High Camp Among the Spirits Or, “Who grabbed my ectoplasm?”
In July, 1960, the spiritualist world was rocked by an explosion that sent shock waves through every seance room in the country and shivers up every medium’s spine.
It has become known as the Great Camp Chesterfield Expose.
What happened was so crazy, so zany, that apart from a Peter Sellers movie it could only happen in the weird and wacky world of the psychic.
Two sympathetic researchers, Tom O’Neill and Dr. Andrija Puharich, had tried to get the first motion pictures ever of the materialization of a spirit. O’Neill was a believing spiritualist, editor of the monthly newspaper Psychic Observer, an ordained minister of the Indiana Association of Spiritualists (the legal entity which
owns and runs Chesterfield), and a close friend of Mable Riffle and other stalwarts at the camp. Puharich was a physician and psychical researcher whom O’Neill had recruited to give the project scientific credibility.32
With the enthusiastic support of the Camp Chesterfield authorities, O’Neill and Puharich went into a dark seance room, equipped with infrared lights and film (and a snooperscope, a device developed by the United States Army for making night vision possible on the battlefield) and shot the materialization of a ghost. The medium was Edith Stillwell– one of the true greats of Chesterfield, famed for her multiple-figure materializations– and her cabinet attendant (or bodyguard) was none other than the high priestess of Chesterfield, Mable Riffle herself.
The researchers were not underhanded in the least (after all, they believed in psychic phenomena, especially O’Neill, and both Edith Stillwell and Mable Riffle were told exactly what the infrared film would do– make out any figures in the totally dark room stand out as clearly as in the light of day– and were allowed to take a peek for themselves through the snooperscope. This should have alerted them, but unaccountably, they went along with the project.)33
The experiment was a disaster for the spiritualists. Peering through the snooperscope in the dark, Puharich saw that what were supposed to be spirit forms materializing out of thin air, were actually figures wrapped in chiffon entering the seance room through a hidden door from an adjacent apartment.
The infrared motion picture confirmed Puharich’s observations. There, etched unmistakably on the film, were the familiar faces of camp mediums, dressed up in gauze, impersonating departed spirits.
Tom O’Neill, the devout spiritualist, was devastated by the revelations. He who believed implicitly in the phenomena now raged against “the frauds, fakes, and fantasies of the Chesterfield Spiritualist camp!”
The July 10, 1960 issue of the Psychic Observer bore the headline We Are In Mourning, The Tragic Deceptions in Materialization.
“Writing this just about tears my heart out of its socket,” O’Neill declared in the lead article,34 “but the story must be written and our film must be publicized!”
The magazine reproduced stills from the infrared film which showed spirit forms, and next to them photographs of Homer Watkins and Peninah Umbach, both Camp Chesterfield mediums.
“These mediums look enough like the spirits to be their twins,” said the Psychic Observer.
Writing in the following issue of the newspaper, Andrija Puharich called Chesterfield “a psychic circus without equal!”
The resultant controversy was traumatic for some in the spiritualist movement. Tom O’Neill, who resigned from the spiritualist ministry over the incident, died not too long after– partly, so many believed, from a broken heart.35 His paper, Psychic Observer, declined drastically when the spiritualist churches which had provided most of its subscribers and advertising revenue, instead of rallying around O’Neill as he had hoped and expected, and boycotted him.
Why condemn O’Neill rather than the Chesterfield fakery?
Well, some spiritualists said that they didn’t believe the expose, that O’Neill had sold out to the Catholics or other enemies of spiritualism, and had framed the mediums. Others said that even if the accusations were true, O’Neill should have kept quiet for the good of the movement.36
In the furor over the O’Neill incident, I saw our chance to establish a foothold in the Promised Land. We ostentatiously rushed to the defense of Camp Chesterfield.
We used all kinds of explanations to conjure away the damning film footage that showed the spirits using a secret door. It was all “trick photography,” we told our people, and of course the spirit communicators backed us up in our seances. That was good enough for our followers!
It worked. What we had undevoutly hoped for came to pass, when Mable Riffle, considering us heroes for having defended her beloved Camp Chesterfield in its our of need (though the expose, rather than ruining business, actually improved it), invited us to join the staff as accredited mediums. At last!
My first day at Chesterfield I was walking on the green, well-treed grounds thinking of the money to be made when a commanding voice shouted, “Lamar, c’mere!”
It was Mable Riffle, Chesterfield personified. She roared up on her electric golf cart with a fringe covered top and whisked me off on a whirlwind tour of the Coney Island of spiritualism.
She showed me the substantial buildings, some of them (like the main auditorium, called the Cathedral) quite impressive; the many acres of grounds; the mediums’ homes, mostly on one street (“Mediums’ Row,” it’s called); the cafeteria; the three hotels; and, all the while, talked nonstop about every phase of the operation. She told me the files were kept beneath the Cathedral and took me there to show them to me.
They were voluminous. There were billet-sized cards and papers, from every service or public seance ever held at Chesterfield. The files were arranged alphabetically by geographic location– cities, states, countries. Each contained the name of the person and the question asked. There must have been tens of thousands of individual index cards.
The files also included personal objects, keepsakes, clipped to individual cards. These were `Apports’ to be returned to the sitter the next time he visited the camp. Think of how impressed that farmer from Pumpkin Creek, Michigan, would be when during his second visit to Chesterfield he received from the spirits the very tie-clip he had not seen for he couldn’t remember how long!
Most of the buildings at Chesterfield, I discovered, had been donated by believing spiritualists, often single donors. The cafeteria and the Cathedral were built with money given by a Howard Maxon. There is a Dr. Hett Memorial Museum, an impressive stone building housing psychic artifacts and memorabilia (such as twenty-five oil paintings by the famed mediums the Bang Sisters). It was also a gift.
Chesterfield is spiritualism’s answer to Disneyland. That first season of mine, more than 65,000 pilgrims crowded onto the grounds from here, there, and everywhere. They spent more than a million dollars to commune with their beloved dead.
And they had a wide selection of modes of communication from which to choose; trumpet seances, materializations, clairvoyance, spirit card writing, apports, spirit photographs, and spirit precipitations on silk.
The fees varied. For a group sitting, which often ran from twenty-five to as many as a hundred sitters, I charged a minimum of three dollars per person and as high as ten dollars. For materializations the going rate was twenty-five dollars, but the sitter often gave more, especially if the manifestations were above
average (as mine always were).
At the height of the season I was giving as many as twenty-five sittings daily and taking in as much as a thousand dollars per day. It gave me a great thrill!37
Eventually I became so popular at Chesterfield that the voting faithful– which state law required must include all members, including laymen of the Indiana Association of Spiritualists– unanimously elected me to the camp’s board of trustees. This, I might add, was over the jealous opposition of most of my fellow mediums (who in this case failed to manipulate the lay membership as easily as they usually did).
I was also made a trustee of the Universal Spiritualist Association, one of the largest clergy-ordaining and church-chartering organizations (about two hundred affiliated congregations at that time) in American Spiritualism. I was, make no mistake, no mere mediumistic freelancer but a key figure in the mainstream of
spiritualism in the United States.
The long-term contacts made at Chesterfield could be even more valuable than the immediate awards. A woman I met there ultimately gave me and my partner more than sixty thousand dollars.
People were frantic for contacts with the other side. One woman would have booked a sitting with me every day if I had allowed it (I didn’t. It was too much work coming up with new information on her). She spent the entire summer at the camp.
Some people, I found, were so desperate for the assurance of continued relationships with the dead that they sought and found sex in the seance room. This is a murky subject which I’ll wade into in a later chapter, but let me say here that some spiritualists do become so obsessed that, as one medium put it, “they’ll even lay a goddamn ghost!”
I stayed away from the more exotic forms of mediumship, such as sex seances, but otherwise was extremely versatile in the phenomena I produced. My trumpet sittings were better than anybody else’s, and the other mediums at Chesterfield cordially hated me for it.
I used a trumpet with luminous bands on it so that, in the darkness, relieved only by a single red bulb, the sitter could see the trumpet apparently floating around the room while numerous, distinctly different spirit voices issued from it.
The voices, of course, were all me. I was a helluva good ventriloquist! But how did the trumpet float?
Simplicity itself. In Chapter Five (page 61), I describe in detail the secrets of the seance room, so it’s sufficient to indicate here that the tin trumpets that mediums use come in sections and are extendable to about four feet. That gives enough length to swing the trumpet through a wide arc, producing a variety of impressive gyrations and loop-the-loops. Meanwhile, the voices as a rule are coming from a different trumpet altogether; a second, smaller one which the medium has in his other hand, and which, because it has no luminous bands around it, is invisible to the sitters in the near-total darkness.
My materializations were tremendously popular because, again, I gave them something extra. In my seances, lit by a red bulb (we needed total or near-total darkness, we said, because white light was harmful to the ectoplasm), several forms of various shapes and sizes appeared simultaneously. They undulated, shimmered, vanished, reappeared, and usually made their final exit by melting through the floor or dissolving in a puff of smoke.
Sounds impressive, and it was– in the dark– but the secrets, as you’ll discover in Chapter Five, are ludicrously simple.
My billet-reading was spectacular, too. Again I went beyond the typical medium, adding a color, a style, a showmanship. Before receiving the written questions from the audience, I would have my eyes taped and then bound with a heavy black blindfold. Under these conditions I’d proceed effortlessly to read the questions and give the answers from the spirits.
The secret here was the old mentalist standby: the peek down the side of the nose. No matter how securely the eyes are blindfolded, it’s always possible to get enough of a gap to read material held close to the body. Yet what I was doing looked impossible.
What kind of people went to Camp Chesterfield?
Most of then, in my book, had dubious claim to the adjective normal but some were weirder than others. The strangest and most pathetic were the astral necrophiles mentioned earlier who craved sexual contact with their departed spouse, lover, or whatnot.38 But there were other weirdos, too.
One sitter of mine insisted on talking to a spirit named Daisy. I let her talk (when in doubt, let the sitter tip you off) and discovered that Daisy was her departed French poodle.
Another sitter absolutely insisted on getting a spectacular message, so I told her that in 1980 she was going to make a trip to Bimini and there find a secret temple in which she would recover some sacred jewels! That seemed to satisfy her.
One medium’s husband dealt in dubious antiques. With his wife’s help he sold a credulous woman, with more money than brains, an ordinary communion chalice as the authentic Holy Grail! Price two thousand dollars.
There was one little old lady at Chesterfield who, because of education or dentures, used to say, “I just love to come to this spiritless camp!”
We mediums all laughed about it, remarking, “If she only knew.”
Of course, if the sitters were weird, the mediums are weirder. In the madhouse of spiritualism, mediumship is the ward for incurables.
It’s hard for me to convey to the reader the strange, schizoid state of mind of some of the mediums at Camp Chesterfield. A few seemed actually to be trying to pretend to themselves that they weren’t frauds!
Once, during a backroom discussion, when I used the word fraud, a woman medium whose materializations were as phony as a three-dollar bill whirled and said, “Don’t use that word when I’m around. I certainly believe in what I’m doing!”
So I sidled up to her, stared her in the eyes, and said, “Okay, baby. Let me take away all your chiffon and gauze, and then go into the seance room and do your stuff! And I want to be there!”
She sniffed, and stalked off.
Most mediums are women and they are strange customers. As a rule they’re highly sexed and domineering. It takes drive and stamina to succeed in the ghost racket, and the typical female medium comes on like a ten-ton truck!
Most seem to marry more than once, and they always carry the name of the previous husband. So you get a whole procession of noted mediums with three names: Rosemary Jackson Thomas, Marie Doyle Perkins, Mary Murphy Lydy, Nina Challen Richards, and Mary Langley Beatty.
Of the woman mediums I knew, most had the physical constitution of a horse. They could go on all day and night doing sittings, readings, seances, services– as long as the pay was right.
Mediums live under great tension. They are estranged personalities because of the nature of their work– cheating people. Loneliness and secrecy are a way of life for them. They can’t afford to have close friendships, except with other mediums, and these are rarely if ever true friendships. The spirit of professional
competition is too great.
As a matter of fact, the rivalry and jealousy among mediums is almost unbelievable. Each one wants to be better than the other and, of course, to make more money. And I was no different.
The only reason mediums band together is for mutual protection.
“Let’s face it,” Viola Osgood Dunne said after the great Chesterfield expose, “if we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately.”
Mediums protected each other (because by so doing they were protecting themselves), especially when it came to troublemakers. Every season at Chesterfield there was a certain quota of “grabbers,” would-be debunkers who reach out in the dark and grab the materialized spirit form. We mediums banded together against this species of pest.
If a medium was grabbed in a seance, she (usually it was a woman) would warn the others. “Watch out for so-and-so. That goddamned son of a bitch grabbed me!” This news traveled like wildfire through the camp.
A notice would be placed in the Chesterfield file room or on the mediums’ bulletin board. A known grabber wouldn’t be allowed into a seance. If he was particularly persistent or obnoxious, he’d be escorted off the campground– maybe with a kick to help him on his way.
Mable Riffle had her own way of dealing with skeptics, whether they were grabbers or nongrabbers. Once a couple on the grounds of Chesterfield was loudly talking about fraud at the camp and Mable overheard them. She simply went up to the couple, all five feet of her, and snarled, “Let me tell you something. We do not have that kind of talk here. Now you get your goddamn ass off these hallowed grounds and don’t ever come back!”
There was a woman newspaper reporter, remembered only as Rosie, who wrote a scathing series of articles on Camp Chesterfield depicting it as a sort of psychic freak show. Mable, of course, was enraged, as were all the mediums, and the word went out that under no circumstances was Rosie allowed on the camp grounds again.
However, Rosie was nothing is not resourceful. The next year, intending no doubt to do a sequel, she decked herself out in a fright wig and turned up at a seance presided over by none other than Mable Riffle herself.
No sooner had the spirit voices started coming from the trumpet then Rosie started demeaning them. Mable recognized her voice immediately. On went the lights and Mable went for Rosie.
Grabbing the reporter by the back of the neck, she ushered her up a steep flight of stairs, kicking her in the rump on each step and cursing her with every profanity imaginable. Rosie was hurled into the night with the warning never to show her face at Chesterfield again. But Rosie was a tough customer, almost as tough as Mable. One summer she showed up at Chesterfield, in another of her disguises, and Mable spotted her. Rushing over, Mable grabbed Rosie’s arm in a viselike grip and, cursing her furiously, started dragging her bodily to the camp gate.
Just as they reached the gate, some very good financial supporters of Chesterfield arrived. In a flash, Mable changed her tone.
“Goodbye, Rosie dear,” she said, smiling sweetly, “we’ll be seeing you again some other time.”
But that was the last we ever saw of Rosie.
The fact that some mediums conceal their fraudulence even from their spouses was mentioned in Chapter Two. On one occasion a medium at Chesterfield went to Mable Riffle and expressed fears that her husband was going to catch on sooner or later, possibly sooner. Mable’s reaction was typical. She called the husband to her office.
“Floyd,” she said, “this is the way we do it around here,” and proceeded to tell him everything– the files, the chiffon ectoplasm, the apports brought by the crate, and so on.
She concluded, “Now, if you go out of here and say anything about this to anybody– well, you’re just a goddamned liar!”
The man, who was six-foot-three– Mable was barely five foot– went away without a word. And his wife continued her mediumship.
How does a medium react if she’s grabbed or exposed?
Well, there’s a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way was exemplified by a medium at Chesterfield named Etta Scott Bledsoe who, giving a trumpet sitting in total darkness, simply sat on a table in the center of the room and spoke through the trumpet. She had her eye shut so that when a sitter suddenly turned on the lights she, being oblivious of the fact, continued to sit there droning on through the trumpet. Then she opened her eyes, realized what had happened, and
blurted out, “Oh my God, we’ve been caught!”
(The same medium showed greater presence of mind on another occasion when, while giving a clairvoyant demonstration at Chesterfield, she saw from a window an outdoor privy going up in flames and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” Recovering immediately, she smiled sweetly and said, “Pardon me, friends, but I felt His presence so near I just had to speak His name.”)
The right way to react to exposure was demonstrated by the most unflappable medium of them all, Mighty Mable. Once she was in the dark talking through a trumpet and the lights suddenly came on. She too had her eyes shut tight and went right on talking.
When she opened her eyes the sitter (there was only one) was looking at her.
“Mable,” the sitter said, “you were talking through the trumpet.”
Without batting an eyelash, the old pro deadpanned, “I was being controlled by a spirit and he was using my body and vocal cords rather than building a voice box from ectoplasm.”
The rule was: when you think you’re caught, admit nothing and brazen it through.
Fanchion Harwood Dorsch was a well-known Chesterfield materialization medium who impressed a lot of people (including noted author Marcus Bach in his book The Will to Believe). Fanchion developed a line all her own to explain away in advance any possible exposure.
“There are several kinds of materialization,” she told the sitters before every seance. “There are materialization, etherealization, transfiguration, and impersonation. These are all genuine phases of mediumship.”
If somebody grabbed her ectoplasm and found not a spirit but a medium, Fanchion blamed it on impersonation. A spirit tricked her, masqueraded as her (or whatever– the details were more than a little vague). Anyway, it got her off the hook, at least in her own eyes and those of true believers.
A near-escape we had once in a house sitting taught Raoul and me never to lose our nerve in the face of apparent exposure. If nothing else, the bad eyes of the faithful may save you.
In this particular seance in a private home, I had moved, in pitch darkness, to the piano to provide some spirit background music while Raoul spoke through the trumpet. A split second after I returned to my place, someone going to the bathroom flipped on a light. I was safely seated, though just in the nick of time, but Raoul was caught standing, the trumpet held to his lips.
In an instant I grabbed him and pulled him down next to me, and as I did, he dropped the trumpet.
The hostess (as it turned out, the only one who was looking) didn’t see that. What she saw, she said, was the most amazing sight her eyes had ever beheld.
“There was the trumpet suspended in mid-air,” she told the others, “and when the light came on it just fell to the floor.”
How did we deal with grabbers?
Well, Raoul and I never had to contend with one, though we did have our share of sitters who were more outspokenly suspicious than most. My tactics with them were brutally direct.
I remember a woman who owned a chain of health food spas and came to one of my Camp Chesterfield materializations with a friend. Maybe I wasn’t up to my usual form that day. At any rate, this woman said to me as she left: “I would have thought you could have gotten much better material. You’re not even a good fraud.”
Waiting for a moment until the others were out of hearing, I hissed, “There’s the goddamn door and it swings two ways and you use it to get the hell out of here and don’t ever come back!”
She blanched, her lips quivered, and she turned and stalked off.
Then I turned back to the other sitters with a warm, gracious smile to accept their congratulations on a magnificent seance.
As my mediumship developed more maturity (or became riper and rottener if you like), I developed adeptness in anticipating and heading off the question of fraud and in converting suspicious sitters.
Once, entering the seance room for a trumpet sitting, I caught a glimpse of something peeking out of a woman’s purse. Realizing it was the microphone of a tape-recorder (we banned the use of recorders except with the spirits’ express permission), I caught myself before mentioning it. I had thought of a neat way to turn the situation to my advantage.
Later, in the pitch darkness of the seance, the spirit voices suddenly said, “We know you have an unauthorized tape-recorder. We see it clearly!”
The woman was flabbergasted, and any incipient skepticism was turned into firmer belief.
We constantly looked for ways of maximizing credibility and strengthening the faithful in their faith. One way was to have our spirit guides disagree with us.
Raoul’s guide, or special spirit teacher (we likened them to the “guardian angels” in the Bible) was Dr. Robinson, a cultured English physician defunct on the mundane plane for a century or so. Mine was an irreverent girl spirit named Clementine (most mediums have at least one child guide– perhaps because they, the mediums, are childish39). We and our guides disagreed on several issues, the favorite being reincarnation.
The guides were teaching the doctrine for a long time while we pretended to be undecided about its merits, sometimes openly questioning it during seances in a friendly argument with the spirits. Finally, after milking this routine for as long as we could, we capitulated and accepted reincarnation.
People thought these guide-medium conflicts were very evidential because they reflected two really different personalities. This fascinated them.
Another very effective way of defusing skepticism was to use “plants”: people hired to attend a service or seance as blatant debunkers.
Sometimes we would have the intruder object verbally to the proceedings and denounce us as fakes. Sometimes, more subtly, we would have him write a billet and then appear to be reluctant to put it in the basket to be passed up to the medium. We would have him place the billet in his pocket and then of course we, without even touching it, proceeded to read and answer his question clairvoyantly!
Sometimes we were understanding of the stranger’s skepticism and forgave him, sending him away humble and contrite. Other times we blasted him for his sacrilege and ordered him out of the church, never to return.
Winos were especially good as stooges. They worked cheap and if, later, they had ever decided to inform on us, who would have believed them?
We had ready excuses, plausible or implausible (depending on your viewpoint) for any number of problems that might arise on our mediumship. For example, if somebody who was still alive inadvertently turned up in a seance, our standard alibi was that he was probably asleep at that time and had left his body, “taken an astral trip,” without realizing it.
There were risks in many of the methods we used, but with our experience in handling people and the wall of fanatical credulity that our followers had built around us (I think they would have lynched anybody who seriously tried to disrupt a service or seance), we felt supremely confident.
Other mediums were not so confident, however. Fanchion Harwood Dorsch, the materializing medium, would never give sitters apports, cards, pictures on silk, or spirit photographs, and she opposed other mediums doing so. Her objection was that nothing should be handed out in a seance that could possibly be used in court as tangible evidence against us.
A medium named Paula Philips had all her files typed, on the advice of her attorney, to avoid possible prosecution for conspiracy to defraud if they were confiscated. The attorney’s view was that the files were less incriminating typed than in the medium’s own handwriting.
Every medium, no matter how clever, is accused one time or another of being a fraud. But the good medium learns how to react, how to handle people, including nuisances.
Once Marie Doyle Perkins, a real mediumistic veteran, had a group for a seance who turned out to be Bible school students, hardcore fundamentalists who were convinced that she and all mediums were in league with the Devil. What was the point of going on with the sitting? The money wasn’t that good. So Marie looked for a logical out– and found it.
One of the students picked up her trumpet and started talking through it. With that the medium put on her most diabetic smile and said, “Please, I can’t possibly give you a seance now. Why, that’s sacrilege. Don’t you realize that the trumpet is as sacred and meaningful to me as the Communion cup is to you! ”
My way out of a seance that wasn’t going right was simply to have the spirits decide the vibrations were bad and call the whole thing off. The spirits took the responsibility, not me.
By the way, Fundamentalist opposition to spiritualism is good for business. When we were in our first church, the Seventh Day Adventists ran huge ads in the local paper warning people against spiritualism and so-called churches were ghosts appeared and trumpets talked. To them, of course, it was all perfectly real, but diabolical rather than divine. As a result of the ads, our business boomed! (You might say that, on the subject of the psychic, the spiritualists are crazy and
the Fundamentalists are stupid.40)
There were some mediums so bizarre that they weren’t welcome even at Chesterfield. One was named Nina Ward Hughes. She claimed that Jesus Christ was her personal spirit guide. When the dinner table was set in her house, there was always a third place for Christ. Mable Riffle said, “Nina’s nuts!”
As for Mable herself– well, she was sensible and shrewd, as mediums go. In style she was unpretentious. Her spirit guide, for example, was an ordinary guy with an ordinary name– Henry Williams. And on that a funny story hangs.
Mable told me, incredulously, how once in Indianapolis while walking to a car park, she saw a little black boy and had a strong impulse to speak to him. “Hi sonny,” she said, “how are you?”
“Fine,” the youngster replied.
Mable then asked, “What’s your name?”
The boy stared up at her and said, “Henry Williams.” The same name as Mable’s guide.
“Can you beat that?” she laughed, slapping her thigh as she told me about it.
These crazy coincidences can be seized by the smart medium and turned to his profit; in one case, forty thousand dollars profit.
At the time, Raoul and I were thinking of buying property in the country for a church ranch, so we called a realtor and went with him to look at some acreage that was for sale. What we saw had great possibilities. The realtor said, “I’m selling this for the Minnie Barrett estate.”
A tingle went through me. As it happened, Minnie Barrett had been a member of our church, and her family still were members, but we hadn’t known that she owned expensive property.
At the next seance at which her family was present, the spirit of Minnie spoke and told the heirs to give the forty acres to the church. And we got it!
The approach we took was that Minnie’s spirit had impressed us to contact that particular realtor in the first place, and he confirmed that indeed we had called him first. By this combination of coincidence and shrewdness, not only was the property ours, but the family had to pay the realtor’s 10 percent commission!
Most of the Chesterfield mediums were zany, but some were zanier than others.
One medium named Ralph Whitney developed a fast-paced, racy style of giving messages that usually kept the audience howling. He told a woman that he saw around her an electrical storm within the past month. She said yes, that was true.
Then he said, “Well, I see a bolt of lightning that went right between your legs and burnt all the feathers off your canary bird!”
The congregation broke up, including the woman. It turned out that lightning did strike and kill her canary, but nobody’s spirits could have said it just the way Ralph’s did.
He was also an exceedingly accomplished ventriloquist who used to get messages from spirit voices that spoke intermittently out of the air. The range of these voices in timbre and diction was startling, and they seemed to come from just above his head, from the left, then from the right, then from behind him. Audiences found this “direct voice” phenomenon very striking.
Other mediums were less striking– even to the intellectually underprivileged types who frequented Camp Chesterfield. One exceptionally dumb medium was giving a seance in which Master Teachers– exalted beings from the seventh astral plane– materialized and lectured. The medium brought through an Egyptian master.
“But Master Teacher,” said one of the sitters, “you have a Southern accent.”
The spirit replied, “I’m from the southern part of Egypt.”41
There’s no way of accurately computing the money from which people were separated at Chesterfield.
One of the saddest stories was of a woman who gave a large sum to the camp because of spirit urgings through Mable Riffle. Then she returned home and found that her house had burned to the ground. She came back to the camp and asked Mable if she could redeem part of the donation. Mable flatly refused.
What do mediums really believe?
On the basis of my experience I’d say that most of them believe nothing. Their lives are empty of faith in anything except the buck.
At Chesterfield nothing was sacred. People were things to be used. The Bible is exhibited in most spiritualist churches, but in their hearts mediums scorn it– and openly too, when they’re with their own kind.
The jokes about Jesus’ virgin birth were many and varied but had one thing in common: their scabrous quality.
A group of us were talking one night after the suckers had gone and we could let our ectoplasm down. One woman medium said, “Now that bitch Mary was smart, making Joseph do without while she screwed around. And even when she got knocked up she lied her way out of it. No wonder Jesus wound up as an open medium!”42
My partner, Raoul, used to quip, “Poor Jesus, he didn’t get paid for walking on the water.”43
One of the Scriptures Raoul and I liked best for parodying was I Samuel 28, the story of King Saul seeking to call up the ghost of Samuel through the Witch of Endor. We said we were going to write a spiritualist opera based on that story, and we often adlibbed some of the dialogue as we traveled together, driving in the car, say. Sometimes I’d be Saul and Raoul would be the Witch, or vice versa.
The Witch: Hark, hark, whom shall I bring up to thee?
Saul: You stupid bitch, you’re like all the other mediums! You don’t even know who I want to talk to!
The Witch: First cross my palm with silver!
Saul: Bring me up Samuel!
The Witch: I’m beginning to put two and two together– you’re the King! You’ve deceived me before I could deceive you. . . .
It wasn’t going to be much of an opera, but the scenario was pure spiritualism: crude and crass.
All mediums, including me, subscribed to the creed that a new sucker is born every thirty seconds and that the typical spiritualist believer is in sympathy with his own destruction. For our sitters– even those with whom we pretended friendship outside the seance room– we had unspeakable contempt.
One long-time medium at Chesterfield who specialized in spirit images impregnated on silk– a simpler-than-simple technique that I’ll explain in the chapter on the secrets of the seance44– was so contemptuous of the sitters’ intelligence that he opposed my attempts to upgrade the evidential quality of the phenomena. As he saw it, the sitters didn’t deserve even convincing fraud. The cheapest, silliest, most palpable fakery was more than good enough for them.45 At one
mediums’ get-together (or shouting match) he inveighed against my giving people social security numbers, credit card information, and other explicitly evidential messages.
“You give them too damn much,” he roared. “You can never please these crazy bastards. Eventually the only way you’ll be able to draw a crowd is to stand on the roof of the Cathedral, drink gasoline, and recite the Gettysburg Address with a flaming torch sticking up your ass!”
All mediums would agree with what Clifford Bias once said at Chesterfield (in private, of course): “Wars, depressions, personal and national disasters spell prosperity for us.” The present economic stresses in the United States are good news for the medium.
What about mediums and the chief commodity they deal in– death? What was their real attitude toward the subject about which they talked, preached, and exhorted day after day?
Well, when medium Mary Hunter’s husband died and his remains were on view in the casket in the Camp Chesterfield Cathedral, she ran to the front and pulled at the corpse, begging him to come out. That shows the depth of faith of one who bad been marketing it to others.
Mable Riffle’s husband was trimming a tree in front of the Cathedral one day when a branch broke and he fell, breaking his neck. He died on the spot.
They called Mable. She came running, saw what had happened, and turned on the tree. She raged at it, cursed it, kicked it, and beat it with her fists, shouting obscenities.
Then she ordered workmen to come and destroy it. She stayed until they had cut and blasted that tree out of the ground.46
This was the spiritualist leader displaying her faith in life after death.
A quasi-official document put out by Chesterfield, The Medium’s Handbook, oozes the sort of sanctimonious bilge that nauseated me. Written by a nitwit of a man who ran the camp for a while after Mable Riffle’s death, this document represents the epitome of pious hypocrisy.
Article Three in The Medium’s Handbook says, “Camp Chesterfield prays, hopes and intends to give the very best presentation of Spiritualism and psychic phenomena to its members, friends and visitors. Camp Chesterfield wants only the best– in its speakers, teachers, mental and physical mediums, healers, workers and helpers. You are expected to strive for and live up to this appellation– `The best.’”
Article Four is worse: “Love God above all. God is Infinite Intelligence and expresses in that which is Good, that which is True, and that which is Beautiful. This must come before family, relatives, friends, money, prestige, health, comfort, convenience; in fact before and above all else.”
Worse still, Article Five: “I am a Spiritualist. First last and always, I am a Spiritualist. I am proud and not ashamed to be a Spiritualist, yet I am humble and deeply grateful to God for this wonderful truth. Strive to live up to your highest concept of our religion– preach it, practise it, live it, be it– practise what you
preach and preach what you practise.”
The Medium’s Handbook is never quite as unctuous and absurd as when it lectures the Chesterfield staff on proper diction and decorum.
“Continue your education. Never stop learning. The ideal Spiritualist minister-medium is a well-balanced, well-informed person with a wide range of interests, not an ignorant, narrow-minded, bigoted, prejudiced, supercilious, and egotistical provincial.
“GOOD ENGLISH, Not one of us is perfect. We all make errors, including grammatical ones. But please, please, please, learn and use the rudiments of grammar. `WE Spiritualists are proud of our religion,’ not `US Spiritualists are, etc.’ `God give US Spiritualists,’ not `To WE Spiritualists.’ `It is I who am knocking,’ not `It is me.’ `You and I are going,’ not `You and me. The plural of `You’ is `You’ not `You-uns.’”
(This instruction in simple grammar was wasted on the Chesterfield mediums, most of whom couldn’t parse a sentence. Looking over the letters I have from Mable Riffle and Ethel Post Parrish, a pair of the biggest names in spiritualism, I note that both ladies were totally innocent of the rules of syntax. There is hardly a comma, period, or capital in either letter; they are each one interminable sentence!)
In some items in The Medium’s Handbook we can detect the old mediumistic rivalry raising its head. The medium who wrote the immortal document loathed and detested another medium, a woman, who had the habit of pronouncing spiritualism with an overlong, rolling r. The Medium’s Handbook tees off on this.
“Spiritualism,” it intones, “is a five-syllable word, therefore is neither pronounced SPURT-yul-ism nor SPIRT-tulism. It is quite proper to say `Spidditualism,’ provided the rest of your language follows the English-Scottish pronunciation of the letter `R’, as `Diddigible’ for `Dirigible.’ `Inheddit’ for `Inherit’ and `Teddible’ for `Terrible.’ Affectations of speech are easily discernible and usually cause amusement or irritation rather than admiration.”
To one who knew what a psychic sideshow Camp Chesterfield was, the following admonitions were enough to induce biliousness: “Camp Chesterfield is a Religious Institution, not a Street Carnival nor Amusement Park. Please limit your signs to one name and one announcement board of your activities. More than two signs will not be tolerated. Neither is Camp Chesterfield a circus nor a Night Club.”
That last remark may have been a dig at me, since I was sometimes accused by the other mediums of acting and dressing more like a show business personality than a psychic emissary. I wore colorful capes with high collars, patent leather shoes with rhinestone buckles, and glistening white suits. What the hell– I was in show business!
My wardrobe no doubt was the target of this shaft from The Medium’s Handbook: “Camp Chesterfield expects its ministers, mediums and workers to be well-dressed and well-groomed. But please, no theatrical costumes.”
There’s an addition: “Men are to wear coat and tie at all public services. No tennis shoes, please!”
As a quasi-official document, The Medium’s Handbook no doubt would come into the possession of those who were not mediums. Because its author anticipated this, the language is always discreet and suitably cryptic in spots. But knowing what you know now the reader can peer between the lines and discern the real meaning. Consider this gemlike passage:
“Please ask your guides to allot equal time to each sitter, not to permit many spirit visitors to one sitter and only a few to another. Apport mediums, please ask your guides to bring articles of equal worth to each sitter and not to bring only one of such articles as are usually in pairs (earrings or cufflinks, for instance),
“All mediums are to warn their guides NOT to suggest to sitters that only through that particular mediumship can `Highest’ or `True’ spirit be contacted, can `True development’ take place, the particular mediumship is the `Best’, or the medium should be given gifts or loans. Such will result in the cancellation of the medium’s contract or lease!”
In other words, there’s enough of the Chesterfield pie for everybody to have a piece; don’t try to hog it all for yourself!
Could anything be more revoltingly revealing of the true nature of organized spiritualism today than this official document of America’s leading spiritualist camp!
Lest you think that Chesterfield is now in eclipse or that its burlesques and excesses are, surely, too gross for any intelligent person to take seriously, consider Don Worley’s article in Fate magazine (May, 1972), It’s an account of his visit to Camp Chesterfield. Fully aware of the great O’Neill-Puharich exposes, Mr.
Worley, who is obviously an intelligent man, nevertheless concluded after sitting with the Chesterfield mediums that many of them were “impressively accurate.”
Of some of the mediums he met, Mr. Worley remarks, “I find it impossible to explain away [all that they did] in mundane terms. With these apparently sincere mediums I was not aware of any fraud and feel certain that the answer to their abilities does not lie in peeping through the tape and blindfold, nor in phenomenal memories of those members who return each year, nor in exchanging information nor in any other such explanation.”47
He adds that his seances with physical mediums in dark rooms were “almost as impressive,” and cites a convincing sitting with Virginia Leach Falls.
This woman, and the other mediums mentioned in the article, I knew at Chesterfield as part of the bunch– like me, full-fledged members of that fraternity of deception, the psychic mafia.
The Name of the Game: Money, Or, The Spirits and Swiss Banks
As a medium, money never concerned me.
I mean that I didn’t bother to think about it; there was no need. Money was simply there. More than enough for everything I desired.
We didn’t concern ourselves with bookkeeping. If we wanted anything, we just took the money. We lived, as they say, high on the hog.
The good things of life abounded. Fancy clothes are a weakness of mine, and I had more suits than Liberace. I ate at the best restaurants and attended the best clubs. When I took out a girl, it was to the swankiest nightspots. It wasn’t unusual to spend five hundred dollars for an evening on the town.
Within four years of starting in mediumship, my partner and I had paid $10,000 for two lots in Tampa and built a church ultimately worth some $100,000. For legal purposes the church trustees owned the building, but they were a rubber-stamp bunch. If anyone wasn’t as pliable as putty, we quickly removed him.
Getting rid of “uncooperative” members was done with absolutely no regard for human feelings. One elderly woman, Mary Belle Behmke, known to everybody in the church as “Aunt Mary,” became the object of Raoul’s anger after I– to anticipate the story– had renounced my mediumship and left the church. Mary, who had fetched and carried and worked tirelessly for the congregation for ten years, was excommunicated, was evicted from the small church-owned house she occupied, and ended up in an elderly folks’ home in Michigan, where she soon died. Thus were treated those who dared to cross the master’s will in spiritualism.
In any important decisions (important to us, that is), we as co-pastors had the spirit guides issue precise directions for the church trustees. Who would dare dispute spirit guidance? Certainly not our true believers.
By legal manipulation it wasn’t hard for a medium to exercise even formal legal control of the church property if he or she so desired. In one case an older, established medium who owned her church outright sold it to us. We ran it for a while, then sold it out from under the congregation, leaving them with no church building and ourselves with a profit of twenty thousand dollars. All perfectly legal.
In addition to the church edifice, our group (meaning my partner and I) owned a New Age ranch outside Tampa that included a two-story lodge and several other buildings.
I personally owned a Spanish mansion on two waterfront lots in an exclusive section of Tampa, plus a house in St. Petersburg and an additional fifteen acres of land in southern California. My personal assets included more than $300,000 worth of property.
(When I left mediumship, I held an auction sale of antiques, art, and art objects largely acquired through my skills as a necromancer. We rented the livestock pavilion of the Florida State Fair Grounds in Tampa and employed six auctioneers to sell around the clock, as long as people came. And they did– for five days and nights. Some auction! Some profit from mediumship!)
We didn’t keep a complete set of books on our entire income. Only the spirits knew exactly how much we made, and there were times when even they weren’t sure.
Mediums, even for professional predators, are an extremely avaricious lot. Two colleagues of mine, Eddy Mackey and Jimmy Lawson, told me they believed a medium should take something from everyone he met: “If you can’t get anything else then take a book of matches!”
We took more than matches. And so did every medium I knew.
In our mediums’ meetings at Camp Chesterfield and elsewhere, when we planned policy and strategy it was decided that none of us would run all our money through a bank account nor adopt any method that could be easily traced (or traced at all, if possible). The common thing was not to deposit in your bank account any more than you reported on your income tax. If one medium was caught with his hand in the till, we knew we’d all be suspected. Whatever we did with our money was our business, of course, but we were to think about the others as well as ourselves in avoiding detection.
Many mediums kept piles of cash. I knew one who had $25,000 for an emergency hidden in her attic. Many had safes. I know personally of two mediums who acquired numbered Swiss bank accounts. Ethel Post Parrish, the noted medium, was said to have a large private (very private) collection of diamonds– all real.48
Most mediums tried to cultivate an impression, if not of poverty, then of a distinct lack of affluence, When Mable Riffle died, though she had lots of dough, the family borrowed from Camp Chesterfield to finance the funeral. It was a way of covering up.
“Mable gave so much,” said the eulogist, “and took so little,”
The total annual take of organized spiritualism in the United States must be staggering. Think of the thriving camps, the hundreds of churches, the thousands of seances, sittings, readings, spirit healings, and other mediumistic consultations performed every year– for a fee. Think of my relatively small church in Tampa, about three hundred members, taking in ten or twenty thousand dollars in one night of services.
Also to be taken into account are the innumerable bequests to spiritualist organizations. For example, one Howard Maxon left several hundred thousand dollars to Camp Chesterfield, and another estate bequeathed it more than half a million. This money– nobody knows how much it amounts to– was and is administered by a board of trustees (mediums, that is).
When Mable Riffle was around she, and she alone, handled the money. Because of Chesterfield’s financial muscle, she wielded considerable clout with the banks in neighboring cities, such as Anderson, where bank functionaries were only too willing to wait upon her. They recognized Mable– who was called “the goose that laid the golden egg’– as the mastermind behind a financial operation of more than modest proportions.
What does the average open medium make in a year? Nobody knows. Forty thousand dollars is a good bottom figure. 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. Much of my income came from gifts to me personally. As I write, I’m looking at the statement of sale (dated December 28, 1966) of a piece of property which had been given to me by a pleased sitter. The property was worth $40,000 then, but I wanted quick cash, so I sold it for $16,500– pure profit.
One woman, who wasn’t particularly well off, gave more than $40,000 to the church– to my partner and me– during the four years or so she attended. That wasn’t unusual. I have numerous canceled checks made out to the church for sums of $1,000, $2,500, and $4,000. These often represented “love offerings” for a particularly comforting seance or series of seances.
Once people came to believe in our mediumship, they could be astonishingly generous. In playing upon their heartstrings I played upon their purse strings as well.
One evening I was doing blindfold billet-reading and gave a number of evidential messages to a middle-aged woman who was obviously deeply impressed.
On a hunch I said, “You received an impression just this evening while you were sitting there in your seat. Is that right?”
She replied, “Yes.”
“Whatever that impression was,” I said, “it’s right; go ahead with it.”
She answered, “Well, before I left home tonight I thought about writing a check for eight hundred dollars for the church and I was wondering if it was the right thing to do. Sitting here, as you gave me those wonderful messages, I had the strong impression to do it now.”
An usher brought her check to the pulpit. And our bank account fattened a little bit more.
A technique for increasing the financial givings of followers was familiar to many mediums but used especially by one I knew. It was his custom to phone a sitter during the very early morning hours, rousing him or her from sleep. (At such a time the mind is particularly amenable to suggestion.) The medium identified himself as the sitter’s spirit guide and personal instructions followed, often pertaining, among other things, to increased financial generosity to the medium.
Thus was aided the student’s spiritual progression and the medium’s financial advancement, all in one phone call!
Seriously, this technique was responsible for lining more than one medium’s pocket with dollars.
A favorite money-raising gimmick among mediums is “special projects.” A phony worthwhile cause is established and people are urged to give specifically to it. Sometimes it’s improvements to the church building (I’ve known a medium to collect money for a new roof and simply buy diamonds with it). Or how about the Christmas Cheer Fund for the Needy? The medium stands at the door after church services and receives cash. But none will find its way to the needy, believe me.
One Indiana medium had a very unusual sympathy project. He claimed to be working on an invention and to be guided by Thomas Edison. The invention was a sort of astral television set that would make possible mechanical communication with the spirit world.
This medium collected vast sums from the spiritualist faithful to complete the project. He even kept under lock and key a phony laboratory in case somebody got nosy and checked. You can be sure he’ll be working on that invention for a long time!
Building projects are always good money-raisers. The idea is to start but never finish. One Sunday at our church I collected eighteen thousand dollars in contributions, most of them cash, for our building fund. At Camp Chesterfield there’s a cornerstone near the Cathedral which says CHESTERFIELD COLLEGE, 19–. That’s as far as it ever got. That was where I picked up the idea for a sympathy project of ours: an orphanage and old people’s home run by the New Age Assembly Church. My files contain old bankbooks representing a small fraction of the funds collected for this and similar fictitious charities. Many of the withdrawals went toward Thunderbirds, Cadillacs, cruises, my lavish wardrobe, entertainment, and my partner’s exotic-animal collection.49
At our church I collected one Sunday $18,000 in contributions, most of them cash, for our building fund.
One medium made some forty thousand dollars a year selling (technically, she asked for an offering) “blessed healing cloths”– cheap handkerchiefs over which she was supposed to have mumbled a prayer, magnetizing them with spirit power.
Occasionally a medium found an even crazier way to make money. Homer Watkins, a Chesterfield medium, told of a poor soul who sat in his psychic development classes week after week with an absolutely desperate desire to get the trumpet to float as the professionals did. He wanted that trumpet up in the air so badly he was almost beside himself.
The man, whom Homer described as “the dizziest, skinniest, palest, sickest guy you could imagine,” had some money, so the medium said to him, “I’ll guarantee you that you can become a trumpet medium, but it will cost you one thousand dollars cash. And you must swear never to reveal the secret.”
The mark rushed out to the bank and came back with the money. Homer took the one thousand dollars and said to him, “It’s very simple, my good man. You simply pick up the trumpet, push in the one end, and hold it in the air with your hand, and that’s the way you do it!”
The sucker went into hysterics and fled the campground. Nobody ever saw him again.
Where money is concerned, I doubt if mediums would stop at anything, not excluding grave-robbing. In fact, I once took part in the equivalent of that.
An elderly man named Fred owned a house near Camp Chesterfield. One afternoon he was found dead in the house. The place was ramshackle and dreary and after dark looked exactly what a haunted house should look like.
It was said among the mediums that Fred had a lot of money stashed away around the place. The night of his death four of us– Raoul and I and two woman mediums– decided to search the house for the rumored loot. We started out from the camp on foot.
One of the women had the creeps. She was, like many mediums I knew, petrified of corpses, and the thought that we would be going into a house where one had lain so recently gave her goosebumps.
Suddenly a voice came out of the darkness. It turned out to be an inoffensive old lady inquiring where we four strangers, stumbling along in the dark, were going. However, at the sound of the voice the woman medium fainted dead away. And I mean dead– it took us ten minutes of slapping her wrists and fanning her to bring her around.
We finally got to the house, searched it for two hours, and left with three diamond pieces and almost $23,000 in cash that had been hidden in nooks and corners by the senile recluse. On the way back to the camp we split the proceeds and laughed about big, brave mediums who were afraid of the dark!
One medium searched a client’s house immediately after her sudden death and found almost $50,000 in cash and several passbooks for bank accounts totaling more than $300,000.
The medium called the client’s heir, saying that she had an urgent message from the deceased. In the message the medium revealed the locations, numbers, and totals of the bank accounts shown by the pass books she had confiscated. The heir was deeply grateful, and the medium was well rewarded for her trouble– a matter which had been stressed in the spirit message.
In later sittings, various securities which the medium had lifted from the client’s home during her search were “apported” to the heir, again with generous rewards for the medium.
The easiest money a medium can make– and it’s been done countless times– is to offer “astral development lessons” for a fee ranging as high as one thousand dollars. (I know of such cases and it’s not unreasonable to think that, if the traffic bore it, the fee has been even higher.)
The incredible gimmick here is that the astral lessons take place while the client is asleep! The medium’s spirit guides promise to minister to him or her in the sleep state when the astral self is opened up to such instruction.
Nothing is required of the medium. He can be in a nightclub, on the beach, or drunk when the astral lessons are going on.
In order to get the money we did, we needed a congregation made up largely, if not wholly, of people at a certain financial level. We weren’t interested in the very poor (though, curiously, later in my mediumship when my conscience began to prick me I actually gave some charity seances for sitters who couldn’t pay– a sentimentality for which my fellow mediums roundly criticized me). To attract the right people, we had to give the church some class. And we did. We did.
When the congregation moved out of the temporary quarters we had occupied for two years or so into our own edifice, we renamed it the New Age Assembly Church and decided it was going to be first-class all the way. The investment, we knew, would pay off.
The church, though small (it seated about 250), was a showplace. The decor and appointments were, I think superb.
In the sanctuary we had eight imported crystal chandeliers, original oils hanging on the rear walls, and solid mirrors along the side interspersed with gilt columns. The columns were reproductions of antique design and very ornate. Two large Dresden urns sat in the front of the sanctuary. They had been acquired from the estate of William Randolph Hearst and were insured for $25,000.
In the foyer were a tremendous crystal chandelier, rare tapestries, oil paintings, and Regency period furniture.
The church was magnificently carpeted throughout. The musical instruments were of high quality. There were two grand pianos, a spinet piano, and a Hammond concert organ with chimes. There were also Lyon and Healey concert harps. During the services all these instruments would accompany the congregational singing. The music was heavenly even if the spirit phenomena weren’t. We created an atmosphere in which the dead could return in style.
Those who took part in the work of the church were in style too. All the hostesses, ushers, and those who greeted people at the door before a service wore formal dress. You didn’t see much costume jewelry in our congregation; most of it was the real stuff. The atmosphere, though perhaps a bit overdone, created an aura of success, elegance, and glamour that attracted the rich, the fashionable, and the socially prominent. And we have more than our share of these types
in the church.
Our Sunday evening services, which introduced most newcomers to the church, were quasireligious spectacles, theatrical productions, orchestrated by me to maximum effect. The idea was to hook the newcomer’s interest to bring him back again. Eventually he would become one of the true believers who felt a pride in belonging to such a church and– the name of the game– gave freely.
The church became well-known. Once I took a cab there, and when I gave the destination, the driver looked at me and said, “New Age Assembly? My God, do you go to that church? I hear that the offering plates just float down the aisle!” I simply stared at him and said, “Yes, I go there, and that’s true.”
Just before I left the mediumship racket, plans were on the drawing board for a dream church which was to be a fitting monument to my career– as far beyond what I had then accomplished, as St. Peter’s Basilica is beyond an obscure parish church. It was to be called the New Age Temple.
The plans were to build a palatial edifice with large Corinthian columns, a circular drive in front where arriving guests would be greeted by uniformed footmen, and valet parking for cars.
The church was to house a collection of fine art. Many of these items had already been selected– we were looking for others– including a few from some of the world’s great estates.
An artist had been commissioned to create twelve oil paintings each twelve feet high and eight feet wide. The first of these had been completed and was in storage; it depicted the finding of Moses in the bullrushes.
In the sanctuary we planned as a backdrop to the platform a painting of the solar system on sliding panels, a curtain of gold lame; and behind both, gold pipes for the organ (to which $25,000 already had been pledged as a memorial). These would provide a kaleidoscope of backdrop effects since the lighting was to include changing colors on the draperies, the painting, and the organ pipes.
Twin pianos were to be on a revolving platform to one side of the main platform, the console of the pipe organ on the other side, behind which was to be seated a choral group or a small orchestra.
Eight tremendous crystal chandeliers had been purchased and were also in storage; these were to illumine the main sanctuary. Red velvet theater seats were to be placed in the sanctuary. A projection room was planned as part of the balcony, which would be used for special lighting, recording, and broadcasting.50
Behind the main sanctuary was to be an enormous formal dining room with special lighting, candelabra, fine china, crystal, silver, linens, and art objects.
The New Age Ranch property and the property upon which the New Age Temple was to be erected could be seen from Florida’s interstate highway. Two billboards were envisaged that would be seen by motorists using the highway. They were to read: NEW AGE TEMPLE– WHERE MIRACLES ABOUND! THE RELIGION OF THE NEW AGE PRESENTED IN AN OLD WORLD ATMOSPHERE! A crystal chandelier was to be our trademark. The cost was to be enormous, of course, but the money was available– and much more. In fact, I expected the new temple, and particularly some of the innovations built around it, to send our income into the sky.
My master stroke was a plan to exploit to the fullest the desire– the need– most people have to be somebody; to rise above the drabness of their day-to-day existence; to experience a touch of glamour, excitement, drama, and high and unique honor.
32. Andrija Puharich, a well-known journeyman parapsychologist, gets short shrift here. Puharich also holds several patents, and has written several books, but he might be best known as the man who brought `Psychic’ Uri Geller to America.
To say that Puharich is something of a believer in psi phenomena is an understatement. In his book Uri, Puharich provides lengthy and entertaining accounts of how the supercomputer Hoova, orbiting the Earth, was going to use Uri to create a new Renaissance of psychic abilities, how Uri could teleport himself around the world instantaneously, and lots of other quasi-messianic speculation. Geller’s later exposure has not deterred Puharich, though.
33. I imagine there must be more to the story than what Keene relates, although I take it as granted that Keene has reported all that he knows. The mediums must have known that their standard fakery wouldn’t go unnoticed; it is possible that the mediums figured that Puharich and O’Neill wouldn’t spill the beans anyway.
O’Neill’s ignorance of his own organization’s reliance on fraud is astounding as well.
34. “Heart socket?”
35. Or maybe it popped out of its socket.
36. These reactions are not at all surprising; Fundamentalist Christians are known for turning a blind eye to the outrageous fraud of faith-healing. I have heard of no Fundamentalist organization that effectively polices the movement; with the exception of Marjoe Gortner, exposures of fraudulent faith healers have usually come from outsiders.
Similarly, the PTL financial scandals were brought to light not by Fundamentalist councils, but after news broke about Rev. Jim Bakker’s paying hush money to one-time mistress Jessica Hahn.
37. Math freaks, check my figures: A thousand dollars a day for 25 sittings averages out at forty dollars a sitting. Estimating 25 sittings a day during an 8-hour work day, this works out to be 20 minutes per sitting. Gives me a thrill, too.
38. See Chapter 7, “Sex in the Seance.”
39. The issue of child imagery in the paranormal deserves some kind of evaluation. I’m certain the reader is familiar with those Walter Keane paintings of children with saucer-sized eyeballs, looking mournfully into the painter’s eyes. (Turns out that Keane’s wife actually painted them, but that’s getting beside my point.) That’s the sort of child imagery that crops up a lot among New Agers, and, apparently, among spiritualists.
Consider the similarities between Keane’s paintings and the doe-eyed conceptions of aliens that UFO-abductees report. Also, any number of movies and cartoons rely on giving the sympathetic animal big, wide, round, dewy-sort brown eyes, from Chuck Jones’s early work to Gizmo in Gremlins, from E.T. to the massive-eyed, tow-headed characters in much of Japanese animation. And I’ve seen dozens of New Age magazines with multitude of pictures of children and dolphins (usually in Maxfield Parrish aquamarine blue).
This would tie in with all the standard romanticism about childhood– innocence, open-mindedness, none of the prejudices that adults have acquired, playfulness, etc.
As an interesting beginning to this study, I recall Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse,” which described how the Mouse changed over the years. Mickey acquired more childlike attributes– larger head, expressive eyes, etc. (See The Panda’s Thumb.)
40. The Anonymous Typist agrees.
41. Sarah Thomason, a linguist at the University of Pittsburgh, analyzed tapes of trance channellers. One of her observations was that when channelled `Entities’ became excited, they lost their accents and began speaking more like the channeller. This is just the opposite of what one would expect; when people with accents get excited or agitated, their accents grow more noticeable.
42. It’s interesting to note that comedian Sam Kinison, a former evangelist whose routines include even more shocking Jesus jokes, claims that his routines are based on what evangelists joke about when they’re not saving souls.
The jokes are usually a lot better than the “Why can’t Jesus eat M&Ms?” variety.
43. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Paul Kurtz’s The Transcendental Temptation, a book about religious and paranormal beliefs. While the book is a good collection of information and speculation, it has perhaps one lapse in style.
Kurtz makes it very clear that we really know very little about the facts of Jesus’s life; the Gospels were written years after the fact, frequently contradict each other, and were probably embellished to encourage belief. This allows Kurtz to speculate– not without reason, and with some justification– that even if the Bible’s eyewitnesses really did witness miracles, Jesus may have used trickery to simulate them in the same manner as mediums or phony psychics. This isn’t an unlikely proposition, but Kurtz develops the habit of taking these speculations as an established truth once he’s described them.
Personally, it’s always struck me that the miracles are more a product of the myth-making `Whisper down the lane’ syndrome than anything else.
44. See page ?.
45. It’s an educational experience to obtain a handful of blessed trinkets from any religious highway stand or `Miracle spot,’ and get an estimate on how much case lots of the stuff actually costs. Compare a gross of plastic crucifixes to the `Holy Blessed Miracle Crosses’ that cost real money.
In Bayside, New York, there’s a small quasi-Catholic cult led by a woman who claims to have visions of the Virgin Mary. One of their big sellers are `Blessed rose petals,’ glued onto cardboard squares. Even cheaper than plastic crucifixes, I guess.
46. One wonders how Mable would react to the 1990s’ talk of `Planetary consciousness.’
47. Fate magazine hasn’t improved much since, either.
48. Burglars, take note.
49. J. Z. Knight, an Oregon woman who claims to trance-channel “Ramtha,” a 35,000 being from Atlantis, previously made her living by breeding horses. Not surprisingly, “Ramtha,” when counseling people over their investments, would urge them to invest in Knight’s thoroughbred farm.
50. Personally, I have doubts that a Spiritualist TV show would do very well; mainly because I’m certain that the Fundamentalists would go apeshit protesting it.
It’s also fun to speculate how a good spiritualist trickster might make use of TV technology, such as chroma-key matting and computer-generated graphics.