How Exactly Did 'Mind Readers' In The 1950s Fool Millions?
Look at you. I knew you’d come crawling back. “That last column contained an awful lot of old-timey child murder for what was ostensibly a piece of comedic writing,” you said. Well, good news for you: this article will be completely free of child murder. Or bad news if that’s what piqued your interest in the previous article. If that’s the case: please stop reading my work, Dr. Henry Kissinger!
In any case, today we’re talking about mentalists.
A Famous Case
In the 50s, there was a mentalist act that was famous throughout the English-speaking world. Sydney and Lesley Piddington were a married couple from Australia, but with a name like “Sydney Piddington” it was only a matter of time before they found fame in the UK. You see, Sydney and Lesley seemed to have an incredible ability: they could communicate things to each other without speaking, seemingly over vast distances.
Lesley would go to another room. Sydney would poll an audience member, asking them for a random number, a snatch of poetry, a phrase taken at random from a book. Then, with the secret phrase selected, Sydney would contact Lesley via radio and she would know the numerical combination or phrase. As their popularity grew, they began to perform over even greater distances, often sponsored by the BBC. In one famous instance, Lesley spoke a phrase taken at random from a book by a panel of judges while under armed guard in the Tower of London while Sydney was broadcasting from some other, unimportant, non-London town. England: a country that conquered most of the known world instead of simply building a second city of their own.
The Piddingtons would go on to have Sydney “transmit” phrases to Lesley without speaking them aloud while she was flying in an airplane many miles away, and once, while she was sequestered in a diving bell underwater. The Piddingtons were searched beforehand for any radio transmitting devices and were never found to have any secret receivers or transmitters. This is perhaps unsurprising, since in the 50s most radios were so large they had to have the dead raccoons cleaned out of them biannually.
Underwater. In the sky. Separated by many miles and both watched by live audiences – there was seemingly no explanation for how they were able to do what they did. All of the popular explanations of the time were disproven by the Piddingtons in subsequent shows. After Sydney died in 1991, Lesley told her grandson “Even if I wanted to tell you how it was done, I don’t think I would be able.” The Piddington’s act was as confounding to the British public as a national delicacy that isn’t revolting.
The Piddingtons, in addition to probably being the inspiration for the excellent Nightmare Alley, were hugely popular. They were the… the, uh… look, I’m old, I like what I like, and I don’t really know or care what’s popular with you kids anymore. They were the Fortnite of their time? They were the crippling nicotine addiction of their time? They were the inescapable sense of futility due to looming climate disaster of their time? Sorry, teens, Ol’ Sweet William’s gonna have to let you pick your own humorous comparison this time. Oh, come on, don’t act like I’m just offloading the work on to you, you kids love paying to do the work yourselves! That’s why you do Blue Apron! Oh, hey, that works as a comparison. They were the Blue Apron of their time.
But What Is It, Though?
Mentalism. Telepathy. ESP. Mind reading. Oh, speaking of ESP, when Sydney remarried they named their first child Edwin Sydney Piddington. ESP. Real class acts, those Piddingtons.
In short, it’s the ability to read what someone else is thinking. I’m not going to waste your time on this one. You get it. Mind reading. We’ve all wished we could do it at one time or another, whether to cheat at poker, manipulate people, or to save money on walkie-talkies. We’ve all wanted it, even though being able to read minds would make the average middle school so filled with depraved imagery it would make A Serbian Film look like Cute Kitten Farts in Sleep (Auto Tuned to “Cotton Eye Joe”). Instantaneous communication is often associated with miracles, leading to some darker uses than the Piddingtons radio shows. In fact, the Piddingtons were actually pretty respectable since they framed their shows as a puzzle for the public to solve rather than claiming they had godlike powers. We’ll get more into that later.
The Obvious Explanation
No, the Piddingtons weren’t telepathic. They never even claimed to be. They were upfront about not having any kind of paranormal abilities. If people had telepathy, why wouldn’t they be the world’s most successful salespeople instead of just amusing British people on the radio? It would be easy to tell who had the ability to read minds simply by picking up a copy of Forbes:
So what’s going on with the Piddingtons? To be honest, no one’s really exactly sure. Well, almost nobody. A dude named Martin T. Hart claims to have figured it out, but I’m not about to drop fifty bucks to verify that. Penn Jillette, 50% of magician duo Penn and Teller, suspects that there isn’t any communication happening at all. That’s the misdirection of the act, according to him. He believes the real trick is that Lesley and Sydney agreed upon the phrase beforehand and simply used sleight of hand to switch out the envelopes containing the phrases.
There are lots of theories out there as to how the Piddingtons did it, and here’s mine: steganography. Not the more modern definition of hiding a file within the information of another file, but the more traditional meaning of encoding a message within mundane information. Take a moment and listen to the parts of this broadcast where Sydney is speaking (he’s the dude with an Australian accent). What sticks out to you about this video, besides how weird it is to hear that particular style of narrator-voice saying something other than crap like, “The nuclear arsenal is necessary to defend our great country from the threat of Communist moonmen”?
I’ll tell you what leaps out to me. Sydney Piddington has a stutter. He’ll trip over words and use lots of fillers – lots of “ums,” and “ahs,” things like that. It’s possible that’s just a vocal tic, but admittedly that’s kind of a weird one for a man who makes his entire living performing on stage and on the radio. There was an entire movie about one dude overcoming his stammer to give just one speech. No, what I hear isn’t a stutter, it’s extraneous verbal information. Noise masking signal. My theory is that Sydney’s stuttering and pauses were some sort of code that he and Lesley had. During their banter and introduction, he was telling her what the secret phrase was – just not with words.
Maybe that’s not how the Piddingtons did it (although I’m pretty sure I’m on to something). But the overall point is that there is always, always a trick with mentalists. And if they’re not admitting that there IS a trick, then it’s because they’re picking your pocket. While the Piddingtons are harmless fun, there is a more nefarious side to this. There’s cold reading, which is in the same ballpark, which is essentially just using generic statements which sound specific to manipulate people into thinking you’re reading their minds or speaking with dead relatives. “You’ve been unhappy with your career lately.” Yeah, no shit. You know who sometimes feels doubt about their career? Everybody except those four dudes in that picture up there! I can’t believe Americans spend around two billion a year on this nonsense.
Of course, there is a third broad category of mentalist: the full-on cheaters. Say what you will about the Piddingtons and even the lowly cold readers: at least that’s a skill that requires time to develop. This final category is nothing but charlatans trafficking in basest chicanery. Take, for example, Peter Popoff, a faith healer who claimed that God allowed him to read minds. People would come to his big traveling shows and Popoff would, seemingly miraculously, point to people in the crowd and know their names, addresses, and the specific illnesses affecting them. Of course, he was thoroughly debunked by The Amazing James Randi, a certified badass who was a magician turned rock-n-roll concert designer turned professional bullshit destroyer. Check out the documentary about him called An Honest Liar, it’s pretty interesting.
Randi discovered that when people came to Popoff’s shows, they were asked before sitting down to fill out “prayer cards.” Popoff’s wife would then read these cards to him over a microphone which fed into a small earpiece. Randi not only caught their scheme redhanded, he also caught them saying some really heinous racist and sexist stuff about their marks, because it’s pretty rare that someone is just one kind of asshole. Randi showed the proof he’d videotaped on Johnny Carson’s The Late Show, effectively ending Popoff’s career.
Just kidding! Popoff’s career is still going strong even today! Because that’s the real tragedy about mentalists: the more unscrupulous among them prey on people who are looking for answers. The hopeless want nothing so much as hope, and they’re willing to pay big money for anyone who can give it to them.
Steganography. Cold reading. Just cheating with radios. That’s the obvious answer. So here’s the note I want to end on: be very, very skeptical of anyone who claims they know what you’re thinking.
Except me, of course. I know you want to come back tomorrow for even more obvious explanations to supernatural phenomenon! And perhaps to make a slight donation to my church, St. William of the Perpetually Really Wanting to Buy a Monster Truck.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Triff/Shutterstock