Exposing predators: James Randi’s mission
I met James Randi the night he discovered Peter Popoff’s secret.
A televangelist, Popoff was making millions with a slick faith healing scam, taking to the small screen with a dazzling act in which he seemed to read the deepest desires of the afflicted as he performed a sideshow version of the laying on of hands.
Attending a previous servicve, Randi and his cohorts saw something peculiar. There was no dark shadow in the center of one of the preachers ears. Inferring that Popoff was wearing one of those in-the-ear hearing aids, Randi realized the game was afoot.
Those acoustic appliances really weren’t all in the ear, relying on a radio microphone unit carried on the person to pick up the sound, then relaying it to the earpiece speaker unit by radio waves.
Next Randi discovered the frequencies used by the appliances, then came equipped with scanners to the next healing-and-miracle extravaganza, which was happened to be in San Francisco. He struck gold.
At the time, I was a member of the Sacramento Skeptics Society and edited out little newsletter, Psientific American, and Randi was our guest speaker later that same day. Driving back from San Francisco, we stopped to eat along the way and I got to hear first-hand Randi’s excited account of his coup earlier in the day.
Johnny Carson, who began his show business career doing magic shows in his small Nebraska farm town youth, the Tonight Show host admired Randi’s debunking mission, and when he learned of Popoff’s chicanery, he invited Randi onto show, where he showed the footage in the last part of the clip.
Randi foils the psychic spoon-bender
Uri Geller, Randi’s target in the first segment of the video, was a mass media celebrity in the early 1970s, an Israeli magician who discovered that it was easier to get rich being a miracle worker than playing the magician’s craft.
The first time I heard of him, I was living in Palo Alto, helping to house sit for a Stanford Research Institute physicist. My fellow housesitter came back from an event in Berkeley, gushing about Uri Geller, a man she was convinced had the power to melt metal with his mind and divine the world’s secrets with his mind.
Geller’s gig revolved around spoon-bending, a pathetically simple gag in which the magician makes a section of spoon handle begin to melt, culminating with the two haves of the implement fall apart.
Soon spoon-bending parties were happening across the country. His biggest fans were in the Central Intelligence Agency — the same folks who brought us LSD — where spooks were hoping to develop Geller’s professed ability to “remote view” secret Soviet skullduggery.
Randi instantly divined Geller’s arsenal of antics, then paid another visit to Johnny Carson, a television moment captured in the clip.
Simply by keeping Geller and his crew away from the objects beforehand, Carson forced the psychic’s hand, and Geller suddenly decided his powers weren’t working that evening and ended his bit without accomplishing a single feat.
Randi helps send a ‘psychic surgeon’ to jail
My second meeting with Randi took place over the telephone in 1987, after I learned that a “psychic surgeon” paying a visit to Sacramento had been busted by undercover investigators from the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance, a case I write about at length in my book Deadly Blessings.
I immediately called Randi and asked him if he’d be willing to talk to the Sacramento Country District Attorney’s office, and he agreed instantly.
Jose “Brother Joe” Bugarin copped a plea that included nine months’ imprisonment after learning that Randi would be called as a witness at Bugarin’s trial to replicate his alleged wizardry down to the last blood-soaked cotton ball and chicken gizzard.
I was delighted to offer a little help when Randi was writing his book The Faith Healers, which he kindly acknowledged in the text.
Thanks to Randi, I learned a few magic and mentalist tricks of my own, including a neat little book gag in which I was able to name the fifth word in the second line of the third paragraph sight unseen — or seemingly so. Another trick involved a very impressive example of combined precognition and teleportation, in which the answer to a just-asked questioned appeared beneath the cushion of their car as I sat in another chair all the way across the room. I also performed my own version of object-bending, using a ballpoint supplied by an audience member.
Premanand, battling grifting gurus
One really graphic gag I picked up from another magician who stayed at the family house in Sacramento.
B. Premanand came from India, a country where magic tricks form the bait on the hooks of countless professional gurus, folks who draw in their marks with impressive showmanship.
Premanand was the Indian Randi, a secular socialist who’d started out as a disciple of one of India’s most venerated gurus. He spent his life traveling the country with fellow skeptics, debunking one faker and another. Unlike the U.S., where lawsuits are the weapon of choice for thwarting critics, Premanand faced real attempts on his life.
He’d come to Sacramento for a talk to the Skeptics, which included demonstrations of some of the tricks he’d exposed.
He was an amazing showman, in part because he looked so much like the sort of gurus who had been so popular in bohemian/hip culture in this country. With a long, grey beard, a mane of white hair, a strong face, dark, piercing eyes, and the traditional pajama/kurta garb, you could easily imagine him teaching mantras to rock stars.
One of his best effects was the spike-through-the-tongue, in which he appeared to force a chrome-plated spear through the labile organ. Not the sort of stuff for the faint of heart.
Taking my own act on the road
I worked up my own act and took it on the road, starting out with a grade school performance at my son’s school. I later added community colleges and medical societies, giving a talk on faith healing that earned them continuing medical education credits with the state.
The talks I remember best are the first one in grade school and the last ones to packed classrooms as the University of California, Davis.
During his stay, Premanand had given my son and eye sets of his tongue-piercing gag spears, which are crowned with the trishul, the symbol of Shiva, the most fierce of the Hindu trinity [which also includes Brahma and Vishnu].
Morgan Sherwood was a history professor, and taught a history of science class that drew more science than history majors. As part of his course, he devoted considerable attention to pseudoscience and trickery.
During the most memorable of my talks, I spent about 40 minutes exposing one gag after another, then shifted gears.
“Even though most of the ‘miracles’ are simple tricks, there are some things science really can’t explain, at least not yet.” Then I brought out the spikes.
Explaining that some folks were able to empower their bodies to heal in still-mysterious ways, the proceeded to pierce my tongue.
I’d added one touch to the gag, adding a blood capsule and a brilliant white new handkerchief to my bag of tricks. As the spike seemed to spear through my tongue, a trail of “blood” trickle over my lower lip and started down my chin. I wiped it away with my handkerchief, offering a quick glimpse to my audience of ruby red starkly smeared across snowy white.
At which point, a young woman in the front row briefly fainted.
When I explained the trick, the students laughed, as much at their own fleeting moment of gullibility as for the brilliant simplicity of the trick.