Fact And Fable In Psychology

"He (the conjurer) must dissociate the natural factors of his

habits, actually attending to one thing while seemingly attending

to another; at the same time his eyes and his gestures and his

'patter' misdirect the attention to what is apparently the

essential field of operation, but really only a blind to distract

attention away from the true scene of action. The conjurer directs

your attention to what he does not do;
he does not do what he

pretends to do; and to what he actually does, he is careful neither

to appear to direct his own attention nor to arouse yours."

Prof. Max Dessoir, in a very fine article on "The Psychology of

Conjuring," writes as follows: "By awakening interest in some

unimportant detail, the conjurer concentrates that attention on

some false point, or negatively, diverts it from the main object,

and we all know the senses of an inattentive person are pretty

dull. . . . When causing the disappearance of some object, the

conjurer counts one, two, three; the object must really disappear

before three, not at three, because, the attention of the public

being diverted to three, they do not notice what happens at one and

two. . . . A specially successful method of diversion is founded

on the human craze for imitation. . . . The conjurer counts on

this in many cases. He always looks in the direction where he

wants the attention of the public, and does everything himself

which he wants the public to do. . . . If the trick is in the left

hand, the conjurer turns sharply to the person to his right,

presuming correctly that the spectators will make the same

movement, and will not notice what is going on in the left hand. . . .

Every sharp, short remark will, for a moment, at least, divert

the eyes from the hands and direct them to the mouth, according to

the above-mentioned law of imitation."

The successful conjurer has carefully studied beforehand every

movement that is made--every word that is spoken--during a

conjuring performance, and has seen that these all fit naturally

into place, and help conceal the real workings of the trick. The

right and left hands must be trained to operate independently, and

without the need of looking at either. Many conjurers practice

doing two separate things at the same time, one with either hand;

and the ability to do this is essential. Above all, the performer

must be full of conscious self-possession, and feel himself to be

master of the situation, no less than to feel the ability to cope

with any emergencies that may arise.

Turning, now, to a consideration of the seance, we find that many

of these psychological rules still hold good, and their operation

enables the medium to perform many actions which would otherwise be

impossible. A certain suggestion is given to the sitters, and

imagination and inference do the rest. "Our conclusions as to what

we see or hear are always founded on a combination of observation

and inference; but in daily life it is seldom necessary to

distinguish between the two elements, since, when the object and

its mode of presentation are familiar, our inferences are generally

correct. But it is different when, owing to circumstances, such as

a bad light, we have to infer more in proportion to what we

perceive than usual; or when some one, e. g., a conjurer or a

ventriloquist, is trying to deceive us by presenting one object

under the familiar aspect of another, and suggesting false

inferences. It is not uncommon to find people at seances

encouraging each other in the belief that they see, say, a living

human figure, when all that they actually SEE is something moving

which is about the size of a human being; the rest is inference."

How true these last remarks are is demonstrated by the statement,

made in The Revelations of a Spirit Medium, that an old wire mask

frequently used at materializing seances had been recognized "by

dozens of persons as fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins,

sweethearts, wives, husbands, and various other relatives and

friends. None but the medium knew that it was only a fifty-cent

wire mask, hence none but the medium could enjoy the humor of the


One of the most instructive incidents I know, in relation to this

question of the psychology of deception, is the one given by Doctor

Hodgson[1]--the case of the officer and the Hindu juggler. In this

case, a trick was performed before an English officer and his wife,

and Doctor Hodgson happened to overhear this officer telling some

travelers of the experience at dinner that evening. "Referring to

the movements of the coins, he said that he had taken a coin from

his own pocket and placed it on the ground himself, yet that this

coin had indulged in the same freaks as the other coins. His wife

ventured to suggest that the juggler had taken the coin and placed

it on the ground, but the officer was emphatic in repeating his

statement, and appealed to me for confirmation. He was, however,

mistaken. I had watched the transaction with special curiosity, as

I knew what was necessary for the performance of the trick. The

officer had apparently intended to place the coin upon the ground

himself, but as he was doing so, the juggler leaned slightly

forward, dexterously and in a most unobtrusive manner received the

coin from the fingers of the officer, as the latter was stooping

down, and laid it close to the others. If the juggler had not thus

taken the coin, but had allowed the officer himself to place it on

the ground, the trick, as actually performed, would have been


"Now I think it highly improbable that the movement of the juggler

entirely escaped the perception of the officer; highly improbable,

that is to say, that the officer was absolutely unaware of the

juggler's action at the moment of its happening; but I suppose

that, although an impression was made on his consciousness, it was

so slight as to be speedily effaced by the officer's IMAGINATION of

himself as stooping and placing the coin upon the ground. The

officer, I may say, had obtained no insight into the modus operandi

of the trick, and his fundamental misrepresentation of the only

patent occurrence that might have given him a clew to its

performance debarred him completely from afterwards, on reflection,

arriving at any explanation. Just similarly, many an honest

witness may have described himself as having placed one slate upon

another at a sitting with a medium, whereas it was the medium who

did so, and who possibly effected at the same time one or two other

operations altogether unnoticed by the witness."

In reading through descriptions of slate-writing seances, we very

seldom find the statement made as to WHO placed the slates on the

table, or under the table, etc., generally the account reading "the

slates were then placed on the table," without any qualifying

statement as to WHO placed them there. Accounts of this kind are

absolutely worthless, from an evidential standpoint. We must at

once ask ourselves: who placed the slates in that position? and if

it was the medium--as it probably was in the vast majority of

instances--then that test, in all probability, ceases to have any

evidential weight. Anyone can read over a number of accounts of

slate-writing performances, and verify these statements, if he

chooses to do so. Frequently, the statement is made that the

sitter did actually place the slate on the table, when in reality

the medium did so. This error is quite unconscious on the sitter's

part, of course, but the account is falsified, nevertheless.

Mistakes of this kind are very common, the sitter thinking

afterwards that he (the sitter) MUST have placed the slates on the

table himself!

It will be seen from the above that there is a great difference

between what ACTUALLY transpired, at any given seance, and what the

accounts SAY transpired. The general public cannot get that all-

important fact too strongly rooted in its mind: that the events

which transpired at a seance may not be reported accurately, so

that the report of the seance may be altogether wrong and

erroneous, though the sitters, and those who drew up the report,

may have been thoroughly honest in their belief that the report is

accurate in every respect. The effect of all this is very great

indeed. Many spiritualistic seances are quite inexplicable AS DE-

SCRIBED, but the description is not a true report of what took

place at the seance in question. The facts are distorted.

Consequently, the person taking it upon himself to explain what

took place at the seance is called upon to explain a number of

things which, in reality, never took place at all. We must

remember, in this connection, that a number of conjuring tricks, AS

DESCRIBED, would be quite impossible to explain by any process of

trickery. The description of the trick was not correct.

Let me make this still clearer, and at the same time illustrate the

difference between what apparently occurs, and what actually

happens, by the following example: A conjurer places a coin (say a

quarter) in each hand, and closes his hands. Another quarter is

now placed upon the fingers of each hand, so that there is now one

quarter in each hand and one-quarter on the fingers of each. The

magician announces that, by simply opening and closing his hands--

which are held at some distance from each other--he will thereby

transfer one of the coins from one hand to the other, so that there

will be three coins in one of the hands, and only one left in the


Now, if the sitter were writing out an account of what happened, it

would most certainly read as follows:

"The magician then tried the experiment--of opening and closing his

hands rapidly, and causing the coin to be transferred, as promised--

but failed in the attempt, the coins from the back of each hand

falling on to the table in rather a clumsy manner. They were,

however, again placed upon the backs of the magician's hands; the

movement was repeated, and this time successfully. The coins

disappeared from the backs of both hands, in one of which was now

found three of the coins, while the other hand contained only one."

Such is precisely the description of the trick, as it would be

given by the average person, on seeing it, and it would represent

his honest opinion of what occurred; as it stands, it is quite

inexplicable by trickery. Needless to say, the account is NOT a

true statement of what actually occurred, as the following

explanation will make clear:

The first time the coins were dropped on to the table, the movement

was not so "clumsy" as might have been supposed. It was, in fact,

intentional, being the principal factor in the accomplishment of

the trick. What ACTUALLY transpired at that time was this: The

magician, by a quick movement, dropped both coins from ONE hand on

to the table, at the same time dexterously opening the other hand a

trifle, and allowing the second coin, on that hand, to fall into

the interior of the hand itself. Thus, while both hands are still

seen to be closed, one is empty, and the other contains two coins.

It is obvious, therefore, that, when a coin is placed upon each of

the hands again, the magician has only to repeat the opening and

closing movement, and there will be three coins in one of the

hands, and only one in the other.

This trick illustrates, in a very simple and striking manner, the

possibility of reporting a fact in an entirely erroneous manner,

quite unconscious of the fact that this error in reporting has been

committed. Just in this same manner, are many slate-writing and

other phenomena misreported, and hence an explanation of the

seance, AS REPORTED, is rendered impossible. The trouble is that

the "report" does not REALLY report what actually occurred.

. . . . .

Many of my readers may feel somewhat insulted at this accusation

that they cannot detect such obvious trickery when it exists, and

that they are liable to make such mistakes in recording a seance as

those here mentioned. They may comfort themselves with the

thought, however, that it is no disgrace to make mistakes and

errors of this kind; for, as Professor Jastrow pointed out:[1]

"The matter is in some aspects as much a technical acquisition as

in the diagnosticating of a disease. It is not at all to the

discredit of anyone's powers of observation or intellectual acumen

to be deceived by the performances of a conjurer; and the same

holds true of the professional part of mediumistic phenomena.

Until this homely but salutary truth is impressed with all its

importance upon all intending investigators, there is little hope

of bringing about a proper attitude toward these and kindred


These remarks will make it clear to us why many men of science have

been deceived by very simple tricks and fraudulent devices, while

investigating spiritualistic phenomena--their scientific culture is

no guaranty that they are any more capable of detecting fraud than

is the man-in-the-street--in fact their training has made them very

much LESS capable of detecting fraud than the average person, who

comes more in contact with the world, and is an acuter judge of

character and human nature.