According to the Philadelphia Inquirer of April 27, 2007 (O’Reilly and Vitez 2007), Philadelphia’s fortune tellers failed to foresee the forced closure of their shops. Citing a state law that had been on the books for decades and that banned fortunetelling for profit, city inspectors began to force astrologers, psychics, and tarot-card readers to shut down. Having been alerted by police to the law, which makes fortunetelling “for gain or lucre” a misdemeanor, an official of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said no arrests had been made or fines issued. However, he promised that inspectors would do so “if these people try to return to work” (O’Reilly and Vitez 2007).
A week later, however, the ban was rescinded after one psychic’s attorney filed a request for a preliminary injunction, claiming the anti-fortunetelling statute could only be invoked in instances of fraud. The City Solicitor’s Office agreed. A deputy solicitor stated, “we felt it was hard to say what kind of evidence might be needed to prove someone was pretending to tell fortunes” (O’Reilly 2007). Once again, the alleged psychics failed to foresee the turn of events.
Their ineptitude seemed—well, predictable: In May 1995, I helped Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV launch a “sting” against various “psychic” readers and advisors as well as 900-number clairvoyants. After consulting with me to devise a suitable strategy, Herb Denenberg and other members of his “Newscenter 10” unit went undercover to set up a test of the soothsayers’ abilities. The sting was inspired by Jody Himebaugh whose eleven-year-old son Mark had disappeared November 25, 1991. Himebaugh said more than one hundred self-claimed psychics had since offered their visions, typically seeing a “dark car,” “the number 5,” or similar “clues.” These were never any help, but they could later be matched to actual evidence once it became known—a clever technique called “retrofitting” (Nickell 2001).
Denenberg’s team enlisted a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl named Kate. Although she was safely at home (for example playing softball in her front yard), the psychics were told that she had been missing since January. Some psychics “saw” her experiencing physical harm; one collected a fee of $50 for reporting her “confined against her will”; and another charged $180 to divine that the girl had run away and was “probably pregnant.” While one psychic envisioned her just two miles from home, another saw her far away in Florida. Not one among the several seers ever divined the truth, that the teenager was not missing and that Channel 10 was conducting a sting operation.
Subsequently confronted with the evidence of their inoperative powers, the psychics declined to appear on camera. However, a spokesman for “Miss Ruby, Psychic Reader and Advisor,” conceded she should have foreseen the sting operation, and she refunded WCAU’s money. Newscenter 10’s investigative report also featured Frank Friel, a detective with thirty years of law enforcement experience. Friel stated that he had never had a psychic provide a valuable clue. He criticized the alleged clairvoyants for their phony offerings which he described as “catastrophic to the well-being” of the families concerned and, indeed, “out-and-out fraud.” Himebaugh said psychics took an “emotional toll” on families, revealing that he had twice ended up in the hospital suffering from anxiety attacks caused by psychics’ false hopes (Nickell 2001).
Nor were Philadelphia’s seers unique in their lack of effectiveness. A similar sting—conducted by Florida-based Inside Edition reporters after discussing police psychics with me and reading my book Psychic Sleuths (Nickell 1994)—produced similar results. The reporters obtained a childhood photo of a staffer and presented it to a professional “psychic” who claimed that the “missing child” was dead, while a hidden camera secretly recorded the session. (The segment went on to expose the claim of notorious psychic Sylvia Browne, made on the Montel Williams television show, to having solved a case that in fact remained unsolved) (Inside 2000).
My own undercover work has repeatedly revealed psychic ineptitude—and worse. Using a false persona, a pseudonym, and disguise (necessitated by my frequent TV appearances), I revealed nationally known “police psychic” Phil Jordan to be a “Psychic Sleuth without a Clue” (Nickell 2004). He had no idea of my real background or identity. (More recently, Jordan was also apparently unable to see that the hotel he owned in Seneca Falls, New York—where he offered twice-weekly “Psychic Dinner Floorshows”—would not succeed financially.) Again, at Indiana’s spiritualist enclave, Camp Chesterfield, I uncovered various deceptions, including the old billet-reading scam. In this demonstration (actually a magic trick), information written on a folded slip of paper is supposedly divined by the psychic or medium; however, in my case, the alleged sensitives failed to perceive that the penned names and information were bogus (Nickell 2002)
Many times in my several decades of paranormal investigation, I have visited palmists, card readers, astrologers, mediums, and clairvoyants. Not one ever mentioned the profound fact that I had a daughter and two grandsons I was unaware of (until, wonderfully, she discovered me in 2003) (Nickell 2004; 2005). At least one of the Philadelphia storefront psychics whose business had been closed tacitly conceded at the time that he and his fellow seers were pretenders, “What we do is entertainment, he sniffed. We knew that.
- Inside Edition. 2000. Segment aired May 11; see Nickell 2001, 124—125.
- Nickell, Joe. 1994. Psychic Sleuths. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- —. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 122—127.
- —. 2002. Undercover among the spirits. Skeptical Inquirer 26:2 (March/April), 22—25.
- —. 2004. Psychic sleuth without a clue. Skeptical Inquirer 28:3 (May/June), 19—21.
- —. 2005. Intuition: The case of the unknown daughter. Skeptical Inquirer 29:2 (March/April), 12—13, 33.
- O’Reilly, David. 2007. City psychics thrown a lifeline. Online at http:www.philly.com/inquirer/local/; accessed May 3.
- O’Reilly, David, and Michael Vitez. 2007. Who knew? An old law shuts psychics. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27.