Over the years psychics and psychical researchers have presented all manner of claims relating to supernatural phenomenon. Whether such abilities exist or not, is not the purpose of this article, but even if the people on this list do possess genuine abilities it hasn’t stopped them being the subjects of skeptical stings. Below is a video version of this post, albeit with less detail due to the format if you’d rather watch instead of read. Otherwise, after the jump we’ll look at my personal favourite Top 5 Psychic Stings.
Number 5 – Helen Duncan
At one stage, Helen Duncan, was probably the most famous medium in Britain. She is certainly remembered by many to this day as the last person imprisoned for witchcraft. Although she had been subject to criticism throughout her career, even once being fined at Edinburgh Sheriff Court for fraud pertaining to her psychic claims, she was pretty much accepted as genuine by the psychic community.
Even today, 70 years after the sting that made her infamous, she is still seen as a wronged woman and a martyr for the Spiritualist cause. Documentaries, plays, books all exist and there is even a mural commemorating her just down the road from me in East Lothian.
Her most famous séance took place in 1941 in Portsmouth, when the ghost of a sailor came through claiming to be from a recently sunk ship the HMS Barham. It is true the ship sank with all hands, but this news was apparently secret- apart from the fact the attack itself was documented and the families of all 800 plus crew, many in Portsmouth, were informed. Hardly the secret Duncans supporters make it out to be.
The sting, which lead to her trial and imprisonment, occurred almost 3 years later starting in December 1943 when a sailor named Worth attended her séance. Duncan’s big draw was her ectoplasm demonstration, something we now know – and knew at the time- was created through the use of regurgitated cheesecloth. Worth was less than impressed with her skills, and considering her failed tests with investigator Harry Price and her numerous exposes for using puppets and costuming herself to create the physical spirits, as well as the earlier conviction all meant it was time for Duncan to be taken down.
The following month, in January 1944, the local police organised a sting operation. Two plain clothed officers of his majesties constabulary attended a séance above a shop in Copnor Road, Portsmouth and waited for their chance. This chance came quickly as a ghost manifested before them, launching forward they grabbed at the spectre to reveal Duncan herself in costume.
This lead to her prosecution under the Witchcraft Act 1735, an obscure piece of legislation which is misleadingly titled. You see, the Act wasn’t about persecuting “genuine” witches, but about prosecuting frauds who pretended to be psychic. Duncan was exposed and found guilty, spending 9 months in prison. This only solidified her in the Spiritualists eyes as a genuine case who was persecuted and it eventually played in integral part in the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, replacing it with the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.
Duncan lived a further 11 years, dying in 1956 after another police sting at one of her séances, though one that this time wouldn’t make it to court.
Number 4 – Project Alpha
This is a little bit different to the other entries on the list. It doesn’t involve a sting on practicing psychics or mediums, but on a parapsychology research department investigating psychic claims.
In 1979 the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research began working on investigating psychokinetic metal bending- basically spoon bending to the rest of us. They had obtained half a million dollars from the aerospace manufacturer and weapons contractor McDonnell Douglas to begin the research via Washington University. Of the many people who presented themselves as being psychic a number of them were dismissed as either having no ability or using sleight of hand. Two particular subjects however- Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards- were stand out metal benders, whom the researchers decided to focus their energies on.
Edwards and Shaw, the wunderkinds of this research facility, who were proving the most likely candidates for actual PK ability were in fact plants. Magicians put there by noted skeptic James Randi and had no psychic ability whatsoever.
They accomplished their rouse by a variety of simple tricks- such as switch the labels on spoons so that later measurements showed a change in their dimensions, dropping cutlery into their laps and bending it there and using the more eagle eyed members of staff as volunteers to distract them from noticing the cheating. Another test involved stapled envelopes with pictures inside- as they were left alone with he envelopes they simple removed the staples carefully, had a look, and replaced the staples so it looked as if no tampering had occurred.
Another test involved objects in a sealed container they were asked to move- noticing small openings in the container they used the James Hydrick method of simply blowing. Randi even wrote to the lab informing them that he thought the two were magicians, but this fell on deaf ears. Research briefs were released detailing the amazing abilities and the two men were celebrities in the Psi world.
After Randi released leaked statements that the two were plants and this had some impact in that the test protocols were more rigorous and the success rate was downplayed. When Randi finally revealed the truth, it resulted in the McDonnell lab being shut down, many supporters being publicly discredited but yet others who insisted the magicians really were psychic and were lying about being magicians.
This sting threw the parapsychology community into chaos with some suggesting it set the field back 100 years. It remains one of the most important stings in the history of psychic claims.
Number 3 – Bullsh!t Detectors
In the mid 2000s, around the same time he had “stung” Derek Acorah (see Number 1 slot), Ciaron O’Keefe was called in by BBC Three to take part in another sting for a piece called “Bullsh!t Detectors”. This show featured three mediums being taken into a chocolate factory to see if their psychic senses could detect anything.
The story that was featured was that of George Bull. Bull was described as a fat, aggressive manager from Maine, USA, who ruled the company with an iron fist and amassed great wealth. He was the first manager of the factory but was maimed when a horse and cart went out of control, cutting his legs off and killing him. A picture of the man hung prominently in the factory.
The problem? The story was entirely made up by O’Keefe. It wasn’t in the least bit true. The story existed in only one place- on the chocolate factory website. The only way the mediums could have picked up on this was if they had looked at the website beforehand as no spirit would have been able to recount it, and certainly Bull himself could not be present.
Three mediums took part and all to a lesser or greater extent picked up on George, a former factory manager. One medium, Phillip, starts by recounting the story of a fat angry manager named George who had an accident. Another medium, Kevin, only gives basic information suggesting he has only got the information presented at the factory to go on and hadn’t done any pre show research. A wonderful scene of Kevin involves him unable to get Georges last name – until he is shown the picture with his name underneath at which point he, with a little bit of showmanship, gets the name Bull. When he is told the information is all made up he tries to turn it around so he is still right by saying “It’s all made up? Are you sure? Check it”
The final medium, Goldie, went into a trance and was actually taken over by the fictitious Bull who recounted the fictitious story. When she was presented with the truth however, she had the grace to accept the sting and confesses that although she personally didn’t look at the website, she mentions a “friend of a friend” and congratulates the presenter with a handshake. Even after the reveal, she still insists that the name George Bull was a real name she had got, until the presenter mentions the name was chosen because Bull= Bullshit she responds with “I know, I’m psychic”. Though she does admit she cheated, but only for “most of it” and only gave about “30% truth” though considering the story is 100% fiction, I think she’s being a little generous.
The mediums give a variety of excuses for why they couldn’t be faking- Kevin insists he couldn’t have read the name plaque on the painting because he needs glasses, and Phillip says that psychics don’t just connect with the mind of spirit but the minds of others present so if they are thinking of that information the medium will pick it up. This entire sting shows how mediums are capable of turning the biggest miss in to a hit and still coming out, as far as supporters are concerned, on top. Even when mediums are wrong, they’re right.
Number 2 – Peter Popoff
In the 1970s and 1980s the psychic superstar was a force to be reckoned with. With the likes of the Israeli Uri Geller wowing the world with his apparent telekinesis, and the British Doris Stokes becoming a phenomena it was time for America to get in on the act.
Peter Popoff was born in Germany but immigrated to America as a child with his parents. In the 1970s whilst still a young man he began his televised ministries that soon became national events. The big sell of Popoff’s sermons was in the form of psychic healing curing long standing chronic conditions. He didn’t just cure people, but was able to read them much like a stage medium would an audience and tell them not only who they were and where they were from but what specifically was wrong with them.
The psychology of why this type of public evangelical healing seems to work is well documented, but just how was he able to glean such an insight into complete strangers? Surely he must be psychic? Well, that is where James Randi stepped in.
In 1986 Randi lead a sting which involved a radio scanner, you see the thinking was that Popoff was actually being fed this information via electronic means after it had been gathered before the sermon began. Sure enough, when the scanner was used it picked up Popoffs wife relaying the information to him from off stage. The oft quoted line from his wife to start the one way interaction was “Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can‘t, you‘re in trouble”.
Randi’s investigation also recorded her laughing at the appearance of a man with terminal testicular cancer, warning her husband not to touch the breasts of a member of the congregation. Another thing the sting involved was using audience plants- including one man in drag whom Popoff “cured” of cancer.
After this was revealed Popoff first attempted to pass the sting off as a hoax using a voice actress though eventually admitted the use of his wife and the radio communication. The following year he declared bankruptcy, though that didn’t keep him down as he has found a new outlet for his ministry by offering free blessed water which was accompanied by letters asking for donations- letters which continue for several months and contain a variety of gifts such as a cheap handkerchief, an eraser modeled like a dollar bill and a single blue paper slipper the recipient is instructed to wear on their foot and stand one legged on a Bible.
Number 1 – Derek Acorah
I must admit a soft spot for Derek Acorah. Mutual friends who have met him or worked with him describe him as a pretty nice and kind man and generally speaking, his shows are enjoyable and he doesn’t seem to prey on the bereaved in the way the late and odious Sylvia Browne did. In fact, Derek is one of the few psychics I’d very happily sit down for a pint with. That all said, Derek was at the centre of one of the most famous stings in British television.
Derek used to be the medium for the show Most Haunted and regularly became possessed by the spirits at the locations they visited. One hilarious moment came during a show where he went into a trance and repeated the phrase “Mary loves Dick”, which quite rightly resulted in crew hysterics after the feed cut out. But the specific incident in question for this sting came in another show, and the sting set up went even further than it’s creator ever thought possible.
During an investigation into Castle Leslie, Ireland, Derek began giving information about an entity he had gained from a four poster bed, however the bed in question was not an original fixture and lead resident parapsychologist Ciaron O’Keefe to question just how Derek was getting his supposed psychic information. And so the game was afoot as Dr. O’Keefe set about his plan to test Derek and see if he was in fact gathering information from other sources.
During series 6 the show was set to visit Bodmin Gaol, at a point prior to this- and within earshot of Derek- O’Keefe discussed a South African Jailor by the name of Kreed Kafer. However, Kafer was totally made up, and the name was in fact an anagram of Derek Faker. If Acorah were to even mention the man then it would go some way to showing he was obtaining at least some of his information from less supernatural means.
Now just to take a slight sidestep here, this wasn’t a rigorous scientific test at all. There could be many reasons why Derek picked up on the name that didn’t involve intentional deceit- he might well have heard the name and forgotten and dismissed it only for him to pick up on it in a reading, that might prove he was getting information subconsciously from memory but wouldn’t prove outright fraud. It could be passed off as him giving information about a real ghostly jailor but it getting mixed up with his memory of having heard the name elsewhere.
But that isn’t what happened. Kafer wasn’t simply mentioned in passing, Derek went full on possession, being taken over by the entirely fictitious jailor. But it doesn’t stop here. O’Keefe tried the same stunt again in another episode at Prideaux Palace, this time with the highwayman Rik Eedles – an anagram of Derek Lies. And again, Acorah identified the spirit of Edles when he was entirely fictitious.
And even THAT was not the end of it. O’Keefe had set up Derek with information in Craigievar Castle, Aberdeen, about Richard the Lionheart, a satanic presence, a group of four children and an apparition of the late King Richard vanishing into a wardrobe. Derek related this information and this seemed to be the final straw for O’Keefe, who went public, especially considering that Derek had just told the story of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Now maybe Derek could argue he was just picking up on vibes, that maybe the spirits had relayed false information but whatever the explanation, it certainly hasn’t stopped him appearing on television and touring his stage shows. Acorah is pretty benign and to me feels closer to the general stage mediums that demonstrate at Spiritualist Churches rather than the quite abhorrent behaviour of people like Peter Popoff and Sylvia Browne.