The latter half of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in American interest in “psychic” phenomena. Uri Geller wowed audiences with his amazing (and incredibly useful) ability to bend spoons, using only the power of his mind.* Sylvia Browne made a name for herself by loudly and confidently making wildly inaccurate predictions about the future. Dorothy Allison proclaimed herself a “psychic detective” and insinuated herself into a number of high-profile cases (including the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the Son of Sam murders), which she then claimed partial credit for solving (though the police were significantly less vociferous about her “contributions”). One of the less notable (or at least less well-known) members of this club of dubious distinction was Ted Serios, an out-of-work bellhop from Chicago.
Serios likely would have remained firmly lodged in obscurity had it not been for Denver psychiatrist Dr. Jule Eisenbud. Dr. Eisenbud had pretty impressive credentials, which undoubtedly lent an air of believability to Serios’s “abilities” which an alcoholic bellboy would likely not have garnered on his own. Dr. Eisenbud held degrees in both Medicine and Medical Science from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and in addition to having a private practice, he served the college as Associate in Psychiatry for years before relocating to Denver in 1950. Once in Denver, he reopened his private practice, and became the Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Medical School.
In 1967, Dr. Eisenbud published The World of Ted Serios: “Thoughtographic” Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. In it he detailed his time spent with the titular Serios, and Ted’s extraordinary ability to imprint images onto Polaroid film using only the power of his mind (and copious amounts of alcohol) and a small paper tube he called his “gismo,” which he would hold up to the lens of the camera to “focus his energy” in a not-at-all suspicious manner.
According to Dr. Eisenbud’s own account, Serios was an alcoholic who displayed both psychopathic and sociopathic traits, in addition to a number of other character disorders. During the sessions in which Serios produced his “thoughtographs,” he would often get very drunk, becoming brash and even more obnoxious than usual. It was not uncommon for him to take off some or all of his clothes, pace ceaselessly around the room, and occasionally rant at whoever happened to be present (the pair often invited outsiders to witness the spectacle). Then, he would clench his teeth, screw up his face, lean in close, shove the “gismo” in front of the Polaroid camera’s lens and command someone to take a picture.
These proceedings often lasted between five and eight hours. During this period, a dozen or so images would be produced, the vast majority of them resulting in either a plain black or white image (referred to as “blackies” and “whities” respectively). A few, however, would have distorted images of people or places, and these were the ones which Dr. Eisenbud would display as evidence of a legitimate paranormal phenomenon.
It’s important to note that Dr. Eisenbud was a firm believer in psychic powers and had frequently lamented the fact that one of the hurdles to such spectacles gaining wider acceptance was the fact that instances of purported abilities could not be repeated reliably. That being the case, Ted Serios was exactly what the doctor ordered (so to speak). It’s also important to note that, on page 36 of his book, he (Eisenbud) says of himself “I realize that I am by nature more than ordinarily suggestible and credulous, that I find it easy, both emotionally and intellectually, to accept all sorts of things that other people boggle at and approach cautiously, if not suspiciously.”
Ironically, it was the publication of Dr. Eisenbud’s book, an effort to show the legitimacy of the paranormal, which started the collapse of the charade. David Eisendrath (a professional photographer) and Charles Reynolds (a man who created magic tricks for the likes of Doug Henning and Harry Blackstone, Jr.) were invited to view Serios’s abilities. In an article they penned for the October 1967 issue of Popular Photography they recounted having caught Ted slipping a small cylinder into his “gismo,” a bit of (failed) sleight-of-hand which likely would have been written off as drunken clumsiness to those who didn’t know what to look for.
Shortly thereafter, stage magician and infamous debunker James “The Amazing” Randi was able to produce “thoughtographs” of his own on a live talk show, something which reportedly left Eisenbud “flabbergasted.” This instance is recounted in much more detail in Randi’s book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions. Similarly, mathematician and magician Persi Diaconis stated in an interview in the March 24, 2007, edition of New Scientist that he had participated in a Serios event years earlier, and had witnessed Serios slipping a marble into his “gismo,” while science writer and amateur magician Martin Gardner is quoted in an interview with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry as saying that "the parapsychologists who once took Ted Serios and others like him seriously would have been spared their embarrassments had they known anything about magic."
Dr. Jule Eisenbud remained steadfast in his belief that Ted Serios did, in fact, have an extraordinary mind, and that just because others could perform similar feats by mundane means didn’t mean that was how Serios created his images. However, even William A. H. Rushton, president of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization of which Eisenbud was a member, dismissed the possibility of the photographs requiring a supernatural source, and himself showed how easy it was to duplicate the effect by holding a piece of microfilm to a camera’s lens.
As for Ted Serios, he faded back into obscurity almost before he was on anyone’s radar to begin with.