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the Schneider brothers
Rudi (1908–1957) and Willi (1903–1971) Schneider of Austria claimed they had paranormal powers, including the power of psychokinesis. Rudi worked as a professional medium and submitted to scientific testing in the 1920s and later. He began his career at age 11, working with Willi in the popular venue of the day: the séance. Rudi's main claim to fame is that investigators were unable to figure out how he moved objects or did his materializations. The testing took place a long time ago, mostly under less than ideal conditions by investigators of varying talents and with less than desirable documentation. Though there are some people today who look to the Schneider brothers as proof of paranormal powers, the brothers are mostly ignored. There is no mention of them, for example, in Dean Radin's books1, 2 touting the scientific evidence for the paranormal. Milbourne Christopher, a critic of paranormal claims and a friend of Harry Price (who wrote two books about Rudi Schneider) doesn't mention the Schneider brothers in either of his books1, 2
Those who tout the Schneiders in support of scientific proof of the paranormal usually base their adulation on Anita Gregory's The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1985), J. Beloff's Parapsychology: A Concise History (London: Athlone Press, 1993), one of Harry Price's books, or articles in the Journal of Psychical Research that appeared in the 1920s. Gregory wrote that Rudi "permitted himself to be investigated by researchers...and accepted whatever conditions they chose to impose...there is not one iota of evidence to suggest that he was ever in his life anything other than transparently honest." Not everyone agrees with Gregory's rosy account of Rudi's purity:
Schneider began giving demonstrations to the Vienna Institut fur Radiumforschung der Academic der Wissenschaffen in 1923. However, in 1924, Professors Stefan Meyer and Karl Przibram found that he had attempted to get round the controls that they had set up to prevent fakery, though no actual fakery was observed. After Meyer and Przibram's accusations, the institute concluded that the abilities that Schneiders had demonstrated up to that point were all based on the balance of probability, were the result of trickery, and he was no-longer of interest to them.
Three years later, in April 1927, Warren Vinton went further, publishing an article in Psyche that directly accused Schneider of being a fraud. According to Vinton, Schneider's feats were produced by means of a hidden accomplice. In October of that year, the case was taken up by Malcolm Bird, a research officer for the American Society for Psychical Research. Bird concluded that Vinton's accusations had a sound basis. Similar conclusions of fakery were also reached by other researchers.*
J. Beloff wrote that "Rudi's mediumship is now rightly considered among the best authenticated in the literature...he was never caught in any act of fraud." The key word in Beloff's claim is "caught." Among those who tested Rudi were Harry Price (1881-1948), Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (1862-1929), and Eric J. Dingwall (1890-1986). It is not surprising that Schrenck-Notzing didn't detect any fraud, since he seems to have been an incompetent, if lovable, dilettante. Schrenck-Notzing was an:
undistinguished German medical doctor who married into a very wealthy family, Schrenck-Notzing was able to devote himself entirely to his hobby, psychic research. He had a penchant for flamboyance and was a devoted self-publicist and a dilettante without peer.
Séances held at the Schrenck-Notzing home in Munich were much more entertainments than serious investigations. They were attended by royalty and the cream of German society, in a period when séances were popular evening pastimes and these people could afford the heavy fees demanded by the performers. Schrenck-Notzing flitted blissfully from medium to medium, seeing such sought-after celebrities as Eva C. and Willi and Rudi Schneider, and pompously declared them all to be absolutely genuine. When damning evidence of fraud was produced by other investigators, Schrenck-Notzing was able to rationalize away the contrary data in ingenious ways and to influence researchers into suppressing the awkward data. He also occupied a position which made him impervious to criticism; he had no fear of losing sponsors. In spite of his obvious lack of expertise and his consummate, willful gullibility, Schrenck-Notzing's observations were quoted by others and accepted as positive evidence of the phenomena he was presenting.*
Dingwall, on the other hand, "was renowned as a major investigator of psychic claims" and was a "respected and much-loved researcher."* After sixty years of active psychical research, he gave it up in exasperation. He had become disgusted with the low standards of evidence and the disreputable conduct of parapsychologists. In his explanation as to why he had left the world of psychic research, Dingwall wrote:
SINCE I gave up nearly all active work in psychical research, I have often been asked why, after more than sixty years' work in the field, I have finally lost most of my interest in it. There are two answers to the question. First, I have come to the conclusion that the present immense interest in occultism and in the grosser forms of superstition is due, to a certain extent at least, to the persistent and far-reaching propaganda put out by the parapsychologists. In this they have, I think, a very grave responsibility. With the gradual decline in the West of belief in Christianity has come not, as one might have hoped, a leaning toward the rational way of looking at the world but a decided tendency to adopt the magical way. Thus Christianity, unbelievable as it may be to the rational mind, has been supported by the occult superstitions of darker ages. One reason, therefore, for my ceasing work is that I do not wish to be associated with persons who actively support such superstitions as are today everywhere apparent. I cannot accept such responsibility....
After sixty years' experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period I do not think I could name half a dozen whom I could call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth. The great majority wanted to prove something or other: They wanted the phenomena into which they were inquiring to serve some purpose in supporting preconceived theories of their own....
I am in complete agreement with Dr. Henry Margenau when he said that the field of parapsychology is "largely avoided by scientists because of the loose treatment of serious matters that prevails in it." It is clear that he, at least, has not been deceived by the tale so frequently told by the parapsychologists that orthodox scientists refuse to consider their results because they are afraid that, were they to do so, their whole picture of the world as they see it would be upset. What is perhaps the most damaging aspect is that few protests are made by serious officers of the Society. Year by year the same kind of tales and experiments are published and money urgently required for other work is frittered away on articles of not the smallest scientific value. Little is done to show disapproval or publish criticism of the more extreme vagaries of the spiritualist press, which week by week publishes stories of the miraculous that would hardly have found support in medieval times. For example, in a single issue of one of these periodicals with a wide circulation, I read that a carved wooden African head caused any amount of misfortune to those who possessed it and that it was finally sent to a cabinet minister. Within a week the Profumo scandal broke, presumably caused by the head. In the same issue I learn that apports used to come tinkling down from the small end of Mrs. Estelle Roberts's trumpet; that a gentleman in Puerto Rico, a deaf mute since birth, speaks and sings in perfect English; that a full-form materialization of a person just dead appeared before 20 witnesses; and that in England a rector stated that two pigs had been reduced to skeletons through the evil eye. Nothing from the 1870s could really approach this miscellany of marvels....
I do not intend to waste any more time over the hoaxes and fictional reports put out by parapsychologists.*
Dingwall, I think, would have mentioned Schneider as the one great exception to chicanery and malfeasance in his diatribe against parapsychology if, indeed, the case had been exceptional. Nevertheless, supporters of the Schneider brothers as authentic point to a report authored in part by Dingwall about Willi Schneider's performance in a séance. Dingwall wrote: "…the only reasonable hypothesis is that some supernormal agency produced the result."*
Of the other investigators who tested Rudi, one stands out as worth mentioning: Harry Price.
Price was a psychic researcher and author with a very broad range of interests. He engaged in investigations as disparate as fire walking, spirit photography, séances, and black magick. He was involved with Dingwall's investigation of Willi Schneider and together they published Revelations of a Spirit Medium (1922). In 1927, Price set up the National Laboratory of Psychical Research "in direct opposition to the London-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR)."* One of Price's more popular books was Rudi Schneider: A Scientific Examination of his Mediumship (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1930). In 1933, Price published An Account of Some Further Experiments with Rudi Schneider. A detailed review of Price's books on Rudi Schneider, criticisms of his electronic method of testing Rudi by V. J. Woolley of the SPR, and the charge by Anita Gregory that Price faked pictures in his investigation can be found on the tribute page: HarryPriceWebsite. James Randi has this to say about Price:
[He] lived a life which was a strange mixture of fact and fraud. He claimed to be descended from an aristocratic family [Price claimed he was born in Shropshire, but he was actually born in London in Red Lion Square*], to have inherited wealth [he was educated in New Cross, first at Waller Road Infants School and then Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys School.], and to be an expert archaeologist, bibliographer, numismatist, and——most importantly——a psychic researcher....
Even during his lifetime, Price was exposed as a charlatan. A brilliant and competent researcher, he apparently wished to add to his reputation by fraud. Following his death, investigations showed that Price had been more of an adventurer than what he had purported to be. He had faked, plagiarized, and bluffed his way into the confidence of his many and enthusiastic supporters, along the way accomplishing some valuable and genuine research.*
In short, Price's work is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is telling, though, that these days more attention is paid to those who investigated the alleged paranormal abilities of the Schneider brothers than to the evidence of their powers. The brothers seem to have done no more for the world than to entertain and mystify many people. No evidence of their alleged talent being put to use for any positive social purpose exists that I am aware of. The fact that the brothers were not caught, or at least not reported as having been caught, in the act of fraud is hardly a strong case for the existence of the paranormal. Other competent conjurers may never have been caught, either, and if they hadn't confessed they might have gone to their graves hoodwinking scientists and non-scientists alike. I'll give just one example: James Alan Hydrick (b. 1959).
Hydrick is in prison at the time of this writing and he was in the Los Angeles county jail when he learned to control his breathing in such a way as to bounce his breath off of objects and cause pages in a book to turn or a pencil on the edge of a table to move slightly. Thus, he could look one way and direct his breath in another, thereby clearly eliminating (not!) the notion that he was blowing on things to get them to move. Many people were deceived by his trickery. Hydrick appeared to have psychokinetic powers. What he had was an audience and customers who don't understand what trouble people will go to to trick others, especially when the trick can enrich them.
After he was released from L. A. county jail, Hydrick set up the Institute of Shaolin Gung Fu in Salt Lake City. He started calling himself Song Chai and began enrolling students (for a fee of course!), promising to teach them an ancient martial art along with the ability to flutter pages in a book and move a pencil on a table using nothing but mental energy. In other words, he would teach his students how to do these pointless activities the hard way. Still, the idea of being able to do something using just mental power, even if pointless or trivial, attracts a certain kind of soul.
Hydrick rose to international attention through his demonstration of these skills on the American television show, That's Incredible!. The episode originally aired in December 1980 and was later repeated in 1981. He performed the pencil-spinning trick with the skeptical host's hand [that should read "allegedly skeptical host," namely, John Davidson] on his mouth to block possible air blowing (after the host suggested that he could hear Hydrick blowing). However, Hydrick deliberately readjusted the pencil beforehand so that it was as precarious as possible and so would move with the slight disturbance caused by his hands. He also caused a page from a telephone book to turn over, again, allegedly by telekinesis. James Randi awarded the program a 1980 Uri Award, later renamed the Pigasus Award, "for declaring a simple magic trick to be genuine."*
Actually, Randi did more than give a pointless award to a television program for promoting nonsense. He went on another television program, That's My Line, and demonstrated the fraud being perpetrated by Hydrick.
In a follow-up episode, Randi and Hydrick both appeared. When Randi performed the simple control of placing small pieces of expanded polystyrene on the table around the phone book (to show if Hydrick was actually turning the pages by blowing on them), Hydrick's "powers" suddenly failed him. Hydrick attempted to explain that when the foam was heated by the stage lights they developed a static electric charge which, when added to the weight of the page, required more force than he was able to generate to turn the page. [Please. Control your laughter!] Randi and the judges, though, declared that this hypothesis had no scientific basis.
After an hour and a half of Hydrick staring at the pages (the show was edited for time) without any results, and claiming that his powers were real, he finally admitted being unable to complete the challenge. The judging panel (which included a parapsychologist [John Palmer]) stated that, in their opinion, no supernatural phenomenon had taken place. The failed stunt ... effectively ended Hydrick's television career (following Hydrick's concession, Randi himself performed the same trick using the techniques that Hydrick perfected).
In 1981, Hydrick's psychic powers were definitively exposed as being fraudulent by investigative journalist Dan Korem. Hydrick confessed his fraud to Korem and admitted that he had developed his unique talent while he was in prison, and did not learn it from a Chinese master as he had originally claimed.
I tell this story not to imply that the Schneiders were frauds. I think it is obvious that they were frauds. What needs explaining is how investigators like Harry Price, an experienced conjurer himself, might be fooled by these guys. Nobody is so clever that they are beyond being duped by someone else. Had Randi not seen Hydrick's performance and the response it got from the so-called skeptical host, Hydrick might have gone into the lab and duped any number of scientists and paranormal investigators. Had Hydrick not confessed, there is no telling what his reputation as a PK man might be (assuming, of course, that he had been able to stay out of prison or use his PK powers to help him escape). Why Price didn't expose the Schneider brothers, I can't say. Maybe he really didn't have the evidence. Maybe they really did trick him. The case, as they say in the television world of police work, is cold. It will remain cold until somebody finds some of Price's papers where he confesses to rigging the game for some weird reason. Until then, I think it is safe to say that the Schneider brothers were very good at what they did, but what they did was most likely not paranormal. We may not know exactly how they did their tricks, but we know that they could not have been successful if there weren't many people willing to be deceived. As Pascal once said: we want to be deceived. And as Freud once noted, the more important the issue, the less evidence we require. Go figure.
See also A Short History of Psi Research, my review of Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, my review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena and his Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, and my review of Charles T. Tart's The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.
Last updated 13-Sep-2011