Psychic Mafia

M. Lamar Keene. The Psychic Mafia, as told to Allan Spraggett. Prometheus, new edn., 1998.

A reissue of this classic autobiography of a fraudulent medium, originally published in 1976, with a new forward by Ray Hyman. Keene was one of the stars of the spiritualist camp circuits and the had a wide repertoire of the physical and mental mediumship tricks. What strikes the reader is the often sheer crudity of the tricks, which involved very little sophisticated equipment and no great conjuring expertise, coupled with the will to believe amongst the audience: Hyman, in his forward, warns readers not to imagine that Keene's dupes were some special species of the extra gullible, they were normal people in extraordinary situations, often grief stricken and desperate. I think that the extraordinary levels of self deception by ordinary people revealed here give us an insight into the genesis of a wide range of paranormal and other extraordinary claims. Perhaps the strangest chapter is the one discussing how mediums would provide their clients with sex from the other world.

However, one should approach this book with some degree of caution. It belongs clearly in the category of the 'confessions of a repentant sinner' so beloved of evangelicals, in which the past life is made as dark and sinful as possible to accentuate the light of the new revelation. Real cynics might suspect that Keene, on the verge of being found out, decided to make a virtue out of necessity and start a new career as a reformed sinner, and as the adopted son of one of his former clients.

That being said, there seems little doubt that in broad terms this is a fairly true picture of the world of fake mediumship, and should be required reading especially for those who are still taken in by the likes of Helen Duncan and her preposterous 'Peggy'. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 64, August 1998.


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