Annals of Psychic Science,
confessed that once, during a materialization séance, she
felt a nearly overpowering impulse to roll up her sleeve in the
cabinet and pass her arm out between the curtains.
Andrew Jackson Davis adduced the impulse as a partial explanation
of the Stratford Poltergeist phenomena that occurred
in the home of Eliakim Phelps. The testimonial given
to Henry Gordon by the Springfield Harmonial Circle in January
1851 attempted an explanation
Fraud Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
‘‘It may be stated, however, as a circumstance which seems
to have been the cause of some misapprehension, that the individual
referred to is highly susceptible to the magnetic power
of the spirits, and that under the influence of an impression
which he is unable to resist, he occasionally endeavors to perform
the very action which he perceives to be in the mind of
the spirit.’’
Professor Haraldur Neilsson of Iceland quoted a case in Psychic
Science (July 1925) in which a perfectly senseless fraud was
committed by one of the circle and a spirit afterward confessed
to instigating the fraud.
A few have suggested, though it stretches credulity, that a
state of dissociated consciousness prompting automatic preparations
for fraud before a séance be considered as a possibility
for understanding a medium’s tricks. Such activity might be attributed
to a form of ‘‘posthypnotic promise.’’ Frank Podmore
suggested that in trance the medium may promise to apport
flowers in the next séance and then, in the waking state, might
buy them and hide them in the séance room without conscious
knowledge. Some hint of this possibility is given in Philippe
Tissé’s book Les Rèves (Paris, 1890), which narrates the case of
a man who repeatedly commits thefts in the daytime under the
effect of a dream in the night before.
Fraud by Psychical Researchers and
Accredited scientists who performed psychical research
were expected to have training in various disciplines that made
them reliable observers and experimenters. It was assumed
that only mediums were likely to practice fraud and that it was
the task of the scientist to expose any fraud. Many scientists approached
the paranormal already convinced that claimed phenomena
must be fraudulent (or the result of some other mundane
explanation), since they not only violated accepted
physical laws but contradicted their own personal experience.
Thus, to the average scientist examining mediums, it was only
a matter of finding out how a medium cheated.
In the nineteenth century many scientists had a devout religious
heritage, a heritage they felt had been stolen from them
by science. When the opportunity of using science to reconstruct
the lost foundations upon which their traditional religious
beliefs had been constructed, they eagerly pursued it.
The biographies of the founders of psychical research suggest
that just such a motivation energized their investigations.
The possibility of rebuilding a lost faith coupled with the
genuine scientific breakthrough that would result if their work
proved fruitful was enough to test the integrity of any individual.
The contemporary awareness of fraud in every area of scientific
endeavor testifies to the temptation to cheat, even when
the likely reward was far less than that afforded by any positive
data in psychical research. It is to the credit of psychical research
that no serious charges of fraud were leveled at the primary
people involved in leading the Society for Psychical Research
and the American Society for Psychical Research during
its foundational years.
Within the last decade or so, however, a formidable attack
on the credibility of Sir William Crookes was sustained. He allegedly
was a party to deception by the medium Florence Cook
because he was sexually involved with her, and the séances were
a coverup for the affair.
There is every reason to doubt much of Cook’s phenomena;
the claim that Crookes was her lover is not conclusive, but does
explain why he reported so favorably on them, given his scientific
training and later unquestioned accomplishments.
Crookes’s defenders have argued that he was scrupulous in his
other investigations of psychical phenomena, and that it would
be absurd to attempt to invalidate his work with Daniel Dunglas
Home, for example, on the grounds that he was sexually involved
with him. Yet the question remains if Cook was a fraud,
why was Crookes so completely taken in
After the death of veteran psychical researcher Harry Price,
other researchers declared that Price had been guilty of deception
in the famous case of the haunting of Borley Rectory, and
that doubt must therefore be cast upon his other investigations.
In his biography The Search for Harry Price (1978), author Trevor
H. Hall (who also made the substantive charges against
Crookes), even questions Price’s personal integrity. Hall seems
to go beyond the evidence of Price’s shortcomings as a researcher
in extending his critique to Price’s basic honesty.
The modern era of parapsychology has also been affected
by evidence of error and deception. In the summer of 1974 J.
B. Rhine announced that Walter J. Levy, Jr., the director of
the Institute for Parapsychology, had been discovered deliberately
falsifying experimental results. This announcement was
clearly a challenge to parapsychology, then in the midst of a
controversy surrounding charges of fraud directed at S. G.
Soal, a leading British parapsychologist. Soal died in 1975, and
three years later hard evidence of fraud (conscious manipulation
of computer data) was uncovered and publicized. Fortunately
for the field, such cases have been rare, and parapsychologists
have not been hesitant in reporting them when
Conjuring Campaigns Against Parapsychology
By World War I awareness of the depth of fraud that beset
Spiritualism had become common knowledge within psychical
research, though hope remained that some elements of real
phenomena existed and could be isolated. It was during this
time that Harry Houdini introduced his magic show, and it became
evident that his conjuring skills would be helpful in uncovering
Spiritualist tricks the average untrained researcher
would miss.
Many intelligent Spiritualists and psychical observers were
led to believe that what they perceived was the result of psychic
faculty. Doyle thought Houdini’s tricks so inexplicable that he
declared him a psychic.
Trained stage magicians were especially helpful in the observation
and denouncement of fraudulent psychics and healers
whom laboratory-oriented parapsychologists considered
outside their concern. Such phenomena is often found in worship
services and thus difficult to fully examine as one might
in an experimental situation, but the religious setting has not
proved insurmountable.
Assuming the mantle of Houdini during the late twentieth
century as the archenemy of fake psychics and miracle workers
is the magician James Randi (known as ‘‘the Amazing Randi’’).
He has never acknowledged observing any genuine psychical
phenomena, and operates out of a stated desire to destroy belief
in the paranormal. He has become a leading public
spokesperson for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal. While his work has rarely
spoken to the claims and efforts of mainstream parapsychology,
he has demonstrated that he can ostensibly perform ESP,
psychic surgery, metal bending and other parapsychological
phenomena by trickery. He also demonstrated that at least
some who call themselves parapsychologists were incompetent
in detecting fraud.
To prove his point Randi planted magicians in tests by
parapsychologists. At a press reception in New York in 1982,
he revealed that two young ‘‘metal benders,’’ Steve Shaw and
Mike Edwards, had deceived parapsychologists at the McDonnell
Laboratory for Psychical Research, Washington University,
St. Louis, for four years. On various occasions Randi himself
was present at some sessions in disguise. The researchers
at McDonnell believed that Shaw and Edwards had demonstrated
genuine paranormal talent in metal bending and psychokinesis.
Randi’s point was driven home in 1984 when Masuaki Kiyota,
hailed as the Japanese Uri Geller, revealed in a television
interview that he had faked the phenomena that had been verified
by both American and Japanese researchers. Randi had
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Fraud
long denounced Geller as a fake, but had been unable to provoke
a decisive confrontation. Kiyota claimed that he had reproduced
the primary Geller phenomenon, metal bending, as
well as another frequently hailed phenomenon associated with
psychic Ted Serios—the paranormal creation of pictures on
The incidents in which researchers did not discover fraud
are important, but must also be placed in the larger context of
parapsychology. Even before Randi revealed his scheme at the
McDonnell Laboratory, for example, parapsychologists had
called attention to methodological problems in their research
that would have to be solved before they could accept any optimistic
initial findings. The application of those proper controls
tied the hands of the two magiciansubjects and they were unable
to perform.
During his research of fake ministers operating as Pentecostal
healers, Randi investigated several in whom he could find
no evidence of deceit, even though he found their faith naive
and personally unacceptable.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers, and Psychics. New York
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician among the Spirits. New York
Harper & Brothers, 1924. Reprinted as Houdini, A Magician
among the Spirits. New York Arno Press, 1972.
Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia. New York St. Martin’s
Press, 1976.
Price, Harry, and Eric J. Dingwall. Revelations of a Spirit Medium.
London Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1922.
Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus
Books, 1987.
———. Flim-Flam Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions.
Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus Books, 1982.
———. The Magic of Uri Geller. New York Random House,
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,