False Claims Made By Famous Mediums That Caused An Uproar

Psychics, mentalists, and mediums claiming to communicate with the dead have been popular for hundreds of years. While some people believe in their supernatural abilities, many attribute their so-called gifts to a process known as cold reading. Denis Dutton's paper "The Cold Reading Technique" describes it as a "process in which a reader makes calculated guesses about a client's background and problems and, depending on the reaction, elaborates a reading which seems to the client so uniquely appropriate that it carries with it the illusion of having been produced by paranormal means."

Some psychics specialize in finding missing persons and solving crimes. While grieving families sometimes credit mediums with helping them reconnect with the dead, scientific skepticism advocate Susan Gerbic refers to these psychics as "grief vampires." According to Gerbic, claiming to communicate with the dead or intuit the location of lost children requires targeting those who have recently suffered a loss. As detailed in "Psychic Sleuths," studies have attempted to verify the abilities of these psychics. One such study performed double-blind tests to see if teams of psychics would be better at solving crimes than homicide detectives or average college students when relying on intuition alone. While the psychics "generated lengthy discourses with dramatic and confident-sounding statements," they were unable to come up with anything more useful than the detectives or students in the study.

False claims made by psychics have caused uproar for centuries. Here are some of the most controversial cases.

The toe-tapping Fox sisters

In 1848, the Fox family began hearing mysterious knocking in their home. Mrs. Fox was a strong believer in the mystical and immediately assumed they were caused by ghosts. According to "The Fox Sisters," the night before April Fool's Day, her daughters Maggie and Katie started asking questions and getting responses from the mysterious sounds using a "once for yes, twice for no" type system. The family determined that they were communicating with the ghost of a murdered man. As quoted by the Smithsonian, however, they were communicating with an apple tied to a string.

In 1888, Maggie confessed that they had made the whole thing up. First, they used an apple to make the peculiar knocking, but they moved on to cracking their toes and knuckles. The intention was to scare their family, but ultimately, it caused a massive boom in the popularity of Spiritualism. The sisters went on the road to publicize and monetize their way of talking with the dead, and they settled at Barnum's Hotel in Manhattan, where they charged people for "séances."

When Maggie confessed that they had been faking all along, it was dubbed "a death blow" to Spiritualism, sparking outrage from believers. A year later, Maggie took back the confession, claiming that she had always talked to spirits, but it was too late. The Spiritualism community, which the Fox sisters had brought to prominence, rejected them entirely.

Master scammer Ann O'Delia Diss Debar

Around the same time as the Fox sisters, another spiritual scammer was working their "magic": Ann O'Delia Diss Debar. Before claiming she could contact the dead, she posed as everyone from an acclaimed dancer to the Princess of Bavaria. According to famed magician Harry Houdini — who spent much of his life on an unrelenting quest to expose psychics as frauds — she was once committed to Bellevue and attempted to murder her doctors.

Diss Debar found success as a medium. She contacted a wealthy, elderly widow, and told him that she had received messages from his dead wife and child. She persuaded him that they wanted him to give up his house. When he did, she transformed the building into a "Spiritualistic Temple." But in 1888, Diss Debar was put on trial. 

The trial proceedings were extensively reported on, but the public still flocked to the event to watch what happened live. Diss Debar tried to convince the jury that she really could conjure spirits, even testifying that spirits were instructing her to return the house. Magician Carl Hertz was called to replicate Diss Debar's "proof" of speaking to ghosts. According to Houdini, "people crowded around so close that the magician scarcely had room to move." Ultimately, Hertz was able to create the same results with ordinary magic tricks, and Diss Debar was found guilty; she served six months on Blackwell's Island. While the American public was shocked, Diss Debar would go on to start "an exceptionally immoral cult" in England.

Uri Geller debunked on TV

In 2019, famed mystic Uri Geller gave an interview to Reuters, urging his followers in Britain to use "mass-telepathy" against Prime Minister Theresa May. In 2021, he gave another, this time claiming that "intuitive feelings" had shown him that the COVID-19 virus was released by human beings on purpose. According to the Daily Express, this led to an extensive "angry backlash" from the public, who were furious that a "TV magician" was being given a platform to spread misinformation.

This was not the first time that Geller was the subject of public debate. In the 1970s, Geller was the most famous psychic in the world, and beloved skeptic and magician James "The Amazing" Randi launched a highly controversial investigation of his many claims. In addition to psychic powers, Geller stated that he could bend spoons with his mind.

Randi demonstrated entirely non-magical methods that Geller was using to make it appear that he had powers — from hidden mirrors to bending spoons in advance. Johnny Carson took Randi's advice before having Geller on "The Tonight Show" and removed anything that Geller could use to deceive the audience. For an agonizing twenty minutes, Geller stalled. Ultimately, he was unable to perform any magic on the show, to the shock and amusement of the live audience.

Miss Cleo's infomercial predictions

In the 1990s, a mysterious figure appeared in late-night infomercials. She called herself "Miss Cleo," spoke in a Jamaican accent, and urged viewers to call her and receive a free tarot card reading. In reality, the "psychic" was just the face of a money-making organization.

When viewers called the hotline to talk to Miss Cleo, they were connected to random employees around the country who had been hired as "phone actors," per The New York Times. Indeed, the Psychic Readers Network was staffed by people who never claimed to be psychics — they received no training, just a script and some digital tarot cards.

According to an interview with Vice, Miss Cleo's real name was Youree Dell Harris, and she didn't have an accent. She made only 24 cents per minute on the hotlines, while the company made $24 million per month. As noted by NPR, however, the outcry over the Psychic Readers Network wasn't because the hotline operators couldn't see the future or because the company was exploiting Harris or countless desperate callers. It was because the "free tarot card reading" wasn't actually free.

In 2002, the Federal Trade Commission stated that the infomercials failed to explain the real costs of calling in, even threatening callers with reporting them to credit bureaus if the readings weren't paid for. Despite not being directly involved with the business, Miss Cleo faced public fury and feared being recognized in public. 

Dorothy Allison takes credit

Like a TV mystery detective, Dorothy Allison claims to intuit the identities of murderers while taunting them on TV. She gained the trust of multiple families of murdered children, who offered her full access to their lives, homes, and memories. According to The Washington Post, the police have consulted with her on more than 100 cases. But while she tells success stories on promotion tours for her book, detectives from those cases tell a different story.

Despite her book sales, her legacy has been forever tainted by the backlash against her, with much of the outcry coming from those who she claimed to have helped. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times says she gave the police over forty names of potential murderers, but none of them were guilty. A police detective is quoted as describing her as "​​that wacko broad ... [who] rode around in a big limousine, ate real well for three days and then went home."

According to Detective George Brejack, who worked on one of Allison's most well-known cases, she took the police to an abandoned building, claiming the body of a missing child was there. When it wasn't, she gave up. Only a few days later, Brejack himself talked to an eye-witness, who directed him to the site where the body had been left; Allison claimed credit for finding it anyway.

Million-dollar fortune teller Rose Marks

As demonstrated by Miss Cleo's infomercials, no matter how affordable psychics seem at first, there is always a possibility that they will do irreparable damage. This is exactly what happened to author Jude Deveraux, who lost millions in a fortune-telling con. According to ABC News, Deveraux met Rose Marks by casually stopping into a psychic parlor in New York City. Over the course of seventeen years, Marks and her family weaponized Deveraux's feelings around her eight-year-old son's death. Marks told Deveraux that her son's soul was trapped, and the only way to help him was to keep working with her and her family, doing spiritual readings. Over time, Deveraux lost her home, $20 million, and may even have signed a will leaving her money to the Marks family.

According to South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Marks lost her home and will serve ten years in prison. But the most damage may have been done by the public uproar in the wake of the trial and press coverage in 2012. Marks states that she has been depicted "as some kind of monster," and is quoted as asking, "How do I start over again? It's impossible."

Not-so-psychic detectives

Dorothy Allison isn't the only psychic claiming to be able to solve crimes using psychic abilities. Another is Laurie McQuary, a self-proclaimed "true crime psychic" who describes herself as "a big contributor in the law enforcement community." She specializes in telling the family members of missing persons if their loved one is alive or dead by looking at a photograph. However, McQuary is now best known for her contentious appearance on Inside Edition. McQuary informed a producer that the child in the photograph he showed her had been brutally assaulted and murdered. She even showed him on a map where the body might be found. Shortly afterward, she was interviewed by reporter Lisa Guerrero, who confronted McQuary with the fact that the photo was actually of Guerrero as a child.

The report on McQuary was filmed in 2011, but it went viral in 2016. Cult News 101 dubbed McQuary a "phony," and skepticism advocate Susan Gerbic noted that "everyone seems to be talking about" the piece.

Sylvia Browne Tells a Mother her Child is Dead

Sylvia Browne is probably the most famous psychic detective – and also one of the most controversial. In 2004, purported spiritual psychic and guide Browne appeared on television to talk about a missing child. Although it was far from the first time, this appearance would lead to a flood of public outrage from both skeptics and her own fans. Commenters called her "a fraud" and "parasite."

Browne was a frequent guest on the daytime talk show "The Montel Williams Show." In 2004, she appeared on an episode with Louwana Miller, who was distraught about her missing daughter, Amanda Berry. As quoted by the Guardian, Browne told Miller that her daughter was already dead and that her final words were, "Goodbye, mom, I love you." In truth, Berry was still alive and watching the episode air.

In 2013, almost ten years after she had been kidnapped, Berry escaped. Tragically, her mother died before she had a chance to learn that Browne lied, and her daughter survived.

Sylvia Browne's other false predictions

Louwana Miller was not the first grieving person who Sylvia Browne provided with false information. While the Amanda Berry case may be Browne's most famous failure, many of her "predictions" have sparked outrage, and Jon Ronson of The Guardian called her "America's most controversial psychic."

In 1999, the grandmother of Opal Jo Jennings consulted Browne about her missing grandchild. Browne told her that the child had been kidnapped for "some kind of slavery thing" and was currently in Japan. In truth, Opal Jo Jennings was murdered in Texas on the night of her kidnapping. Elsewhere, in 2002, Browne told the parents of missing 11-year old Shawn Hornbeck that their child was dead. But in 2006, Shawn was found alive. While his parents were obviously overjoyed that their son was alive, they described Browne telling them Shawn was dead as "one of the hardest things we ever had to hear."

Browne stopped giving interviews after Hornbeck was found alive, refusing everyone from Larry King to Anderson Cooper. After the scandal, many believed that she would end her psychic career entirely. Instead, she performed on cruises — sometimes sitting on a large throne — and claimed to talk to the dead for the rest of her life.

Maria Duval's $200 million sucker list

Psychic Maria Duval first came to prominence in France as a psychic detective, apparently finding a missing person with a pendulum and returning Brigitte Bardot's lost dog (though Bardot denies this.) Today, she is famous internationally for being at the center of a Ponzi scheme that was more than fifty times as profitable as Bernie' Madoff's.

According to CNN, at least 1.4 million people were scammed by the scheme in the United States alone. It is believed to have been one of the longest-running mail scams in history. Potential victims would receive a handwritten letter, apparently from psychic Maria Duval, promising to help them overcome disease, gain fortune, and change their luck. To continue spiritual advice from Duval, they would have to pay $40 and continue paying every time they wanted to receive another letter. Details in the letters, which arrived spontaneously, seemed to be full of details that a stranger could not possibly know. In truth, the addresses were actually from "suckers lists" created by data brokers.

The international scam was controlled by multiple different entities and individuals from regions ranging from Switzerland to Monaco. In an interview with CNN, Duvals's son said that while she was the face of the scam, she was not involved with the fraud at all and never mailed a single letter. He expressed regret that "her legacy, the picture she will leave" is one of international scandal and exploitation. How involved Duval really was is still unknown.

Facebook stalker Thomas John

While many psychics have been accused of cold reading, others dispense personal information about their clients that seems entirely too specific. An explanation for this is a technique known as "hot reading," in which the reader does research on their subject ahead of time, and repeats the information as if it is coming to them in the moment. And as noted by The New York Times, it has become far easier for psychics to "hot read" thanks to social media.

Susan Gerbic, magician Mark Edward, and their team of skeptics used this to their advantage in attempting to debunk Thomas John — a psychic who has a reputation for correctly guessing the names of audience members' dead pets and family members. The skeptics created fake Facebook profiles for Gerbic and Edward in hopes of catching John hot reading. At John's live show, the psychic began making extremely specific statements about Gerbic and Edward — all of which had been posted on the fake Facebook profiles. While John claims he does not use Facebook, the false information he stated could not be found anywhere else.

While John has gone on to have his own TV show and continues to cater to the stars, the backlash against him has only grown since Gerbic and Edward's sting. In 2019, Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that skeptic criticism was having a profound effect on John's reputation and that his producers were forced to defend him and his new Vegas show months before opening.

Long Island medium's 9/11 Special

Theresa Caputo, better known as "the Long Island Medium" on her TV show with TLC, has been accused of charging grieving families for basic cold readings many times over the years. During these readings, she claims to be able to talk to victims' deceased loved ones. In a 2017 Philadelphia Magazine piece, Victor Fiorillo reported that Caputo's technique involved making vague statements and waiting for them to resonate with the audience. Fiorillo also said Caputo makes many errors during these readings but moves on from them as quickly as possible. Despite this, Caputo continues to have devotees.

However, in the summer of 2021, Caputo sparked national outrage when she announced a new special. In the TV special, she planned to channel the spirits of those who died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The New York Post reported that the special was being decried as "utterly shameful" and "blatant exploitation" of the attack's victims and their families.