James Hydrick was a self-proclaimed psychic who briefly rose to fame when, in 1980, he appeared on the popular network show, “That’s Incredible!”, where he performed a number of convincing psychokinetic feats that drew nationwide attention. Pencils rotated at the wave of a hand; phone book pages eerily rose and turned without direct contact. Before you read any further, I strongly encourage you to go watch that appearance. It’s only five minutes and it’s a compelling demonstration:

James Hydrick on That’s Incredible [YouTube]

To pick up the story from there – and what reminded me of Hydrick in the first place – there is this recent useful blog post at a blog called the “Observation Post,” which succinctly summarizes Hydrick’s rise and fall.

Following Hydrick’s notable success on “That’s Incredible,” which helped accelerate his fame to potential cult-leading status, he subsequently appeared on “That’s My Line,” hosted by Bob Barker, where he agreed to attempt a demonstration under the watchful eyes (and protective protocols) of James Randi, along with a panel of three judges, and for which Randi offered his then $10,000 personal prize if Hydrick was able to achieve his feats under the agreed upon conditions. This appearance runs about 18 very instructive minutes and can be seen here:

Randi exposes Hydrick on “That’s My Line”:

The Observation Deck blog also provides that link, and then recounts how Hydrick was investigated and filmed by magician Danny Korem for a television documentary that not only exposes Hydrick’s methods, but eventually led to Hydrick’s breaking down and offering a complete confession. The blog provides links to the documentary in two segments. It’s about an hour total and is very interesting. When it finally gets to Hydrick’s confessions, it is compelling to hear him recount stories of his awful childhood, which to Korem’s credit, are investigated and largely substantiated. The victim of neglect and both emotional and physical abuse as well as early institutionalizing, it becomes easy to understand how Hydrick, an accomplished martial artist with substantial physical abilities, craved the attention and recognition that his psychic claims brought him. 

(An interesting aside about Danny Korem, who was at the time a professional magician who has since apparently left magic behind. Korem is an evangelical Christian who believes in the miracles of the bible but debunks contemporary miracle mongers. He wrote a book entitled “Fakers,” published in 1980, which offers a standard array of skeptic debunking of psychics, dowsers, fire-walking and such. Meanwhile each chapter ends with a Christian message about the genuine “magic” of Jesus. And he argues that the miracles of the bible, including the resurrection of Jesus, are substantiated by the bible and should therefore be accepted as fact. Go figure.)

Eventually, Hydrick was convicted and imprisoned on a weapons-related charge connected to students in his martial arts school; other reports indicated he was convicted of molesting five boys.  After escaping prison and eventually completing his sentence, he has apparently been remanded to custody in a psychiatric facility ever since. Hydrick was and is a truly dangerous man. But his case is a fascinating one in many ways.

  • Hydrick gets far on personal charisma and a boyish, self-effacing charm. People don’t simply want to believe him, they find it difficult to disbelieve him. It’s genuinely hard for humans to believe that someone can appear so sincere while looking you in the eyes and lying to your face.  And in the long run, it’s better for us as a social species that we do find this so difficult to believe. But it is worth noting and remembering that while many of us think we can spot a liar, few if any of us can do it at a rate better than chance. The “common sense” indicators of deception, the pop psychology “tells” of lying, aren’t just wrong – they’re nonexistent. 
  • He uses extremely simple and standard magic tricks, however he gets tremendous impact with them. Most of this has to do with the degree of conviction he brings to the performance, and his “misdirection,” which is a term magicians use to describe the psychology of deception, and not a term that has anything to do with distraction, although many think that’s what it means. In Hydrick’s case, he had legitimate martial arts skills that credentialed him, particularly to his students, to whom he claimed he could teach not only his physical skills but also his psychic abilities. 

  • Hydrick brought great conviction to his psychokinetic demonstrations, using martial arts gestures. And he took his time, did things slowly, failed sometimes even intentionally at first – all of this altered the context of these magic tricks so that they did not appear to look or feel like a magician’s tricks. There was no “Voila!” in it, no snapping of fingers with instant results. This was serious stuff, hard work, it clearly took effort and time, and yet all the while Hydrick was self-effacing and calmly good humored. He came across as sweet, gentle, and sincere. 
  • And yet that self-effacing affect masked a deep arrogance and contempt for his audience. This is, in my experience and opinion, a consistent trait of the psychic con artist – a concealed contempt for their victims. Like any con man, Hydrick also justifies his actions. He insists (in the documentary, following his confession) that he lied to people not to hurt them, but rather for good purpose. Elsewhere, however, he talks about going on “That’s Incredible” to find out how “stupid” people can be, and how stupid were the educated people he was able to fool. (Mark Edward, in his book, “Psychic Blues,” repeatedly claims he is helping his psychic clients as he reports on his astoundingly accurate readings. But the moment his clients are either skeptical of his claims, or fail to follow his wise advice and counsel, he reveals he has nothing but contempt for them. “… clients who display outward hostility or irrational anger toward those who tell fortunes for a living … are a sorry lot.” And “Repeat sitters are hard enough to deal with … when I had three or four of these thickheaded clients at a time, I needed to take notes to keep up with each individual saga.” Yet professional counselors don’t just help those who serve their hungry egos; they attempt to help all who seek and need that help. Among the countless differences between a professional caregiver and a con artist is this difference; the con artist is only in it for himself, and everything else is a mask. [Note that here I am equating the mindsets and perhaps ethics of two confessed phony psychics; I am not in any sense drawing any comparison whatsoever with Hydrick’s other serious criminal offenses.])
  • Finally, and truly last but not least, I love Randi’s challenge and exposé of Hydrick on “That’s My Line.” This demonstration was extremely memorable and influential for me. When Randi spread the Styrofoam nuggets around the phone book, it was an “AH-HAH!” moment that clanged in my head like a deafening Chinese gong. It was an ingenious protocol. And it taught me in that moment, in a deep way, how the kind of scientific protocols that we try to apply to psychics and other paranormal claimants, both as skeptics in general as well as in my professional role in helping to administer the Million Dollar Challenge, do not have to be complex, or expensive, and more often than not do not require elaborate technology.  When I watched Randi successfully challenge and defeat Hydrick – who had been validated and lauded on network television shortly before – I learned a valuable and inspirational lesson. Little did I ever guess that more than thirty years hence I would have the honor and privilege to be sharing in the responsibility of Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. But the lesson, and the inspiration, has stayed with me ever since. Thanks, Randi.