An interesting phenomenon that has exploded in recent years is that of the "celebrity psychic." These are those with purported powers who weave whole empires out of their supposed abilities, churning out books, doing interviews, and holding sold out shows in which they ply their mysterious trade. Such larger than life figures have drawn about them legions of devoted followers, but they have also captured the attention of those who would bring them down. One interesting battle of celebrity psychic versus skeptic really took it to the next level, and here we will look at the colorful life of a massively successful celebrity psychic who was challenged and whose reputation was dashed by skeptics and perhaps his own hubris, in a battle that would not only bring doubt to him, but to others like him.
Thomas John Flanagan, known professionally as Thomas John, grew up in a highly religious Catholic household in Boston, Massachusetts, and until the age of 4 he was a mostly normal boy. When he reached 4 years of age, he claims that he first began to realize he had psychic powers when his deceased grandfather spoke to him, and after that he began to hone these alleged mediumship abilities, allegedly finding himself able to contact the spirits of the dead with greater ease. His life would turn out to be very colorful indeed, as he not only became a well-known psychic celebrity in his 20s, but is also known for his career as a Chicago drag queen.
As a psychic he earned great acclaim in New York City and Los Angeles, and made regular appearances on TV shows such as Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Dish Nation, The Real Housewives of New York, and Million Dollar Listing, among others, and such is his fame that his private appointments for readings are typically booked years in advance. He has also starred in the 2018 reality show Seatbelt Psychic, in which he surprises unsuspecting passengers as a driver in a ridesharing service with messages from dead relatives, as well as popular show The Thomas John Experience, in he which travels around to such far-flung cities as New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, and typically his shows really wow the audience. John is known for his ability to walk around the room and just randomly pick people he’s never met to give uncannily accurate correct names, places and exact details of these people’s lives through what he says are the voices of their deceased family members. In fact, that he is able to glean these details and is never wrong has convinced many that he is the real deal, and has fueled his fame, attracting many believers and followers. He has even managed to sway some skeptics, and Chris Harnick of eonline says of his own reading with John:
Here's my truth: I am a skeptic. I do not believe my grandmother, who passed away in 2017, came through from the spirit world to tell me I'm on the right track with my career. Did I tear up when Thomas John started asking me about her? Yes. Did he correctly tell me she had a rather lengthy and upsetting battle with Alzheimer's? Yes. That wasn't the only thing Thomas John told me that gave me pause and brought on a few moments of, "What if..." During the 20-or-so-minute reading, I was enthralled. I supplied yes or no answers when I could, conscious not to show too much emotion or provide too many details he could go off of. This wasn't a "gotcha" reading/meeting, I am and was genuinely curious about psychic mediums and how they work. This was my first reading and I had no idea what to expect.
Regarding my two grandfathers, Thomas John asked if my father's father had chest issues, something with the heart or lungs. That's a rather common ailment in older men with cancers and heart disease rampant. My grandfather had COPD. He told me he sensed I had spent more time with one grandfather rather than the other, which was true given my maternal grandfather's passing early in my life, and that my dad and his father were close. Thomas John had a vision of a coin collection—my dad wasn't able to explain this when I later asked—and a basketball, which spooked me a little. My grandfather's basketball games were legendary at family gatherings. My paternal grandfather had a message for my dad, to know he was with him, and Thomas John told me he was getting a name with "H-A-R." My first thought was, "Well, yeah, my last name is Harnick." And then he asked if his name was Harold or Harvey? And yes, reader, it was Grandpa Harvey. Thomas John also said he got an "S" name from my maternal grandpa. His name was Stewart. So, yeah, you can see why I was getting pulled in. A few of the things he said about my grandmother also tracked.
John has impressed many people like this, and his fame has only grown due the fact that many respectable media outlets have praised and promoted him, including Vogue magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, SF Weekly, and the New York Post, among others. However, not everyone is so convinced. Skeptics have pointed out that John is most likely using what is called “hot reading,” in which the psychic or magician uses information they have gleaned about the subject beforehand unbeknownst to the target in order to make it seem like they have plucked it from thin air. In the case of John, it has been claimed that he has done research on these people using Facebook posts, which he then turns into a hot reading. Susan Gerbic, from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, has said of this:
If the psychic knows who you are before the reading, then the chances that you have been hot read are extremely high. And of course, they know who these people are... Thomas John can claim he has never met these people before the moment he starts talking to their dead family members, and he might not be lying. But that does not mean that someone else didn't do some pre-show work on these people and give the best bits of information to Thomas John, which he could then claim he was receiving from the dead. Everyday TJ posts on Facebook a message asking who is coming to his show. And each time he posts these messages, he receives friendly questions and comments from people who say they will be at the show, or maybe they mention a future show they will be attending. Each time they do this, they are leaving a Facebook page for him or his staff to scroll through looking for some grief. John and his staff can then troll through these pages and extract information about the people that can be used by him during his show. This information can be linked to other information such as who proceeded them in death, who is still living and grieving over them, maiden names, and often hobbies, military service, organizations they belonged to, and so on.
Gerbic was so sure that John was a fake, that she initiated a sting operation in order to expose him as a fraud in March of 2017. Called “Operation Pizza Roll,” it involved Gerbic and mentalist Mark Edward attending John’s show under aliases that included fake Facebook accounts, and they further claimed to be a married couple, Susanna and Mark Wilson. They additionally had other skeptics make the fake Facebook pages for their alter egos in order to serve as a blind for the test and prevent John from using any excuses such as that he had gained bogus information because he had read their minds. The two went to the show and were picked out by John for a reading, and as usual he gave numerous details about their families and lives, but every single detail he gave turned out to be information from the fake Facebook profiles, and not once did he ever realize that they were undercover or were not who they said they were. John even claimed he was being told this information through dead relatives of the couple who they had fabricated and who did not even really exist. It was fairly damning evidence that John was a conman, but even in the face of this he denied it, lashing out and saying:
For Susan to come to a reading and get a two-minute reading and say, well, 'I made a fake post about my dog, Buddy, and my father who died,' it's really not any sort of scientific testing of psychic powers. First off, someone will have to be a scientist to do a scientific experiment, not someone who used to be a photographer at Sears.
Gerbic kept up her attack, following up Operation Pizza Roll with another sting called Operation Lemon Meringue, which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. During these hard times, John was forced to cancel his shows and move his operation online, doing meetings and readings over Zoom. Gerbic then gathered a team with the intent of infiltrating his online business, and they soon came to the conclusion that everything John said was gleaned from available information on social media, and that he was using hot reading techniques, as well as cold reading. It also came to their attention that John had a paid subscription to the application Intelius, which is a data gathering public records business through which people can find all sorts of information on a person, including property searches, background checks and reverse phone and address lookups. Gerbic used harsh words to describe what John was doing at the time, calling him a “grief vampire” and saying:
The articles I’m writing give all the instructions someone can use to mine social media and websites like Intelius, Ancestry, and Legacy for hits. I suspect that it takes a special kind of person who can make grieving people cry by just reading their social media posts back to them. There must not be mirrors in Thomas John’s home. Let me be clear: grief vampires prey on loss, loneliness, and pain; their platitudes offer nothing helpful. There is no entertainment value in what these grief vampires do. Remember that most of us are susceptible at some point in our lives if we were to find ourselves in a desperate moment. So, show some kindness toward these people who are the victims of this con.
John would defend himself, insisting, “No I do not Google people. No I do not research people. No I do not go onto people's obituaries. I do not go onto Ancestry.com.” Indeed, he has constantly insisted that his act is real, and that he truly possesses the powers he says he does. He has lashed out at critics and skeptics such as Gerbic and has been quick to defend himself in the face of the often harsh criticism levelled against him, and his co-producer, Alan Glist, has also stood up for him. Glist has said of the skepticism towards John and other psychics:
Unfortunately, there is always that group of people that are trying to bring psychics and mediums down and non-believers. I can tell you firsthand I have seen Thomas in action and have brought people, and he had no idea were going to be there and he has given them perfect readings. In each presentation, we invited people and brought in total strangers and never gave him a list or gave him any indication as to who was going to be there. And I've watched him on three different occasions literally work the room reading total strangers and nailing the names of their family members who are deceased and talked about them in great detail.
Be that as it may, the intrepid efforts of Gerbic have served to somewhat tarnish John’s reputation, and have brought doubt down upon not only him, but celebrity psychics in general. We are left to wonder if any of it is real, or if they are using tricks and subterfuge to con us. Is this all illusion and magic tricks, or is there anything to these celebrity psychics? Do they really have the powers they say they do, or are they charlatans and fakers, predators looking to make money off of people's hopes and fears? I leave it for you to decide.