Crixeo: Failed Prophets
Failed Predictions, Psychics & Prophets Throughout History
Reality is defined by the mind observing it, and the mind instinctively rejects ideas that don’t fit within that reality. It’s a survival mechanism — keeping our deep emotional ties to certain belief systems intact, whether those beliefs are supported by facts or not. Undoubtedly this is why, in a 2005 Gallup Survey, three out of four Americans indicated they believed in the paranormal. To be more specific, 41% believed in extrasensory perception (ESP), 26% believed in clairvoyance, and 31% believed in telepathy and psychic communication. This is after a 1987 study by the United States National Academy of Sciences declared there is “no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.”
I won’t attempt to prove whether paranormal activities or psychic powers exist. Instead I’d like to tell you how the concept of the psychic appears to have evolved throughout our cultural history, and I’ll do that with a focus on those who were charlatans and liars. Because in order to protect ourselves from being cheated, tricked or conned, we really must understand how we got here. So let’s start somewhere very near the beginning, in ancient Greece with the Oracle of Delphi.
An oracle is believed to be a vessel of communication for a god or goddess. In the case of Delphi, the Oracle originally represented the Mother Goddess, Gaia, and then later the god Apollo; but the Oracle was never a specific individual. Instead, this was a role portrayed by a number of women, all taking turns to serve their god as the Pythia. But the god Apollo spoke through the Pythia only nine times out of the year, on the seventh day after each new moon, and only from the Adyton, a small chamber beneath the temple where sweet, unearthly fumes rose through cracks in the floor. There, enraptured within the dark and fragrant chamber, the Oracle would answer questions pertaining to politics, war and government. Powerful men, such as Alexander the Great, traveled from around the ancient world to consult the Oracle, making the Pythia one of the most powerful women in history — but she did not act alone.
There were also priests who lived at Delphi, including the famed essayist Plutarch, and these priests ensured as much accuracy as possible within the Adyton. Acting as the eyes and ears of the Pythia, the priests would interview each visitor of the temple to decide which question they had traveled so far to ask. Perhaps they hoped the Pythia and the god Apollo would help them determine whether to go to war or whether to start a new colony. All details and options would have been explained to the priest, who then would have whispered these secrets to the Pythia before she entered the Adyton as the Oracle.
The city itself was also home to a large entertainment complex, including theaters and gymnasiums. Visitors were encouraged to enjoy themselves while waiting to see the Oracle. Those chosen to ask their question would then climb the steps to the temple, as if on their own shamanic journey, walking past a plaque that read Know Thyself. Once in the Adyton, they would encounter the euphoric and lightheaded Pythia serving as the Oracle, who would answer questions with vague, open-ended and cryptic responses, speaking as if she represented the god Apollo, providing just enough information to be taken seriously and just enough ambiguity to never be proven as predicting incorrectly. Afterward, the visitor would depart reinvigorated and confident in his personal prophecy. No doubt the sweet vapors facilitated this, as it turns out they were actually ethylene gas, an anesthetic more potent than nitrous oxide.
In other words, the priestess wasn’t speaking for the gods; she was high. And when asked about politics, war and conquests, she made an educated guess. But neither the Pythia nor the priests could be held responsible for how these predictions were interpreted. After all, they’d warned each visitor who’d climbed the steps to Know Thyself, because ultimately everyone would define their own answer.
More than 1,100 years after the Temple of Delphi was shut down by Emperor Theodosius I, another “prophet” was claiming access to divine insight, and he too was leaving his answers vague, open-ended and poetically challenging. This man was Mìchele de Nostredame, also known as Nostradamus, a French apothecary born in 1503. Fifty-five years later, after several university expulsions and a brief stint studying the occult, he would publish Les Propheties, containing some 6,338 quatrains, or “prophecies.” Some say these strange poems correctly predicted the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the horrific reign of Adolf Hitler and the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11.
However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Nostradamus had simply plagiarized from classic texts, misinterpreted astrology and incorrectly translated Egyptian hieroglyphics (which were not successfully translated into French until the early 1800s by Jean-François Champollion). And because he never bothered to date his predictions, it became easy to apply them to events after the fact, giving the appearance of accuracy. But with Catherine de Médicis, the wife of King Henry II of France, as his patron, Nostradamus was able to legitimize his prophecies, amass a small fortune and escape the Inquisition.
Yet during his lifetime some 800 to 1,000 Frenchwomen, not having the same patron as the famous French “prophet” did, had been burned at the stake for their supposed dealings with the occult.
If only they had lived some 300 years later, during the mid-19th century, they might have become celebrities instead. Such was the case with the Fox sisters, who not only challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church by insisting they could contact the spirit world but also reimagined what divination could be, bringing back a touch of the spectacle that had been notable in ancient Greece. This was the age of the “medium,” or those who could walk between two worlds. But just as with the Pythia, the Fox sisters could not have made people believe all on their own — there were larger forces afoot.
For instance, in 1837 Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and later Morse code. These innovations, among others, allowed mere humans to send messages long distances through electricity, forever changing how we would communicate — and making it easier for some to make the mental leap to believe the living could converse with the dead. And in 1848, the Fox sisters claimed they could do just that. But unlike the Pythia, they weren’t about to discuss politics or government. Instead, these women got personal.
It all started in Hydesville, New York. Kate was 11 and Maggie 15 when the mysterious rappings started echoing throughout their new home. Their mother was frightened by the sounds, especially since neighbors had already claimed the cottage was haunted. The children insisted the knocks and thumps were being made by a murdered peddler named Mr. Splitfoot, who they claimed had been buried in the basement. Oddly enough, their mother never questioned the tale or suspected her daughters. It was their older sister, Leah, who decided to capitalize on the story.
As interest in the rappings grew, Leah began her own “spiritualistic” society, declared her sisters and herself “mediums” and began to tour the country with Maggie and Kate in tow, hosting séances for anyone who wished to communicate with their loved ones on the other side. And just as with Morse code, the girls received their messages through a series of taps, cracks and knocks. For some, these mysterious rappings called into question all teachings of heaven and hell, causing believers to develop new opinions regarding the afterlife. Thus was born modern Spiritualism, a form of religion that spread like wildfire, all the way to the sophisticated salons of London where table turning became a Victorian-era craze. Soon hundreds of copycats emerged, boasting the same mysterious skill set; but the Fox sisters remained the originals and quickly climbed the ranks of society as notable celebrities.
In 1879 the town of Lily Dale, New York, was established as a hub for the Spiritualist movement. Today it is home to more than 200 residents, many claiming to be gifted mediums able to help the 22,000 people who visit each year seeking closure. And there, in a very small museum, reside the humble discoveries made in the Fox cottage in 1904, including a tin trunk, or peddler’s pack, which was found among animal bones hidden behind a false wall. Believers argue that these items have proven the authenticity of the Fox sisters’ claims.
The only problem? The sisters admitted they made it all up.
On October 21, 1888, Maggie explained to an audience of some 2,000 people at the Academy of Music in New York City that she and her sisters were frauds. “We were very mischievous children,” she said, with Kate nodding beside her. “And we wanted to terrify our dear mother, who was a very good woman and very easily frightened. At night when we were in bed, we used to tie an apple to a string and move it up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor…making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” When their mother finally called in the neighbors for help, the girls were forced to invent an explanation. The result was Mr. Splitfoot.
To the dismay of many involved in the Spiritualist movement, Maggie went on to reveal that during séances, she and her sister had created the rappings and knocks by cracking their toes, knees and ankles hidden beneath long skirts — as many skeptics at the time had predicted, including the famed magician Harry Houdini. The sisters even demonstrated to the audience how this was done. Maggie told the crowd, “I think that it is about time that the truth of this miserable subject ‘Spiritualism’ should be brought out. It is now widespread all over the world, and unless it is put down, it will do great evil. I was the first in the field, and I have the right to expose it.”
Yet many Spiritualists made excuses for the sisters, claiming they only said such “falsehoods” because of their alcoholism and poverty, which put them in great need of the $1,500 prize being offered. Others claimed their actions were revenge against their eldest sister, Leah. Regardless, neither Kate nor Maggie could stop Spiritualism, even by providing evidence of the fraud which had given birth to the movement. And within a matter of years, their concept would be mixed with Eastern mysticism and morph into an entirely new idea.
It was out of these circumstances that the New Age movement was born and, along with it, the concept of the psychic. Not only was this individual believed to be capable of speaking with the dead, but they were also encouraged to make prophecies and provide spiritual advice, supposedly passed down from God. It was the perfect mix of the Fox sisters, Nostradamus, and the Oracle at Delphi — all rolled into one individual with a penchant for mentalism, showmanship and deception. And one of the worst examples of this breed of individual was Sylvia Browne.
A frequent guest on television broadcasts, such as The Montel Williams Show, Browne claimed that her gifts as a medium and psychic had been passed down through her bloodline for some 300 years. But she didn’t begin performing readings until she was nearly 40 years old, after the end of her first marriage in 1972. Over the course of her career, she wrote more than 50 books, ranging from End of Days to Afterlives of the Rich and Famous. By 2008, she was charging $700 for a 20-minute phone consultation, through which she provided the names of guardian angels and past-life identities. She also claimed that her work with law enforcement to help locate missing children and solve crimes had an accuracy rate between 87 and 90%; however, a study conducted in 2010 by the Center for Skeptical Inquiry proved that claim to be false. In fact, of the 115 cases Browne participated in, her predictions had been correct a grand total of zero times. Here are a few examples of her more famous failed predictions:
Based on this evidence, it is highly unlikely that Sylvia Browne possessed any extraordinary abilities, other than her talent for deceiving individuals who were desperate, grieving and eager to believe she might provide valuable insights into their cases. She also tried to deceive others through a gold-mining securities scheme, for which she and her estranged husband, Kenzil Dalzell Brown, were indicted on charges of investment fraud and grand theft in 1992. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to one year of probation as well as 200 hours of community service. In 2003 she predicted on Larry King Live that she would die at the age of 88. On November 20, 2013, Sylvia Browne died at the age of 77.
But Sylvia Browne wasn’t the first, and she certainly won’t be the last individual to make a buck this way. As James Randi, in the recent documentary An Honest Liar, warns: “No matter how smart or how educated you are, you can be deceived.” And you are deceived because you want to be. You want the psychic or oracle to be correct, and you’re hoping for a certain prediction to be foretold. That’s how Alexander the Great was deceived in Delphi and how Nostradamus fooled the court of King Henry II. This need for belief in life after death is why the Fox sisters were able to fool the entire East Coast and London high society and why Sylvia Browne was able to deceive more than her fair share of those desperate for information and solace. And no matter how many times people like James Randi prove that it’s all fake, we still believe it — because we want to.
Humans believed in prophecies and fortunes well before 300 BC, and we believe in them even now — no matter how educated and civilized we think we’ve become. And while one might argue that 99.9% of all psychic predictions are nothing more than strategic guesses, fraud and magic tricks, it won’t change the minds of many. So I suppose the best advice is still to heed the Oracle’s warning: Know Thyself. If you can accomplish that, you may just save yourself $700. Why? Because you already know the answer. You just need to believe.