A fake psychic built a career by conning clients into believing he could communicate with their dead relatives in order to steal money and property before exposing himself as a fraud, a new podcast reveals.
Lamar Keene, from Tampa, Florida, was one of the most best known mediums in the US in the 1960s, captivating faithful followers with his apparent ability to intuit their deepest secrets, recover lost belongings and channel messages from the dead.
But in reality the so-called ‘prince of spiritualists’ was a callous con artist who knowingly preyed on the vulnerable and grieving in his quest for fame and fortune.
As journalist Vicky Baker reveals in new BBC Radio 4 podcast Fake Psychic, Keene had a pack of tricks he used to create the illusion of psychic ability, including pickpocketing, covert voice recording and stealing personal information from his clients’ homes.
He even impersonated dead children in order to convince clients to hand over land and large sums of money to his spiritualist church, claiming it was their child’s wish from beyond the grave.
Prince of Spiritualists: Lamar Keene, from Florida, was one of the most best known mediums in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, captivating faithful followers with his apparent ability to intuit their deepest secrets, recover lost belongings and channel messages from the dead
But over time Keene grew increasingly paranoid and disillusioned with the life he had built for himself.
After 13 years in the business, he admitted that the psychic powers that had earned him his reputation and riches were based on lies and manipulation in a tell-all memoir, The Psychic Mafia.
In it, he confessed he had never communicated with the dead, had never read a mind and, perhaps most compellingly, that he was operating as part of a network of psychic fraudsters who stored and swapped information on clients to produce the most authentic readings possible.
‘It wasn’t just his own carefully-crafted reputation that Lamar Keene sought to destroy. He wanted to blow the whistle on the whole industry,’ Baker explains.
‘He claimed that he had been part of a national underground network that included many other psychics, clairvoyants and mediums, who combined forces to fleece the unsuspecting public.
‘He called it the “psychic mafia,” and said that his confession made him a marked man.’
Alongside Keene’s story, Baker also explores how the industry works, shares key tricks used by psychics, and exposes other mediumship scandals in the decades since Keene’s explosive memoir.
STARTING OUT WITH A SCHOOLFRIEND
Keene was joined on his journey as a psychic with a high school friend, who is given the pseudonym Raoul in his memoir.
The pair were united in their promotion of spiritualism, a religious movement based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums.
After training as mediums together, the pair became business partners and opened churches of spiritualism in Florida where the faithful would pay for readings with the two men, believing their claims that they had a hotline to the spirit world.
They stayed together until the end of Keene’s career, when he quit sensationally after an apparent moral awakening that saw him come clean to members of the congregation, former believers and the adoptive mother he had met through his work.
Baker repeatedly notes that Keene, as a self-confessed conman, is an unreliable narrator and that ‘Raoul’ has not corroborated the account in any way.
LEARNING THE TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Channelling messages: After 13 years in the business, Keene admitted that the psychic powers that had earned him his reputation and riches were based on lies and manipulation in a tell-all memoir, The Psychic Mafia. Stock image
The two men began their journey by taking private lessons in mediumship, under the guidance of a woman who was well established in the trade.
Keene initially embarked on the classes as a hobby but quickly saw its potential as a business after watching how gullible, desperate and vulnerable clients, or ‘sitters’, willingly fell for the medium’s ploys.
Over the course of their first year of training, Keene and Raoul learned about practices including billet writing, a key method used in psychic readings.
Billet writing: How mediums ‘read’ messages in sealed envelopes
Cold readings, hot readings and the ‘right knee scar’ technique
Skeptics believe all psychic readings are either ‘hot readings’ or ‘cold readings’, which refer to how the psychic obtains their information.
Hot reading: The psychic has pre-prepared information on the sitter. This might have been garnered through online research, a previous conversation, or even via an accomplice who has spoken to the sitter and can relay the information.
This level of research and preparedness leads to a more convincing reading.
Cold reading: When the psychic has no previous information on the sitter and uses appearances, body languages, expressions and tone of voice to make deductions about who they are and what they might be seeking to learn.
They can also use broad stroke observations that will likely apply to a number of people. For example, ‘you have a scar on your right knee’. This applies to a lot of right-handed people and could be enough to make a sitter believe.
One expert also noticed that mediums could throw out a lot of information and latch onto the ones that receive positive responses from the sitter.
In billet writing the medium, or ‘reader’, claims to use clairvoyance to read messages written by the ‘sitter’ on a folded piece of paper or inside a sealed envelopes.
The sitter is typically looking for an answer to a specific question, or for guidance on a private matter.
Once the sitter, or sitters, if it is a group session, has written his or her message, the pieces of paper are then gathered up and placed beside the medium.
A medium will pick up the first piece of paper and place it on their forehead. They will then come up with a reason why this first message cannot be read. It must be something general that could cover a range of possible topics.
In the case of a fraudulent medium witnessed by Raoul and Keene, it was because the message was ‘too personal’ to be shared in public.
The message is then removed from the forehead and read, as if the medium is confirming what they have already seen in their mind’s eye. This first piece of paper is then placed in the discard pile.
In reality, the medium is taking in the information written on this first card, and will use it to inform her reading of the second piece of paper.
When the second piece is held against the medium’s forehead, they can pretend to be ‘reading’ the card, using the information gleamed from the first card.
Raoul and Keene watched as a medium brought up someone who had lost a grandfather and wanted answers.
This reading sparks a reaction from the audience member who wrote the first card and leads the rest of the group to believe in the accuracy of the readings.
Once again, this second card is removed as if it is to be checked. In reality the reader is simply taking in information for the third reading.
As the audience cannot see any of the paper, they do not realise that she is simply reading one ahead then using the previous piece of paper to inform her next reading. This is known as the ‘one-ahead’ method.
ESTABLISHING A CHURCH
As journalist Vicky Baker reveals in new BBC Radio 4 podcast Fake Psychic, pictured, Keene had a pack of tricks he used to create the illusion of psychic ability, including pickpocketing, covert voice recording and stealing personal information from his clients’ homes
After learning that mediums were faking their readings using methods like billet readings, Keene and Raoul made another discovery.
The pair spoke to an established medium who revealed she kept a record of her clients’ personal information in order to make readings as believable as possible.
For example, if a client came in one session asking to speak to her late mother, the medium would make a note of this fact and store it away on a note card.
Ahead of the client’s next session, the medium would then review her notes to refresh her memory. She could then draw on this information to create a fuller, more convincing reading.
If the client asked for guidance in a personal matter, the medium would be able to bring her late mother into the discussion.
Keene described these files as a ‘goldmine’ and set about creating his own.
First, they needed a following.
To achieve this Raoul and Keene established their own spiritual church.
Keene gave himself the title ‘Revered Keene’ and started packing out a room at a local women’s club in Tampa.
Soon the pair expanded to separate property and dubbed it the Good Shephard Universal Spiritualist Church.
Keene started conducting weddings and funerals and, for a fee, would induct others to the spiritualist clergy, despite having never taken a single theological course.
Flower delivery trick
Another trick involved sending a bunch of flowers to someone’s house – then paying the deliver driver extra to steal something while he was there.
The driver would pretend to need the bathroom and instead use the time to pilfer something from the property to bring back to Keene.
Keene could then produce this item in a service months later, much to the owner’s delight.
PICKPOCKETING AND THEFT
The unscrupulous spiritual leader would use almost any means necessary in order to gain the valuable personal information he needed in order to give a convincing hot reading.
For example, he might steal a wallet from a member of the congregation then incorporate the individual’s social security number into a service, asking if the number had any connection to anyone.
He used the same approach with religious talismans or other personal belongings, stealing them from people then ‘producing’ them in a reading.
He called these found items ‘apports’.
The trick, Lamar said, was to leave several months between the theft and the reappearance so people were even more overjoyed to be reunited with their must missed treasures.
This feat would invariably impress the congregation and lead to bigger tips.
‘Sometimes Keene even broke into the houses of members of his congregation to find potential apports,’ Baker explains.
CHANNELLING A DEAD CHILD TO DUPE HIS GRIEVING MOTHER
Some of the congregation were in deep grief and turned to Keene, and the church, to reconnect with late loved ones.
In his memoir Keene recalled one woman, named Lona, who was grieving the loss of her 17-year-old son, Jack.
She first turned to Keene three weeks after her son’s death. The teenager had died of an illness and Lona felt guilty that she hadn’t phoned the doctor sooner, believing it might have saved him.
Lona wanted to speak to her son Jack from beyond the grave. Keene obliged.
During a one-to-one meeting with Lona, he appeared to enter a trance state and allow the spirit of Jack to speak through him to his mother, telling her how much he loved her. He also urged Lona to donate to the church, as if it was her son’s wish.
Delighted to be speaking to her much missed son, Lona began to return to Keene’s church on a regular basis. Keene frequently ‘channeled’ Jack and the requests for donations continued.
Lona was not completely trusting of the ‘reverend’ and would set traps to try and catch him out. In one instance, he asked ‘Jack’ to use her ‘secret name’ that no one outside the family would know.
Determined to keep his devoted – and wealthy client – Keene set about learning her ‘secret name’.
During a church social at Lona’s house, Keene feigned a headache and went to rest in her bedroom. Once inside, she began looking for clues as to the name – and found it written inside the family bible he took from the bedside drawer.
It was enough to convince Lona to continue her donations.
THE CRYPT AT CAMP CHESTERFIELD
After years in the business, Keene and Raoul elevated their practice when they relocated to Camp Chesterfield, in Indiana, which was a hub for spiritualists across the US. Stock image
After years in the business, Keene and Raoul elevated their practice when they relocated to Camp Chesterfield, in Indiana, which was a hub for spiritualists across the US.
Mediums lived at the camp full-time and provided readings to paying customers who would flock to the site to take advantage of the high concentration of people with a connection to the spiritual world.
After winning over the camp’s formidable chief Mable Riffle, Keene and Raoul set up shop.
According to Keene, some of the mediums were ‘in on the act’ and deliberately misled their clients.
He believed a con man’s success there came down to whether you knew the right people on the inside and whether they trusted you with what was, allegedly, their biggest secret: a crypt full of index cards listing details of clients who visited Camp Chesterfield from across the US.
Keene claimed the information had been collected by a cross-country network of mediums who all pooled their sitters. He said the cards were arranged alphabetically by geographical location.
Mediums who were ‘in the know’ could then phone Camp Chesterfield and request the file of any new client, and send it back bolstered with even more information.
It was the same method of hot readings they had started to developed years previously, only this time it was on a much larger scale.
This was one of the things that, according to Lamar, made the psychic mafia, the psychic mafia.
Camp Chesterfield survives today and a historian says his behaviour would not be tolerated today and disputed the existence of the crypt.
‘THE DEVIL’S CAROUSEL’ AND THE WOMAN WHO CHANGED IT ALL
After more than a decade in the business, Keene began to feel the strain of his lifestyle and felt he was still on the fringes of society. Above, a seance taking place in Bristol in 1952
After more than a decade in the business, Keene began to feel the strain of his lifestyle and felt he was still on the fringes of society.
As he wrote in his memoir: ‘With all the money flowing in, the glamour, excitement and adulation of being a successful medium, was I happy? No.
Sex in the seance room
In his memoir Lamar claims some mediums took up sexual invitations from sitters, or sometimes initiated intercourse, while supposedly channelling spirits of people they once knew.
In some cases it was consensual but in others it sounds coercive.
Baker notes it’s almost as if Lamar is trying to paint others as ‘really bad’, making his actions less so in comparison.
‘For one thing, I was always aware, like most mediums, that people look down on us. That we weren’t really respectable.
‘We had important friends to whom we were more than acceptable, but society as a whole disdained us. And nobody enjoys being a freak, an oddity, a suspected fraud, a shady character… No matter how much glamour goes with it.’
Keene also spoke of feeling guilty about how he was treating others, describing it as being ‘caught on the devil’s carousel’.
His life changed when he met a wealthy widow from Oklahoma named Florence.
She visited him at Camp Chesterfield, desperate to connect with her late husband so that she could learn where he had put his will before his death.
Keene had no information on her but decided to do the reading anyway and said the first thing that came into his mind: the will was in the false top of a filing cabinet at home. By a stroke of luck, he was correct.
It was enough to convince Florence that Lamar was a miracle weaver. Added to this, Lamar looked physically similar to her late son, and she began to treat him like a long-lost child.
Over time she donated $60,000 to his cause and, four years after their first meeting, took the step to formally adopt Lamar. He began to use the name Charles Lamar Hutchinson. Charles Hutchinson had been the name of Florence’s dead son.
Raoul was unconvinced by Lamar growing so close to Florence, believing it was just another scam. Keene insisted it wasn’t and that he was seeking to replace the motherly support he had lost in childhood.
‘From all I’ve read, I think there was some genuine love there,’ Baker says. ‘But the money certainly helped. If a poor older woman had shown Lamar the same attention, would he have signed on the dotted line? I doubt it.’
Those close to Lamar have a less cynical view, and believe that the meeting with Florence helped the psychic see the error of his ways.
‘Every day, the contradiction between the lie I lived and the truth my mother [Florence] embodied became uglier to me,’ Keene writes in his memoir.
‘Seances were approached with increasing revulsion. They were no longer fun and games but a ghastly parody of which I was sick to death.’
This change of heart led to a breakdown in Keene and Raoul’s relationship.
Eventually Keene came clean to his adoptive mother about his practices, including how he had first lured her in with lies of communicating with her late husband.
However Florence stayed by his side.
A LIFE OF ‘VIRTUAL SECLUSION’
After splitting from Raoul and the church, Keene claims he led a life of ‘virtual seclusion’ and felt ‘rudderless’ without the cons that had been at the centre of his life for so long.
The Psychic Mafia was published in 1976 and sparked a flurry of interest in Keene and his story
He claims he tried to right his wrongs by unsuccessfully trying to turn himself into the police, then phoning to confess to past victims, including Lona, the woman who he conned into donating money to his church by posing as her late son.
Keene also spoke of receiving death threats over the revelations. He also claims he was shot at, although this has never been verified.
He became so concerned for his safety that he relocated with Florence to an apartment in Fort Lauderdale, which had 24/7 security, and slowly slipped into obscurity.
Then, one day, he was contacted by Bill Rauscher, who along with his associate Alan Spraggatt, helped coach the tell-all memoir out of Keene.
The Psychic Mafia was published in 1976 and sparked a flurry of interest in Keene and his story. But the former showman no longer loved the spotlight as much as he once did.
‘The book was not my idea,’ he told the Tampa Tribune at the time.
‘It is simply a warning for others not to get hooked. All I’m hoping for is some sort of absolvement for myself… I just hope it cleanses me.’
Keene laid low after the book came out and died in 1996, after becoming involved in HIV/AIDS activism in Florida.