James Hydrick was a so-called psychic who rose to fame with his ability to move objects, only to be exposed as a fraud on national television.
After receiving notable local press for his ability to move objects without touching them, James Hydrick had a year in the spotlight after a high-profile appearance on the TV show That’s Incredible in late 1980. Months later, he failed a nationally-televised challenge by skeptic James Randi, and eventually admitted that his powers were simply tricks that he honed while in prison.
Appearance on That’s Incredible
Hydrick appeared on That’s Incredible in December 1980 under the name Sum Chai, donning a martial arts gi and performing dramatic hand gestures. He wowed the television audience by making pages of a phone book appear to dance and turn at his command. He also sat with the hosts and performed other tricks, as amazed audience members watched.
Host John Davidson expressed doubt during a pencil trick, stating, “I can hear you blowing.” Hydrick, in an attempt to appease the host, suggested that Davidson covered his mouth. With Davidson’s hand over his mouth, Hydrick was able to moves the pencil again, to which Davidson proclaimed, “That’s incredible.”
(It appears that Hydrick dangled the pencil on the edge in a way that air currents and gravity immediately moved it. Not unlike the Charlie Charlie Challenge of 2015.)
What’s My Line: James Hydrick vs James Randi
In an episode of What’s My Line hosted by Bob Barker, Hydrick claimed to have honed his psychic powers through a Chinese master. He demonstrated his powers by hanging a pencil from the edge of a table and moving it with his alleged psychic power. After a series of hand gestures and intense stares, the pencil appeared to move at Hydrick’s command.
In a second demonstration, Hydrick turned the pages of a telephone directory, similar to his performance on That’s Incredible. After a series of head movements and hand gestures, Hydrick stood to regroup himself, and then immediately turned a page with a simple hand gesture.
Skeptic James Randi was then introduced. Barker asked, “Do you accept that as a demonstration of psychic power or do you believe that he used trickery?”
“I don’t accept it as a demonstration of psychic power, Bob,” Randi explained. “I think that the solution is rather simple. I think that Mr. Hydrick is merely to accomplish this effect blowing on both the page and on the pencil.”
Randi then said that he only wanted to test the phone book turning trick, because “the pencil reacts even to the currents in the air conditioning in this studio. It would be very difficult to try to put controls on it in such a way that normal currents of air that are present all the time would not move the pencil.”
Randi pulled out a check for $10,000 which he said he had been carrying for about 17 years, and would hand it over to Hydrick if he could perform his tricks under strict controls.
A panel of three judges was then introduced.
To challenge Hydrick’s demonstration, Randi produced a can containing what he described as “particles of a white plastic” that he sprinkled around the phone book. He suggested that a puff of air would prove if Hydrick was actually blowing on the phone book, as pieces of Styrofoam would also move from an air current.
Hydrick began the challenge by standing and facing the phone book, then performed a series of dramatic movements with his hands. He then knelt and stared intensely at the book before standing to ask how many pages needed to be turned. The clip below was edited for television, but Hydrick was said to have spent around 90 minutes staring and kneeling at the book.
Barker walked over as Hyrdrick pointed out what he felt to be a problem with the experiment. “The Styrofoam and the lights form electricity which pulls the page,” he said while lifting a leaf from the book. “Look,” he attempted to demonstrate. “It pulls the page down instead of freeing the pages.”
When Barker asked what could be done to alleviate the problem, Hydrick suggested using “something that isn’t going to form static electricity.”
“Foam causes static electricity and the lights is what heats it up,” he explained.
After Randi and the panel rejected Hydrick’s assessment, Barker turned several pages and placed them back down in an attempt to help.
“The static is going to still be here because of the foam,” Hydrick complained.
Barker pointed out that the judges disagreed with his concern, and prompted the psychic to attempt his feat anyway.
Hydrick knelt with a sneer and performed his hand gestures again before shrugging and standing up. When Barker asked if the demonstration was terminated, Hydrick explained that it wasn’t a “magician’s trick.”
“I have to be where I can work with something small and then big, you know to build up my own self.”
Randi concluded, “When a simple, direct, very uncomplicated protocol is used, and the control is applied, the psychic forces don’t seem to be present, if indeed they are ever present at all.”
After being exposed in What’s My Line, Hydrick finally admitted in a 1981 interview with Dan Korem that his tricks were performed with a well-placed puff of air.
“I tricked the whole world,” he boasted about his That’s Incredible TV appearance earlier that year, noting that he did it for recognition. “I just wanted to be known. I needed to be recognized.”
Hydrick, who couldn’t read or write, also said he wanted to make a statement about intellect. “I wanted to see if these people were so-called intelligent, and I was so-called dumb… my whole idea behind this in the first place was to see how dumb America was, how dumb the world is.”
He then demonstrated his technique by moving a leaf on a nearby plant. “It didn’t move from power, it moved from something else – physical. It’s moved from air currents… from my mouth,” he admitted, noting that it took years to perfect the technique, including a year and half in solitary confinement while in prison.
Hydrick told Korem that while in prison he used his tricks to fool deputies and other inmates, who he converted to Christianity by performing his page-turning trick on a Bible. He also claimed to “heal” people by convincing them that he had powers, then letting the power of suggestion do the rest. “I tricked them for the good,” he defended.
Hydrick claimed to have been approached by Sirhan Sirhan and others about leading several cults to “brainwash people,” which he supposedly declined. The producers included a disclaimer at the end of the documentary noting that they couldn’t confirm Hydrick’s claim.
The interview concluded weeks later – in a jail cell – after Hydrick was arrested for receiving stolen guns, and an apparent suicide attempt – which he said was also a trick that he described as “funny.”
James Hydrick Today
In 1989, Hydrick was sentenced to 17 years in prison on 11 counts of felony child molestation. After serving his term, Hydrick, now in his 50s, continues to be held involuntarily at state mental hospitals. As of last report, he was eligible for a hearing in May 2015, but it is unclear if that hearing took place. You can see a recent court document filed in July 2016 about Mr. Hydrick.
In the early 1980s, a young psychic named James Hydrick rose to prominence after a series of high-profile performances in which he moved objects without touching them. When exposed as a fraud by James Randi, Hydrick confessed to trickery using nothing more than well-disguised puffs of air.
Updated August 12, 2016
First Published August 2015