Sylvia Browne (born Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker; October 19, 1936) is an American author who describes herself as a psychic and spiritual medium. She has made several appearances on Larry King Live, was a weekly guest on The Montel Williams Show, and hosts her own hour-long show on Hay House Radio, discussing paranormal issues and giving callers advice in her role as a psychic.
In 1992, Browne was convicted of investment fraud and grand theft. Her claims and predictions have caused numerous controversies and reports of her failed predictions have appeared in several newspapers. Critics such as James Randi, with whom she has had a long-running feud, allege that she is a cold reader whose readings are indistinguishable from those achieved by mentalists using cold and hot reading techniques. Press coverage has asserted that she is inaccurate overall.
Sylvia Browne, born Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker on October 19, 1936, grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father was Jewish and had many jobs, including mail delivery, jewelry sales and time as a vice president of a major freight line. Her mother was Episcopalian, and her maternal grandmother Ada Coil was a devout Lutheran. However, Browne said in 2001 that she was Jewish.
Browne claims that visions started appearing at age five and that her grandmother, who claimed to be a psychic medium, helped her understand why she had them. Browne also asserts that her great-uncle was also a psychic medium and was “rabid about UFOs.”
Browne started to give psychic readings in 1974 and has attracted both supporters and detractors. She has given thousands of one-on-one readings with a wide variety of groups and individuals. As of 2008, she charges $850 for a 20–30-minute telephone reading. Browne claims to have provided information to police departments and the FBI as a psychic detective. However, in at least one case that James Randi researched, a police officer that Browne claimed to have worked with did not even work at the police department.
In May 2003, she told Larry King in an interview that she would die at the age of 88. On March 21, 2011, Browne suffered a massive heart attack in Hawaii and her website asked for donations to her church.
Marriages and children
Browne was married to Gary Dufresne from April 1959 until 1972. During that time, she moved to Kansas City, Missouri. In a February 10, 2007 interview, Dufresne related a conversation with her after a tarot party in their home: “I said to her as we were washing dishes and she was wiping, I said, ‘Sylvia, how can you tell people this kind of stuff? You know it’s not true, and some of these people actually are probably going to believe it.’ And she said, ‘Screw ’em. Anybody who believes this stuff oughtta be taken.'” Dufresne again called Browne a “fraud” in a 2010 interview with KMOV-TV.
Sylvia acquired the surname Brown from Kenzil Dalzell Brown during the third of her five marriages, and added a final e after she was indicted on security fraud charges. In September 2002, she and Larry Lee Beck ended their marriage. On February 14, 2009, Browne married a man she calls “Michael, my archangel,” an owner of a jewelry store.
Sylvia Browne Corp. and Novus Spiritus
Browne is the head of the Sylvia Browne Corporation and Sylvia Browne Enterprises. In 1986, she founded a Campbell, California church known as the Society of Novus Spiritus. In a 2010 interview, Linda Rossi, Browne’s business manager, told KMOV-TV that Browne’s businesses earn $3 million a year. According to its website, the church has forty ministers, although only a small number are actually paid employees. Those that are paid also work for Sylvia Browne Corporation and Sylvia Browne Enterprises, and are members of the board of directors of the church.
Novus Spiritus refers to itself as “Gnostic Christian.” It states that it follows the same traditions and teachings which Jesus himself followed, yet does not exclude Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism. The society claims to teach the Biblical works of Jesus Christ while also incorporating the Gnostic Gospels (e.g., Gospel of Mary Magdalene), and says that while the Bible is a “marvelous book” and should be used as a teaching tool, it is not the “unaltered word of God”.
Browne is the author of dozens of books on paranormal and spiritual topics, including The Other Side and Back, Adventures of a Psychic, Astrology Through a Psychic’s Eyes, and, most recently, All Pets Go To Heaven: The Spiritual Lives of the Animals We Love.
In Browne’s books, she discusses how people may better their lives and be more loving towards people and other living beings. She discusses a wish for people to feel that they are loved by God. Browne reports that the entity of God comprises a male and female part, named Om and Azna respectively. She states that the entity of God loves all people and living beings equally, no matter what one’s specific religious or spiritual beliefs are. According to Browne, this includes atheists, people who do not believe in a God or Gods. Browne writes that people’s actions and intentions define a person and soul, and that people of all religions, spiritual beliefs, and non-beliefs may go to the Other Side, as she refers to Heaven. Browne writes that she presents her beliefs in a way that allows readers or listeners to take what they want from her teachings and leave behind what they do not agree with.
Browne says she knows what it is like in Heaven. In her book The Other Side and Back, she says the temperature is a constant 78 °F (25.6 °C), that there are no insects unless one wants there to be, that pets go to Heaven, and that a house can be built wherever one wants. She asserts that the “other side” exists approximately three feet above ground level and at a “higher vibrational level” and that makes it difficult for humans to perceive. Like a number of other psychics, she claims to have been born able to perceive a wider range of “vibrational frequencies”.
Browne declares that she can see angels and that they look similar to depictions in paintings but have different traits depending on their “phylum.” She has also claimed that they do not speak. Her granddaughter, who is purportedly psychic, claims to have witnessed the angels that Browne states surround humans.
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- That Bill Clinton was falsely accused in the Lewinsky scandal – proved incorrect.
- The cure and prevention of breast cancer by the end of 1999
- That Bill Bradley would win the 2000 U.S. presidential election with the Reform Party coming in second – neither event occurred.
- The “hiding in caves” of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein – Hussein was found in a “spider hole” in the ground near Tikrit and Osama bin Laden was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
- The death of bin Laden – later revealed by the Central Intelligence Agency and by his 2011 killing, to be incorrect.
- A guilty verdict in the 2005 child molestation trial of Michael Jackson – Jackson was acquitted of all charges.
- That Amanda Berry was dead. Browne told the girl’s mother in a 2004 episode of The Montel Williams Show that “She’s not alive, honey”. Amanda Berry escaped from her kidnapper and was found alive on May 6, 2013.
Janet McDonald, an author of books for young adults, describes her experience receiving a psychic reading via phone, for which she paid Browne $700. Browne predicted a “really long life” for McDonald, who died of cancer at 53, just over four years later.
On September 3, 2001, Browne stated on Larry King Live that she would accept the James Randi Educational Foundation‘s $1,000,000 challenge to demonstrate supernatural abilities in a controlled scientific test. In 2007, Randi stated that Browne had not contacted him and no longer wished to reach him.
A January 2007 episode of Anderson Cooper 360° featured Linda Rossi, Browne’s business manager for 35 years, and James Randi. Randi proposed a test where Browne would provide readings for ten sympathetic people, each of whom would then identify their own reading among the ten. Rossi declined on Browne’s behalf.
A detailed three-year study of her predictions about missing persons and murder cases by Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok for the Skeptical Inquirer found that despite her repeated claims to be more than 85% correct, “Browne has not even been mostly correct in a single case.” The study’s authors collected Browne’s televised statements about 115 cases and compared them with newspaper reports that are believed to be factual. They found that in 25 cases where the actual outcome is known, she was completely wrong in every one and in the rest, where the final outcome is unknown, her predictions could not be substantiated. The study concludes that the media outlets that repeatedly promote Browne’s work have no visible concern about whether she is untrustworthy or harms people.
Investigator Joe Nickell believes modern day self-proclaimed mediums like John Edward, Sylvia Browne, Rosemary Altea and James Van Praagh are avoiding the Victorian tradition of dark rooms, spirit handwriting, and flying tambourines as these methods risk exposure. They instead use “mental mediumship” tactics like cold reading or gleaning information from sitters beforehand (hot reading). Group readings also improve hits by making general statements with conviction that will fit at least one person in the audience. Shows are carefully edited before airing to show only apparent hits and to remove anything that does not reflect well on the medium.
Browne’s performance scheduled for Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 1, 2011, was cancelled due to “unforeseen circumstances.” It was later confirmed that Browne suffered a massive heart attack while in Hawaii on March 21, 2011.
In early 2012, Browne predicted President Obama would not be re-elected in the presidential election. In September 2012, she contradicted this prediction in an interview with WGNO news, saying she believed President Obama would be re-elected.
Television and radio appearances
Browne has been a frequent guest on US television and radio programs, including Larry King Live, the Montel Williams Show, and Coast to Coast AM. During these appearances, she usually discusses her abilities with the host and then performs readings of audience members or callers. Browne hosts her own hour-long show on Hay House Radio, discussing paranormal issues and giving callers advice in her role as a psychic.
On some occasions Browne is paired with other guests, including skeptics such as James Randi. These shows often feature verbal sparring between the two, with each trying to convince the audience that the other is wrong. One such Larry King show, in 2001, involved Browne agreeing to be tested by Randi to verify if her abilities were true. As of 2012[update] she has not yet conducted the test. In March 2004, their feud escalated on the popular St. Louis radio program The Paul Harris Show when Randi accused Browne of lying.
Browne appeared in a 1991 episode of Haunted Lives: True Ghost Stories. In the segment “Ghosts R Us,” she portrayed herself in a recreation of the events that took place in the haunted Sunnyvale, California Toys R Us.
Sago Mine controversy
On January 3, 2006, Browne was a guest on the US radio program Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. At the start of the broadcast, it was believed that 12 of 13 miners trapped by the Sago Mine disaster had been found alive. When Noory asked Browne if she had had any psychic premonitions regarding the men she replied, “No, I knew they were going to be found.” Later in the program it was revealed that the earlier news reports had been an error, and only one of the men was believed to have survived. At this point, Browne contradicted her earlier statement, stating that “I don’t really think there’s anybody alive”, and, “How crazy for them to report that they were alive when they weren’t!” Browne later argued that she had never specifically stated that the miners would be found alive, only that they would be found, and that she was referring to the bodies of the dead miners being found. In the October 3, 2007 episode of Coast to Coast AM, Noory identified this incident as the reason he has not invited Browne back to the show.
The Montel Williams Show
Browne was a weekly guest on The Montel Williams Show for many years. In episodes known as “Sylvia Wednesdays”, she took questions from audience members asking for advice about health, love, and finance, as well as information about deceased or missing loved ones. In 2000, Brill’s Content examined ten recent Montel Williams programs that highlighted Browne’s work as a psychic detective, spanning 35 cases. In 21 cases, the details were too vague to be verified. Of the remaining 14, law enforcement officials or family members stated that Browne had played no useful role.
In 2002, Browne told Gwendolyn Krewson that her daughter Holly, who had been missing for seven years, was living in Hollywood and working as an exotic dancer in a nightclub. In 2006, dental records were used to positively identify a body found in 1996 in San Diego as that of Holly Krewson.
Browne stated that Ryan Katcher, a nineteen-year-old who disappeared during the night in November 2000 in Illinois, had been murdered and could be found in an iron mine shaft a few miles away from the Katcher home. Katcher was later found in his truck in a pond in Illinois and had died of drowning.
In 1999, Browne told Audrey Sanderford that her six-year-old granddaughter Opal Jo Jennings had been taken from Tarrant County, Texas to Japan and forced into “slavery” in a town she named as “Kukouro” or “Kukoura”. No such town exists in Japan. In August of the same year, Richard Lee Franks was arrested and charged with Jennings’ abduction and murder. He was convicted the next year. Jennings’ remains were found in December 2003 and an autopsy revealed that she had died from trauma to the head within hours of being abducted.
In 2002, Browne told Lynda McClelland’s daughters that their mother had been abducted by a man with the initials “MJ” and taken to Orlando, Florida but that she was still alive. McClelland’s body was found buried less than two miles from her home in Pennsylvania. The man charged and convicted for the murder was David Repasky, McClelland’s son-in-law. He had been present for the reading.
In 2003, Browne claimed that eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck had been abducted by a very tall man with long black dreadlocks and a blue sedan, and that his body could be found near two large, jagged boulders in a wooded area about 20 miles southwest of Richwoods. Her claims led to numerous people calling in with tips regarding possible spottings of the rock formations Browne had mentioned. Hornbeck was found alive four years later, having been abducted by a white man with short brown hair who drove a small white Nissan pickup. Browne told the New York Daily News, “I’m terribly sorry that this happened, but I think my body of work stands by itself. I’ve broken case after case. I think it’s cruel to jump on this one case in which I was wrong.”
In 2004 Sylvia Browne told Louwana Miller that her daughter Amanda Berry was dead. Amanda escaped her kidnappers May 6, 2013. She and two other women, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, had been held in a dwelling 3 miles away. Miller, who at one point never stopped declaring that Berry was alive, later told a Plain Dealer reporter that she believed Browne “98 percent.” Miller died in 2006 of heart failure at the age of 44.
In January 2007, Anderson Cooper reported on Browne’s 2003 claims and interviewed the Hornbeck parents, Randi, and Browne critic Robert S. Lancaster. Browne declined to be interviewed. Hornbeck’s parents, Pam and Craig Akers, reported that in order to continue talking with Browne, they would have had to pay her standard fee. Craig Akers recalled the standard fee as $700 for one hour. Browne’s business manager issued a statement denying that Browne has ever charged a fee for her work on a missing persons case.
In 2006, Browne told the fiancée of murder victim Robert Hayes that he had been robbed by a man at a casino for his poker winnings and that there was video evidence. However, police later revealed that Hayes was having an affair and was robbed by the woman and three other people in a setup at an ATM. There were no press reports about him going to a casino or playing poker. She predicted the crime would take a “good two years” to resolve, but the case and trial happened within a year of Hayes’s death.
In August 2007, the Montel Williams Show was awarded The Truly Terrible Television (TTTV) Award for peddling pseudoscience and superstition to its audience for every episode that has showcased Sylvia Browne. Other winners have been Psychic Detectives, Paranormal State and SciFi‘s Ghost Hunters.
In June 2008, Ofcom ruled that ITV2 “breached standards with a repeat of the Montel Williams Show in which a ‘desperate’ couple were told by a psychic their missing son was dead even though he turned up alive last year.” The ruling concerned breaching a rule relating to protecting viewers against offensive material.
On December 29, 2009 at the Gibson Amphitheater at Universal Studios Los Angeles, skeptic and mentalist Mark Edward approached the microphone during the question portion of Sylvia Browne’s show and said he had been hearing voices in his head and they were giving him the names Opal Jo Jennings, Terrence Farrell, Holly Krewson, and the Sago Miners. Browne could not tell that he was lying and explained that the voices were his spirit guides.
James Randi and the $1,000,000 challenge
James Randi, a retired stage magician turned investigator of paranormal claims, has been a vocal critic of Browne. On September 3, 2001, Browne stated on Larry King Live that she would prove her legitimacy by accepting the James Randi Educational Foundation‘s $1,000,000 challenge to demonstrate supernatural abilities in a controlled scientific test. However, despite accepting Randi’s challenge, Browne never took the test and made a series of excuses for not doing so, including that she was unable to contact Randi, that she does not need or want the money, that neither Randi nor the JREF has $1,000,000, that Randi would not put the money in escrow and that she has “nothing to prove” to Randi.
Some have questioned the logical inconsistency of not being interested in the money but at the same time requiring proof of its existence. In addition, Randi had shown that the money is held by an independent investment firm (Goldman Sachs) and that proof of its existence can be obtained by requesting a copy of the most recent account statement from the JREF by telephone, fax, letter, or e-mail. Although a few persons have requested and received copies of the documentation, no request has ever come from Browne.
Browne said that the JREF refused to put the money into escrow, a decision that she said implied that the money did not exist. Randi originally defended the decision, highlighting challenge rules which clearly stated that the money would not be placed in escrow. However, Randi decided to make an exception for Browne in late 2003 by declaring that the money would be placed in escrow and that Browne supporters Larry King or Montel Williams might be suitable escrow agents. Though formal letters were mailed to both King and Williams notifying them of their nomination as possible escrow agents, neither made a reply. Browne never accepted nor acknowledged Randi’s exception concerning the escrow matter.
After making this announcement, Randi stated on his website that “we have now met each and every objection made by Sylvia Browne, except that she does not like me.”
Browne’s website posted a message sometime after August 1, 2005 stating that Browne never received confirmation of the existence of the million dollars. Browne suggested that perhaps Randi sent the package to her previous business address, but Randi’s May 30, 2003, weekly newsletter indicates the documents were mailed over two years before the date Browne said she relocated. Randi said he has a certified mail receipt from the U.S. Postal Service indicating that the package was refused by Browne.
In 2007, on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°, Browne’s business manager Linda Rossi was asked if Browne was still willing to take Randi’s challenge. On behalf of Browne, Rossi refused to take the challenge (a complete reversal of Browne’s previous acceptance of the challenge years before on Larry King Live), stating that such a test would be “loaded”, that Browne has “nothing to prove” to Randi, and that Browne’s “spiritual work speaks for itself.”
Legal issues and criminal convictions
In 1992, Browne and estranged husband Kenzil Dalzell Brown were indicted on several charges of investment fraud and grand theft. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California, found that Browne and her husband had sold securities in a gold-mining venture under false pretenses. In at least one instance, they told a couple that their $20,000 investment was to be used for immediate operating costs. Instead, the money was transferred to an account for their Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research. Browne pleaded no contest to securities fraud and was indicted on grand larceny in Santa Clara County, California on May 26, 1992. Browne and Brown received one year probation each. In addition, Browne was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.