The Unsinkable Rubber Duckies – By James Randi

By | May 8, 2012

The Unsinkable Rubber Duckies - By James Randi

It sometimes seems like there is a huge swath of the general public that will just believe anything — they are immune to skepticism and compelled to accept the most obvious scams. These delusions can be relatively harmless — believe in spoon-bending and perpetual motion if you must. But some fakers are very, very dangerous. At the worst end of the spectrum, in my estimation, are faith healers. They can cause real harm to the victims they parade before the rest of us — and even more to those, as I will show, whom they give false hope and ignore.

Johnny Carson and I shared several illuminating moments on The Tonight Show, the most satisfying one by far being a 1986 episode in which we revealed the blatant cheating and deception of TV evangelist Peter Popoff — the shrieking, frenetic, Bible-flaunting preacher who is still invoking invisible healing from divine sources on TV.

That definitive exposé should have spelled finis to his act. Johnny didn’t live long enough to know this, but only a few years after he’d been exposed Popoff took in $1 million more annually than he got back in 1986!

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.

This, and many other examples, is covered in full in my book The Faith Healers, the first and only exposé of Popoff, which I believe was the inspiration for Steve Martin’s 1992 movie Leap of Faith (though his writers chose to have the villain himself “saved” in the end, rather than being exposed.) I take some comfort in the fact that the movie was made, even if I was not directly credited, and even though the script appears to take quotes directly from my book …

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