The Bolivar Syndrome
Guy Lyon Playfair
Magicians Disclose the Secrets of the Telepathic Impostor.
This announcement was made on the cover of the 20 October 1970 issue of the sensationalist weekly magazine Haolam Hazeh, and within a few months of Uri’s first public appearance in Israel the anti-Geller campaign was under way. It was based on the assumption: magicians can do all kinds of clever things; Geller can do all kinds of clever things; therefore Geller is a magician.
What else could he be, it was thought by many at the time and has continued to be thought by some? Geller began his career on the stage, and he has never objected to being called an entertainer. His public performances were to follow a routine that was to be repeated almost unchanged for fifteen years, during which professional conjurors showed that they too could bend spoons, make watches tick and reproduce drawings made by members of their audiences. They found no difficulty in accepting Geller as an unusually skilled manipulator of both crowds and individuals who had developed a highly polished and original performance. Marcello Truzzi, one of the more good-natured of his early critics, suggested that the Society of American Magicians should name him Conjuror of the Year and leave the criticism of him at that.
Others were not so generous. To them, Geller’s claim that he was demonstrating real magic brought the art of conjuring into disrepute. Their sense of outrage was well expressed by magician James ‘The Amazing’ Randi in his polemical book The Magic of Uri Geller (1975): ‘. . . I am proud of my profession. I am even jealous of it and resent any prostitution of the art. In my view, Geller brings disgrace to the craft I practise. Worse than that, he warps the thinking of a young generation of forming minds. And that is unforgivable.’ Randi’s book was hailed by popular astronomer Carl Sagan as ‘a witty and fascinating dissection of Uri Geller’s humbuggery’. Leon Jaroff of Time saw it as ‘a devastating blow to the pseudo-science of parapsychology’. Martin Gardner of Scientific American declared that ‘all who respect truth should take off their hats and cheer’.
On the other side of the fence, some of the most sympathetic members of the scientific community began to have their doubts about the young Israeli who, for a time, had apparently performed his feats as successfully in the laboratory as on the stage or in the television studio. He did not fit into the pattern to which for more than a century they and their predecessors had become accustomed. The star psychic performers of the past had generally placed themselves at the service of science ever since the 1870s, when the spectacular medium Daniel D. Home submitted himself willingly to more than three years of scrutiny by one of the leading scientists of the time, William Crookes. Later, the Neapolitan Eusapia Palladino was tested by more than fifty scientists, including four Nobel Prize winners, for nearly thirty years. Leonore Piper of Boston offered her services on a full-time basis to members of the Society for Psychical Research, who published volume after volume of reports on the information she produced while in a state of trance. Then there was Rudi Schneider, a modest Austrian garage mechanic who spent much of his spare time throughout his life doing whatever scientists asked him to do with his psychokinetic powers, and then doing it all over again for another team of investigators. The Irish-American clairvoyant Eileen Garrett even went to the lengths of commissioning and financing scientific investigations of herself.
Geller was different. Although he spent a good deal of time from 1972 to 1974 in laboratories, he soon became tired of serving as a human guinea-pig. Sitting down wired to machines and being told what to do did not suit his temperament at all. He was an entertainer, who only felt at home when performing in front of an audience, and he could not wait to get back to where he felt he belonged: the public stage.
Some of his supporters began to have second thoughts. Professor John G. Taylor of London University stated in 1975 that ‘the existence of the Geller Effect alone shows that the scientifically impossible can sometimes occur’ after describing (in The Geller Papers) a number of incidents in his own laboratory involving his own equipment. However, he added, ‘I could always try taking the safe line that Geller must have been cheating . . .’ This was the line he did take five years later in his book Science and the Supernatural, after setting up what he considered to be a fraud-proof experiment with the help of a magician, and failing to observe any Geller Effects during it. He concluded, ‘As far as I am concerned, there endeth the saga of Uri Geller; if he is not prepared to be tested under such conditions, his powers cannot be authentic.’
Let us return to the beginning of the anti-Geller saga, and the three-page cover story in the Israeli magazine already mentioned that launched it in 1970. The article was unsigned, but most of it consisted of statements by a magician named Eitan Ayalon who announced that ‘all of Israel’s magicians have assembled for a witch-hunt against Uri Geller’ and went on to explain why.
There were three reasons. First, Geller was overdoing his claims to be a genuine psychic. He was not the first ‘magician’ to do this, Ayalon recalled. The performances of David Berglas, a well-known master of mental magic and illusionism, had been billed in Israel as making use of telepathy and ‘parapsychology’, as were Geller’s. Berglas could be forgiven since he had never made such a claim himself, but Geller could not. He had gone too far.
The second reason for the ‘witch-hunt’ was more serious: he was interfering with Israeli politics. Prime Minister Golda Meir’s off-the-cuff reply to a question on the country’s future -‘I don’t know, ask Uri Geller’ – had been widely reported. Geller had recently met the minister of transport (later to be the country’s prime minister) and had bent some cutlery for him. ‘He even broke Shimon Peres’s pen without touching it,’ the magazine revealed, adding, ‘We also have a report that Uri Geller was called this week to demonstrate his powers to Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan.’ The ‘telepathic impostor’ was, in short, becoming ‘a national menace’.
It was the third reason, however, that had been chiefly responsible for Ayalon and his colleagues’ decision to embark upon the witch-hunt. ‘He started to hurt our earnings,’ said Ayalon. ‘That is why we decided to hit back.’ They did so initially not by revealing his secrets, but by training a couple of youngsters named Eddie Moore and Nurit Pai to perform as phoney psychics. Ayalon even grew a ‘mystic’ beard and had a go himself, claiming to have fooled several audiences with performances based on Geller’s routine.
‘Uri Geller will disappear,’ he prophesied. ‘We give him an ultimatum: if he does not stop his imposture in two weeks, we will reveal all.’ He was reluctant to do this, he said, but it was a question of ‘saving the Israeli people’.
Geller confirms he met Shimon Peres. ‘His pen bent and broke in his pocket,’ he told me. He also had this to say about his meeting with General Dayan, to which he never referred publicly in any detail while the hero of the Six Day War was still alive:
He telephoned me and said he would like to meet me, and invited me to have a meal with him at the White Elephant steakhouse near the town of Zahala, where he lived. This was an honour for me, because Dayan was everybody’s idol at that time.
I demonstrated my powers to him. First, he did a drawing and I received it. Then I did one for him to receive, which he did. Then I bent a key for him, and we discussed the potentials of these powers. He was very intrigued. I remember his one eye flickering and gleaming. Then he said he would like to meet me again in a less public place. I paid the bill, by the way.
Two or three weeks later he telephoned me again and invited me to his home. It would be very private, he said, just the two of us.
I went to his house, and when he had shown me some of his collection of archaeological antiques, he said, ‘Look, Uri, I have hidden a photograph somewhere in this room. I would like you to do two things: find it, and describe it to me before you look at it.’
I used to do this kind of thing at parties, but with rings or bracelets, not photographs. I told him it might not work, because I was nervous; which I was. Anyway, I started to walk around with my hands out in my usual way, and I ended up at a row of about forty books on a shelf. I pointed at one of them.
‘It’s in there,’ I said. ‘In this book.’
‘You’re right,’ he said at once, with a laugh. ‘Now, what is on the photograph?’
I asked him to project the photograph to me, which he did and I picked up all kinds of impressions. Then I asked him for a pen and paper.
‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I don’t want you to leave my sight. Don’t write it, describe it.’ I will never forget that – it depressed me because I thought he was being negative and cautious.
Anyway, after about five minutes I said, ‘It’s a photograph of the flag of Israel.’
He really collapsed, and just sat in his armchair laughing his head off.
‘Are you laughing because I was right, or because I was wrong?’ I asked him. He told me to open the book and see for myself. I did, but could not find any photograph. Then he took the book, and turned to page 201, where there was a small photo of the main tower of Lod Airport showing part of the roof, a flag-pole, and the flag of Israel.
‘You’ve proved yourself, Uri,’ he said to me. ‘I don’t want to see any more. There’s no need for you to bend anything. Now, what can you do for Israel?’
Geller was not prepared to describe the two-hour-long conversation that followed, except to indicate that Dayan was interested in ‘very major things’ and clearly saw more potential uses for psychic powers in military contexts than he did.
‘He seemed resigned to the fact that I was more interested in becoming rich and famous than in being a psychic superspy,’ Uri told me. He was equally unforthcoming about his alleged meetings with Golda Meir and the head of Israeli military intelligence, General Aharon Yariv. However, from what is known of the methods of Israeli’s intelligence services, it is most unlikely that Geller would not have been checked out very thoroughly, and without his knowledge, by at least one of them. It is also very unlikely that those findings would have been passed on to anybody except on a need-to-know basis. Who needed to know what when Targ and Puthoff were briefed by the Mossad in 1973 has not been revealed.
* * *
Geller did not disappear in 1970, as forecast by Eitan Ayalon, and the people of Israel showed no sign of wanting to be saved from him. Yet the witch-hunters refused to give up. Haolam Hazeh returned to the fray in its issue of 14 March 1973, in which editor Eli Tavor dismissed Uri as ‘a proven crook’, largely on the evidence of the forged photograph of him and Sophia Loren, for which Uri’s former publicist Rany Hirsch has now admitted that he was solely responsible. Two weeks later, the magazine published its long-promised revelation of how it thought Uri was doing his metal-bending, introducing the ‘hidden chemical’ theory which was popular for a time in witch-hunting circles until James Randi, no less, pointed out that any substance capable of softening metal is far too dangerous to use and should be withdrawn from sale in magic shops.
On 20 February 1974, Haolam Hazeh published its most determined effort to date to save Israel from the menace of Uri Geller. This was the article reprinted in full in Randi’s book, in an English translation, and it has been widely cited as if it were an official report from Israel’s Academy of Sciences. In fact it is a string of inaccuracies from start to finish. A good deal of it is based on statements attributed to Hanna Shtrang, who has assured me that she never said a word of any of them and never even met the writer of the article. Eli Tavor himself has now admitted that the whole article may have been pure invention.
Even the British press, which on the whole covered Geller’s early career objectively and fairly, contributed its share of confusion. On 15 January 1974, Richard Herd reported in the Daily Mail that he had been to Israel ‘seeking to track down the legend which Uri Geller has woven around himself’. He got off to a shaky start, revealing that Geller was born in Hungary and taken to Israel at the age of ten by his father, who died in 1957, whereupon his mother ‘married again and had a son by Uri’s stepfather’. (Uri was in fact born in Tel Aviv and taken to Cyprus by his mother. His father died in 1979, and although his mother did remarry she had no further children). Stumbling further along the trail, Mr Herd complains that ‘no one remembers him doing anything at all until he was serving as a paratrooper’. This is not surprising, since he was not in Israel, but in Cyprus, where his teacher Mrs Jenny Agrotis remembered him very well. As she wrote to the News of the World in December 1973:
Uri Geller was a pupil of mine for five years in Cyprus. Even while so young he astonished his friends at the [Terra Santa] College with his amazing feats, i.e. bent forks, etc. The stories he told them of the wonderful scientific things that could, and would, be done by him, seem to be coming true. I for one do believe in him, he was outstanding in every way, with a brilliant mind, certainly one does not meet a pupil like him very often.
Had Mr Herd stayed at home, he might have been able to locate a couple of Geller’s old schoolmates in England, as I did without much difficulty more than ten years later, when they still remembered a good deal. I will return to them in due course.
I have given a brief sample of Geller’s early press coverage to show that the witch-hunt against him was based on some very insecure foundations. These consisted of assumptions, rumours and outright lies, and very little actual evidence at all. It is indeed strange, as Uri has already pointed out, that sources such as the popular Haolam Hazeh were accepted without question, whereas the scientific papers in refereed journals, such as Nature, were rejected without hesitation or reflection on the professional reputations of their authors.
When it came to complicating the Geller legend, a major contribution was made, ironically, by the man who discovered him and brought him to the West: Dr Andrija Puharich.
By the time he met Geller, Puharich had a long record of imaginative research in both straight science and parapsychology. He had patented more than fifty of his inventions in the field of biotechnology and written two fine books, The Sacred Mushroom and Beyond Telepathy. His research with unusually gifted subjects made him the ideal person to explain the mystery of Uri Geller.
His 1974 book Uri contained some excellent passages of straight reporting, based on abundant tape-recorded first-hand evidence, in addition to some shrewd observations and reasonable speculations. Interspersed with these, however, were passages that seemed to have strayed from a science fantasy novel by A. E. Van Vogt, in which we were asked to believe that Geller was no ordinary kid from the Middle East, but the emissary of a group of extraterrestrials called The Nine, whose duties included controlling the universe from a space-org called Spectra. They communicated with us, through Uri, by means of messages on tapes that, once played back, would dematerialize. Colin Wilson, the most open-minded and sympathetic of Geller’s commentators, found all this ‘astonishing and unbelievable’, and ‘a bit too much’. So did most people. Even Uri, as he has already said, was considerably embarrassed.
The simplest explanation for some was that Puharich had gone off his head. However, as is the case with the ‘explanations’ put forward by the witch-hunters to account for Uri’s feats, it does not stand up to close examination. Puharich, whom I have met several times, is a man with an unusual mind. In a long career in scientific research, his thoughts have found their ways into distant orbits, where they have captured some practical and successful inventions, such as the series of miniature deaf-aids that have earned him a good deal in royalties over the years. If his thoughts have occasionally led him where the rest of us are unable to follow, the same can be said of many inventors. Edison, for example, firmly believed that communication with the dead was possible, and he designed a machine for the purpose. Tesla, on whose genius much of our electrical industry is based, believed that power could be plucked from space and driven through the core of the earth to any point on its surface. An element of apparent craziness is an essential component of the mind of a successful inventor.
All the information from The Nine was provided while Geller was in a hypnotic trance state. Puharich is a skilful hypnotist, who has long made use of hypnosis to enhance the abilities of his research subjects, and Geller admits to being an excellent hypnotic subject. As he has told us, his earliest childhood fantasies were of space travel, rockets and distant civilizations, and by his early teens he had woven these into stories that fascinated both his classmates and his teacher. Neither he nor I can say how those fantasies came into his mind, or where they originated. The fact is that they were there, and under hypnosis, as we would expect, they came out.
As long ago as 1844, an English mesmerist, Rev. C. Hare Townshend, discovered that a good subject was able to blend his thoughts with those of the mesmerist or hypnotist:
. . . my patient’s ideas shifted so visibly with my own, and were so plainly the echo of my own thoughts, that not to have perceived the source whence they came would have been pertinacious blindness indeed. I was but taking back my own, and receiving coin issued from my own treasury.
Puharich had received much material of supposedly extraterrestrial origin before, through subjects other than Geller, and it is surprising that he does not seem to have allowed for his own role in the utterances of The Nine. These would have made an interesting book in themselves, but their inclusion in what was otherwise a straightforward and factual account of Geller’s early career did neither the author’s nor Uri’s reputation any good at all. It took Geller some time to live them down, although he promptly did his best to set the record straight with his own account of his (terrestrial) life, My Story.
Puharich’s book added greatly to the scepticism of those who were already feeling in 1974 that Geller was too good to be true. I was one of them.
I first became aware of the existence of somebody called Uri Geller in 1973, when I read the article on him in Time magazine’s 12 March issue. I was living in Brazil at that time and researching the local psychic scene for my books The Flying Cow and The Indefinite Boundary. I was finding much material that struck me as genuine, as it still does, and had little interest in this exotic spoon-bender who, according to Time, was just a smart conjuror. Then the June 1973 issue of the magazine Psychic arrived through my letter-box. It contained a long interview with Geller and an article by Alan Vaughan, who had clearly studied his subject far more thoroughly than Time science writer Leon Jaroff had done. According to Vaughan, Geller was able to accomplish practically everything of a paranormal nature ever reported, with the exception of the Indian rope trick. I was intrigued. However, one of the many incidents in Uri’s eventful life stuck in my mind. This is how he described it:
One experiment I did with Andrija [Puharich] was when he asked me to go to Brazil out of the body. I got to this city and asked a person where I was, and he told me it was Rio de Janeiro. Then someone came up and pressed a brand-new one-thousand cruzeiro note in my hand, and it appeared in my hand on the couch by Andrija – to prove I was there.
This took place in Puharich’s home in Ossining, NY, on 24 March 1973, and it struck me as very odd for a number of reasons, in addition to the inherent improbability of simultaneous teleportation from Brazil to the United States. I wrote to Psychic mentioning some of them, beginning with the fact that the 1,000 cruzeiro note had been out of circulation following the introduction of the ‘new cruzeiro’ in 1967. I went on:
For an old 1,000 note to have remained brand new for something like five years in Rio de Janeiro is very unlikely. Usually they fall apart in a few months and have to be held together with tape. Moreover, the people of Rio do not usually hand money to foreigners in the street. Sometimes they do just the opposite.
I ended by expressing the hope that Puharich would help solve the mystery of this apparent teleportation through both space and time. He promptly obliged, in the same issue in which my letter appeared (December 1973), providing the serial number of the banknote and adding that he liked my approach to the case. I had little difficulty in establishing that the note had been printed and circulated in April 1963. A Bank of Brazil official confirmed that its expected life before being withdrawn for pulping would have been nine months at the most.
I also discovered that Puharich had visited Brazil in the same year, and I wondered if somehow or other this note had been issued to him and kept, later finding its way between the cushions on his sofa. I duly wrote up my findings – my first published contribution to psychical research – which appeared in print no less than three times: in New Scientist (14 November 1974), the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (June 1975) and, with my permission, in Randi’s book The Magic of Uri Geller (1975). Doing my best to impress my fellow members of the SPR with my impeccable scepticism, I concluded:
[This episode] does suggest to me that further examination of Geller’s paranormal abilities can lead to totally normal hypotheses as to how he performs his feats.
Randi commented, ‘Thank you, Mr Playfair, for an excellent piece of work’, and for a time I was quite popular in the SPR, until my colleague Maurice Grosse and I upset many of its members with our uncompromisingly positive reports of all kinds of paranormality from the Enfield poltergeist case of 1977-8.
Uri’s own version of the Brazil event, in a letter to me dated 21 March 1978, was as follows:
I will now tell you exactly what happened. The money . . . did appear in my hand when I woke up from the trance. As far as I can remember when I was in this strange hypnotic state Puharich put me in, I remember very clearly walking on a sort of main street. I was lost and scared. I stopped a passing couple and asked for money. It is not clear to me exactly who gave me the note, but as it was put in my hand I woke up on the bed in Ossining. And that is the honest truth. To this day I wonder if maybe Andrija could have . . . hypnotized me so deeply that this event looked so real to me, and then stuck the money in my hand. As far as I’m concerned I tend to believe that this was a real happening, and I don’t think Andrija had any interest in faking such an incident. I really can’t tell you anything else. Strange things do happen and this was one of them.
I have mentioned this episode at some length to establish my credentials as the first person anywhere, as far as I have been able to discover, to have published a critical piece on Geller that was based on both original research and hard evidence. I hope this will be borne in mind when I describe my own further examinations and reach new conclusions.
Proving conclusively that strange things happen can be very difficult. How do you go about it? In most areas of science, you form a hypothesis and test it, and if enough people test it independently and get the same results as you, it can be considered proven. However, in the psychic sciences this method does not work. Numerous eminent scientists from William Crookes onwards have testified to the occurrence in their presence of some very strange things, but although their word was not questioned on other matters, their findings in the psychic realm were rejected out of hand. Why?
‘Ah,’ say the magicians, ‘because they were deceived. It takes one magician to spot another. We know how he or she tilted the table, bent the spoon or read the mind, but we won’t tell you because you don’t give away trade secrets.’ We are asked to take the words of the magicians on trust, although this is hardly reasonable since magicians are professional deceivers who are frequently deceived themselves by their colleagues and even, as I will describe, by laymen.
All the same, when a magician spends several days closely observing Uri Geller, and concludes that his psychic powers are real, his findings should be of special interest. He might have been deceived, of course, but this argument is balanced by the equally valid one that the witch-hunters might also have been deceived. Furthermore, it is harder to fool somebody who knows what to look for.
The first magician to make a careful first-hand study of Geller was a Dane named Leo Leslie, whose book Uri Geller: Fup eller Fakta? (Fraud or Fact?) was published in 1974. It has received less attention than it deserves, partly because no English translation has yet appeared and partly, I suspect, because of the author’s uncompromising conclusion.
Leslie, adviser on magic to Denmark’s National Museum, was called in by the state television company to supervise arrangements for a performance Geller gave in Copenhagen in January 1974. He was able to introduce a number of controls’ without Geller’s knowledge, thus eliminating the more obvious methods of cheating. Some of these were quite ingenious. He arranged, for instance, for Geller to be continuously monitored by cameras from the moment he entered the studio before the programme went on the air. ‘Experience shows’, he noted, ‘that it is always in the last hectic moments before a live transmission that a magician checks out his equipment.’
One cameraman was ordered to keep Geller’s hands in view all the time. Leslie and three accomplices watched him both live and on monitors throughout the evening and reported no suspicious movements either before or during the show. Leslie also managed to ensure that none of Geller’s entourage entered the studio at any time.
Before the show began, Geller learned to his annoyance that he was expected to try to bend or break the metal clip of the brassiere worn by a large-bosomed photographer’s model, in the hope that she would reveal all on camera. He refused to do this, considering it to be in bad taste. Leslie sprang another surprise on him by presenting him with an array of clocks and watches that he had rigged beforehand so that it was impossible for any of them to start ticking. Geller told Leslie afterwards that he would have tried harder if he had known in advance that they were jammed. On a recent Australian television programme, he had managed to start a clock that had been doctored by a professional clockmaker, who had inserted some pieces of plastic in its works.
He was more successful with his drawing-reproduction routine. A drawing of the front view of an elephant had been sealed in an envelope and handed to the photographer’s model, who slipped it under her bra, then apparently forgot what the drawing was. All the same, Geller managed to draw what Leslie described as ‘a rendition of an elephant seen from behind’. It was, he noted, exactly the same size as the original, which was opened on camera.
Geller also bent and broke a fork during the programme, but Leslie admitted he had not had an uninterrupted view of the whole proceedings. After the show, however, things improved considerably. Although Leslie confessed that he was a magician, Geller offered him a personal demonstration.
First, he did a telepathy test while he and Leslie were sitting with their backs to each other and a colleague of Leslie’s was observing the two of them. Leslie thought of a flower and began to draw it, taking care to make distracting noises as he did so. The colleague noticed that Geller also began to draw a flower. Moreover, it was Geller who began to draw first. That was good enough for Leslie.
‘I had to admit defeat,’ he wrote. ‘Uri had apparently read my thoughts.’
Leslie then produced a key which he had prepared in advance by coating it with enamel and nickel plating, making it impervious to acid. He had experimented beforehand with some mercury bichloride, finding that he was unable to reproduce ‘phenomena that resembled Geller’s even slightly’. Geller began to rub the key and immediately noticed there was something unusual about it.
‘You have done something to it,’ he said. ‘I can’t get in touch with the metal.’
‘I licked my lips,’ Leslie wrote. ‘Now he was caught! It was chemicals after all, I thought.’ Leslie took the key and studied it closely. ‘While I sat looking at the key, the enamel started to crack, and a second later strips of the nickel plating curled up like small strips of banana peel as the key started to bend in-my fingers.’ While all this was going on, ‘The telephones started ringing. The populace had apparently run wild. The sick were healed, watches started, silverware and cutlery bent. The Geller landslide had begun.’
The judgment of Leslie and his accomplices amounted to total vindication.
‘We found his metal-bending and his ability to receive telepathic signals reasonably documented.’ After a lengthy discussion of several possible methods, he concluded, ‘There was no possibility of trickery.’
Just to make sure, Leslie obtained the names and addresses of some of the callers to the television studio and spent some days checking up on them. After visiting several of them, he was satisfied that some were able to bend metal and receive telepathic messages in much the same way as Geller had done. Then came the final straw that caused the last traces of his scepticism to disappear.
‘Of course, it had to happen that my own son came and told me that he could bend teaspoons!’ When the boy had ‘convinced his sceptical father’, Leslie immediately called a fellow magician who had a Geiger counter and asked him to bring it over. He did, and although Leslie junior was unable to do another spoon-bending job in the presence of this stranger, he did manage to produce readings on the counter while he was rubbing away at the spoon. Neither of the two magicians was able to do the same.
Leo Leslie’s final verdict, after a total of sixteen meetings with Geller and a good deal of discussion of all aspects of his performances: ‘I must emphasize that nothing I have seen or heard in my investigation of Uri Geller has changed my initial conviction that he is in possession of certain psychic powers.’
If Leslie had reached a negative verdict, it would no doubt have been widely quoted. In the event, he was generally ignored. Four years later, The Times published a letter from a certain Dr John Worrall claiming that no professional magician had yet been involved in tests of Geller’s abilities. By then, the findings of at least four magicians – Leslie, William E. Cox, Abb Dickson and Artur Zorka were already in print.
Cox, an associate member of the Society of American Magicians with forty years of experience in conjuring, described an experiment for which he had prepared his own double-backed pocket watch by jamming the works with a piece of aluminium foil. It began to tick shortly after Geller touched it, and on opening it up Cox found that both the foil and the regulator arm had moved. There was no conceivable way in which Geller could have touched them.
Zorka, chairman of the Occult Investigation Committee of the Atlanta Society of Magicians, sent an official report to his society’s executive committee stating that he and Dickson had tested Geller under conditions of their own design, nobody else being present. A fork with a reinforced nylon handle literally exploded in Geller’s hand while Zorka was staring straight at it, and Geller reproduced a picture of a dog of which Zorka had merely been thinking, matching it in size as well as in general outline. (Geller was delighted to hear later that Zorka had named one of his Dalmatian puppies Uri, in memory of this event. The dog went on to win several prizes.)
‘There is no known way, based on our present collective knowledge, that any method of trickery could have been used to produce these effects under the conditions to which Uri Geller was subjected,’ Zorka stated in his report. Dickson wrote a polite letter to Geller on 3 June 1975, the day after they met, offering to co-operate with him on future controlled tests.
‘You proved to me that what you are doing is for real,’ he wrote. ‘I am convinced that those who wish to call you a fake are no more than fakes themselves, and out for the publicity they would gain by it.’
The reaction of his and Zorka’s fellow magicians was interesting. James Randi, then on a tour promoting his recently published anti-Geller book, wrote a statement that, according to Zorka, contained no less than nine errors of fact in nineteen lines of typewriting. Randi even alleged that Geller himself had written out the magicians’ report and persuaded them to sign it.
Zorka replied with an open letter (6 January 1976) in which he vigorously rejected all of Randi’s allegations. His conclusion is worth quoting at some length, since it can be applied to a good deal of the activities of the witch-hunters:
Randi has come to realize that controversy is very lucrative. He also realizes that the more controversy which surrounds ‘Randi versus Geller’, the more copies of Randi’s book will sell . . .
I have discussed Randi’s statement, along with his attempt to discredit me. I have done so with little effort. His statement lacks substance, not because Randi did not dig to find it, but because none exists.
I do not appreciate Randi’s apparent commercial attacks on serious scientists and investigators, such as myself, who are genuinely seeking answers within the realm of parapsychology .
His past performance as a deceptionist regarding the Geller affair is apparently void of respect for honest investigations into the paranormal. This applies especially to the well-earned reputations of the scientists who have tested Uri Geller. Randi also has mocked scientists in general who have delved into parapsychology at all.
Whether Randi is the crusader for the ‘poor misinformed public’ that he wants to be regarded as being is questionable. If he were interested in informing the public, he would be interested in both sides of the coin.
Randi’s brand of commercialism is extremely distasteful to me. I am one of many who wish to set the record straight. Randi, through his own contradictions, has brought himself into a pseudo-expose which is so weak that it is in effect groundless. More and more, Randi is being realized as an unreliable source.
To add insult to injury, six members of Zorka’s own society wrote to Geller dissociating themselves from their colleague’s report, considering it to be ‘merely opinions of relatively inexperienced investigators’. (They had not been present during the investigation described in it.) The same society, incidentally, had only just named Zorka as its Magician of the Year.
‘I sincerely believe that had Mr Dickson and I discovered Mr Geller at some sort of trickery, and released that information, there would have been no concern,’ Zorka retorted. ‘If that is so, then I’m afraid we have a contradiction here.’
He and Dickson must have felt what most honest investigators of Geller were to feel sooner or later. The feeling was well summed up, albeit in a somewhat different context, by the nineteenth-century Latin American reformer Simon Bolivar:
‘Those who have served the cause of revolution have ploughed the sea.’
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