In 1976, M. Lamar Keene came out with an explosive tell-all autobiography titled The Psychic Mafia. It's a book everyone interested in the paranormal should read.
Who was M. Lamar Keene? For years he was a highly successful medium, working at Camp Chesterfield, a spiritualist retreat in Indiana where dozens of mediums plied their trade. He mastered all the mysteries of psychic phenomena and wowed his clients:
It was my inexplicable floating trumpet, through which the spirit communicators spoke with their families and friends still here on earth; my shimmering spirit forms, which not only spoke to the living but touched, even embraced them; my shatteringly accurate clairvoyance, which proved that the spirits followed the day-by-day existence of their loved ones, aware of the most trivial things in their lives -- it was these mysterious psychic phenomena that kept the people coming and, most important, the money flowing in. [P. 90., Dell paperback edition, 1977]
But eventually, after collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from his patrons, Keene suffered a crisis of conscience. He abandoned mediumship and told his story to psychic researcher Allen Spraggett, who wrote it up in book form. The Psychic Mafia was the result.
Why the crisis of conscience and the need to confess? Well, because all of Keene's mediumistic abilities, without exception, were fraudulent. He was a showman, a magician, and a con artist, nothing more.
In The Psychic Mafia, Keene details his trickery, exposing the embarrassingly simple deceptions that fooled so many people. The heart of the book is Chapter 5, "Secrets of the Seance," which methodically runs through the strategies used by fake mediums to bilk their clients.
Keene was often able to produce detailed information about his "sitters," astonishing them with his clairvoyance. In actuality, he had merely done advance research:
To get information on sitters, we had a variety of methods, all devious. I've already mentioned pilfering purses and billfolds and picking pockets in the darkened séance room to dig out such data as social security numbers or bankbooks. We also made a rule that anyone wishing to be at a private or group séance had to attend three public church services [at Keene's spiritualist church] beforehand. That way they could be observed and we could gather information on them from the billets they wrote. Each billet was stamped at the top: "Please address your billet to one or more loved ones in spirit, giving first and last names, ask one or more questions and sign your full name." One billett thus made out gave us enough leads to come up with a file on anybody ...
Also, I had an electronic sound collector -- a device for picking up sounds at a considerable distance -- positioned in a house we owned across the street from the church. By aiming this at the church before a service, we harvested delicious bits of conversation that later were woven into startling messages. [Pp. 91,92]
Notice that Keene's clients were naive enough to give him their full names and the names of the deceased persons they wished to contact. This violates rule number one when testing a medium: Give out as little info as possible.
The information gleaned by one medium was shared with others in a network of information that spanned the whole country. By this means, a medium in California could give a startlingly accurate reading to a first-time visitor from New York , provided that the New Yorker had gone to other mediums in the past. Enormous numbers of file cards listing clients' names, family histories, medical problems, and purported spirit guides were collected and catalogued in a large basement underneath the church at Camp Chesterfield. (One can only assume that computers and the Internet make the whole process much more efficient today.)
Keene's forte, however, was not mental mediumship but the materialization seance, in which the ghostly figures of the departed would appear in the darkened room.
The lights were turned off except for one large red bulb controlled by a dimmer switch which cast enough glow to illumine the ectoplasm ...
For materialization sittings I wore black socks and pants which didn't show up at all in the dark. Then, while the sitters were singing [a hymn], I would don my chiffon spirit garb.... When I was ready -- which could be in as little as ten seconds if necessary -- I'd ooze from the cabinet, trailing clouds of ectoplasm ...
It's amazing what effects can be created in the dark manipulating yards and yards of chiffon and gauze which appears to shimmer in the unearthly glow of the ruby light. What I did was what magicians call "black art." The parts of me not covered by ectoplasm were garbed totally in black and were quite invisible in the dark....
Standing in the séance room in my invisible outfit I would deftly unroll a ball of chiffon out to the middle of the floor and manipulate it until eventually it enveloped me. What the sitters saw was a phenomenon: A tiny ball of ectoplasm sending out shimmering tendrils which gradually grew or developed into a fully formed materialized spirit.... The ectoplasmic figure could disappear the same way it appeared. I simply unwound the chiffon from my body slowly and dramatically then wadded it back into the original tiny ball. What the sitters saw was the fully formed spirit gradually disintegrate, evaporate into a puff of ectoplasm.
The variations were endless. By standing in front of the cabinet and pulling the black curtains out and around me and manipulating them I could create the illusion of spirit forms undulating; varying in width from a mere inch to many inches; shooting from two feet to six feet in height ... and then crumpling back to four feet, three, two, one ... and through the floor. A whooshing sound added to the illusion of the form melting into the floorboards ...
We sometimes permitted infrared photographs to prove the reality of the materialization phenomena. These were snapped only when the spirits gave the signal guaranteeing that only what we wanted was captured on the film....
With other mediums in black stealthily entering the room we could and at times did produce a host of materialized spirits.... Coat hangers draped in ectoplasm also made a passable spirit, sort of half-materialized.
To portray a child I got down on my knees in the darkness. Sometimes the sisters were invited to approach the spirit closely to peer directly into its face. I had a variety of face masks of men, women and children for all such occasions ...
My partner and I, and other confederates if we needed them, wore head-to-toe black outfits which rendered us invisible in the darkness. We could handle the trumpet with impunity even in a good red light and with the luminescent bands [on the trumpet] giving off a considerable glow.
The trumpets... were made in sections and were expandable to a total length of about four feet. Thus they could be swung around with considerable speed. The sitter, thinking that trumpet was only a foot long and seeing it whizzing around close to the ceiling, assumed that it had gotten up there by defying gravity. [Pp. 95-100]
The intellectual quality of Keene's sitters was not high. Most would accept almost any trickery as real, even the old carnival gimmick of reading letters in sealed envelopes. If Keene was caught in deception, he would brazen his way out by blaming "mischievous spirits." Keene, like his fellow mediums at Camp Chesterfield, plainly despised his clients, whom he characterizes as marks, suckers, dupes, fools ... you get the idea.
Keene would throw his voice to create "direct voice" phenomena. (He has disparaging words for the famed direct voice medium Leslie Flint, whose technique Keene found unimpressive.) He and an accomplice could "levitate" a sitter by simply lifting the sitter's chair in the dark. "Apports" (spontaneous manifestations of physical objects) were created by smuggling the item into the seance room and producing it with sleight of hand, even in good light. The yards of chiffon that stood in for ectoplasm could be crumpled into an amazingly small wad and concealed in the medium's clothing, even in his underpants.
Other mediums were said to swallow and regurgitate cheesecloth. According to a note in the bibliography on p. 171, the medium Helen Duncan could compress two yards of cheesecloth thirty inches wide into a ball tiny enough to be concealed in her mouth.
Some mediums (though not Keene himself, he insists) were even known to have sex with their clients in the dark, after convincing the sitter that his or her deceased lover had materialized and was in need of some sexual healing.
What's most interesting about this, to me, is that some of the precautions taken against fraud even by experienced researchers appear to be inadequate. Dim red light, for instance, turns out to be little better than absolute blackness. Earnest descriptions of apparitions "building up" from the floor and then melting away turn out to be easily explained by the manipulation of yards of chiffon. Sitters' insistence that they looked directly into the face of a loved one are less convincing when we learn that in dim light even a masked medium on his knees can fool the witness.
And then there's the trumpet. Again and again in reports of physical mediumship we hear that the trumpet - a cylinder through which spirit voices allegedly emanate - whizzed around the room at an impossible speed, performing acrobatic gyrations that no human operator could pull off. But now we know the answer: The trumpet is merely expanded to a length of four feet (or more), and can then be easily manipulated. Even a slight motion of the hand at one end of the trumpet will produce a wide, sweeping arc at the far end. The trick is ingenious in its simplicity.
Does this mean that all mediumistic phenomena are phony? Keene seems to think so, though he allows for the existence of ESP in some people. William Rauscher, a psychic researcher who wrote the forward to the book, takes the opposite tack, stating that some mediumship is genuine, and that Keene's debunking efforts should not tar the whole field.
It does seem as if Keene, in his understandable reaction to a lifetime of deception, has overstated the case for fraud. In Chapter 6, "A Short History of Mediumistic Deception," he highlights mainly obvious cases of fakery like the Davenport Brothers and the later seances of Florence Cook, while painting a rather simplistic and, I think, misleading picture of more controversial figures like the Fox sisters and Eusapia Palladino. In particular, his dismissal of Palladino in just a few paragraphs is more like a hit job than a serious analysis. The woman unquestionably cheated, but some of her phenomena appear to be inexplicable by any normal means. (See Deborah Blum's outstanding new book Ghost Hunters for a fair-minded discussion of Palladino and other early mediums.)
It is noteworthy that Keene's "Short History" makes no mention of Leonora Piper, Gladys Leonard, or Eileen Garrett, the three most extensively tested mediums in history, none of whom was ever caught cheating. Nor is there any mention of the "cross correspondences," a series of communications received by mediums on different continents which were shown to cohere in remarkably subtle ways. And while Keene dismisses "spoon bending" as a trick, he was writing before Jack Houck began hosting his hundreds of "PK parties," in which ordinary people bend their own cutlery into corkscrews. In other words, like too many magicians, Keene seems to assume that if some or even most of the phenomena are fake, then they must all be fake. This is a little like saying that if some money is counterfeit, then all money must be counterfeit.
Despite these caveats, The Psychic Mafia is a valuable contribution to this field of study. Sadly, the book is out of print, though used copies can be tracked down online without much difficulty. If you're at all interested in the paranormal, do your best to find Lamar Keene's book. It's not a pretty story, but it's one that more people need to hear.