The Insane Story Of How A Criminal Made Millions Selling Psychic Prophecies To Grieving Parents

Sylvia Browne claimed to have the remarkable ability to see the past, present and future – even to connect with the dead. And through her supposed gift, she made a fortune selling so-called prophecies to grieving parents. Regardless, though, many maintain the belief that Browne’s shocking predictions were in fact all made up. So, did the medium really possess supernatural powers, or was she trying to con the whole world instead?

On October 19, 1936, Browne – whose given name was actually Sylvia Shoemaker – entered the world. Then after spending her childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, she ultimately grew up to become an infamous psychic. Browne even started her own church, which she called the Society of Novus Spiritus, in 1986. And the details of the woman’s alleged psychic powers that are outlined on the organization’s website make for a fascinating read.

According to the site, Browne realized that she possessed a unique gift at a very early age. In fact, as the biography declares, “Sylvia manifested her psychic ability at the age of three.” And while as a teen, Browne started out giving readings and predictions to relatives and friends, she would one day turn her passion into a full-time job.

ADVERTISEMENT

Browne was raised in the Catholic faith and went on to teach in a religious school for 17 years before having a total change of career, the Novus Spiritus website says. Having reportedly studied literature at college, she also started training in hypnotherapy and trance. And in 1964 Browne relocated to California – where she would eventually became notorious.

Apparently, Browne’s religious beliefs combined with her spiritual connection inspired her to set up the Society of Novus Spiritus. And the website of the organization – which claims to be for Gnostic Christians – asserts that the society was Browne’s way of helping others connect to their faith through her predictions. Browne declared, you see, that she was able to show people God’s plan using her alleged gifts.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, in 1990, Browne published her first book. Adventures of a Psychic came to be the first of over 40 titles that the self-described medium penned, in fact. And as Browne’s star rose, many of the texts that she wrote even appeared on the bestseller lists in The New York Times.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fascinatingly, Browne’s books included self-help guides, through which she would supposedly teach readers how to tap into their psychic powers. She also wrote titles such as End of Days, which included her predictions about when the world would cease to exist; If You Could See What I See and Secrets & Mysteries of the World were just two of her other successful offerings. But Browne’s work didn’t stop there.

ADVERTISEMENT

A year after Browne’s first book came out, the alleged medium’s television career began – earning her a certain degree of notoriety as a consequence. She started appearing regularly on The Montel Williams Show, for example, where she would give prophecies to guests and people in the audience. And one of Browne’s most popular tricks was telling members of the public what she apparently believed had happened to their missing family members.

ADVERTISEMENT

Astonishingly, Browne would also offer her services to the police department. She would sometimes charge as much as $400 to weigh in on a missing person case, in fact. Plus, the medium claimed that she’d had high success rates with helping to locate victims of murders – even on occasion leading investigators to their perpetrators. And one such case was that of Chandra Levy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Levy was a government intern who had notoriously vanished in Washington D.C. in May 2001. Then, one year later, her body would be discovered in Rock Creek Park. And, amazingly, Browne insisted she had prophesied that Levy’s remains would be found at the location. In reality, however, police had been looking for a body in the region since the beginning of their investigation.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, in 1992 – a year after Browne had started appearing on The Montel Williams Show – she found herself in legal hot water. The medium and her husband at the time, Kenzil Dalzell Brown, were apparently accused of several counts of larceny and fraud. And it’s been reported that the psychic took a no-contest plea for the latter charge.

ADVERTISEMENT

But even run-ins with the law didn’t stop Browne from building up a huge, devoted fanbase over the years. In fact, the psychic became so popular that in 2007 there was a four-year waiting list to nab a reading with her over the phone. And Browne’s services didn’t come cheap to those seeking them, either.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, customers would each fork out up to $750 for a session with Browne that lasted just half an hour. And it perhaps comes as a surprise that so many people were willing to pay such a high price for the medium’s predictions. After all, Browne’s reputation as a psychic was called into question several times during the course of her career.

ADVERTISEMENT

For example, Browne alleged that she was almost always right when it came to her prophecies. But her assertion that she was successful 87 to 90 percent of the time was actually far from accurate. Indeed, when Skeptical Inquirer magazine reviewed Browne’s work in 2010, the ensuing findings proved astonishing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Specifically, Skeptical Inquirer looked at a total of 115 predictions that Browne had made on The Montel Williams Show, where she had been a regular guest between 1991 and 2008. And, shockingly, the magazine claimed that the professional psychic had in fact been right zero percent of the time. Certain of Browne’s prophecies had even been damaging, according to some skeptics.

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s more, a YouTube video of some of Browne’s most infamous moments sheds some light on just how outrageous the psychic’s claims seemingly were. In one part of the clip, for instance, a couple asks Browne why their daughter had died suddenly at the age of 17, to which the TV personality instantly responds, “She was shot.” However, the parents subsequently explain that their child had collapsed, and an autopsy had showed no signs of bullet wounds.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Browne doesn’t back down in the video-recorded exchange. Instead, she says, “I don’t care. But it looks like something hit [your daughter] in the chest.” And in another clip from The Montel Williams Show on YouTube, an audience member asks for Browne’s help. “They never found a piece of him,” the woman says of her boyfriend. Browne is adamant, however, that she knows the answer.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The reason why you didn’t find [your boyfriend] is because he’s in water,” Browne says in the video. The woman appears dubious about this remark, though, and goes on to explain that the man in question was once a firefighter who was never found after serving during the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York City. Even this revelation doesn’t change Browne’s stance, however.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, in the clip, Browne defends her claim by explaining that it’s difficult to find people’s bodies if they disappear in water. She says, “I keep seeing him in water. He says he couldn’t breathe, and he was filled with water.” The medium even goes so far as to suggest that the woman’s boyfriend may even have drowned from the water that was used to put out flames during the 9/11 attack.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nor are these the only examples of Browne’s prophecies seemingly being inaccurate. In 1999, for instance, a devastated woman appeared on The Montel Williams Show claiming that she needed Browne’s help. Her granddaughter, Opal Jo Jennings, had apparently been taken from the yard of her Texas home a month previously, with this harrowing incident leading the audience member to seek answers from Browne in turn.

ADVERTISEMENT

And as usual, Browne’s response was full of confidence. “[Opal]’s not dead,” the psychic said, according to The Guardian. “Now, I’ve never heard of this before, but she was taken and put into some kind of a slavery thing and taken into Japan.” The medium even claimed to know exactly where the six-year-old was. “The place is Kukouro. So, she was taken and put on some kind of a boat or a plane and taken into white slavery,” she added.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Opal hadn’t been sold into the slave market at all. In fact, the young girl was later discovered dead in Fort Worth, Texas. She had, horrifically, been killed in cold blood the very night that she had been snatched. And a man who lived nearby by the name of Richard Lee Franks was subsequently convicted for the slaying.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s worth noting, too, that Browne made yet another prediction that later turned out to be horribly wrong. Yes, one of the so-called psychic’s most infamous prophecies of all time involved the case of Amanda Berry. The teenager had gone missing in April 2003 – one day before turning 17.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, one year on from Amanda’s disappearance, the girl’s mother, Louwana Miller, appeared on The Montel Williams Show and asked Browne to weigh in on what had happened to her daughter. And, once again, Browne was extremely candid with her response. In a YouTube clip of the exchange, the medium says, “[Amanda]’s not alive, honey. Your daughter’s not the kind who wouldn’t call.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Miller then asks if she’ll ever see Amanda again. “Yeah – in heaven on the other side,” Browne replies. And it appears as though Miller believes what Browne has told her, as she agrees that it was strange to not have heard from her daughter. In fact, according to a book by James Renner, Miller remained convinced of this notion until she passed away in 2006.

ADVERTISEMENT

But, of course, Amanda was very much alive, and she was found in 2013 after being held prisoner for almost ten years. The now twentysomething woman had finally escaped from Ariel Castro, who had kidnapped her along with two other women. And when Browne was quizzed by the press, she responded by saying, “Only God is right all the time.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In a further example of Browne’s infamy, she provided a prophecy for the parents of Shawn Hornbeck. He had vanished at the age of 11 in October 2002. And his mother and father appeared on The Montel Williams Show a few months after the disappearance, too, seeking answers from Browne about what may have happened to their son.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the clip, Pam Hornbeck asks Browne, “Is [Shawn] still with us?” And once again, Browne gives the worried parents a seemingly assured answer. The medium claims that Shawn is not alive, declaring that he was abducted by a dark-skinned individual with dreadlocks and then killed. Browne even went as far as to specify that Shawn had been laid to rest between two sharp boulders.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Hearing [Browne’s words] was one of the hardest things we ever had to hear,” Craig Akers, Shawn’s stepfather, told CNN in 2007. Then, four years after Shawn disappeared, he too was discovered alive. The teenager had been in Missouri with a man named Michael Devlin, who had allegedly abducted him. And unlike Browne’s prediction, Delvin had short hair and fair skin.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, when Browne was grilled by The Guardian journalist Jon Ronson in 2007, she had an explanation for her failed prediction: essentially, it had just been a miscommunication. “I think what I did was I got my wires crossed,” Browne said. “There was a blonde and two boys who are dead. I think I picked up the wrong kid.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, Akers claimed that Browne had even gone as far as to offer the anguished parents another consultation about their child away from the television cameras. And according to Shawn’s stepdad, the psychic had wanted to charge a hefty $700 for her time. Browne reportedly denied this allegation, however.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s not uncommon, either, for psychics – or people pretending to be psychic – to offer their services at a high price to parents of children that disappear. That’s something that Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was abducted and murdered, knows all too well. He told The Guardian, “It happens every time a child goes missing.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Klaas, who was approached by mediums himself after Polly vanished, added, “I call them the second wave of predators. First, you lose your child, and then these people descend – every time.” Plus, it’s also important to understand the limitations of supposed experts in the psychic field. And mentalist The Amazing Kreskin was quick to slam Browne’s actions in this regard.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I can help potential witnesses uncover information they didn’t realize they had,” Kreskin told HuffPost in 2013. He added, though, that no mediums should suggest someone is dead without proof. Kreskin added, “It’s the height of irresponsibility, and it indirectly aids the criminal because the people who believe the psychic may have less of a reason to continue to search for the victim.”

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Kreskin is far from the only critic of Browne. Through her personal consultations, books and special appearances – including a cruise for which fans shelled out thousands of dollars – she earned a fortune. And some people were dedicated to putting a stop to what they suggested were fraudulent means of making money.

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, an entire website, Stopsylvia.com, was set up by programming enthusiast Robert Lancaster. And when asked why he put the project together, he told The Guardian, “I found [Browne’s] work with missing children to be incredibly offensive.” Famous skeptic James Randi was also dubious of Browne’s gift. He believed that all she was doing was simply making guesses – only a few of which were ever on target.

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s more, even Browne’s ex-husband has claimed that she wasn’t authentic. Gary Dufresne told Stopsylvia.com, “I try to get her out of my mind as much as possible, but the damage she does to unsuspecting people in crisis situations is just atrocious.” Dufresne alleged, too, that Browne had admitted her readings weren’t really psychic.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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,” Dufresne claimed to have told her after the couple had hosted a party in the 1970s. Browne had allegedly responded, however, “Screw ’em. Anybody who believes this stuff ought to be taken.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s fair to say, then, that Browne’s so-called prophecies made her one of the most contentious psychics of all time. In fact, even in dying, she stayed true to form. She once predicted to Larry King, you see, that she would live to the age of 88. Yet ultimately the medium passed away in 2013 when she was 77 years old, leaving behind two sons and husband Michael Ulery.

ADVERTISEMENT

And Browne’s legacy remains a strange one. As non-believer D.J. Grothe told HuffPost in 2013, “No one celebrates her death, but skeptics do criticize how she lived. The number of people she hurt with her pretend supernatural abilities is nearly as high as the number of her failed predictions. It is sad that it took death to stop Sylvia Browne.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT