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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

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Dunninger, Joseph (1892-1975) One of the most famous and proficient mentalists of all time.

Joseph Dunninger created a high standard of mentalism for others to follow. He rose to fame as a result of his exciting radio appearances.

      Born the son of a tailor on New York's Lower East Side in 1892, Joe Dunninger was interested in conjuring as a boy. Among the many acts he went to see at that time, he was impressed by a two-person mind-reading routine performed by Mr. & Mrs. John T. Fay. (John was the son of Anna Eva Fay, a spiritualist who had been very popular in vaudeville in the late 1800s and had attracted the interest of magician/investigator Harry Houdini. John's wife was Anna Norman. After John's death by suicide, Mrs. Fay went on with the act, billed as “The High Priestess of Mystery,” eventually headlining shows in 1908-1910.)
      However, unlike the “double” act done by the Fays, Dunninger's was a one-person act, never using any assistants——or at least not so that anyone ever knew about it. He was very mindful to assure his audiences that he worked entirely alone, and published a carefully worded but quite genuine offer of $10,000 to anyone who could prove that he used paid confederates. Though many tried, no one ever collected, and for a very good reason: He never used any.
      Becoming a very highly paid and fully booked mentalist at posh affairs all over the United States (though he had an overpowering fear of flying and traveled almost exclusively by train all of his life) Dunninger made most of his early fortune before income tax laws went into effect in this country, and he invested heavily in oriental artifacts, eventually amassing the largest collection of rare Tibetan art in the United States outside of a specialized museum in Staten Island, New York. His home in New Jersey was filled, wall-to-wall, with sculptures, wall hangings, exotic rugs, dozens of carved crystals, and gold figures of deities. In the basement was a mass of material from the Houdini home, most of which he eventually sold to the Houdini Hall of Fame Museum in Niagara Falls, Canada.
      With his elegant, commanding mannerisms onstage including a strange pseudo-Oxford accent affectation, Dunninger was known to the public only as a mentalist, “The Master Mind of Mental Radio.” He appeared on radio starting in 1943, and on television frequently in the fifties and sixties performing the most astonishing series of stunts that were ever devised by anyone. The list of persons he used in these presentations read as a Who's Who. Jack Dempsey, Bob Dunn, Harry Truman, the Duke of Windsor, and Babe Ruth——it seemed as if Joe Dunninger could reach into anyone's mind at will.
      On one occasion, Dunninger had the U.S. postmaster general in position at the main post office in New York City. On his live TV presentation, he asked that official to reach into the thousands of letters going by him on a conveyor belt and to choose just one. A few minutes of “concentration” and Dunninger wrote down on a large pad of paper what he believed the address was on that letter. You guessed it: When the postmaster read out the address, it was the same one that appeared on Dunninger's pad.
      Joseph Dunninger maintained an enigmatic image all of his life. He never quite said that he read minds, but he didn't say that he didn't, or couldn't. Publicly, he stayed away from magicians and seemed apart from their interests; personally, he loved to talk tricks and to root around in magic shops. Though he always disclaimed any supernatural powers, he could leave an audience with absolutely no other explanation of what they'd seen. When asked for an answer to the enigma, he had several answers. “Any child of twelve could do what I do,” he might say, “with thirty years practice!” Or “I'm not a mind-reader. I'm a thought-reader. If a man comes up to me an hits me in the eye, I don't have to be a mind-reader to know his thoughts; he dislikes me.”
      Dunninger's final series of programs for ABC-TV, recorded in 1971, were never broadcast. By that time he was suffering from Parkinson's disease and could not summon up the strength of presentation he'd previously displayed.

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