Thursday, July 11, 2019

Psychics Cashing In

Psychics probably knew this would happen.  These days, public interest in astrology and seers is soaring.

For example, the Pew Research Center's recent survey found  that 62 percent of Americans believe in at least one  “New Age” concept like reincarnation and astrology while 41 percent believe in psychics.

That is reflected in fat profits for seers. Callie Beusman, a senior editor at Broadly, told The Atlantic magazine that traffic for the site’s horoscopes “has grown really exponentially.” Stella Bugbee, the president and editor-in-chief of The Cut, found a typical horoscope post on the site got 150 percent more traffic in 2017 than the year before.

Who better to tell readers what to do than a psychic who knows zip about financial planning? After all, if psychics and astrologers really could see the future, why aren’t they hitting the lottery every week and making a killing in Las Vegas betting on sporting events?

Despite the questions, their ilk have endured in every civilization.  The Greeks had their oracles, like the famous one at Delphi, where a priestess went into a trance and predicted the future. Roman religious leaders used to “read” the entrails of sacrificed animals to foresee the future.

Emperors were not immune to superstition.  In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar teased a seer named Spurinna about the failed prediction that he would die by the Ides of March.  “The Ides have come," Caesar noted en route to the Forum.

“Aye, Caesar,” Spurinna replied, “but not gone."

Caesar was killed shortly afterwards.

Tiberius, the emperor who succeeded Augustus, relied heavily on astrologers.  One such stargazer saved himself by predicting his own death, which is exactly what Tiberius had in mind. Late in the first century CE, Emperor Domitian was told when he was going to die by a seer.  He died on the correct date, although his assassins also knew of the prediction.  That definitely made it easier to come true.

Actually, all ancient cultures practiced such pseudo-sciences as astrology and omen reading to attempt to foresee the future.

Then there’s Nostradamus, the famed seer of the 1500s.  I wrote a novel about him, mainly because he was invariably wrong.  Surviving astrological charts that he prepared prove that – his predictions were consistently inaccurate.

This country went through a bout of spiritualism from the mid-1800s through the 1920s.  Renowned escape artist Harry Houdini spent much of the last part of his career debunking such charlatans.  Several confessed after being confronted by contradictions or proof that they aided “spirits” during séances.

In the more-recent past, First Lady Nancy Reagan notoriously relied on astrologers to select the optimum time for presidential action by her husband. Scientists who spent years debunking astrology were dismayed that Ronald Reagan’s pubic flirtation with that nonsense had more effect that all their research.

I was surprised when an astrologer-friend demonstrated her abilities by picking my chart out from among a sample I gave her.  On the other hand, I have a twin brother born five minutes apart, and we are very different.  The stars can’t move that far in five minutes. Besides, does anyone really think it’s possible to divide the world into 12 distinct units? 

By the way, astrology used to have fewer divisions.  Charts were changed in the 1800s with the discovery of Neptune and Pluto.  What confusion there must have been when Pluto was dropped as a planet.

I’ve had several experience with psychics on both a personal and professional level. 

As a reporter, I interviewed a Connecticut psychic who supposedly helped local police solve crimes.  She was a modern Peter Hurkos, who is forgotten today, but was famous from the 1940s until his death in 1988.  After falling off a ladder, the Dutch painter awoke to claim abilities to see events after they took place.  That was perfect for solving crime.  However, in repeated accounts I read, he was notoriously bad at it – claiming success only to have police say later that Hurkos was completely wrong and useless.

That’s what happened with the woman I interviewed.  The police denied she helped them – she responded by saying the negative comments reflected “sour grapes.” 

I also interviewed a magician after talking to the psychic.  He promised to do everything the psychic did – and succeeded.  There was no ESP, just an ability to subconsciously see reactions in a client and respond to them.

In addition, the Connecticut newspaper I then worked for printed regularly columns by psychic Jeane Dixon.  She was famous for predicting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  She also insisted that, as the wife of a wealthy real estate developer, she would never use her special ability for
the crass purpose of earning money – and then did everything she could to earn money.  Her main focus anyway was predicting the immediate return of Jesus.

I asked my editor if anyone had compared Dixon’s predictions to what actually happened.  He said no.  So, I got out a column from two years before and checked her forecasts against real events of a year later.  Amid the hundreds of predictions, she got zero correct.  The newspaper never ran her columns again.

Finally, in 2001, I bought a compendium of predictions by famed psychics.  It also included forecasts by scientists.  The book contains more than 400 pages.   In all the thousands of predictions covering 1970-2000, I found one correct: a prediction by one of the scientists that personal computers would be widely available.  He couldn’t fail: such computers already existed and were beginning to make inroads into homes.  Everything else was wrong.  No aliens attacked, for example.

On a personal note, I went to a psychic fair and had my fortune told.  One woman took my watch and used the “vibrations” from it to foresee what was to come.  Later, I realized it was my brother’s watch, which I had borrowed.  Not that it mattered: her predictions were inaccurate for both of us.  Another psychic there “read” my future by picking up vibes from my mind.  He said I’d be a success by age 30.  Well, that came and went a while ago.

At the same time, however, I’m not ready to dismiss spiritualism as a complete fraud.  I’ve enjoyed instances of clear psychic behavior – predicting winners at jai alai, for example, during my lone visit to a fronton.  I have no idea how or why an image of a future event popped into my head, but I know it did, told companions and then watched it happen as I foresaw.  Many people have had similar experiences, some of which have been published or publicly described.

Maybe that’s why people continue to believe and are willing to pay as much as $175 an hour to someone to “predict” the future.  It’s marginally better than having no clue at all.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of novels and nonfiction books, such as The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers, including Bold Venture Press and Southern Owl.  His website is

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