Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Money Factor

In The Psychic Mafia, an exposé of his years as a spiritualistic medium, Lamar Keene states that

Mediums, even for professional predators, are an extremely avaricious lot. /… / No doubt incomes vary greatly, according to the skill and popularity of the medium, but the fact is that nobody on earth knows the truth about mediumistic incomes except the individuals themselves. (Keene, 1997)

Keene also describes how it was common practice to deposit in bank accounts only the amounts that had been reported in income-tax returns, and how many psychics kept piles of cash, some of them in safes, some in Swiss bank accounts, and some in the form of gems.

Although Keene’s account was originally published in 1976, the psychics of this millennium are surely no different from him and his psychic colleagues during their heydays. In fact, Joe Nickell went back to Keene’s old domain, Camp Chesterfield, in 2001 and concluded that it’s conjuring business as usual at the spiritualistic fortress (Nickell, 2002). In spite of Keene’s and other’s exposures, psychics still pull the basic stunts to rip a buck – or a small fortune – off the superstitious in the seclusion of this front for organized fraud.

It is no surprise that the psychic scene in particular and New Age in general attracts people who are keen to make money as easy as possible, legally or not. After all, transactions between psychics and their clients are strictly personal and who bothers with receipts when you’ve just received word from your dear, dead grandmother? In addition, the psychic practice demands no tools, no offices or other facilities, no education, nothing but the willingness to deceive and the lack of conscience.

Consider Sylvia Browne, one of the world’s most renowned psychics. It’s no coincidence that she had to bargain her way out off a prison sentence in the late 80’s, when she and her husband was charged on six counts of grand theft and investment fraud (SSB, 2007). Although she escaped that one, she is still in the deception business; she sells bullshit, claiming it is messages from the dead. Or consider the former president of the International Spiritualist Foundation, ISF, Mervyn Johnson, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment for raping a 14-year old girl, and sexual molestation or misconduct concerning six other women. Mr. Johnson was one of the most prominent psychics in Sweden for several years, constantly on séance tours, holding ”courses”, or abroad on ISF conferences. Yet in recent years he has declared having no income (Sidenvall, 2006). How is that possible?

When looking into the income-tax returns (to some extent a matter of public record in Sweden) of our Swedish TV psychics, it is amazing to see how poor they are. Although performing 10-15 public séances per year (making somewhere around at least 1,500–2,000 dollars net each time), announcing to be over-booked with private sessions months ahead (charging 60–80 dollars net each session), holding ”mediumistic training courses” on several occasions per year (charging 300–500 dollars net for a weekend per person), it is still impossible for one of our TV psychics to earn enough to keep his head above the official poverty level. His probable earnings from the TV shows have not been taken into consideration. Nor the fact that his public séances and courses are held in the cheapest facilities possible – school halls, cheap motels, etc.

A couple of years ago, another of our TV psychics was reluctant to admit to having any work at all. His contribution to Sweden’s tax revenue is corresponding to his degree if admitted activity. But he is also over-booked with private sittings, tours, holds ”training courses”. How does it add up? One wonders…

The last time I saw the Grand Old Lady of Swedish psychics appear in one of the Swedish ”haunting” TV shows, she was so well-hung with gold and jewellery that I for a moment thought she was doing some kind of bad Gipsy impression. But then the cash management policies of Camp Chesterfield sprung into my mind, and the ridiculous adornments suddenly made sense – cash converted to bling-bling in order to evade taxes.

One of Sweden’s most active Tarot-tarts has a full-fledged webshop offering everything from crystals to books. She arranges New Age-fairs all around Sweden and, if I’m not mistaken, operates one or a couple of psychic phone-lines charging more than two dollars a minute. Last year, 2006, she declared an annual income of 1 dollar and 50 cent. Go figure…

The money aspect of psychic mediumship is rarely discussed, not even by skeptics. I find this strange, since money is probably the main motivation for most people who claim they are psychic. It is very easy money, you get paid for feeding people’s superstition with unsubstantiated gibberish, there are no obstructs between your client’s wallet and your pocket, no receipt needed, and you have no expenses, at least none that makes it necessary to report real income. In essence, psychic mediumship is a business that can be, and probably is, conducted more or less outside the realm of the tax authorities. And the best part is that the psychic has an army of supporters that will go to any lengths to defend the psychic’s right to his or her loot.

Some supporters argue that it is OK for the psychic to earn money because s/he is providing a service, just like a mechanic or a dentist. This is all fine and dandy – there is nothing wrong with an agreed payment as long as the agreed goods have been delivered. But in the case of the psychic, the agreed-upon goods are not delivered. In fact, no psychic has ever been able to show an ability to deliver anything but bullshit under controlled conditions. Instead, during the last century and a half, in case after case, a multitude of alleged psychics have been busted committing fraud. It is fair to say that psychic mediumship is a tradition of deceit. So it is not OK for the psychic to earn money because s/he is not providing the service s/he is selling. It would be equally wrong for the mechanic to charge for an engine repair never performed, or for the dentist to charge for a filling never done.

But, the supporter argues, as long as the client is satisfied, no harm is done, no deception performed. By this kind of logic, crimes not detected don’t exist – as long as a victim is ignorant of the fact that s/he is the object of a crime, the crime doesn’t exist; as long as you don’t miss anything from your house, it hasn’t been burglarized; as long as you have fallen for a deceit, you haven’t been deceived. Can you think of an argument better designed to protect a deceiver? It is the complete de-criminalization of the act as such.

However, some supporters apparently sense that there is something wrong with psychics making money. They point to those psychics who charge nothing and contend that they are genuine just because of their lack of interest in money -- thus indicating that the medium charging money may be motivated to cheat. There may be, however, several practical reasons why a psychic would not want to charge anything from his or her clients:

1. S/he doesn’t need money – a wealthy spouse, inherited wealth, or some other source of fortune or income makes money less or not at all desirable.

2. Some previous arrangement prevents him or her from getting new income – in Sweden, a common practice is that retirement agreements cease should the benefactor get new employment or other income.

3. S/he claims to charge nothing but expects ”gifts” – a practice mastered by psychics like D. D. Home and John of God.

4. S/he claims that services are free as a promotion gimmick, but when push comes to shove there is a fee. Sylvia Browne is known to pull this one.

And does the psychic who charges nothing earn nothing? No, on the contrary. S/he earns something that can be very valuable; ”observers may fail to realize that pseudopsyhics can be motivated by personal fame, raised self-esteem, a desire to be socially helpful, and increased personal power” (Wiseman & Morris, 1997). The inability to identify these benefits among supporters implies an almost complete ignorance of human psychology. It is amazing to see how a ”no charge” policy renders a psychic an air of benevolence. And it doesn’t matter how crappy s/he performs (even on TV) – as long as s/he doesn’t charge anything, s/he is untouchable. That is of course nonsense. Whether a psychic charges money or not doesn’t say anything regarding his or her ability to communicate with dead people.

When I attend public séances, I always take note of how many people are in the audience. That times the attendance fee gives a good estimate of how much the arranger and the psychic are splitting between themselves when the séance is over -- the psychic’s share is undoubtedly bigger. I also try to find out how much the facilities cost, and if there has been any advertising. Hall rental is generally very low -- when I’ve checked it has been in the region of 100-120 dollars. And advertising generally consists of small text ads in local papers, running for about the same. Deduct that from one night’s takings (at least 1,500-2,000 dollars), and you realize that two hours of telling people bullshit can be very profitable. Take that night times 10 or more nights a year, and you realize that a declared annual income of 10,000 dollars has the same authenticity as messages from the dead.

This is easy math that any tax official can do. Most psychics have websites where they display their schedules for the year or season. On top of their public séances and ”courses in mediumistic development”, most of them also do private sessions. So the sky is the limit, as far as tax evasion goes.

So why not spend the rest of this week checking a local psychic of your choice and mail an anonymous tip to the local tax authorities on Monday? It may turn out to be the most effective skeptic strategy yet.


Keene, L., (1997). The Psychic Mafia. New York: Prometheus.

Nickell, J., (2002). Undercover among the spirits: Investigating Camp Chesterfield – Investigative Files. Skeptic Inquirer, March, 2002. Online here.

Sidenvall, K., (2006, November, 9). Healerns sexoffer berättar. Nya Wermlands-Tidningen, s. 6.

SSB.; Stop Sylvia Browne, (2007). The People vs. Sylvia Brown(e). [WWW document]

Wiseman, R., & Morris, R., (1997). Modeling the Stratagems of Psychic Fraud. In R. Wiseman, Deception & Self-deception. Investigating Psychics. New York: Prometheus.