Mysteries and Secrets Revealed; Loren Pankratz; 2021; Prometheus Books; 325 pgs, notes, huge bibliography, index
I wrote The God Con some years ago. A central premise of the book is that organized religion is indistinguishable from a con. I argued that our early ancestors quickly discovered that you could say almost anything, and as long as you say it right, perhaps with a little "magic" thrown in, you will be believed. Belief morphs quickly into power. This book starts with the Oracle at Delphi, which is a case in point. It was a con.
I have often also argued that out ancestors were just as clever as we are. When to comes to messing with people's heads, they were probably better at it than psychics are today because their audience was much less sophisticated. I would have cited this book heavily had it been available when I wrote mine.
Loren Pankratz was a member of the BC Skeptics. He knows many of the people I admire, including Barry Beyerstein, Ray Hyman, Jerry Andrus and others. He was a past president of the Oregon Magic Society and he is a psychologist, so he is well equipped to address how old tricks were used in the old days, from the Oracle at Delphi to the Fox sisters in the 19th century. He has over 9,000 books in his basement library, and it shows in the enormous bibliography that the book contains!
If you are curious how some magic tricks work, you will not be disappointed. As a magician himself, he only reveals as much as is necessary to make the point.
One of the bits of magic (aka technology) 2,000 years ago was a speaking tube. You ask a question, and an answer seems to come from out of nowhere. It was actually a person in a different room speaking into a tube that directs the sounds into the targets earshot.
The Shrine of Bacchus was a 2,000 year old model that moved, spewed wine and spoke. It was driven by a complex set of weights, pulleys and gears. We would yawn at it today, and call it cheap animatronics. But a look inside would convince you someone spent a great deal of time working it all out.
The book's chapters are chronological. Each discusses an aspect of trickery combined with greed and power. One such con was astrology, where weasel words were invented. E.g.: Do not say "You will get X", rather say "You might get X". A noted clear thinker, Cardano, in the 1500s, said "I was born in a rare century which has come to know the whole world." He was both right and really, really wrong.
The RCC (Roman Catholic Church) plays a big role in the history of science (which they hated) and trickery (which they embraced). Galileo was famously imprisoned, and Giordano Bruno was burnt alive, for simply stating ideas. A good many of the middle chapters of the book deal with the demise if Aristotle's ideas, the evolution of scientific philosophy, and the clash between it and religion.
The first clairvoyant con artist was a guy named Didier. He spawned a whole industry of mentalism hucksters, including the Fox sisters which is where my knowledge begins (I have been reading The Skeptical Inquirer for 35 years and the Fox sisters are often raised). The Fox sisters used a number of techniques to create "rapping by the spirits". Pankrantz peels these cons apart with ease. Didier often used the "shyness effect" as an excuse when he failed. The idea is that nearby negative thoughts or energy will keep the spirits from their appointed rounds. Isn't that convenient.
As it turns out, women were more likely to become mediums. Why? Because they had an advantage. They were women, and no self respecting man of the day would admit that some female could be so clever as to pull one over on them. That was one argument for why it had to be spirits. The other was the oft repeated, and always regretted, line that appears often in various forms in history. Here is an example that referred to the "psychic" Palladino:
"… the manifestations … were clearly beyond the possibilities of any conceivable form of conjuring…"
To borrow from the Princess Bride, I don't think he knows what "conceivable" means. This kind of colossal arrogance is what keeps psychics in business.
Most of these hucksters were unable to fool scientists, such as Faraday, or trained magicians such as Robert-Houdin, and Eric Weiss (aka Houdini). Common techniques including the "down-the-nose-peek" when performing blind-folded, and code systems were used between assistant and performer for the "what am I holding" form of mentalism. The codes used were often very clever, and gave the impression of, once again, spirits.
Two chapters deal with hypnosis, which was all the rage in the 1800s.
This book is a tour through the ages as magic and con artistry evolve. The same cons used hundreds of years ago are alive and well today. Do not underestimate the cleverness of these charlatans, past or present, nor the lengths they will go to, get your money.
The book is not as long as it appears at first glance due to the length of the notes and bibliography sections. It would have benefited from a slightly larger font too (or I am just getting old).
This is a must-have book for all people of a skeptical bent.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.