By W. E. Cox

(Mr. Cox is a member of the Society of American Magicians and is a research associate on the staff of the Institute for Parapsychology as a specialist in psychokinesis.) 

Reprinted from The PARAPSYCHOLOGY REVIEW Foundation,

Published bimonthly by the Parapsychology Foundation

Inc., 29 West 57th Street, New York, N. Y. 10019.

Vol. 5, No. 3 May-June, 1974

How do magicians view the work of parapsychologists? There are various ways in which professional training can prejudice the outlook of many people toward our field, and it should be of some value to review those that are reflected by sleight of hand experts. It has been my good fortune as a parapsychologist to have accrued certain benefits from being a magician as well.

The philosophy generally accepted by magicians is one of doubt when it comes to certain of the frontiers of science. In regard to ESP, that attitude is fairly conspicuous in comparison with the relative wealth of factual findings which now have placed this field on firm footing. The proportion holding to such skepticism considerably outstrips even that of professional psychologists.

More regrettable, however, is another opinion held by some of the magicians who give no credence to ESP, namely that of dogmatically holding it in contempt. The reason pure prejudice finds an easy entrance is not hard to surmise: their professed interest or hobby is itself the art of deception. It is an anomaly to note, too, that magicians nevertheless are as expressive as anyone about having “an open mind” in this matter. The more likely truth, it seems to me, is that these claimants don’t – and that their open minds indeed might best be “closed for repairs.”

The subject of psychical research comes up fairly often among magicians, mainly because many tricks they perform are based on mind reading techniques and on effects imitative of PK. Since many tricks may look incredible in the hands of an adroit magician, what is to keep some members of a “mentalist’s” admiring audience from asking if he really can read their thoughts? (“Mentalism,” it should be stated, is the term coined by magicians to allude specifically to mental effects, and a “mentalist” is a specialist in such tricks.)

Too many magicians hold on tap their own answers to pointed questions a spectator might ask about psi, rather than suspend any judgment. This has resulted in at least two classes of magicians: (a) those who palm off imitative ESP as bona fide ESP, regardless of their own opinion about it; and (b) those, whether mentalists or not, who are prejudiced against ESP as a pseudoscience.

Writings by certain sleight of hand notables clearly admit their having taken .in interest in psi, and, for the most part, having personally witnessed inexplicable and convincing illustrations of the paranormal. It is fairly well known that the late Hereward Carrington was in amateur magician before he became one of the most prolific psychical writers of his day; but few may be aware of the hand Harry Houdini played in proposing that this field of study be placed on a university footing. Or that he dropped crystal gazing from his repertoire because he was disturbingly accurate in some of his “predictions.”

Dr. Richard Hodgson, who directed the extensive mediumistic studies of Leonore Piper, was himself a magician – and in arch-skeptic with the exposé of Mme. Blavatsky to his credit. Dr. Walter F. Prince, who headed the Boston Society for Psychic Research after helping to expose Margery, probably owed his perspicuity to the fact that he had a life-long hobby of magic, and of “puzzles” of every kind. Another, who knew Prince well, is one of today’s senior authorities on trick blindfold feats, and that is Dr. J. B. Rhine himself.

Angelo Lewis, author of the four most widely read magic volumes of his time, and himself a critically investigative member of the SPR, has stated “. . . If conjuring, were the only explanation, [the] secret would long since have become public property.” Both Howard Thurston and Harry Kellar, each in his time the most widely known illusionist in America if not in the world, candidly reported that they had witnessed paranormal effects which passed any conceivable explanation within normal bounds.

What is the hallmark that distinguishes a trick from real evidence of the paranormal? This is relatively easy to stipulate: in the one, the magician sets his own stage; while in the other, it is the observer-experimenter who is in charge of the procedure. If the second condition is not fulfilled, as may occur if matters are not under the direction of a trained research worker, then no matter how impressive the mental effect or parapsycho-physical manifestation may appear to be, the possibility of its value as paranormal evidence is seriously reduced. Unlike in legal matters, here one has to be considered guilty until proven innocent.

Like many another magician, I have watched a wide array of deception, both professional illusion and amateur parlor demonstration, both crude and polished. From forty years’ interest in both fields, I submit that one factor that stands out is the existence of a unique and abiding difference between the two. Though both have their limits, those concerning magic are comparatively rigid and restricted, while in parapsychology the greatest limit is simply the lack of an ability to produce upon demand.

Magicians, therefore, do not accept challenges that are loaded with the confining conditions which befit a psychic sensitive under test. For example, no prestidigitator, how-ever expert, would agree to let you stand apart with your own deck of cards and simply ask him to name those you specify. Sure, he may claim he can; and, in fact, deliberately may allow this, with bravado, and then fail in the attempt; but his strong preference would be that you let him “call the tune.”

In the latter vein, the following confession should be made, one which I believe to be shared by most practiced magicians. It has been my own experience to make lucky strikes seemingly more often than chance might allow, in bold guessing within some mental trick or other. Nor has self-will yet stopped me, from the immediate desire to capitalize on it when entertaining anyone. The old yen, at that heightened moment, to “let them wonder ‘how could it be a trick?’ ” therefore should warrant the use of a suitable disclaimer; or at least a phrase such as “And now for some extrasensory de-ception!” when beginning a series of mental effects.

Next, what about those magicians who never have recognized parapsychology’s findings? These are legion. Their prompt reaction to various press accounts, and even to personal evidence of psi, too often is one of derision. Their interest seems only to be in “What’s the gimmick?” For example, Milbourne Christopher, a New York author-magician, has asserted that to date not one ESP test has been competently administered!

The groundless beliefs shared by members of this camp is that their ability to duplicate (as they call it) a successful ESP test is proof that sensory leaks or hanky-panky of some kind must have been present! Do I need add that their own use of “gimmicks” is no evidence whatever that these are employed in parapsychology? Not only are requisite safeguards in fact widely observed, but to a degree that exceeds those in any other research field, according to Rhine.

Just last Spring, during a meeting of Greater New York magicians, Christopher and Charles Reynolds showed motion pictures of both Serios and Kulagina. A subsequent magical news item included this reaction: “The great mystery in the films is how the academic, world could be so completely fooled and so unwavering in their faith even after exposure by magicians.” Neither has in fact been competently exposed. (Reynolds, a magician, was considerate enough to spend nearly an hour, at long-distance rates, conferring with me on Serios in 1967. This I mention as evidence of the inability to alter firmly rooted opinions.)

Of two other magicians I might name, one is Joseph Dunninger, and the other a suave New York performer named Kuda Bux, whose onstage and television appearances with silks and doves, and so on, I must say are commendable. Originally Bux was a Kashmiri Indian fire walker of some note, but his specialty now is blindfold automobile drives and shooting down toy balloons across a stage with his eyes covered to a degree that would rival Houdini’s plurality of shackles. Yet, in personal conversation with this talented man, he revealed the most cynical opinions of anyone I ever met concerning Dr. J. B. Rhine and his motives (I admit I brought up the subject, but without revealing my identity.)

There are few tricks whose explanations would not seem to a layman to be conspicuously simple, if he troubled to learn them. In the mind reading realm, a point will be served if I illustrate this by explaining one of Dunninger’s major stunts. A noted mentalist of stage, radio and television, he would distribute slips to the audience, on which questions were to be written, and soon thereafter he delivered an envelope to each aisle for their insertion. Then Dunninger collected those envelopes, and while marching to a conspicuous receptacle he would stow a few away on his person. These were the questions he later “answered” as he toyed with a “doodle board.” Obviously, the board was a screen which simplified his undercover objective. If in a TV studio, then the first part of all this would take place before air time.

On his sponsored radio shows, no disclaimer was made. On two later television series, he did. (“I claim no supernatural powers.”) Dunninger published two books about telepathy and “how to develop it,” both more confusing, than instructive. The term “ESP” appears in neither.

The psychological effects which exceptional psi ability may have upon a sensitive deserve brief discussion here. Among magicians, one thing which seems to be fairly pervasive is an “I can-you can’t” syndrome. This has occurred among psychic sensitives as well, some of whom also have been caught in deception.

Comments on three, as they relate to practiced trickery, should suffice to illustrate the forms this may take. First, according to Carrington, Eusapia Palladino, “who possessed paranormal abilities of a high order, nevertheless would constantly trick if the occasion to do so was presented. She is known to have done so on both the conscious and unconscious level. When, however, she reasoned that these attempts were useless, she would enter into the productive state,”

This was a deeply entrenched habit. In fact, the evidence of personal, and particularly idiosyncratic habits as they are found among sensitives, et al., would form an important ESP research objective.

The second sensitive I wish to mention is Mr, Olof Jonsson. My remarks will be confined to his ESP capacities only, although he has been reputed to possess parapsychophysical ones as well. To give him due credit first, a number of my own tests with him were highly significant, and these included a two-experimenter procedure, enclosed ESP cards, and a two-room situation. His “conviction calls” in particular, as well as a “telergic” ability, [Conviction calls are those which occasionally are specified in advance as sure hits. “Telergy” is Myers’s word for the telepathic transmitting of a psi percept (viz., Jonsson’s “enabling” a percipient himself to hit on given calls).] also were exceptionally good, whatever the tightness of imposed controls.

To illustrate Jonsson’s disqualifications, I now quote the following from a paper of my own: “I am not of the personal opinion that Jonsson actually has more than a very casual knowledge of basic conjuring sleights, even though upon occasion I have caught him employing such sleights, or their equivalent, during loosely controlled demonstrations.”

Jonsson is aware that for this reason, plus the fact that he relished admiring audiences, it would be difficult to plan meaningful research experiments. No effort of mine broke him of his habit.

A third sensitive, William Delmore, has been very satisfactory as a subject. His preference is for playing cards, with which he performs considerably better than with an ESP deck, but this is no objection. He also has shown significant evidence in certain PK tasks and not in others,

These personal restrictive habits were found not to involve sleight of hand, which potentially had entered the picture as follows: Delmore was at his best when free to perform his “tricks,” as he had been calling them. These consisted of the devising of such ESP demonstrations as would occur to him, arbitrarily variable and preferably before a young and impressionable audience. Fortunately, he has been able to adjust to certain formal test conditions. Olof Jonsson, on the other hand, quietly would submit to imposed restrictions-but the tighter the controls, the lower generally was his score.

Such are some of the problems of a parapsychologist. Partly as the result of these and other experiences, I do not hold to the maxim that “Once a fraud, always a fraud,” as I might in monetary or legal chicanery – or even in a Spiritualist colony. Today, as a result of the highly advanced research procedures now in use, the services of a magician are seldom required by parapsychologists.

As a whole, the talent and training of magicians tend to militate against their open-mindedness toward the paranormal. The parallels between representative effects in their repertoire and ESP, however, are what encourage presentations that include seemingly informed remarks about psi research efforts.

Inasmuch as magicians habitually do not expect their bag of tricks to be taken as anything else, some of them have no compunction against assuming the appearance of being clairvoyant as well. A number, in fact, would seem to prefer the latter classification, such as George Kreskin and David Hoy. Each of them, like Dunninger, rose to his lucrative lecture-circuit status from that of a conventional magician’s. An audience usually is left to wonder how best to classify them; and therein lies the greatest of their deceptions.


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