25 Jun 2010

Wolf Messing

Wolf Messing (1889 - 1974) was a stage magician and self-proclaimed psychic and clairvoyant.

 

Wolf Messing was born in 1899 in Poland to a Jewish family. At the age of eleven, according to his own account, he ran away from home to Berlin, where, more by accident than by design, he joined the circus. He eventually became a stage magician, specialising in the variety of magic known as mentalism. In 1939 he fled Poland for the USSR.

He came to public attention in the Khrushchev era, when there was a surge of interest in paranormal phenomena among Soviet scientists. His reputation, however, rests not on the observations of scientists, but on a number of remarkable stories about him and his meetings with famous men, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; the claim that he predicted the course of World War Two, and so frightened Hitler that he put a price on Messing's head; and that he was Stalin's pet psychic, impressing him with such feats of mind control as passing through Stalin's personal guard by convincing them he was Beria, and robbing a bank by hypnosis, on Stalin's order

Are the stories true?

The problem with these wonderful stories about Messing is that their one and only original source is Messing himself: they are derived from a series of autobiographical articles (possibly written for Messing, to be published under his name) published under the title About myself in the magazine Nauka i Religia, ("Science and Religion") numbers 7 & 8, 1965.  These stories reached the Western world via Ostrander and Schroeder's book Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain; and Ostrander and Schroeder based their account almost entirely on Messing's own writings in Nauka i Religia. They never met Messing or saw him perform.

So the question is, can we believe Messing's testimony about himself? The story of his meeting with Einstein and Freud can be falsified directly. Here is the story as recounted by Ostrander and Schroeder:

"In 1915, despite the war, the impresario arranged a show for Messing in Vienna... Albert Einstein invited young Wolf to his apartment. Messing still recalls with astonishment the number of books ― "they were everywhere, starting with the hall." In Einstein’s study Wolf was introduced to the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who once remarked that if he’d his life to live over again, he would have devoted it to psychic research. So intrigued was Freud with Messing’s psychic powers he decided to do a number of tests with him. Freud acted as inductor.
"To this day I still remember Freud’s mental command," says Messing. "Go to the bathroom cupboard and pick up some tweezers. Return to Albert Einstein, pull out from his luxuriant moustache three hairs."
After locating the tweezers, Messing gingerly went up to the celebrated mathematician and, begging his pardon, explained to him what his scientist friend wanted him to do. Einstein smiled and turned his cheek to Messing. Freud must have smiled too, because young Messing carried out his mental command faultlessly."

Now, the problem with this is that Einstein never had an apartment in Vienna, a city he visited only rarely. In 1915 he was quite definitely living in Berlin, Germany, not Vienna, Austria

There is no evidence that Freud and Einstein met at any time earlier than 1927; and in 1933 they published an exchange of letters entitled Why The War?, but in 1915 they were strangers living in different countries.

The story that Messing predicted Hitler's downfall can't be checked directly --- anyone can say, after the event (in Messing's case, twenty years after the event) "Oh, yes, I said that would happen". Without corroborating evidence, such as someone else who remembered him making this prediction, we have only Messing's self-promoting claims to go on.

As to Messing's claims of being Stalin's pet psychic, it is worth noting the date of Messing's articles, 1965: there seem to be no references to Messing and his powers before this date. We might wonder why, if Stalin believed in Messing's powers, Messing got no publicity as a Miracle Of Soviet Science until twelve years into the Khrushchev era. But in 1965, not only was Stalin dead in his grave the last twelve years, but it was also nine years since Khrushchev had made his "secret speech" denouncing Stalin. Messing could say what he pleased about Stalin without fear of contradiction or political reprisal.

One detail of Messing's story rings especially false on psychological grounds. Stalin was deeply suspicious and paranoid. It seems hardly likely that he would have welcomed the company, or existence, of a man who could hypnotise his bodyguards and successfully pass himself off as whomever he chose.

Did he have mysterious powers?

It is true that Messing attracted the interests, if not the glowing plaudits, of a number of Soviet scientists; as we have noticed, this was during the scientific silly season of the Khrushchev era, when many such performers attracted Soviet researchers --- many of whom would later be shown up as fakes.

If we leave aside the romantic stories Messing told about himself, and stick to what others observed, it seems that Messing's powers did not go beyond those of an ordinary mentalist stage performer, and as Messing was a stage mentalist, it is reasonable to suppose that he was using the normal techniques of his profession.

An eyewitness account of an actual demonstration by Messing shows just what standard fare his performance was. This account was written in Russian by Yuri Gorny, and has been translated into English --- very, very badly:

"During the first stage, Messing had to reveal his physical sensitivity towards ideomotor acts of a participant (audience member). The second stage was meant to observe maestro's logical thinking. Finally, the third stage was meant to observe Messing's telepathic abilities ... As I expected it, Messing had brilliantly completed the first stage of the task. During the second stage where he was meant to exhibit his magnificent analytical skills, Messing's result was satisfactory. The third task however turned out to be impossible for maestro to finish at all."

If Messing had a special talent, it was almost certainly for self-publicity.

 

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