This short article appeared in The British & Irish Skeptic, Vol II, No. 3 (May/June 1988). The late Peter Casson was a stage hypnotist and lay hypnotherapist and at one time owned a nightclub in Barnsley. The 'Randi' in the title of the paper is James Randi, the internationally acclaimed magician, escapologist, and debunker of paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims. It was apparent to me that in the performance that I describe, Mr Casson was endeavouring to emulate Randi but, to put it mildly, in a less than convincing manner.
Apart from seeing Mr Casson twice on stage, I saw him only once in person. He was in the audience at a conference of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal) in London in June 1985. James Randi and other luminaries were present. At every opportunity, Mr Casson would spring to his feet like a jack-in-a-box, informing all present about his exploits as a hypnotist, until one chairman issued an injunction that there was to be no further reference to hypnosis. (At one point Mr Casson had caused embarrassment by announcing how he had used hypnosis to interrogate a child victim of a crime and thereby extracted an extraordinary amount of information. This was at a time when, as CSICOP itself was aware, there was much concern about the reliability of hypnotically assisted testimony and when news of the 'recovered memory' scandal was just breaking.) According to one of the delegates whom he had buttonholed, he informed her that he was 'the only hypnotist who had been able to produce a medically verifiable hypnotic trance'.
Mr Casson wrote to me on three occasions. On the first of these he applied to join the British Society for Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis, which at that time admitted only medics, dentists and psychologists. I was its secretary and I wrote back to him to say that he was not eligible: in fact he had absolutely no qualifications at all. He rang me at my home, claiming not to have received my letter and was most indignant when I disclosed to him its contents. The second time he wrote to me was when some colleagues and I established a training course in clinical hypnosis at Sheffield University for the above-mentioned professionals. Mr Casson informed me that he wished to be a lecturer on the course and asked me to arrange to meet him to discuss this matter. I wrote a simple acknowledgement, indicating that I had noted the contents of his letter. An indignant reply followed, which he signed off by stating that he now intended to be 'a pupil' on the course. I returned a standard reply stating that the course was intended for certain professionals and I heard no more of the matter. The third occasion he wrote to me was to offer his support after I had received hate mail from an arch enemy of his, a notorious and most unsavoury lay hypnotist by the name of Derek Crussell.
In the early 1990s I was asked by the Crown Prosecution Service to provide an expert witness statement in a case of alleged indecent assault by a lay hypnotist during a session of hypnosis. The judge in the trial was concerned about the reliability of an expert witness statement that had already been obtained by the police. I was provided with a copy of this statement, which was facile in content, though in fairness it did not arrive at any disastrously wrong conclusions. Its author described himself as 'recognised as the country's leading authority on hypnosis'. No prizes for guessing his identity!
Peter Casson made no contribution whatsoever to the field of hypnosis and his name is never mentioned in any serious books on the subject.
I recently went to see a performance by a stage hypnotist in Sheffield. The theme of his show was the supernatural, and the posters outside informed us that we would be witness to experiments performed 'under laboratory conditions'. The show was billed as part of 'a National Scientific Investigation into the supernatural, with full documentation for academic research' (note 1).
My wife and I saw this particular stage hypnotist do a show in Canterbury over a couple of years ago without the supernatural element. Before the performance we purchased his publicity brochure. From the information contained therein it was evident that we were about to be entertained by no ordinary person: 'Peter Casson, Hypnotist and Psychologist'. In the section on his life story we are informed of his exploits and accomplishments as a boy scout. We also read that his training in psychology was when he attended psychology classes at night school taught by a Mr Baggott. A publication from Cairo is quoted as stating that Mr Cassson was 'a lecturer in the fundamentals of electricity and other scientific subjects at the age of 14½ years, and later discovered he was psychic'. Other achievements in the extensive catalogue include 'the First Measure of the results of Hypnotic Activity using scientific instruments' in 1981. There is also a photograph of Mr Casson with some people in a swimming pool, demonstrating the 'treatment that he invented for a disease he discovered called Aquaphobia'. I am not sure if this has anything to do with hydrophobia; perhaps Mr Casson wishes to demonstrate his knowledge of both Greek and Latin. On the last page we read how Mr Casson has succeeded in his purpose in life 'to get Hypnosis accepted both as a scientific subject and medically'.
Mr Casson is also Chairman of the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists. In their binding Code of Practice are the rules that, 'No age regression shall ever be attempted' and 'No suggestion shall be given to any subject of the ingestion of a noxious substance' (note 2). There is in fact a Hypnotism Act (1952; note 3), which amongst other things prohibits the use of hypnosis for entertainment purposes on people who have not attained the age of 21 years; the Family Reform Act (1969) lowered the age of consent to 18 years. Indeed, some hold that stage hypnotism should be outlawed entirely; in fact it is in some countries. I am not so enthusiastic. The audiences in Canterbury and Sheffield were clearly having a good time and laws infringing on other people's enjoyment should not be rushed into lightly.
Anyhow, back to Mr Casson's researches into the supernatural. These appear to have caused some consternation in religious circles in recent years. In Shrewsbury a group of Baptists, worried by Mr Casson's 'dabbling with the occult', held a vigil outside his show at the Music Hall 'to pray for the safety of the audience'. At one point in his performance they succeeded in having their hymns heard in the auditorium (note 4). Further north in Haslingden, where a similar extramural gathering was held, the temporary silencing of Mr Casson's microphone was interpreted by lay preacher Mr Ian Pickup as a divine intervention. 'Often when God works, He just does little things like that to show that he has control of the situation', explained Mr Pickup (note 5).
No such excitement attended Mr Casson's Sheffield performance but, to be sure, he had plenty of problems with his equipment. An act in which a lady called Ruth was photographed to ascertain if her thought contents also appeared on the print went awry, seemingly through the fault of the volunteer photographer. This was passed off with good humour by Mr Casson, who explained that it was not intended to be a serious demonstration.
The performance opened in darkness with some eerie music; then we beheld Mr Casson, the experimenter, in a black cloak, wearing on his forehead a pair of red horns which promptly fell off. He began by informing us that he had been studying the supernatural for many years. He showed us some lantern slides depicting various so-called supernatural occurrences and declared himself unconvinced. He revealed to us a metal bar in a sealed transparent tube and challenged anyone to bend it in the manner of Mr Uri Geller, with the promise of exotic rewards.
Before selecting his volunteers, Mr Casson explained that people under the age of 18 years were not permitted to take part in any of the hypnotic demonstrations, confirming what was stated in his brochure. Then followed the 'experiments'. Ten people were hypnotised on stage, re-alerted, and asked to guess which of five Zener cards an offstage volunteer was studying. There was a sequence of ten such cards, so the odds were that two would be correctly guessed by chance, assuming a truly random sequence. Mr Casson revealed that in one of his shows someone obtained a score of six correct. A second 'experiment' involved the volunteers' guessing the nature of ten hidden photographs obtained from a newspaper from another part of the country. Ruth then had her photograph taken, or not, as it turned out.
After the interval the results were announced. Correct guesses for the Zener cards ranged from 1 to 4, and provided more support for the laws of probability. But the conjectures as to the identities of the ten photographs seemed surprisingly inept (3.5 being the highest score) if my knowledge of the typical contents of a local newspaper is any indication. Mr Casson said that these results are available for psychologists at universities. Let's hope they don't all rush at once.
A forked twig and a pair of dowsing rods were then produced. Three volunteers from the original ten were hypnotised, re-alerted, and then instructed to ascertain which of five containers was full of water. Somewhat bemused, they pottered around the stage while the audience fell about. Afterwards they were asked in turn which was the filled container. One of them was correct.
Regressions followed. Ruth was regressed to various ages down to six years and we observed samples of her signature on the way. All ten subjects were then asked to regress to a previous life. Not all did so. Ruth said she was imprisoned in a dark dungeon but didn't know where, when or why. The audience hooted with delight. Ruth did not look happy. Finally it was suggested that all ten volunteers were on a desert island quenching their thirst with their favourite alcoholic beverage, free in unlimited quantities. Ruth said that she felt dizzy and was allowed to sit down. Some of the volunteers appeared to become totally inebriated. The audience was ecstatic. After more hilarity our hero announced that he intends to write a book on the supernatural and the show ended with a brief snatch of the '1812 Overture'.
Well! What is there to say? In his interview with the Sheffield Star, Mr Casson is asked what he thinks of Doris Stokes. 'What she was doing - well shall we use the word "bogus"?' he replies. Poor Doris! I wonder what she would have to say about Mr Casson? Who knows, she might be telling us at this very moment.