If you were a psychic, astrologer, spiritualist or any other kind of charlatan in the 1920s, you had no greater enemy than the science and technology magazines of the era. Many publishers of the 1920s saw calling out bullshit peddlers as a natural part of their broader mission. And they did so in glorious fashion — by giving away the pseudo-supernatural secrets of countless frauds.
Throughout the 1920s, magazines like Science and Invention, Practical Electrics, and even Radio News would run stories exposing the tricks of the trade for people who claimed to have these supernatural talents. These talents, of course, could never be verified by scientific experiments. And unsurprisingly, these hucksters would sometimes use cutting-edge tech of the time to swindle trusting people out of their cash.
Some of the magazines offered prizes for people who could prove that they were psychic or had supernatural abilities — not unlike the $1 million prize currently offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation. In a partnership with skeptic Joseph F. Rinn, Science and Invention magazine offered $11,000 (about $140,000 in today's dollars) for any verified supernatural phenomena.
Today we have just one example of skepticism from the hundreds that showed up in the popular technology magazines of the Jazz Age — with this one straight from the pages of Science and Invention. The 1926 article was written by Edward Merlin, who was credited as a "reformed spiritualist." Using illustrations, he explained how he would swindle people out of money by making them believe that he had a connection to the spirit world.
Mr. Merlin has for years given seances. He is positive that such a thing as a spiritual manifestation has never been produced and that all mediums that operate for pay are fraudulent. His past articles in this publication show that he knows his work. This is another of the series, and exposes some more of the tricks of these arch fiends preying upon the gullible public; upon widows, mothers and orphans. Remember Science and Invention and Joseph F. Rinn still have $11,000.00 which they will pay for genuine phenomena.
Merlin wrote about the ways that you could test a medium who you believed was simply moving objects around in the dark. One method: mark the medium's body with glow-in-the-dark paint (radium, as they quite dangerously suggested!). If the symbols moved after the lights were out, you knew the medium was up to something that was decidedly not supernatural.
If all spiritual mediums that produced manifestations in the dark were to be painted with luminous paint insignias unknown to the mediums, and were the paint to be applied to the bare skin, such things as manifestations would not occur.
In a dark cabinet a medium finds it quite easy to insert a black rubber tube into the end of the horn and cover his hand up with a black sleeve, manipulating the hose, causing the horn to move, and talking into the hose whenever he desires.
A medium with a luminous band on each wrist and one around his forehead sits in the position indicated at the right. When the lights are extinguished the bands are removed and placed on the medium's legs as indicated above. A collapsible trumpet is taken from beneath his vest, unfolded, fitted to the suspended trumpet as shown, and serves to direct the voice to the trumpet hung in mid-air.
Seances are, of course, far less common today than they were a century ago. Floating trumpets and mysterious noises are justifiably ridiculed as silly hoaxes by the vast majority of Americans.
But we still have a ways to go. By some estimates, a full quarter of Americans believe in astrology. And amazingly, supposed psychics can still convince people to hand over thousands of dollars with the promise of seeing past lives. Demonstrating how psychics and astrologers are using little more than parlor tricks and cold reading to perpetrate their frauds is no simple task. But with all the magical thinking in the world, maybe it's time for the science and tech press to step up to this challenge yet again.
Images: Scanned from the May 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine