A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology

By Paul Kurtz | Go to book overview

10
Fraudulent Children in Psychical Research
J. FRASER NICOL

The Right Honorable Arthur James Balfour, later Earl of Balfour, philosopher, psychical researcher, and future president of the Society for Psychical Research and prime minister of the United Kingdom, was in his Cambridge youth arrested by the police for mischievous doorbell-ringing one night. Hauled before the Cambridge magistrates, he was warned by the chairman (mayor of Cambridge) that if he did not regulate his conduct he would one day find himself in prison and was fined £1 (Young 1963, 22).

The mischief young people will engage in for the purpose of annoying or, more often, amazing their elders and glorifying themselves is a common psychological phenomenon. And in the production of paranormal or pseudoparanormal occurrences, it has a history going back hundreds of years. In this chapter I will try to give a small selection of the psychic mischief of boys and girls through the ages, leading of course to the recent outbreak of boy and girl spoon-benders imitating the mysterious performances of the Israeli Uri Geller.

The production by children of bogus psychical phenomena was common in the witchcraft scares from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, when many convictions of innocent women were obtained on the perjured or delusive evidence of adolescents; and, so, hundreds of harmless women were tortured, hanged, and burned. In Germany in 1628 the fantastic stories told by 13-year-old Peter Roller were responsible for 24 persons being burned at the stake. In the Salem, Massachusetts, cases of 1692 most of the accusations came from teenage girls. Thirteen women and six men were hanged and one man was pressed to death. Afterwards, one of the girls sought to excuse herself and her friends because they felt at the time that they "must have some sport" (Robbins 1959, 94-95).

In poltergeist history, much of the continuing skepticism can be attributed to the fact that so many of the wild occurrences were hoaxes perpetrated by children. Daniel Defoe spent much of his life investigating paranormal phenomena, which he reported in several volumes. At about the age of 11, Daniel

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Reprinted from the Parapsychology Review with permission of the Parapsychology Foundation, Inc., and the author. Copyright 1979 by the Parapsychology Foundation, Inc.

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