Last month, I wrote about whether we should pity the victims of the prosperity gospel and argued that, unlike in cases of outright fraud or coercion, their poor decisions are their own. There were several responses, such as this post by Russell Glasser, that took a more sympathetic view, arguing that most people who fall prey to this hustle can’t be expected to know better.
To be sure, lack of education and lifelong immersion in a religious faith that treats such claims as normal are surely part of the reason why so many people are suckered by the televangelist scam. However, those factors can’t account for everyone who falls victim to obvious swindlers. Today, I want to illustrate this with the stranger-than-fiction story of Rose Marks.
Rose Marks was the ringleader and matriarch of a Florida family of “psychics” who preyed on the gullible, promising that they could foretell the future, magically dispel bad luck, bring back lost love – all the standard promises in the huckster’s toolbox. But Marks’ aims went far higher than dime-store fortunetelling. We found this out in 2011 when she and several family members were arrested and charged with swindling clients out of the astonishing sum of $40 million.
According to the prosecutors, the Marks family went beyond unfalsifiable platitudes into straightforward fraud, ordering clients to turn over money and valuables so that they could “cleanse” them of curses or bad luck, only they had no intention of giving them back. However, as you can guess from the incredible amount of money they collected, they weren’t preying on the poor, but on the rich and powerful. Many of the victims (most of whom were women) were wealthy, educated, successful people:
“They’re highly intelligent women, very successful and very vulnerable at the time of the taking,” [Fort Lauderdale Detective Charles] Stack said. “These aren’t crazy women.” (source)
Marks didn’t just dispense vague Barnum statements or feel-good advice. She claimed an extensive list of supernatural powers she could deploy on behalf of her clients, which came out at trial in a litany of the bizarre:
Victims testified that she convinced them she could swap people’s souls between bodies, prevent a woman from conceiving via in vitro fertilization and even use her psychic powers to prevent the Internal Revenue Service from going after them for taxes.
Marks’ single biggest victim, and and the prosecution’s chief witness at her trial, was the best-selling author Jude Deveraux. Deveraux gave Marks close to $20 million, almost her entire fortune. In exchange for this exorbitant amount, Marks claimed that she could reincarnate Deveraux’s son Sam, who had died in a tragic accident. I have to quote the whole account, because it’s just too outlandish to summarize:
Marks tormented her with claims that the child was not in heaven and that Marks could transfer the child’s soul or spirit into the body of another person, reuniting mother and son “to keep him out of the flames,” Deveraux said.
Marks told Deveraux that a virgin, who resembled the late Princess Grace of Monaco, had used a leftover embryo to give birth to a child who was the full-blood brother of Sam, Deveraux said. Marks predicted Deveraux would die, assume the body of this woman, be married to Brad Pitt and reunited with Sam, she said. (source)
Marks’ family members also got in on this profitable scam, including her daughter-in-law Nancy:
Susan Abraham, an Englishwoman who lives in Spain, testified that she gave about $300,000 to Nancy Marks, starting in 2010. Marks convinced her that she and her husband, had been “competing warriors” during “prior lives” in the 1600s and that she was in danger because he had “murdered” her in that lifetime. (source)
At trial, Rose Marks, Nancy Marks and several other members of the clan pled guilty or were convicted. It’ll be interesting to see if they admit it was all a big lie when they come up for parole, as other convicted psychic pretenders have done.
But in spite of this, Barnum’s old adage about a sucker being born every minute is holding up well. Just this year, there was yet another story about a wealthy, successful person taken for everything they owned by a psychic with a set of even more convoluted, even more extravagantly ludicrous claims. You have to read the article to see how ridiculous the psychic’s Jenga tower of fantasies got before the victim finally ran out of money – I can’t even do it justice here.
Long past the point at which many people would have become suspicious — the endless need for special crystals, the time machine, the 80-mile bridge made of gold, the reincarnation portal — he kept paying, until he was living his own grim version of the movie “Ghost.”
Stories like these complicate the picture of televangelists and other scam artists preying on the uneducated and desperate who can’t be expected to know that the huckster’s promises are impossible. While that does happen, Marks’ clients didn’t have that excuse. If anything, despite their personal wealth and success, they swallowed claims that are even more transparently phony and absurd than the ones that most TV preachers make. The judge who sentenced Marks suggested that her victims had something in their psychological makeup that causes them to want to believe false promises, and I think there’s truth to that. Some people, regardless of their intelligence or level of education, are forever willing to be convinced that the fulfillment of all their desires is just over the next hill, if only they persevere and don’t lose hope. In some circumstances, like in business, that trait might even be advantageous. But when combined with a unfalsifiable belief in the supernatural and an unscrupulous schemer ready to take advantage, it can easily lead one to ruin.