Julien Proskauer

Julien Proskauer

President of the Society of American Magicians 1935-1936. Member of; International Brotherhood of Magicians; International Magic Circle; Magicians' Club of London; Syndicat International Des Astistes Prestidigitateurs of Paris; American Society for Psychical Research. In his book, Spook Crooks!, he noted that "there have been some inexplicable phenomena during séances."

How to Become a [Fraudulent] Spirit Medium

- Julien Proskauer -

          BEFORE THE following letter and revelations were written, considerable thought was given to the subject, and many visits made in New York and vicinity to so-called 'spirit mediums.' It is not the author's intention in this book to do harm to any one, but merely to aid the credulous and superstitious in saving their health and money. And it is his belief that the following letter and answer will do so.

The letter referred to came from Indiana from a woman in Indiana who had lost her only son. Read it:

Nov. 9, 1931.

Since the death of my boy two years ago I have been looking for solace among spirit mediums. I was born in the ― faith, but did not find in it any aid at the time of my boy's death. Accordingly I have been going regularly to spirit mediums, some of whom call themselves spiritual mediums. None of them have done me any good, but all have taken my money.

Can you tell me how these people "set up in the business," for there is no other word or term for it. They pose as ministers and yet have no education. Few speak grammatical English. None are sincere or genuine. Yet thousands of people flock to them regularly.

Almost all have certificates ordaining them ministers. How are these obtained? Can anyone be a spirit or spiritual medium by paying certain fixed fees? How does one protect oneself against these frauds, except by staying away from them?

Please write me a detailed account of this business of being a medium. I will pay anything in reason to relieve my mind on the subject.


Following is the reply the author sent in his official capacity as chairman of the Press Bureau of Parent Assembly No. 1, Society of American Magicians.

Nov. 14, 1931.

Dear Madam:

Your letter is only one of many which ask approximately the same questions. Therefore I am writing to you in detail and making carbon copies which I will send to the other inquirers. There is no charge for the service. As Chairman of the Press Bureau of the Parent Assembly No. 1, of the Society of American Magicians it is my duty to give you this information without remuneration from you, for we are trying to render a community service.

To start with, the first move of one who wants to be a 'spirit medium' is to become friendly with a medium who is already accepted by some organized body.

It is easy for a medium to be a member of an organized body as pointed out below, so it is equally easy for the prospective medium to meet a 'recognized' one. Lessons in how to be a medium are given by almost all mediums. These lessons are called 'development sittings.' They teach how to conduct a meeting and reveal to the 'ambitious novitiate' lessons on how to fleece the public, if one's taste runs to fraud.

The cost of becoming a 'recognized medium' is very modest. One writes to The National Spiritualistic Alliance of Lake Pleasant, Mass., one of the foremost organizations and makes application for membership. Miss Shirley Whicher is (or was) secretary. Anyone sending one dollar to the association becomes an 'Individual Member,' and for two dollars this association sends a 'medium' or 'healer's' certificate. If one desires to start a church there is a charge of five dollars for the 'Charter,' but ten members are necessary to obtain the 'Church Charter.'

It is a good place here to point out that not all spiritualists are grafters or insincere. It is not the sincere and genuine mediums that are being referred to here, only the grafters.

The new medium, having learned the ropes, is now an applicant for an 'Assistant Minister Certificate.' A local 'church board' examines the applicant and after 'demonstrating' message bringing abilities, he (or she) is recommended to church headquarters. The certificate received, the 'Assistant Minister' holds services as a helper to a full 'minister.'

The next step on the road of the applicant is to apply for a "Minister's Certificate." This is a little harder to get than the assistant's, for ministers are entitled to perform marriage ceremonies, officiate at funerals, and generally perform all the duties of a genuine minister. However, it is not so difficult, despite any lack of education of the applicant.

A new application blank is filled in by the duly ordained 'assistant minister,' and sent to National Headquarters. A certified 'reverend' then visits the church where the applicant is giving 'readings' and watches him 'work.' If the 'reverend' is satisfied, and believes that the applicant will make a good 'minister,' fitting ceremonies are publicly held and the assistant is sworn in as a full 'minister.'

The questions asked prior to granting the full minister's certificate are: age, sex, nationality, how long interested in spiritualism, will the applicant always be a spiritualist, at all time conduct himself honorably and never bring disgrace to the name of minister.

Minister's certificates are never issued, according to a statement of a leading spiritualist, to anyone ever convicted of any crime or fraud. However, many ask, as you did:

"Ministers of every other creed must have years of training and study at a recognized institute. Why do spiritualists accept any uneducated and untrained prospects who say they feel the 'call'? And how do they know the applicant has never been convicted of a crime?"

In a pamphlet sold to the "initiated," full instructions on how to fleece the public are given. This booklet is printed as an exposé of spiritualism and is sold as such (possibly to avoid postal authorities preventing its distribution), but in it is given exact instructions how to avoid the police, how to advertise for 'clients,' how to have believers sign a 'receipt' which makes the 'minister' immune from arrest as a fortune teller, how to work 'donation racket,' etc, etc.

The 'donation racket' is used where fees can not be collected. One medium uses it in this fashion. Before giving a reading, in order to avoid the fortune telling law, he states "I charge you nothing for the reading and advice I will give you. To take care of my time, I request you to simply make a donation to the church." The medium forgets to tell the sitter that he is in most cases the "church."

In the room where mediums hold forth one often finds a large glazed cardboard statement of the 'Declaration of the Principles of the National Spiritualist Association.' It is most impressive and costs but 50 cents.

In the booklet on how mediums work, details are given about various practices of fraudulent spiritualists. The author of the booklet, a man just recently convicted and fined $100, gives complete instructions on how to read messages written by believers. While the method he gives differs from ones explained by me in many articles, the same underlying principle is used, that of substituting blank paper for the paper on which the message is written.

Therefore, let me tell you to never write anything on paper in a medium's meeting. No matter how innocent the moves of the medium may be, trickery is being used to find out your question. And the answer you get is just so much nonsense.

The medium's instruction book, for one can call it nothing else, tells how to give "psychological readings" and states "it all depends on the medium's ability to handle the sitter and to repeat a stock speil." The word speil to the initiated means 'talk.' The jargon of the author of the booklet is the jargon of the show business.

According to the writer of the booklet, twelve divisions cover everything in the life of the average individual. Time, personal magnetism, investments, partnerships, best friends, obstacles, sickness to look out for, enemies, marriages, money conditions, change in affairs (trips), surprises and warnings are included in the things the fake medium must cover in his 'speil.'

The details change according to the age and sex of the dupe. If the medium has a chance before the meeting opens to search the pockets of overcoats, etc., left in an outside room, he may do so, thus getting information that he later states the spirits told him. Not all mediums do this, but some do, and have. Trickery based on deception gives the nervy medium a chance to use 'stock speils' to impress the credulous. No matter how uneducated one may be, if he has a good memory he can learn by rote the proper things to say.

Unbelievable as it may be, Harry Houdini had in his possessions at his death hundreds of 'certificates of Ordination' issued to uneducated, ignorant people who become 'ministers' almost for the asking. Some of these certificates were issued by the National Spiritualistic Alliance and others by the National Spiritualistic Association of Washington, D.C. One of the latter organization's certificates - is reproduced below.

This photographic reproduction is of one of the thousands of the certificates of ordination in Harry Houdini's collection. It is typical. You, too, can get one of these certificates if you carefully follow the directions in this chapter, "How to Become a Medium".

In company with friends (and strangers taken along as witnesses), I have gone to several spiritual mediums in New York and vicinity to check up stories I have been told. As all the experiences have been practically the same at each meeting, I will relate exactly what happened on one night only (September 23, 1931) when we visited a 'reading medium' on 58th Street, New York.

Those in the party were Bob, Margaret, Bessie, Edna, Ernest and myself. We were not asked for money but a 'donation' of a 'silver offering' of fifty cents was paid. The assistant to the medium collected from those in the room, about 20 people, some articles 'the personal magnetism of which will bring vibrations that will aid the spirits in guiding the medium in the answers.' she said.

Here is what happened: after some religious hymns were played on a loud and noisy phonograph.

The medium picked up Rob's pencil. He sensed that Bob was in trouble about a 'Building condition, a real estate deal.' He gave ten minutes' advice on how to handle the situation. Bob is in the advertising business and never was connected with any real estate firm or deal.

Margaret gave her compact. From this the medium received an impression from the spirits that she had been in a lot of trouble and gone through much unhappiness in the last two years. He gave advice on how to combat her difficulties. Margaret had been married for little more than two years, and had spent the happiest days of her life in that time.

From Bessie's keys the medium received the impression she owned an automobile. He also declared the spirits told him she was headstrong. Bessie's keys contained one marked 'Ford.' He saw the car name. Obviously she had a car. She is the best natured woman imaginable, yet the spirits told him she was headstrong, he said.

Edna's cigarette case gave the medium, through the spirits, the idea that Edna was going to be married shortly. He gave advice on that 'condition.' He explained the man of her choice would ask her to wed him soon. Edna has been married more than 15 years.

From Ernest's fountain pen the medium saw a "condition of uniforms. Men marching." He also received an impression of "some one in spirit who loves you." Ernest hasn't lost anyone in his family. Yet look at the psychology of the medium. Almost everyone has lost some dear and near one. He just picked the wrong one to deliver the message "from the one in spirit."

I have written these statements of the medium exactly as he gave them, and have gone to this length merely to impress on you the stupidity of the statements of the average medium.

Out of a lots of ramblings about "organisms and psychic impressions of spirit conditions" any medium may make some statement that, while applied generally, hits most of us many times. "Lucky statements," so impress some dupes that they believe the faker really has some supernatural power. Out of our party, not one statement was correct, yet one woman present, whom the medium told the spirits said her mother would die soon, broke into hysterical tears.

There is no question but that many mediums are sincere and believe themselves gifted with genuine psychic powers, The writer as an associate member of the American Society for Psychical Research reads the journal of that society, Psychic Research, carefully.

In this there appear regularly cases that are reported of genuine phenomena, yet these reported cases are in such minority as compared with the hundreds of thousands of "spirit messages" that before you accept as genuine any statements of any medium it is wise to check up on the medium's standing with approved psychic research investigators.

In releasing the above letter to the mother in Indiana for publication it is the sincere hope of the writer that making public the method of becoming a 'minister' will cause all Spiritualist Associations to 'clean house' and stop the frauds being perpetrated in the name of religion, and thus protect the sincere mediums who never tell fortunes, sell oil stocks or predict the future.

In closing this chapter, as further proof that "gross fraud" is prevalent among spirit mediums I want to reproduce here (in part) a letter to Harry Houdini from the late Dr. A. M. Wilson of Kansas City, Editor and Publisher of The Sphinx for more than a score of years. The Sphinx, privately circulated magazine for magicians and official organ of the Society of American Magicians, in Dr. Wilson's regime ran story after story exposing frauds of mediums, and today under the editorship of John Mulholland, refuses all advertising of any apparatus that may be used by fake spirit mediums. The letter:

1007 Main St.,
Kansas City, Mo.

Dear Houdini:

For almost 61 years I have been witnessing and investigating Spiritualism as propagated by mediums through their so-called communications with the dead. Up to this time, I have never met a medium, celebrated or obscure, who was not a gross fraud, nor seen a manifestation that was not trickery and that could not be duplicated by any expert magician.

The thing that first aroused my suspicions and disbeliefs and started me thinking and investigating was why could not the dear departed communicate direct with their relatives and friends? Why talk, rap, write or materialize through a medium, the majority of whom are ignorant men and women, although shrewd and cunning?

I have never met a medium who was not a fraud or seen a materialization of any kind that was not fraudulent.

(signed) A. M. WILSON, M.D.


"Spook Crooks! Exposing the Secrets of the Propheteers Who Conduct our Wickedest Industry" by Julien J. Proskauer (New York and Chicago: A. L. Burt Company, 1932). Note: this chapter was originally titled 'How to Become a Spirit Medium'.

Related articles

The Mechanics of Spiritualism by Harry Price
Psychic Practitioners (Regulation) Bill by Harry Price
How I Broke Houdini's Code by Arthur Ford
Mental Magic - Telepathy and Clairvoyance by Trickery by Barry Robbins

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