As most of you know, for the past year I've been engaged in an on-again, off-again online debate with Victor Zammit, a prominent attorney in Sydney, Australia, who has made strong claims for the authenticity of the medium David Thompson. I'm not going to review the whole matter here. Suffice it to say that I and many of the commenters on this blog have raised a number of specific criticisms of the procedures followed in Thompson's seances and have expressed doubt that genuine results are being obtained.
Now I've taken the trouble to contact professional escape artists who gather in an online forum, and I've asked them if it would be possible to duplicate David Thompson's act. Could they release themselves from flexible handcuffs, do a performance in the dark, and then resecure themselves before the lights come up? At least two of the participants in the forum have answered unequivocally yes, and while they're not going to give away their trade secrets, they have given me a reasonably clear idea of how the trick can be pulled off. There is no longer any doubt that the method used to secure Thompson is far from escape-proof.
Some people still want to give Thompson the benefit of the doubt. That's fine. As for me, I am not quite so generous. From now on, I am assuming that Thompson's seances are theatrical performances, nothing more. I do not believe there is anything paranormal going on inside that seance room. The onus is on David Thompson and Victor Zammit and the Circle of the Silver Cord to tighten up their procedures, restrain Thompson more rigorously, and obtain more evidential results. Given their track record, I have no optimism that any such steps will be taken.
The funny thing about all this is that I'm not very interested in the subject of physical (as opposed to mental) mediumship, and I probably would not have pursued the matter beyond a single post if Mr. Zammit had given a more satisfactory reply. All he needed to say was something like this: "Thank you for your constructive criticism. We will work to implement some of the improved procedures that you've recommended as time and opportunity permit." Had he given that kind answer, I probably would have forgotten the entire issue.
Instead, he responded with increasingly vitriolic rants and blatant misrepresentations of my position. When responding to my criticisms, he never provides a link to what I wrote or even identifies me by my name. This gives him the latitude to cherry-pick my comments, to grossly misstate what I actually said, and to identify me as a "skeptic," which I surely am not. It was this campaign of childish innuendo and dishonest rhetoric, coupled with his refusal to address any specific criticisms, that kept me interested in the Thompson case. Now my interest has gotten some professional escape artists involved. Where things will go from here, I don't know, but I suspect that David Thompson wishes Victor had been less combative and more polite.
In any event, I'm pretty much done with this issue. As far as I'm concerned, what is happening in that seance room is quite clear. The lights go off; Thompson extricates himself from the handcuffs and gag; he disguises his voice (not very well) and walks around the room shaking hands and passing the occasional note to a credulous sitter; he then resumes his chair, replaces the gag, and slips back into his bonds.
I know that some people will point to other claims made in connection with the Thompson seances as possible evidence that there is something more going on. For instance, in a recent interview with the magazine The Searchlight (not available online), Mr. Zammit reported that, in the dark, the medium's chair levitated above the heads of the sitters, and that by reaching up, they could feel the legs of the chair and could even feel Mr. Thompson's shoe. Sounds impressive, no? Actually, this is an old trick, dating back at least a hundred years. The medium, who is out of the chair, simply lifts the chair in the dark and allows visitors to feel its underside. They assume it is floating when actually he's holding it up. But what about the shoe? Again, no big mystery -- his foot is not in the shoe. His hand is in the shoe, allowing him to hold it several feet off the floor. Again, this is an old trick and anyone familiar with the history of physical mediumship would be aware of it.
No doubt there are other claims of a similar nature that can be made. At this point I simply discount them all. In total (or even near-total) darkness, in a state of emotional excitement, a person's subjective impressions are not very reliable. In his book The Psychic Mafia, the phony medium M. Lamar Keene described how sitters could be fooled into thinking they saw a deceased relative in dim red light when all they were looking at was a crude puppet mask. They could be fooled into thinking they saw a deceased child when all they were looking at was the medium on hands and knees, draped in a sheet.
There are three physical senses that keep us in primary contact with the outside world: sight, hearing, and touch. (Taste and smell don't give us much information in most circumstances.) In the pitch dark seance room, sight is eliminated. When music is played or sitters are singing loudly, any background noises are drowned out; hearing is eliminated. As for touch, the sitters typically are not allowed to touch the medium, supposedly because physical contact will damage the delicate ectoplasm emanating from his body. For much of the seance they hold hands, and even when their hands are free, they can touch the materialized "spirit" only when explicitly permitted to do so in the form of a handshake or a hug. In other words, for all of the seance, the sitters are deprived of sight; for part of it they are deprived of hearing; for most of it they are deprived of touch.
In these circumstances, imagination and logical inference must fill the sensory gap. One logical inference is that if you feel the underside of the chair over your head, then the chair must be hovering. Another inference is that if you feel a shoe, there must be a foot inside it, not a hand. Another inference is that if the medium is tied at the beginning of the session and is found to be tied at the end, then he must have been tied throughout. These are, as I say, logical inferences, the kind that normally would not lead us astray. But in this case they do mislead us. The nature of magic is exactly this kind of misdirection. It is the art of using your own logical reasoning skills against you. The skilled magician uses your expectations to confound you. You look where you think the trick is taking place and miss what's actually happening. You make an assumption that seems reasonable on its face, but is actually the opposite of the truth.
Misdirection, illusion, a few clever tricks. I don't believe there is anything more than this going on in Sydney. If there is, it's up to the Circle of the Silver Cord to establish as much. Personal assurances ("I guarantee legitimate paranormal phenomena are taking place!)", appeals to authority ("I'm a trained empiricist and a lawyer!"), scientific jargon ("repeatability," "variables," "content analysis"), and emotional diatribes are not evidence of anything, except perhaps a person's will to believe. As Michael Caine says in The Prestige, "They want to be fooled."
When these senses began, Mr. Zammit assured his audience that the consequences would be "world shattering." He said that the Thompson seances would go down in history as more important than Galileo's experiments and would bring about a paradigm shift greater than the Copernican Revolution. As Marcelo Truzzi famously remarked, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This dictum can be abused, but it contains some truth. So far I have not seen extraordinary evidence, or even good old-fashioned ordinary evidence, to support the extraordinary claims made on behalf of David Thompson.
In some of his comments, Victor Zammit called me "an uninformed skeptic." I think this is wrong on two counts. First, I'm not a skeptic, as anyone can ascertain by skimming the contents of this blog -- more than 500 posts, most of them devoted to supporting the legitimacy of some paranormal phenomena. Second, I am not uninformed on this subject -- or at least, I can lay claim to being better informed than Mr. Zammit. After all, in my spare time, without any particular trouble, I was able to find out essentially how Mr. Thompson has tricked the circle of sitters who believe in him. It did not take a lot of effort or ingenuity. If I was able to come up with this information with relative ease, as a kind of casual hobby, and what does it say about Mr. Zammit's methods of investigation that, after a full year of intensive and concentrated study, he has not obtained the same facts?
Well, you don't find what you're not looking for.
It seems clear to me Mr. Zammit was immediately taken in by Mr. Thompson's performance and believed himself too smart to be fooled. This is always a mistake. Anybody can be fooled. In fact, it is often true that the smarter you are, the more easily can be fooled, if only because your confidence in your intellect can be used against you. Smart people are also very good at rationalizing. When Harry Houdini allegedly manifested in the seance room speaking in a Southern dialect (the real Houdini was born in Budapest and raised in Wisconsin and New York*), Mr. Zammit quickly rationalized the discrepancy by saying that the energy of a another celebrity spirit (Louis Armstrong) had become mingled with Houdini's during the manifestation, and that somehow Satchmo's Southern dialect had been transferred to the legendary escape artist. This does not make much sense, but it's the kind of thing that a clever person, good at rationalizing, will come up with.
No doubt there are more wonders to be reported in the seance room in Sydney. And I suspect that Thompson's upcoming tour of England will be a great success. It looks like his events have mostly sold out already. He'll even get some television coverage, it appears. In my opinion, none of this is good news for those of us who are serious about investigating the paranormal in a disciplined, professional way. It makes us look silly and gullible. And I have no doubt that David Thompson is laughing at all those who've been taken in by his act, just as Lamar Keene used to laugh at his clients.
But so it goes. People have been fooled in dark seance rooms for over a hundred years and will go on being fooled, and that's just the way it is.
For now, my interest in l'affaire Thompson is essentially exhausted. I may issue an occasional update, but I plan to go on to other and more interesting topics. I hope you've enjoyed the ride.
*I originally wrote that Houdini was born in New York. Thanks to Kevin in comments for pointing out this mistake.