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Doris May Fisher Stokes (6 January 1920 – 8 May 1987), born Doris Sutton, was a British spiritualist and claimed to be a psychic medium. Her public performances, television appearances and memoirs made her a household name in Britain.
During her lifetime, she was a controversial figure, with some believing her to possess psychic abilities. Investigations published after her death demonstrated that she routinely planted unwitting accomplices in her audience.
Stokes was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. In her memoirs she claimed that she started seeing spirits and hearing disembodied voices in childhood, and developed these abilities further once she joined a local spiritualist church. She was recognised as a practising clairaudient medium by the Spiritualists' National Union in 1949.
During a crisis of confidence in 1962, she gave up her work as a medium and retrained as a psychiatric nurse, but had to retire five years later following an attack by a patient. She returned to her psychic work and in 1975 became the resident medium at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain.
She first came to public attention in 1978 during a visit to Australia, when she appeared on The Don Lane Show. In the wave of interest that followed her appearance, she played to three capacity audiences at the Sydney Opera House. She was also the first medium to appear at the London Palladium, with the tickets selling out in two hours. She was especially believable because of her smiling, down-to-earth manner, which avoided the traditional trappings of the séance and gave her performances almost "the ordinariness of a transatlantic telephone call". In 1980, her first autobiographical volume, Voices in My Ear: The Autobiography of a Medium was published, pulling her further into the public eye in the UK. Over two million copies of her books were sold. Positive testimonials continued to come forward into the 2000s, including ones from Eamonn Holmes and Dale Winton.
Stokes received much condemnation from the Church of England and other Christian denominations, which objected to spirit communication as an offence to God. She would counter that her work was done for God and in accordance with the Bible's injunction to "test the spirits to see if they (were) good".
Described variously as "an individual of great personal warmth", "the Gracie Fields of the psychic world" and "a ruthless moneymaking confidence artist", she continued to give free consultations or "sittings" until a month before her death, when she left only £15,291.
Stokes's health was poor throughout her life. Her thirteen or so cancer operations included a mastectomy, and the April 1987 removal of a brain tumour, after which she did not regain consciousness. She died in Lewisham, London on 8 May 1987.
Criticism, debunking and accusations of fraud
Stokes was accused of using various forms of deception to achieve the effect of communicating with the dead. These included cold reading, eavesdropping, and planting accomplices in the audience.
Evidence of audience plants
Stokes's death coincided with the publication of Catholic author Ian Wilson's 1987 book, The After Death Experience, in which he presented a detailed exposé of her methods. He described her as providing "slick, sure-fire answers" to the questions of life after death.
He attended one of Stokes's Palladium performances in November 1986, when she claimed to contact the dead relatives of four consecutive audience members, with a sequence of convincing and poignant details. However, when the participants were questioned after the performance, it turned out that each of them had been invited by Stokes. The manager of the Palladium explained that Stokes routinely booked the front three rows of the theatre for her own use.
Those "contacted" included a young woman called Dawn. She was given a message supposedly from her husband, who had died less than a month earlier, telling her that he supported her decision to turn off his life support machine. However, when hospital nurses had asked her whether she would like to speak to anybody about this decision, she had asked to speak to Doris Stokes. Stokes had spoken to Dawn by telephone, offering commiseration and asking to be updated with the results of the tests that would determine whether Dawn's husband lived or died.
In 1987, Dawn described a number of personal details which Stokes had given unprompted to her mother on the phone. While Dawn found these convincing, Wilson suggests that Stokes obtained them from Dawn's aunt, a prominent local spiritualist.
Another participant was Marilyn Stenning, whose daughter Kerry had recently died in a car accident. She received a personal phone call from Stokes, offering her front-row seats for the Palladium performance. Other participants included "camp followers", who regularly attended the shows and repeatedly received messages for the same people. During the second half of the performance, members of the audience were chosen apparently at random. Wilson described this post-interval performance as "much less convincing ... [relying] on intelligent guesswork and 'fishing'".
Disputed memoirs and testimony
While Stokes co-wrote seven volumes of autobiography, some of the events she describes in them have been questioned.
In her book, Voices in my Ear, Stokes claimed that she had solved two murder cases in England. However, Detective Chief Superintendent William Brooks of the Lancashire Constabulary stated that Stokes made no contribution whatsoever to the detection of either murderer.
Whilst in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, she also claimed that local murder victim Vic Weiss had contacted her with details of his murder. Former magician and high-profile sceptic, James Randi, contacted the LAPD, who informed him that all of the information supplied by Stokes had been available to the media at the time. Stokes was unable to provide any new information to the police and the case remains unsolved.
- Wilson, Ian (1989). The After Death Experience (Paperback ed.). Corgi Books. p. 82.
- Wilson, Ian (1989). The After Death Experience (Paperback ed.). Corgi Books. pp. 83–93.
- "Stokes, Doris May Fisher". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. June 2004.
- Wilson, Ian (1989). The After Death Experience (Paperback ed.). Corgi Books. p. 84.
- Young, Robin (23 September 2004). "Frauds who dealt in cheesecloth and charm". The Times. p. 3.
- Wilson, Ian (1989). The After Death Experience (Paperback ed.). Corgi Books. p. 83.
- "Be my guests: One week to go countdown to Christmas". Daily Mail. 17 December 2005. p. 74.
- Winton, Dale (1 September 2002). "We broke down the door ... my beautiful mother was lying dead on the bed". The Mail on Sunday. p. 49.
- Calman, Stephanie (25 June 1984). "Doris calls heaven and makes them happy". The Times. p. 9.
- James, Keith (16 September 2003). "Letters: My message from Doris". Daily Mail. p. 57.
- "A nice little earner in the futures market". The Sunday Times. 17 August 1997. p. 3.
- Bob Couttie. (1988). Forbidden Knowledge: The Paranormal Paradox. Lutterworth Press. p. 42
- Fanshawe, Simon (17 September 2005). "I know what you're thinking There is, says the US 'mind reader' Marc Salem, no such thing as reading minds. But being able to read people's signs and signals, he tells Simon Fanshawe, can be elevated to an art form where science meets our enduring need for mystery". Financial Times. p. 1.
- Lewis Smith, Victor (20 July 2001). "He's just Telly Pathetic". Evening Standard. p. 35.
- Wilson, Ian (1989). The After Death Experience (Paperback ed.). Corgi Books.
- Plummer, Mark (1981). "Doris Stokes Wrong – Police" (PDF). The Skeptic 1 (1): 1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 August 2006. Retrieved 3 January 2007.
- Connelly, Michael (11 June 1989). "Who Shot Vic Weiss". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 3 January 2007.
Ten years later, Weiss' killing remains unsolved and one of the San Fernando Valley's most puzzling mysteries.
- Voices in My Ear, Doris Stokes with Linda Dearsley (1980)
- More Voices in My Ear, Doris Stokes with Linda Dearsley (1981)
- Innocent Voices in My Ear, Doris Stokes with Linda Dearsley (1983)
- A Host of Voices, Doris Stokes with Pam and Mike Kiddey (1984)
- Whispering Voices, Doris Stokes with Linda Dearsley (1985)
- Voices of Love, Doris Stokes with Linda Dearsley (1986)
- Joyful Voices, Doris Stokes with Linda Dearsley (1987)
- A Tribute to Doris Stokes, Linda Dearsley (1988)