Some of the world’s most famous psychics have dabbled in criminal investigation or searches for missing persons. Uri Geller, the Enemy of All Flatware, claimed he worked with the FBI, which has never been confirmed. Jeanne Dixon, arguably the world’s most famous psychic next to Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce, claimed that she tried to warn the White House about the assassination of JFK and foresaw the death of RFK as well. But the notion of “psychic detectives” didn’t really take hold until the ’70s, and has never enjoyed the mainstream popularity it has today, thanks to a plethora of books, TV shows, and online material about the subject. Just a few of the offerings: Medium (inspired by psychic “profiler” Allison DuBois), The Ghost Whisperer (produced by psychic/medium James van Praagh), Rescue Mediums, the books of Sylvia Browne, and Tru TV’s Psychic Detectives. If you had declared in the eighteenth century that you had a spirit guide who helped you solve crimes, you probably would have been shunned (if not prosecuted for sorcery). Today you stand a good chance of getting a TV contract, or at least long lineups at your local psychic fair.
Setting aside the mystery of how and why psychic phenomena seems to manifest spontaneously in ordinary people from time to time, we’re going to look only at the claims of people who make their living as psychics and/or mediums. Are their abilities dependable enough to provide investigative leads that can’t be obtained in any other way? Has any psychic detective actually solved a crime?
Even those who believe in the efficacy of psychic detection don’t have any cogent explanations of how it works. Many mediums and psychics subscribe to a right brain theory: Their intuitive, creative right brains are more active than their logical, analytical left brains. There is absolutely no evidential basis for this explanation of psychic ability. If the phenomena was purely mental in nature, psychic detectives would have little need for the various tools and methods they use to focus or manifest their powers, which include psychometry (handling personal possessions to receive information about their owners), dowsing (using sticks, pendulums, or other objects to lead them to a missing person or thing), astrology, spirit guides, automatic writing (taking dictation from spirits or channeling spirits while in a trance state), and (in the case of Noreen Renier) heavy smoking and drinking.
Like other professional psychics and mediums, psychic detectives make extensive use of non-paranormal methods such as cold reading. Their apparent successes can often be attributed to retrofitting (subtly altering the details of a psychic reading to conform to facts that are discovered later), selective thinking (picking out accuracies while ignoring inaccuracies), and the Forer effect (the belief that a vague, widely applicable description applies specifically to one person).
Law enforcement agencies generally find psychics unhelpful, or a time-wasting annoyance. However, in some cases psychics can actually damage a case, incite public hysteria (as with the warehouse excavations in the Beaumont case, discussed below), or further traumatize the loved ones of a missing person. For instance, in 1999 Audrey Sanderford of Saginaw, Texas stepped up to the dais during a taping of Montel and asked guest Sylvia Browne about her 6-year-old granddaughter, Opal Jennings, who had been abducted from the Sanderfords‘ front lawn one month earlier. Browne informed Mrs. Sanderford that Opal had been sold into white slavery and was still alive in “Kukouro or Kukoura“, Japan (there is no such place). Mrs. Sanderford sat down with visible relief. In 2000, Richard Lee Franks, a sex offender with no known ties to white slavery or Japan, was convicted of kidnapping Opal. Three years later, the little girl’s body was found roughly 13 miles from her grandparents’ home. She had been murdered within hours of her abduction.
The media tends to be more credulous and laudatory than law enforcement when it comes to psychics, publishing amazing stories about psychic crime-solving that don’t stand up to scrutiny. As this is where we get most of our information about crime, it’s easy for some of us to believe that psychic detectives are a boon to law enforcement. Closer examination of the facts surrounding a few of the cases reportedly solved by psychics might lead us to a very different conclusion…
The Early Days
If you plumbed the depths of myth and history, you could probably dredge up countless instances of what we would consider psychic crime-solving. But the earliest modern example I can find is the ultra-weird case of the Coppin sisters and the Franklin Expedition, as described by Jeffrey Blair Latta in his bizarre book The Franklin Conspiracy. Numerous psychics and mediums tried to locate the missing crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, but this is by far the strangest example (and, if the story can be believed, the most accurate).
In 1849, the three young children of Irish shipbuilder Captain William Coppin announced they were in communication with the spirit of their dead 3-year-old sister, Louisa (“Weasy“). Her spirit appeared to 10-year-old Anne Coppin as a blue glow, and communicated with her by writing on walls. After Weasy accurately predicted the death of a family friend, an aunt instructed Annie to ask Weasy about the fate of the Franklin Expedition. Annie did so, and immediately received a psychic vision of an Arctic scene: two ships nearly covered in snow, and a channel leading to them. Anne drew a detailed chart of this scene. A more startling revelation came some three months later, when a message appeared on the wall in large letters: “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Victory Point, Victoria Channel.” Years later, searchers concluded that the survivors had abandoned the ships in the Victoria Strait off King William Island and crossed the ice to Victory Point.
This occurred in the early days of the Spiritualism craze that swept America and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Mediums and clairvoyants emerged from the shadows to hold court in the parlors of middle- and upper-class enthusiasts seeking communion with the dead, wisdom from the afterlife, or simply some cheap entertainment. Five years after the Coppin children entered into communication with their dead sibling, the family of Victor Hugo would enter into an intense two-year period of communication with some of history’s most illustrious figures, via seances. So it’s not surprising that the Coppins turned to a ghost in search of answers. As we’ll see, psychic detectives tend to use the methods most popular in their own time and place.
Captain Coppin was an advisor to Lady Franklin for the numerous search expeditions, and he relayed his daughter’s message to her. She tried without success to persuade both the searchers and the Navy to look in the Victory Point area for her husband’s crew. William Kennedy, a fur trader who participated in the 1851 expedition, spent three days questioning Annie to glean as many details as possible. The family shied away from publicity, though; even Dickens, who was keenly interested in the Franklin expedition and wanted to write a book about Weasy, was turned away.
The story of Weasy Coppin is an intriguing historical footnote, but the directions given by a toddler’s ghost in no way contributed to the discovery of the Franklin expedition. To this day, the remnants of the ships haven’t been found.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was British psychic Robert Lees, the man who supposedly learned the identity of Jack the Ripper via paranormal means.
As legend is told in books like The World’s Strangest Mysteries (author unknown), Lees (a psychic since his teen years) had a vivid psychic vision of the murder of Martha Turner in August, 1888. This was the first of the Ripper murders. After the third murder, Lees accompanied Scotland Yard investigators to the scene of the crime and followed an invisible trail all the way to a very posh house in the West End, which he declared the murderer’s residence. The investigators knew this was the home of a well-respected doctor who wasn’t likely to be a homicidal maniac, but they reluctantly questioned the man’s wife anyway. To their surprise, she revealed that her husband was a brutal sadist who had nearly killed their little son. The detectives were left with little doubt they had their man. His reputation was so sterling, however, that Scotland Yard engineered a cover-up and swore Lees to secrecy.
Ripperologist Stephen Butt has traced the source of the Lees tale to an 1895 article in the Chicago Sunday-Times Herald, instigated by a local group called The Whitechapel Club. None of the information in that article has been corroborated by any other source, with the possible exception of Lees’ own diary. Until his death in 1931, Lees claimed he had been a psychic confidante to Queen Victoria since the age of 19, and produced a single 1899 letter as proof. However, the letter is a simple thank-you note for a gift. Lees had no royal links whatsoever; he was a reporter and a little-known psychic medium who died in poverty.
Thirteen years after the Ripper murders, across the Atlantic, a Virginia psychic calling herself Madame Newman announced that she had solved the disappearance of 19-year-old Nell Cropsey. Nell had stepped onto the front porch of her family’s home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to speak with a beau named Jim Wilcox on the night of November 20, 1901. She never returned to the house. According to Madame Newman, Wilcox and accomplice had knocked her out with chloroform, driven her into the countryside, and murdered her. Her body could be found in a well near an old house.
Nell’s mother found her body floating in the Pasquotank River, which ran only a few hundred yards from the Cropsey home, and no evidence implicated Wilcox in her murder aside from strange testimony given by Nell’s older sister, Ollie. Nonetheless, public outrage against him ran high. At the conclusion of his second murder trial he was convicted, and served 15 years of his life in prison. He committed suicide shortly after his release.
This injustice soured Americans on the idea of psychic sleuthing for a while.
Though it doesn’t involve any crime or missing persons, the story of archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond‘s 1908 excavation of Glastonbury Abbey deserves mention here. Bligh Bond claimed that all of his decisions on where and how to dig came from the spirits of monks who had lived at the site centuries earlier, speaking to him through mediums. According to his 1918 book The Gates of Remembrance, he found all of their information to be wholly accurate.
Enter the Dutchmen
The first twentieth-century psychic detectives to gain international fame were Gerard Croiset and Peter Hurkos. Both were Dutch, both were Resistance fighters during WWII, and both realized their psychic powers in their 30s. Another thing they had in common: Their crime-solving skills were virtually nonexistent.
Croiset, a psychometrist and psychic healer, was renowned for pinpointing the spot at which Scottish teenager Pat McAdam was murdered in 1967, but her body has never been found. He also failed to find Australia’s Beaumont children, or the two children of a Puerto Rican businessman. His only success came in 1976, when he claimed to have located the body of a missing Japanese girl. He said she would be found floating in a lake, and her body was found in a reservoir.
Croiset was brought into the Beaumont case by a friend of the family, his travel expenses paid for by Adelaide businessman Con Polites. The Beaumonts themselves didn’t like the idea, and had no faith in this quirky little Dutchman’s skills – a position that would be justified by subsequent events.
Croiset originally said the Beaumont children were buried in a cave within half a mile of the Glenelg beach where they vanished. They had not been murdered, they had been trapped by a cave-in while exploring. Later, he insisted the children were buried beneath the foundation of a warehouse that had been built about a week after their disappearance. Some Adelaide citizens were so convinced this could be true that they raised thousands of dollars to have the brand-new warehouse razed, and parts of its foundations torn up. Meanwhile, Croiset confided to journalist Jack Ayling and others that he actually believed the Beaumont children had fallen into a construction pit at the site of some newly-built flats near Glenelg.
In 1996 the warehouse was partially excavated again at the insistence of Con Polites. The Beaumont children were not found.
Croiset’s son, Gerard Jr., followed in his footsteps. Though he reportedly described the Andes plane crash with some accuracy, he never solved a single missing person case.
Hurkos said he gained his psychic abilities after falling from a ladder in 1941. Despite his injury he joined the Resistance, and was imprisoned at the Belsen concentration camp. After the war he started a nightclub act, and in the ’50s paranormal enthusiast Andrija Puharich brought him to the U.S. for extensive testing by parapsychologists. Rather than wowing scientists, he charmed Hollywood, befriending mystically inclined celebrities like Glenn Ford. Through his contacts and his shameless publicity-mongering, Hurkos became the first American psychic superstar of the twentieth century.
Though he claimed to have psychically solved dozens of murders and disappearances as well as the abduction of the Stone of Scone, the evidence is lacking. Scotland Yard flatly denied that he contributed in any way to the recovery of the Stone.
One of the men who financed Hurkos‘ immigration to America, department store magnate Henry Belk, turned to Hurkos when his 10-year-old daughter disappeared in 1957. Belk had been a patron of Hurkos, and even invested in a uranium mine on his say-so. Hurkos urged Belk not to worry; his daughter was safe. A short time later, she was found drowned in a pond on the family estate and the uranium mine went bust. Incidentally, these two events eerily echoed the fate of Belk’s grandfather, Abel Belk, who had been drowned by Union soldiers when he refused to disclose the location of a gold mine.
Hired by a friend of Roman Polanski to solve the 1969 murders of Sharon Tate and her three friends, Hurkos stated that three men, friends of Sharon Tate, had slaughtered everyone in the house after ingesting huge quantities of LSD and performing a black magic ritual called “goona goona” (a faux-Balinese term for love potion, used as the title of a 1930s sexploitation flick). He claimed he knew the names of the men and had given them to the LAPD. Later he claimed that he had named one of the three as “Charlie”, but even if that’s true, Manson himself was not at the scene. Sharon Tate had glimpsed him briefly on just one occasion; she did not know any of the killers (three women, one man). And all of the killers have denied they were on drugs that night.
Hurkos sold photos of the Tate crime scene to the press without consulting Polanski nor the Life photographer who took them. He also used his marginal participation in the case to advertise his L.A. stage show.
In the case of the murders of Michigan co-eds earlier that same year, Hurkos was spectacularly wrong. He said the killer was a “sick homosexual”, a transvestite, a genius, and a motocyclist who belonged to a “blood cult” (like goona goona, he never actually explained what this was supposed to be). This killer was twentysomething, blonde, rather short, and baby-faced. He worked as a salesman but liked to hang around at garbage dumps. A short time later, he said the killer was dark-haired and tall. This second description applied to the killer, John Norman Collins. He drove motorcycles, but every other detail was wrong.
Hurkos was caught fishing for information while “investigating” the Boston Strangler case in the early ’60s; he impersonated an FBI agent in order to interview people. Skeptics have documented his use of cold reading techniques (see James Randi’s Flim-Flam!). He also perpetrated what appear to be gold- and uranium-mining scams, and made some truly bizarre statements that can’t be verified (notably, that Hitler is still alive).
It’s interesting to observe what happens when multiple psychics converge on a single case. For instance, the psychics who offered information on the Atlanta child murders came to dramatically different conclusions: Dorothy Allison (who will be discussed in the next post) declared that she had correctly identified the killer as “Williams”, while other psychics claimed they had provided accurate physical descriptions of him. Texas psychic Karen Hufstetler, on the other hand, had intense visions of the murders but felt Wayne Williams was not the killer.
Part II: Dorothy Allison and Noreen Renier
– “All About Psychic Detectives” by Katherine Ramsland, Crime Library at Tru TV.com
– Flim Flam!, James Randi. Prometheus Books, 1982
– Helter Skelter. Vincent Bugliosi/Curt Gentry Bugliosi. W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.