We have lost one of the most influential members of the modern skeptic community. And it is very possible that you won’t have even heard of him. I’m going to fix that right now, so read on.
Before Facebook, Twitter, and other social network platforms, we used forums to communicate. Some of you probably still remember these; possibly a few still use them. They are clunky internet websites where people can gather, post stories, reply, form friendships, get in arguments, and waste away a lazy Sunday if you want. Back in the day, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) had the most popular forum devoted to skepticism. There were thousands of members, and the conversations were great; a good chunk of them were to discuss protocols for various claims for the Million Dollar Challenge. I was one of those lurkers who had an account but rarely posted. I had attended my first TAM back in 2004 and was hooked on this community. It was so much fun to get to know people on the forum and then meet them in real life at TAM. But I really wanted to find my purpose within the community.
I was attracted to one person who really seemed to be doing activism. His name was Robert S. Lancaster, a computer programmer living in the Los Angeles area. He had a website focused on Sylvia Browne, who was one of the biggest psychic mediums in business in 2004. Robert was asking for help with his research. He needed people to find transcripts of Browne from the Montel Williams daytime show that she often appeared on. You could find transcripts of the show if you had access to LexisNexis, which most people in college could get through the school library. I volunteered to help.
I found all the transcripts for the shows and sorted them carefully by date and sent them off to Robert. He would spend time going through all the transcripts looking for anything he could fact check. Sylvia Browne obviously never saw the internet in any of her visions. She didn’t know a world of forums, websites, and YouTube would ever show her for the fraud that she was. That was crazy talk.
What Robert did was create a website called www.StopSylvia.com with every checkable fact he could find. He searched for instances where Sylvia was found to be correct and would have graciously published it if found. It was tedious work, but he created these stories centered on one specific story. It was terrific, and I visited the website daily to see if anything new was out. It took him weeks to get a story out, but still I checked … just in case.
Remember this was back in 2004 when the internet was pretty rough. Looking at websites back in the early 2000s was like looking at green shag carpet in old photos. You cringe a bit, but still this website was incredible. It was activism that even I could do. StopSylvia.com and Robert Lancaster had a major influence on me becoming the person I am today. He showed me the way.
To say Robert Lancaster is just an average guy, but also he was super influential to my “career” in the skepticism community seems to be a conflict. He was just some guy who did something with computers who didn’t have an advanced degree. He wasn’t a performer; he was not famous; he was just someone who was upset that a woman named Dr. Kaz deMille-Jacobsen had come to his mother’s church and told a bunch of lies. And instead of just complaining, he did something about it. That was in 2004, and even today it’s rare.
Kaz would tell church attendees a bunch of nonsense about surviving 9/11 after having breakfast on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Robert’s mom and many of the church members believed it. Kaz was a woman on a mission from God, and she had a “Dr.” in front of her name, and on and on. Robert was suspicious and started checking around the internet, asking lots of questions and not finding mention of Kaz or her stories. He did talk to some of the church members who said they were a bit skeptical of Kaz, but there wasn’t anything negative about her on the internet. So, Robert decided to design a website and fill it with all the facts he could find about Dr. Kaz deMille-Jacobsen. Then when the next church or person she tried her story on would be able to find his website and learn all about her. He called this website www.stopkaz.com
The stories needed a lot of research. It wasn’t so much that he could confirm her stories of having a multi-million-dollar business or that she had a business meeting in the World Trade Center on 9/11, that she is the granddaughter of Cecil B. deMille or that she had many famous clients and advised presidents. Lack of photos and news articles confirming these stories were not evidence that she was lying; she claimed to be camera shy, and she didn’t feel that she needed to brag about her deMille family or the presidents. It’s difficult to disprove a negative.
The avenue that Robert took was not something I had seen done before. He took apart each claim in small, logical steps, showing his work, linking to everything he found. He asked himself questions and then answered them as he researched. We readers got to watch over his shoulder as he worked through each claim.
For example, he looked into the story that she had just finished a business breakfast in the Window on the World restaurant on the top floor. She had another appointment that morning, so she ended the meeting early. While in the elevator heading down, the first plane hit. Seven people were in the elevator that had stopped between the 94th and 96th floors. Four people chose to exit out of the top of the elevator to a service ladder. Those four people perished, and only the three remaining—which included Kaz—survived. Her stories changed often. One version was that she could see the plane flying directly at them as the elevator doors closed. Of course, only through the intervention of God did she survive.
The truth is that Kaz was living in Southern California with one of the church families that she would travel between, living off their Christian generosity, which included their kitchen, spare bedroom, cash, laundry, computer, and whatever else she could get a hold of. Robert has many testimonials from people saying that she was not only in Southern California when the towers fell but she was watching it on TV with many of them. They supplied Robert photos of Kaz taken after 9/11 when she claims she was recovering in a hospital in New York. When Kaz would leave a church family, or more often be asked to leave, she would leave behind files on the family computer. People would send Robert these files. He has many versions of her autobiography.
Reading through the Stop Kaz website over again, I’m reminded of the level of detail and research that Robert left for us. He has correspondence with people from all over the world who interacted with Kaz. People sent him audio from churches she spoke at. He even has copies of her passports from people researching her in New Zealand where she eventually went to live. Robert has cease and desist letters sent to Kaz from the deMille family and testimony from elevator experts about how it would be impossible for people to climb out of the World Trade Center elevator.
Throughout the website, Robert is factual and kind. Over and over he offers Kaz a chance to explain and to show him evidence that he is wrong. She obviously started to feel a squeeze from her ability to live off of church people, because she had her lawyer send a “seize [sic] and desist” letter to Robert and kept doing interviews complaining about him. Eventually, Kaz “retired” to New Zealand and Robert reports that the last he heard she was living in a shack.
After success with Dr. Kaz, Robert moved on to the most popular TV medium we had at the time, Sylvia Browne. He created this really awesome logo of a red stop sign and a woman’s hand with six-inch fingernails and called his website www.StopSylvia.com. (I still have my Stop Sylvia baseball cap.) He used the same techniques, finding claims that Sylvia had made, backing up the truth with citations, transcripts, video, audio, and then piece by piece researching and documenting as he went.
One trademark of Robert was that he was always kind, only commenting on the actions of Sylvia, never dropping into ad hominin attacks against her personally. As the website started to receive views from the paranormal world, things started getting weird. He kept getting emails from people asking why he was picking on such a wonderful person like Sylvia Browne and what an evil, godless man he was. When he got these letters, he answered them in a kind and factual manner, asking them to read his website. Most hadn’t. Then after many conversations with these letter-writers, we see them start to trust Robert. They shared their experiences with Sylvia and sent him their recorded readings with her. Robert listened to them and answered them back. They asked lots of questions about how could Sylvia seem so real? And he explained … patiently. Occasionally he would get permission to share their conversation (with names and emails redacted), and it was eye-opening for us readers to watch as the supporters really started to open their eyes. Things they had never considered about mediumship were now getting asked and answered.
I don’t know how many Sylvia Browne supporters he turned around with his website, but it must have been hundreds. Possibly more, as I’m sure people were lurking as I had been, reading through the stories. It is also possible that many of these Browne supporters gave up on Sylvia but still kept believing in mediumship. We don’t know.
What I do know is that for a few years, StopSylvia.com was showing the skeptic community how to fight back with a punch without confrontation in real life. And it really pissed off the medium. As psychic expert Mark Edward keeps saying, these mediums are just performers. Get under their skins, start throwing light on how they work by consistently applying this sort of skeptical attention, and we will soon cut back on their ability to gain more followers. This can be accomplished in various ways. The bottom line is that as performers, they can be thrown off guard in personal appearances. Especially if they (or their handlers) suspect there might be skeptics in the audience or some other activism (out in front on a public street, in a lobby or parking lot or on a radio spot.) Because they aren’t really psychic, they won’t know what to expect, and this is our advantage. It’s like when a professional comedian who knows there’s a heckler in the audience and he may have to deal with those “negative vibes.” A good one sails through such landmines. Psychics and mediums are generally not prepared for such confrontations and jitters. They are used to believers. Enough interventions like Robert Lancaster’s and the quality of their shows will decrease and they will start realizing it is too much trouble to continue going out in public venues. See our Las Vegas protest against Sylvia in 2012 for one example.
At The Amaz!ing Meeting in 2006, I had one goal: to get a photo of me shaking Robert Lancaster’s hand. And that is what I got. He was the one person I wanted to meet, the person who had inspired me to feel like I also could find something to do in this community. Everyone else who was active seemed to be a famous magician or had a PhD in something. Robert was someone I could relate to.
In 2008, Robert suffered a serious stroke that nearly ended his life. He was hospitalized for a long time. his wife, Susan, was amazing. She took charge and moved them both out of Los Angeles to a much quieter and healthier Salem, Oregon. She purchased a van that could accommodate his wheelchair and outfitted the apartment so he could regain his life back.
During the time that Robert was in the hospital with his first stroke, the domain for StopSylvia.com lapsed and was picked up by a website that began hosting psychic ads. The skeptic community was heartbroken over losing such an important site. Skeptics working with Susan Lancaster instead purchased www.StopSylviaBrowne.com and moved over the content.
In 2009, the JREF gave Robert the Citizen Skeptic Award at The Amaz!ng Meeting 7. His wife and sister accompanied him. I and others in the audience were thrilled to see James Randi give him this award.
In 2011, Lancaster again suffered another stroke. This made it very difficult for him to continue with his work researching mediums. He had been attempting to research James Van Praagh, spending hours on the Van Praagh forum talking with supporters. Because he was so kind and respectful of the believers, he was allowed to remain in their discussions. I believe that Robert had started to have conversations with Van Praagh over the forum and email. It looked like there might be another Stop.com website coming soon.
During these years I continued my interest in television mediums and spent hours researching and learning their tricks. I met my future partner Mark Edward on one of the JREF cruises, where he was one of the speakers. Susan Lancaster was also on that cruise because the JREF had paid for her and Robert to attend, but his stroke kept him in the hospital. Susan didn’t want to leave Robert, but he encouraged her to go, and she certainly could use a relaxing break. Mark Edward is an expert on the psychic world, so meeting up with him after my interest in that same world really sealed my fate to follow Robert’s lead and become an activist against what Mark Edward began calling these mediums: grief vampires.
During the 2017 eclipse, I found myself visiting Salem, Oregon, where I gave a talk to the Cherry Creek Skeptics about the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW). Because I was in town, I was able to spend an hour with Robert and Susan at their apartment. It was great to see them both. Robert looked great. He had some concentration issues that kept him from continuing his work with Van Praagh, but he remembered pretty much everything from before. We had a lovely conversation, and I got a great photo with him.
My heart goes out to Susan Lancaster at this painful time. She lost Robert slowly in the past couple months. Tim Farley wrote Robert’s Wikipedia page in 2010, and it exists as well as the Kaz and Sylvia websites on the WayBack Machine (links here and here). Be careful, because you might lose yourself in his research as I did.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about Robert Lancaster. He was such an inspiration to me and others in our community. I learned so much from his style and doggedness documenting claim after claim from Kaz and Sylvia Browne. His kindness when talking to their believers and supporters is something that everyone in our community should take note of. Robert was just a regular average guy … but actually he was nothing of the sort. Thank you, Robert. You will be missed.