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The Spectacle of Illusion, Matthew L. Tompkins

Cover of Spectacle of Illusion
Publication Details: 
Thames & Hudson, ISBN: 9780500022429
Publish date: 
April, 2019

The author, Matthew Tompkins, is a magician and psychologist. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation, Observations on Invisibility, last year. Tompkins also became a member of The Magic Circle. Previously, he has published at least two articles of interest concerning the medium Henry Slade and eyewitness testimony (Tompkins, 2016, 2017). His book, The Spectacle Illusion, is written for general readers, it is heavily illustrated and can be read in one sitting. Sections of the book read like a history of psychical research, but some sections concern magicians and modern research. Tompkins also writes about eyewitness testimony, the ideomotor effect and illusions, a topic he is naturally familiar with thanks to his background and research. In the Introduction he writes:

... while scientists are trained in gathering evidence based on empirical observations, they are not necessarily trained in deception. Perhaps, in some circumstances, well-intentioned researchers are actually more prone to illusory experiences than the average observer … Enter the professional magician (emphasis in original, p.14)

Tompkins breezes through history and makes it seem as if magicians are natural enemies to fraudulent psychics and mediums. Many have, in fact, endorsed psychic phenomena (Hansen, 1990). History also shows that, just like scientists, magicians also disagree with each other in this regard. Sometimes magicians expose trickery to get publicity. The magician James Randi became famous in the wake of Uri Geller, internationally known as a psychic, especially for metal-bending, in the 1970s; both make an appearance in the book. Tompkins reproduces unflattering pictures of Geller, but acknowledges that the magician David Berglas was impressed by Geller, once commenting that if he is not psychic then he “... is a magician or a trickster or a con-man, he is also phenomenal – the best there has ever been” (p. 188). Randi made a dedicated effort to convince the public that Geller was just a magician. Perhaps because he is a magician Tompkins does not reveal how metal-bending can be fraudulently produced, nor does he comment on the tests Geller undertook at Stanford Research Institute. His knowledge of parapsychology seems limited, Tompkins claims that the declassified documents concerning the Star Gate program shows:

… how the army explored a variety of failed applications, from using remote viewing as an espionage tool to attempting to use psychokinesis as a weapon, a practice they hoped to hone by instructing psychics to stare at goats and try to stop their hearts with the power of their minds (p. 186)

That remote viewing was used during the Cold War, with varying success, is now well-known. The other claim concerning goats derives from Jon Ronson’s (2004) popular book. The Star Gate program did not involve staring at goats. John Alexander (2010) has given a talk in which he commented on Ronson’s book, including the story about the goats. Tompkins writes about Project Alpha, a hoax, orchestrated by Randi, in 1979, aimed at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research. Two magicians pretended to be psychics and were tested by the researchers there. Tompkins claims that the researchers continued to test them for almost four years. In fact, it has been estimated that about 120 hours, in total, were devoted to the research (Broad, 1983). The facts are easily accessible online: Project Alpha papers (see also Phillips, 2016; Truzzi, 1987). Tompkins also believes that replications of Daryl Bem’s (2011) well-known experiments “... have met with consistent failure ...” (p. 193) – this is not true (see Bem et al., 2016). Incidentally, Bem is also a magician. Tompkins does not write about the Enfield poltergeist case but includes pictures accompanied by a caption that contains a serious factual error: Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse did not claim to have witnessed “two daughters apparently levitating several meters of the grounds” (p. 191). Tompkins does not make any real attempt to assess the evidence for anything but is an author not nevertheless obliged to check his facts?

All veteran students of psychical research know that the field’s history includes numerous controversies concerning psychics and mediums. Often the reader ends up finding herself in a state of ambiguity – uncertain about what to believe. Tompkins, however, seems eager to accept any sceptical explanation on face value.

The historical sections touch on the careers of many magicians and mediums. Naturally, he writes about the Fox sisters, known for having been the igniting spark for the Spiritualism movement in 1848. About forty years later one of the sisters, Margaret Fox, signed a confession, stating that she had been a fraudulent medium. Tompkins ignores the discrepancies between the facts and the confession (reprinted in Kurtz, 1985). According to the latter a child at twelve is almost too old to learn to produce raps through the method Margaret claims that she used. According to her one needs to be “carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles that grow still in later years”. Margaret was fourteen when the raps were first heard in 1848.

Tompkins writes about materialization mediums Florence Cook, Helen Duncan and William Eglinton. He leaves the reader with the impression that Sir William Crookes must have been fooled by Cook. Tompkins does not even mention Trevor Hall’s (1962) book or the allegations about Crookes and Cook it contained: Hall’s book inspired researchers to look at the case again. Incidentally, Hall was also a magician. Another well-known person tested by Crookes was Daniel Dunglas Home, Tompkins notes: “Many subsequent writers have proposed ways that Home might have accomplished his feats by natural means, including the use of translucent catgut thread ...” (p. 120) and speculated that he had concealed a mouth organ in his moustache. Tompkins does not provide any names, but the latter idea derives from Randi. Readers eager to learn the facts about Home can start by reading Peter Lamont’s (2005) biography; Lamont is also a magician; he came to the conclusion that “... Home was a charlatan whose feats have never been adequately explained. I choose to embrace the resultant mystery ...” (p. 278). Crookes also once tested a vaudeville performer, Anna Eva Fay; according to Tompkins she fooled Crookes and “... detailed her methods to Harry Houdini ...” (p. 121). The magician Barry Wiley (2005) noted that “... she spun Crookes-related stories on two occasions for Houdini … Neither of the two stories was remotely true” (p. 137). Another performer also makes an appearance, Washington Irving Bishop, but oddly Tompkins does not write about muscle reading which was Bishop’s main claim to fame.

It must be admitted that the book is well written, interesting and the pictures are nice (though the relevance of some is unclear). The trouble is that veteran students of psychical research are bound to be annoyed by errors, significant omissions and the author’s desire to accept any sceptical explanation on face value. When writing about the medium Eusapia Palladino he forgets that although she cheated, she also left magicians unable to offer plausible explanations (e.g., Feilding, Baggally & Carrington, 1909). Tompkins also writes about the medium Leonora Piper and leaves the reader with the impression that he thinks she was a fraud and just used techniques known by magicians as cold and hot reading (cf. Taylor, 2010). His purpose with the book is not to assess evidence for psychical phenomena, but as he breezes through history, he, perhaps unintentionally, misleads the reader. According to the back cover “Tompkins exposes how sleight of hand and the power of suggestion have tricked the minds of even the most rational and cynical observers”. However, he offers no original explanations about how scientists were allegedly fooled. Perhaps he dares not try due to the magician’s code to not reveal secrets.

The book is popular rather than scholarly, it is written for general readers and space is very limited. Nevertheless, would it not be fair to admit that some psychical researchers were also magicians? For example, Harry Price briefly appears in the book, he was also a magician. Likewise, Eric Dingwall, whose “ghost-hunting kit” is shown on a photo, was also a magician. Both had extensive experience, they had encountered dozens of fraudulent mediums, but also phenomena that they found inexplicable. From whence comes the bias in the book? The modest references and recommended reading list suggest that Tompkins might have inherited it from Randi and magician Milbourne Christopher. I fear he has not understood the complexity inherent in the subject. The magician Marcello Truzzi’s (1997) essay would have been a good starting point. Missing among the references are also, for example, Dingwall (1921), Natale (2016) and Hansen (1992). In addition to Dingwall’s and Price’s books recommended reading should include Gaskill (2001), Hyman (1989), Keene (1976) and Tietze (1973).

In the context of a magic show, illusions can be entertainingly harmless, but in the context of a mediumistic demonstration, the same illusion can represent dangerous and predatory attempts to take advantage of people who are emotionally vulnerable (p. 215)

I was immediately curious when I learned about the publication of The Spectacle of Illusion and bought the book as soon as I could. There is so much in the history of psychical research that leaves many readers in a state of ambiguity; however, much trickery has also been exposed. I am sure much research was needed to write the book, but Tompkins often seems more dismissive than fascinated, though he acknowledges: “Science certainly does not have all the answers” (p. 215) . I would have liked to read about one of the mind-reading pairs, such as the Zancigs or the Piddingtons, but more importantly I wish Tompkins had acknowledged that some magicians themselves, such as Kreskin and David Hoy, encouraged the belief that they were psychics. In addition, although Tompkins acknowledges that some magicians have used (and use) pseudoexplanations, this also needs to be discussed. Despite all critical commentary I hope Tompkins returns to the subject for an in-depth study, stretching from the Creery sisters to modern times because he is a good writer and the history of psychical research contain plenty to ponder on. Psychical researchers should not ignore magicians and magicians should not ignore facts.


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