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sealed envelope tricks

Sealed envelope tricks are tricks done by mentalists that involve the impression of using psychic powers to read what is in a sealed envelope or to have foreseen something that has been written down and placed in a sealed envelope. In the latter type, the mentalist has made a prediction, sealed it in an envelope or other container, and then later, to much fanfare, the sealed item is opened and the contents are compared to the mentalist's predictions. Since the psychic prediction variation is a much more impressive trick than the reading of the contents of sealed envelopes, I'll discuss that trick first.

I realize that an extensive background in journalism is not required to work for Examiner.com. However, a good example of the power of the sealed envelope trick can be found in an article posted by Examiner.com under the byline of Patricia Marin entitled Canadian psychic medium correctly predicts Japanese earthquake and tsunami:

Psychic Medium Blair Robertson sealed his predictions on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 to be opened during a fundraiser to benefit Relay for Life – Canadian Cancer Society in Shawville, Quebec. The package was sent ahead by a commercial courier service to the local Town Hall and placed in the town's safe. It was not opened nor was it tampered with.

The mayor of Shawville opened the envelope on stage in front of nearly 200 people "this weekend." Robertson, wrote Marin, "had accurately predicted that a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami would affect Japan 'on Friday or Saturday.'" (The earthquake occurred at 2:46 PM Tokyo time on Friday March 11th.) For good measure, Marin also wrote that "Blair Robertson also predicted the recent earthquake in New Zealand, oil hitting $100 a barrel, and the demise of Charlie Sheen." In other words, Marin is not the least bit skeptical of Robertson's claim to be psychic. She did not suspect that a trick had been played, a very good trick indeed.

The first time I saw this trick done was at an evening's entertainment sponsored by a community college I was teaching at. The Dean of Instruction appeared on stage with the mentalist and it was revealed to the audience that the mentalist had asked Dr. Stamm to write down some numbers on a sheet of paper, fold it, and place it in a sealed envelope. The envelope was produced and some sort of banter occurred to assure the audience that the mentalist hadn't seen the envelope before. The mentalist did some sort of maneuver; I don't recall exactly what he did. He then wrote some numbers on a blackboard. The envelope was opened and, lo and behold, on the sheet of paper were the numbers on the blackboard. Well done.

Years later, American illusionist David Copperfield predicted on February 17, 2001, what the winning numbers in the German national lottery would be on October 13, 2001. We were told that the prediction was "sealed by a notary and locked in a box that was kept under round-the-clock surveillance." According to Reuters, "One hour after the winning numbers were drawn, the box was opened on a live television broadcast and the numbers on the slip of paper matched the winning draw: 2, 9, 10, 15, 25, 38, 4." The Reuters story also reported that Copperfield said, "It wasn't a trick." Actually, Copperfield said: "This is not a trick like making the Statue of Liberty disappear." That's true. This is a different kind of trick. When I blogged about this event in 2001, I wrote:

The [Reuters] story also claimed that when asked why he doesn't use his psychic powers to win lotteries, Copperfield said, "I find them boring. I'm not a gambler." ... The Reuters' writer also claims that Copperfield said he can only "see" the numbers when he keeps them secret, and that whenever he gave out the numbers to friends, he was wrong. But when he doesn't tell anyone the numbers, he is right.*

Copperfield was very unhappy with the way Reuters reported the event and the way the report was received.* He performed an excellent trick and did not pretend to be psychic.

Bob SteinerI asked a magician friend of mine if he knew how Copperfield did the sealed envelope trick. Bob Steiner is the author of Don't Get Taken: Bunco & Bunkum Exposed -  How to Protect Yourself and a founder of the Bay Area Skeptics. He spent a good deal of his time exposing "psychic" frauds, including Peter Popoff. He's also a former president of the Society of American Magicians. When I asked him about the trick, he sent me a copy of two news clippings from the Contra Costa Times. One was dated June 8, 1991 and the other was dated June 21, 1991. On the 8th, he had predicted the headlines of the 20th. The story on the 8th detailed how his predictions were sealed and stored. Bob delivered his list of predictions to the newspaper's office.

The slip of paper was placed inside a small plastic box, about 2 inches long. That was rolled inside a plastic baggie and dropped into a paper bag, which  was stapled and initialed by the reporter.

That was rolled up and placed in a mayonnaise jar, which was put into another baggie.

Steiner then mixed a bucket of plaster of Paris, some of which was deposited into the bottom of an orange juice carton. The mayonnaise jar was put inside and the rest of the plaster of Paris dumped on top of it. The reporter initialed the carton, which was handed over to Mike Farnam, a security representative for Burns International Security Services. Farnam took the sealed predictions to a Wells Fargo bank vault.

The story on the 21st (about the unveiling of the predictions the day before) noted that Bob got two of the headlines right, but the third prediction was "Giants/25" and there was no such headline. However, on the sport's page there was a photo of a ballplayer wearing number 25 sliding into a base at a Giant's game.

How did he do it?  Bob cannot tell a lie. In fact, he wouldn't tell me anything about how the trick was done. But the story on the 21st noted that before opening the predictions "Steiner called for four volunteers, including Concord Mayor Byron Campbell. Each volunteer took turns unsealing the predictions, which were given to Campbell to be read."

Bob is quoted as saying "anyone who studies magic can do this." Even so, it's still great entertainment.

Not so great entertainment, but also included in the mentalist's bag of tricks, is the sealed envelope trick that involves having a group of people write questions on cards or pieces of paper that are then put in sealed envelopes. The mentalist or fake psychic (is there any other kind?) selects one from a collection basket and holds it to his head while pretending to read its contents. Unbeknownst to the audience, the mentalist has already opened, read, and discarded one of the envelopes. James Randi explains:

The trick lies in the fact that before accepting the basket of envelopes, the medium has secretly obtained one, opened it, and memorized the contents. It has then been destroyed. Upon picking up the first envelope, the medium misidentifies it as the one secretly peeked at. Opening the envelope as if to check, the medium is now aware of the actual contents of that envelope, and represents that data as belonging to the next one. She is always working “one-ahead.”*

As simplistic as this trick seems, it is very effective.

Equally simplistic is the sealed envelope trick where a drawing is placed in a sealed envelope and the psychic then describes the drawing using his psychic powers to get his information, or so he wants you to believe. In some cases, the psychic just holds the envelope up to the light and has a look. Sometimes, however, this trick can get quite elaborate:

In one early test of telepathy, in 1882, pseudo-psychic [sic; this expressions seems redundant to me] G.A. Smith and his accomplice, Douglas Blackburn, were able to fool researchers of the Society for Psychical Research. In a later confession, Blackburn described how they had to think fast and frequently invent new ways of faking telepathy demonstrations. Once, for example, Smith had been swathed in blankets to prevent him from signaling Blackburn. Smith had to guess the content of a drawing that Blackburn had secretly made on a cigarette paper. When Smith exclaimed, “I have it,” and projected his right hand from beneath the blanket, Blackburn was ready. He had transferred the cigarette paper to the tube of the brass projector on the pencil he was using, and when Smith asked for a pencil, he gave him his. Under the blanket, Smith had concealed a slate coated with luminous paint, which in the dense darkness gave sufficient light to show the figure on the cigarette paper. Thus he only needed to copy the drawing.*

Sometimes the mentalist must be creative and improvise, as James Randi did by switching envelopes in an episode detailed by Massimo Polidoro.

I suppose if your audience is of the dimwitted variety you could fool them with a sealed envelope with a postmark on it from some earlier date. Just take an envelope addressed to yourself and place a folded blank sheet of paper in it, tuck in the flap but don't seal the envelope, apply the proper postage, and mail it to yourself. After it arrives, you can seal anything you want inside.

Or, you might just buy a packaged trick like this one or this one. They'll probably work just fine on town hall audiences at fundraisers.

See also conjuring.

further reading

Moore Museum - Stewart James (1908-1996). James was a postman and Canadian magician. Notable among Stewart James' achievements was his prediction of the outbreak of WWII.  On September 1, 1938, at the annual meeting of the Piff Paff Poof Society of magicians, Stewart predicted the headline that would appear one year later.  On a piece of paper he wrote "World War Threatened, Germany Attacks Poland".  This was put in a wooden box, then a metal one, which was soldered closed in front of an audience.  One year later, the box was opened by Fort Erie's police chief and compared to the headline of a Buffalo newspaper which read "World War Threatened:  Nazis Attack Poland".

Last updated 18-Apr-2014

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