Science - Page 85

not dent her colorful career . Paladino would at times admit to fraud when she was caught in the act , but supporters claimed that while the pressures to produce consistent results from inconsistent spirits sometimes led her and other mediums into fakery , that didn ’ t necessarily mean they cheated all the time . Yet if ever there was a call for Occam ’ s Razor to be applied to an explanation , it should be to the claim that just because someone cheats sometimes , it doesn ’ t mean they cheat all the time . When you weigh the options between ( 1 ) mediums always cheat , versus ( 2 ) we should upend everything we know about the physical universe since the birth of the scientific method , call me crazy , but . . . I ’ m going with cheating . Here ’ s how she did it . First , she dictated the lighting and “ controls ” that were to be used in her séances . Second , she used a common trick of the spirit medium , the “ medium ’ s grip ,” wherein when all the sitters around the séance table would clasp hands , or touch hands together , the fingertips of her right hand resting upon the back of the hand of one of the “ controller ” sitters adjacent to her . A second controller seated on her other side grasped her left hand . Her feet rested underneath or on top of the feet of her controllers . Thus it appeared that she could not use her hands or feet to create spirit phenomena in the dark . But even “ controlled ” in that way , she could pull a foot out from her shoe prepared for the purpose , and after tipping the table back on one leg , she could wedge her foot under the lifted leg nearest her , and then briefly raise the entire table , making it appear to be floating in the air . As with any professional con artist , the keys to the skill set of a psychic or medium are flexibility — the ability to take advantage of any situation spontaneously — and , above all , boldness . Eusapia Paladino had both in abundance .
Paladino had been invited to England in 1895 by the Society for Psychical Research ( SPR ), the first organization of its kind , formed in 1882 with the stated intention being “ to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind , and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems , once not less obscure nor less hotly debated .” William Crookes was a member , along with the previously mentioned physicist Oliver Lodge and Nobel laureate Charles Richet . The organization , which still exists , professed to hold no a priori position on Spiritualism and psychic phenomena , and in its earliest days exposed many fraudulent mediums .
For example , in 1884 the SPR sent its Secretary , Richard Hodgson , to India to investigate Madame Blavatsky , a renowned medium and the founder of Theosophy , which attracted numerous eminent adherents ( including William Butler Yeats ), and still does . Among the phenomena that Hodgson investigated was the miraculous “ Theosophical letters from the Mahatmas ,” Blavatsky ’ s claimed mystical teachers and so-called “ adepts ” with whom she claimed personal connection . The letters were said to magically appear over a four-year period in a cabinet in the Shrine Room at the Theosophical headquarters in Madras . Hodgson concluded that the letters were fakes and that Blavatsky had not only written them herself , but had then planted them in the cabinet via a secret opening in her bedroom located behind the Shrine room . After that auspicious start , the SPR unfortunately broke into contentious factions , creating frequent and heated debate within the ranks . After the exposure of William Hope and other fraudulent mediums , Arthur Conan Doyle led a mass resignation of 84 members of the Society — not because of the revelation of so much trickery by mediums , but because they believed the Society was opposed to Spiritualism . Science historian William Hodson Brock observed that by the 1900s most of the spiritualists , unhappy about the skeptical stance of most of the group ’ s investigations , had resigned from the SPR and joined a London Spiritualist Alliance that had been founded about the same time .
For their part , skeptical members also began resigning from the SPR , disillusioned with its credulous approach to investigations . Eric Dingwall resigned and wrote , “ After sixty years ’ experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period , I do not think I could name half a dozen whom I could call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth . The great majority wanted to prove something or other : They wanted the phenomena into which they were inquiring to serve some purpose in supporting preconceived theories of their own .”
And thus , in its later years — like so many parapsychology groups ever since — the SPR became a hotbed of believers attempting to find supportive evidence of their beliefs , rather than pursuing open-minded investigations without foregone conclusion . ■
Chapter excerpted from The Conjurer ’ s Conundrum : My Life in Magic and Skepticism Copyright ( c ) 2020 by Jamy Ian Swiss & Vanishing Inc . Magic The book is available at : jamyianswiss . com / conjurers-conundrum
Photo by Michael Bulbenko
According to the post-modern magic duo , Penn & Teller , Jamy Ian Swiss is “ James Bond with a deck of cards for a pistol !” An internationally acclaimed sleight-of-hand artist , writer and speaker , Swiss has appeared internationally for presenters ranging from Fortune 500 companies to the Smithsonian Institution . His U . S . television appearances include CBS 48 Hours ; PBS Nova ; repeat appearances on The Today Show and on The Late , Late Show ; and he has been seen on screens nationwide in two feature-length documentaries : “ An Honest Liar ” and “ Merchants of Doubt .” The author of six books , he has lectured to magicians in 13 countries ; to academics and scientists about skepticism and critical thinking ; to law enforcement professionals on con games ; and consulted on casino game security . A lengthy profile in the New Yorker declared that , “ Swiss is widely thought to have one of the most masterly sleight-of-hand techniques in the world today .”