In 1986 I watched James Randi on the Tonight Show when he revealed the absurd tricks used by faith healing fraud Peter Popoff to fool his credulous followers. Though I had left Christianity a short time before that, it was this event, more than any other, that pushed me to get involved in organized skepticism. Randi has a piece at Wired.com about his history of showing that Popoff is a con man, including the time he and his allies had Popoff heal a man of uterine cancer.
We had discovered that Popoff was using a hidden electronic earpiece to communicate with his wife Elizabeth, who was backstage relaying information she’d found out by interviewing prospects before the show. She would whisper into Popoff’s ear electronically, and he would seem to have a gift.
My team then — the mentalist Banachek, private investigator Alec Jason, postman-turned-actor Don Henvick, and several others — visited Popoff “revivals” in several cities. The clincher came when Henvick disguised as a woman named Bernice, was “called out” (The Holy Spirit had notified Popoff of her need for healing, you see) and was cured of uterine cancer, even though he lacked a uterus.
Now, that is a miracle.
Don — as a man — had already been “healed” of alcoholism by Popoff in San Francisco, and this drag act turned out to be the fraudulent preacher’s undoing.
First, Elizabeth said to her husband via their secret electronic link:
“Peter, there’s one there that has a beard. Looks like she has a beard. Her name is Bernice Meticall. She can’t walk. She gets real tired and Peter, the doctors think she has, doctors think she might have cancer of the uterus. She can walk. She can walk. That’s one of our rentals.”
(“One of our rentals” refers to a wheelchairs that these swindlers give to people who can walk but are wheeled in as a “courtesy,” only to rise to the amazement of an unwitting TV audience.)
Then, just as Don rose from the wheelchair and started to walk, Elizabeth “saw the light.” She started screaming to Popoff:
“That’s a woman? That’s not a woman! Hey! Is that the — isn’t that the guy who was in Anaheim? Pete! That’s the man who was in Anaheim that you said — that had arthritis. Do you remember that man? The way he was — let’s go on to the next! Get rid of him! Remember the guy who was on the news the other day? Remember that guy? When he went out — that was it! That’s the same guy who was in Anaheim! We’re gonna move to the other side. We don’t like this. There’s some funny bunnies out there.”
Many of the stock elements of the fake healing fraud are present here — the rented wheelchairs given to people who can walk, to make it appear to be a miracle when they get up out of a wheelchair they never needed in the first place; the fake claims that God is giving them information that is actually gained from talking to people, having them fill out prayer request cards and such; the way things are carefully orchestrated for maximum emotional impact.