Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychic Detectives

Early Cases

Although skeptics galore decry the use of psychics for anything but entertainment, police departments around the country call on certain psychics when all else fails.  They've been doing that for more than a century, and when forbidden to do so, they sometimes use unofficial means.

The first official use of "psychic sight" during a trance in a criminal case was in 1845, when a clairvoyant fingered a juvenile suspect, who subsequently confessed.  The details of the case aren't documented well enough to decide whether the psychic was making a good guess, perhaps knew the boy, or actually "saw" the crime with her sixth sense.  

Regardless of whether intuitive "flashes" of information can best be interpreted in retrospect, they nevertheless have supported searches that yielded evidence and given specific information about crimes, even if they've rarely prevented one.  Supposedly Jeanne Dixon tried to warn the White House of a vision she had just before President Kennedy was assassinated, but either she didn't or no one noticed (or cared).  Kennedy was assassinated.  Psychic Chris Robinson reports that he foresaw a murder, contacted the mother of the soon-to-be victim, was ignored, and the murder took place.  Yet Dorothy Nickerson called a store in Arizona in 1982, certain they would be robbed the next night, and police who acted on this did arrest an armed man loitering nearby.  Whether he had planned to rob the store is anyone's guess (she actually envisioned two men doing it), because once a crime is foiled, who can say what would have happened?

The problem with foresight is that a sufficient number of predictions have been wrong or just plain silly, and a sufficient number of psychics have exaggerated their successes, that few people would cancel their flight just because a psychic told them it was going to crash.  It's difficult to know how to take such people seriously.  (In 1999, for example, a number of psychics collectively predicted there would be a major earthquake in California during a specific timeframe, but nothing happened.)

Psychic Detectives
  
According to Jenny Randles and Peter Hough in Psychic Detectives (a book that accepts and reports all stories at face value and does not investigate how genuine they are), ancient Greek and Roman societies made a point of relying on oracles to foresee future events.  There was a general belief that certain people had such powers, and therefore had some real authority about the unseen.  They were honored and frequently consulted.

Nostrodamus (Corbis)
    
Belief in "seers" continued through the agesthe 16th century mystic Nostrodamus for exampleand Victorians produced spiritualists (many of them bogus) who invited people into seances to communicate with the dead.  In 1888, psychics got involved to some degree in the case known as the Whitechapel murders, or the crimes of the man known as Jack the Ripper.  In 10 weeks, from the end of August into November, someone killed five prostitutes (two of them on a single night), slitting their throats and removing pieces of them to carry off.  The murders stopped as quickly as they had begun, and Jack's identity was never conclusively resolved.  There were a handful of suspects, but no one was ever charged or convicted of any of these brutal crimes.

To try to discover who this killer might be or when he might strike again, spiritualists all over England held sittings, the details of which were sometimes revealed to the press.  From his scars to his residence to his accomplices, spiritualists provided what information they could about the killer from their impressions.  One man said that he was wearing a tweed suit, and he took the police to the home of a doctor, who was subsequently hospitalized for mental illness, but no psychic provided information that conclusively solved the crimes.

Over a century later, Pamela Ball tried to contact the victims or the killer through channeling, in which a living person becomes a means through which the dead can speak. Calling her method "evidential mediumship," she used several different means, including astrological charts of the victims, to contact someone with "inside" knowledge.  She received feelings such as nausea and resignation, and images of several different men, which indicated that there may have been more than one killer.  She tried contacting various suspects and came to the conclusion that there were political secrets that most of the victims knew, and that's why they had been killed.

None of this makes any difference to people who care about scientific evidence.  With the passage of time, the contamination of crime scenes, and the lack of anything physical distinctly tied to the Ripper (not even letters, for certain), it's unlikely that any suspect can be proven to be Jack.  In fact, Ball asked the otherworldly forces if Jack's identity would ever be known and received the answer, "No."   She tended to support the idea that a member of the royal family was involved, a sexy theory but not very tenable.  None of her assertions gained via psychic impressions can be verified.

While contacting victims long after a crime has occurred can be a fascinating exercise, those psychics who actually get involved in an investigation provide a better means for verification (or not) of their talents.  Let's look at one such case. 

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