Sylvia Browne: A Post-Mortem

November 21, 2013

“Celebrity psychic” and professed medium Sylvia Browne has died. (Pause here while we all try to get a grip.) The notorious pretender Browne—formerly Brown (and therein lies a story), who was born Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker in 1936—died November 20, 2013, at the age of 77. To skeptics who gleefully claim she failed to foresee her own death, one must note that she did appear to recognize the end was near, but that that information came from medical science, not spirit guides.

Some might say I helped drive nails into Sylvia’s coffin, and if that is true I accept full responsibility. For instance, it was I who uncovered an old clipping about felony charges brought against the former Mrs. Brown (sic) and asked investigator Vaughn Rees to obtain for me the legal records in her case. They revealed that she and her husband sold securities in a gold-mining venture for which Sylvia had “feelings” that the mine would pay dividends. The couple soon declared bankruptcy in the venture, and pleaded no contest to a felony charge of “sale of security without permit.” Convicted in 1993, her husband served some jail time, while Sylvia got off with probation and two hundred hours of community service. She divorced him and began spelling her name with an e.

Then there was Browne’s plagiarism. In what may not be an isolated incident, her book Secrets & Mysteries of the World (2005) purloined exact phrases from my article on the Turin Shroud in the Skeptical Inquirer of July/August 1998. I have suggested, tongue in cheek, that the similarities gave new meaning to the term ghostwritten, that the plagiarism may have been perpetrated not by Sylvia but by her ubiquitous “spirit guide” Francine (an imaginary friend, by any title).

I devoted a chapter to these and other Browne failings in my book The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead (2012). They include her abysmal track record as a psychic detective. For example, she gave erroneous pronouncements in the case of Chandra Levy, who disappeared in Washington, D.C., in 2001, saying Levy’s remains were “down in a marshy area”; instead, they were discovered (by a man walking his dog) on a steep wooded slope.

Worse, in 2003, Browne told the parents of a long-missing eleven-year-old boy, Shawn Hornbeck, that he was dead, when as it turned out, the boy was then being held by a kidnapper in St. Louis. The following year, Browne erred in similar fashion when she told the mother of one of three missing girls, Amanda Berry, “She’s not alive, honey.” In fact, as since learned, the girls—now young women—were held for a decade by a sexual predator in Cleveland. (See my blog, “Another Sylvia Browne Failure,” May 9, 2013.)

Despite exposés, Browne pressed onward with a faithful following. She claimed that in trances she received messages from spirit guides and “the Godhead,” talked to ghosts, had clairvoyant visions, divined past lives, made psychic medical diagnoses, and more—a fantasy-prone personality unleashed. She even created her own religion, Novus Spiritus (“New Spirit”). Her dozens of absurd, fantasizing books remain to cause further mischief. Hers is a sad legacy.