Thomas John Flanagan

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Thomas John
Thomas John closeup.jpg
Born
Thomas John Flanagan

(1984-07-08) July 8, 1984 (age 36)[1]
NationalityAmerican
Other namesLady Vera Parker[1]
OccupationSelf-described Psychic medium
Websitewww.mediumthomas.com

Thomas John Flanagan, known professionally as Thomas John, is a purported psychic medium and former Chicago drag queen.[3] He has been called the "Manhattan Medium" and starred in the 2018 reality TV show, "Seatbelt Psychic", and the CBS All Access series "The Thomas John Experience" beginning in June 2020. In January 2020, John began a live show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, which was unexpectedly cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the show's suspension, John continued to do group readings using the Internet with sessions attended by hundreds of fans.[4]

In 2019, the "New York Times" reported that a sting operation run by Susan Gerbic found John was using information acquired from audience Facebook accounts during group readings.[5][6][7] In separate investigations, Gerbic first revealed that riders in "Seatbelt Psychic" were hired actors,[8] and later reported on similar issues present in the follow-up show The Thomas John Experience.[9]

In early 2021, John's plans to hold a "Virtual Spirit Circle" in April 2021 for children age 5 to 12 was criticized as exploitative and dangerous by the host of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, neurologist Steven Novella.[10]

A decade earlier, in 2009, John pleaded guilty to felony fraud for posting fake apartment ads on Craigslist and stealing the security deposits from renters.[11]

Early life[edit]

John is a native of Boston, Massachusetts, where he was raised in an Italian-Catholic household.[12] According to John, he had his first psychic experience when he was 4 years old and saw his deceased grandfather.[13]

Drag queen career[edit]

John has performed in drag around Chicago under the name Lady Vera Parker.[1][3] John was an official promoter of the Miss Gay New York America pageant, which uses the slogan "Where Boys Are Boys and Female Impersonation is an Art". The 2019 pageant was held on March 19, 2019.[14] The 2020 pageant was held on March 10, 2020.[15]

Mediumship career[edit]

Thomas John on stage in 2017

John first started working professionally as a medium in his mid-20s, and has worked in New York City and Los Angeles. John gives private readings to clients and claims to be often scheduled a year in advance.[12][16] He has appeared on TV shows including Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Dish Nation, The Real Housewives of New York, and Million Dollar Listing.[12]

The Thomas John Experience[edit]

John stars in the reality TV show "The Thomas John Experience", which premiered on June 4, 2020, on CBS All Access.[17] The show was recorded in cities around the United States including New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles.[18]

In advance of the premiere of the TV show, Skeptical Inquirer published an article examining the performance based upon the available trailer and research conducted by Susan Gerbic. The article compared the show to "Seatbelt Psychic". It included screenshots of Facebook posts made by John in advance of the new show's recording, which solicited his fans to find "volunteers to be filmed for a TV show" in Los Angeles and Boston. CBS, on the other hand, claims that the show, recorded in those cities, would showcase John's ability to connect "unsuspecting everyday people" with the departed. Gerbic described the problem with this as follows:

If the psychic knows who you are before the reading, then the chances that you have been hot read are extremely high. And of course, they know who these people are... Thomas John can claim he has never met these people before the moment he starts talking to their dead family members, and he might not be lying. But that does not mean that someone else didn't do some pre-show work on these people and give the best bits of information to Thomas John, which he could then claim he was receiving from the dead.[19]

Gerbic also criticized the New York Post for publishing an unskeptical article "Celebrity medium Thomas John dishes on new CBS show and naysayers," saying,

The reporters simply take Thomas John at his word; there are no challenges, no follow-ups, and no skepticism at all... I know the New York Post is not holding out for a Pulitzer and investigative journalism is not their MO. But you would think that maybe, just maybe, someone claiming to be a reporter would spend, what, maybe ten minutes looking on Google to see if there might be more to this story? A quick internet search will lead you directly to his Wikipedia page, one that has it all laid out for the media to find... Not doing even this bit of due diligence is just lazy.[19]

Following the release of the series, categorized as "Drama, Science Fiction" by CBS All Access, Gerbic watched the episodes and dissected them in another article. Gerbic included many screen-captures of episode details supporting her contention that the reading of the supposedly unsuspecting people is staged, similar to the readings done in "Seatbelt Psychic".[9] The article concludes with recrimination aimed at the show's production management and staff at CBS:

So, I ask those people responsible for "The Thomas John Experience", is this show something you are proud of? Was this just a paycheck for you? Do you think that perpetuating this kind of con is worthy of you? ... Sorry folks. This is a Grief Vampire that preys on people and you are allowing it to continue ... Show some integrity; society needs people who are willing to say, "No thanks—I'll pass on this one." I guess it's just not you.[9]

Caesars Palace 2020[edit]

A "Las Vegas Magazine" review praised John's live show at Cleopatra's Barge inside Caesars Palace, which premiered on January 16, 2020, saying "Weaving in and out of the audience, John announces correct names, places and exact details, much to the astonishment and excitement of the audience..."[20] However, John Katsilometes of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote an article about the show before it opened, saying "Even before he opens at Caesars Palace, it's clear not everyone buys Thomas John's claims of summoning the deceased in his live performances." [21] He goes on to briefly describe Operation Pizza Roll in which John was caught doing a hot reading.[21]

In an article written for Skeptical Inquirer, Susan Gerbic pointed out some of the techniques and methods that John could employ before and during his Vegas show:

  • The first technique involves the collection of information before the show. Gerbic points out that "Everyday TJ posts on Facebook a message asking who is coming to his show. And each time he posts these messages, he receives friendly questions and comments from people who say they will be at the show, or maybe they mention a future show they will be attending. Each time they do this, they are leaving a Facebook page for him or his staff to scroll through looking for some grief." She presented screenshots of some of these messages as proof.[22]
  • John and his staff can then troll through these pages and extract information about the people that can be used by him during his show. This information can be linked to other information such as "who proceeded them in death, who is still living and grieving over them, maiden names, and often hobbies, military service, organizations they belonged to…" [22]
  • The second technique involves pitching your claim to the correct portion of the audience. According to Gerbic, one of the ticketing companies used to book tickets for TJ's performances "can give away your information to someone who is providing the event." That means that John and his staff would have information on where people were seated in the auditorium. Coupled with the first technique, this would allow John to tailor his presentation to specific sections of the audience based on where they were seated.[22]

Gerbic recounts the following as an example, "TJ was concentrating on a specific area of the room in the back ... TJ was saying that this was a very strong connection. No one responded until finally, a woman located on the completely opposite of the room raised her hand and said, 'I have a Joe from NYC' and then she said that she had been sitting in the area that TJ was looking for her, but she moved to the other side of the room. TJ made a face and said, 'Well your dead people didn't know you moved!'" [22]

On the opening day of John's show, "Skeptical Inquirer" published an article analyzing John's appearance two years earlier on the TV show, "Windy City Live" on ABC7 in Chicago. Susan Gerbic reported that this appearance "was suggested by one of TJ's biggest YouTube fans (as proof of John's mediumship abilities). In the article, Gerbic dissected the recording and demonstrated with screenshots that the information John portrayed as coming from spirits was easily available on social media, making the performance at least in part, a hot reading. Gerbic also reported on John's predictions for 2018 played by ABC7, which she characterized as the station giving John "a 6-minute free commercial plug." This video included predictions that 2018 would be the "downfall" of Kim Jong-Un, President Trump would NOT be impeached, O.J. Simpson would get remarried, and that Oprah will run for President in 2020.[23] Gerbic concluded her analysis saying:

Let me be clear: grief vampires prey on loss, loneliness, and pain; their platitudes offer nothing helpful. There is no entertainment value in what these grief vampires do. Remember that most of us are susceptible at some point in our lives if we were to find ourselves in a desperate moment. So, show some kindness toward these people who are the victims of this con.[23]

Dead Serious Musical[edit]

A musical based on John's life and experiences titled "Dead Serious" premiered off-Broadway in July 2019. Co-written by and Michelle Wendt and John, the musical pulled from John's personal stories, exploring his journey as a medium. "Dead Serious" played from July through September 2019 at the Theatre Center in New York City. The cast included Leo Berman, Cater Ellis, Stephen Gordon, Solomon Kee, Andrew Morissey, and Eddie Rodriguez.[24]

Seatbelt Psychic[edit]

Lifetime produced a reality TV show starring John called Seatbelt Psychic. This show began its run on July 11, 2018, and stars John as a ridesharing company driver who surprises "unsuspecting" passengers when he delivers messages from their deceased relatives. It is produced by Zeb Newman, Ryan Simpkins, Sarah Happel, Emma Conway, Brie Miranda Bryant, and Ben Winston.[25][26][27]

John's alleged psychic abilities in the context of the show have been challenged by Susan Gerbic, a skeptical activist and fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, who discovered that John's passengers are actually actors, several of which are documented in IMDb. Gerbic concluded that the riders were likely hired to ride with John, but were probably not acting when talking with him. She concluded that the details about their lives mentioned by John were easily found on social media sources and likely fed to John, making the readings actually hot readings. One rider, Wendy Westmoreland, played a character on "Stalked by a Doctor", a TV show also produced by Lifetime.[8][28]

In December 2020, Skeptical Inquirer published an article analyzing the route driven by John with some of his passengers and concluded that everyone was picked-up at the same location, and that John drove a circuitous route with each passenger, making only right hand turns. The article also contains revelations made by one of John's passenger who described how they were booked to appear on the show as an unsuspecting passenger.[29]

Mediumship criticism[edit]

Despite the scientific skeptic consensus that mediumship is a con,[30][31] several media organizations have promoted John, claiming he has paranormal powers,[32] including Vogue magazine,[33] The Hollywood Reporter,[26] SF Weekly,[34] WJBK,[35] and WPIX.[25] In a 2019 television segment on "Last Week Tonight", John Oliver criticized the media for promoting TV psychics such as John because this exposure convinces viewers that psychic powers are real, and so enable neighborhood psychics to prey on grieving families. Oliver said, "...when psychic abilities are presented as authentic, it emboldens a vast underworld of unscrupulous vultures, more than happy to make money by offering an open line to the afterlife, as well as many other bullshit services." [36][37][38]

In a June 2019 "Skeptical Inquirer" article titled "I'm Speechless! Thomas John Reads KJBK Fox2 Derek Kevrea", Susan Gerbic reported on an appearance by John on a daytime TV show where he gave a reading to staff meteorologist, Derek Kevrea, and claimed to deliver messages from his dead relative. Kevrea's feedback was that what John told him was accurate. In a Facebook video, Kevrea later said, "I'm speechless … Thomas John communicated with my grandpa … He said he is proud of you … it's a miracle I held it together." In her article, Gerbic reported that with a little research, she discovered the information provided was available from social media and other sources available to John.[39] Regarding Kevrea's proclamation, Gerbic says:

It isn't the sitter's fault when this kind of thing happens... Caught up in the moment, especially when your coworkers are sitting right there saying that this is real, it's easy to see how someone might believe all this. Plus, this is live morning TV, everything needs to be happy and fun. He needs to play along.[39]

John has steadfastly denied performing online research of those who attend his shows.[21] John's co-producer Alan Glist says that psychics are an inviting and common target of skeptics, adding, "Unfortunately, there is always that group of people that are trying to bring psychics and mediums down and non-believers. I can tell you firsthand I have seen Thomas in action and have brought people, and he had no idea were going to be there and he has given them perfect readings." [21] Glist staged three presentations in Las Vegas before John being offered his residency at Caesar's Palace. Glist says, "In each presentation, we invited people and brought in total strangers and never gave him a list or gave him any indication as to who was going to be there. And I've watched him on three different occasions literally work the room reading total strangers and nailing the names of their family members who are deceased and talked about them in great detail." [21]

Operation Pizza Roll[edit]

"Susanna Wilson" (Susan Gerbic) and "Mark Wilson" (Mark Edward) undercover, with unsuspecting John after their 2017 reading during Operation Pizza Roll

In March 2017, John was caught doing a hot reading in a sting operation named "Operation Pizza Roll," which was planned and implemented by Susan Gerbic and mentalist Mark Edward. The unmarried couple Gerbic and Edward attended John's show using aliases, and John "read" them as a married couple, Susanna and Mark Wilson. During the entire reading, John failed to determine the actual identities of Gerbic and Edward, or that they were deceptive during his reading. All personal information he gave them matched what was on their falsified Facebook accounts, rather than being about their actual lives. John pretended he was getting this information from Gerbic and Edward's supposedly dead—but nonexistent—relatives.[6][40][41]

As Jack Hitt reported in The New York Times:

" Over the course of the reading, John comfortably laid down the specifics of Susanna Wilson's life — he named "Andy" and amazingly knew him to be her twin. He knew that she and her brother grew up in Michigan and that his girlfriend was Maria. He knew about Susanna's father-in-law and how he died." [5]

These details were from the falsified Facebook accounts for the pair, which were prepared by a group of skeptics in advance of the reading, and Gerbic and Edward were not aware of the specific information in these accounts.[7] This blinding was done to avoid John later being able to claim he obtained the false information by reading Gerbic and Edward's minds.[6][40][41]

In her report, Gerbic also revealed that during an after-show private event, John disclosed in a group setting that at least one of the people in the audience, which he did a reading about, was his student.[6][28][40]

When Hitt reached out to John for comment, John insisted that he did not use Facebook, saying, "I do remember her [Gerbic] coming to an event... I recognized her because she was there with that other guy who wrote that book." He also told Hitt that "I have my eyes closed for an hour and a half when I'm doing readings. If she spoke up during that period of time, I don't remember that." John also argued that the entire experiment wasn't scientific enough, saying "For Susan to come to a reading and get a two-minute reading and say, well, 'I made a fake post about my dog, Buddy, and my father who died,' it's really not any sort of scientific testing of psychic powers." He added, "First off, someone will have to be a scientist to do a scientific experiment, not someone who used to be a photographer at Sears." [5]

When asked whether psychics would change their behavior now that they knew her methods, Gerbic said, "I hope they see Gerbics in their audience every time they look out and wonder if we might be there." [42]

Claus Larsen summarized operation Pizza Roll on SkepticReport.com in an article titled "Is Thomas John a real psychic? Not a ghost of a chance!" which also included an interview of Gerbic about the sting and its aftermath.[43]

In a June 2019 Skeptical Inquirer article titled "Thomas John Revisited", Gerbic reported on the aftermath of the sting. This including a report of a "Facebook Live" stream, where John attempted to prove his paranormal powers to fans following the sting revelation by doing what was claimed to be a "scientifically controlled reading" of a supposed stranger. Gerbic dissected the performance, giving details as to why it was the opposite of scientifically controlled, and described how once again, Facebook information could easily have been accessed, despite assurances otherwise. "One of my team members gave me a list of all the hits that Thomas John got during the reading... and then my team member gave me screenshots of [the sitter's] Facebook page where she posts things that are the same as what Thomas John told her." Also, despite John's claims that "NO I do not Google people. NO I do not research people. NO I do not go onto people's obituaries. I do not go onto Ancestry.com." Gerbic's article includes screenshots of John's monitor captured during the live stream. These pictures contain saved reading lists from past Google searches, including searches for specific individuals and intelius.com. This website states that it is "a confidential way to find people so you can reconnect or just get more info on a person. People Search reports can include phone numbers, address history, age & date of birth, relatives, and more. Find a person you're curious about — search today!" [44]

In August 2019, Gerbic followed up "Thomas John Revisited" with another article, "Three Parents Reveal The Truth About Psychic Thomas John," which covered the aftermath of her sting operation. The article investigates a video uploaded by John on March 24, shortly after The New York Times sting article was published. John reads "three grieving women", and claims the results validate his paranormal powers. In her article, Gerbic does a point-by-point analysis of these readings and offers evidence that the items claimed to have been "impossible" for John to know without supernatural help were easily available online.[45] Gerbic's conclusion included:

...when you make testable claims—as these grieving mothers did—that the information that TJ gave them is not located anywhere on the internet, then I hope you will think twice. This "unfindable" information was found and presented here, and it can be found by anyone in just a few minutes of online searching. It's even quicker if you have an account on a website such as intellius.com—something we know TJ has because it was bookmarked on his computer.[45]

A concise recounting of Operation Pizza Roll is given by John Katsilometes of the Las Vegas Review-Journal as part of his criticism of John's shows at Caesars Palace in 2020.[21]

Operation Lemon Meringue[edit]

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of his Las Vegas show dates for the duration, in 2020 John turned to remote readings over Zoom to continue his mediumship business. Susan Gerbic organized a team to infiltrate and investigate these online readings using the name Operation Lemon Meringue, and in September 2020 she published an article documenting the results. Gerbic reported that John used a combination of cold reading and hot reading techniques, including gathering details on the people in the session using information that her team verified was available on social media. Gerbic also indicated that John uses the paid subscriptions service Intelius to gather data.[4]

Regarding John's compensation, Gerbic said "Let me point out that this event was sold out and lasted about two hours with a requested donation of $20 a person, which means he made about $3K an hour. Plus, he was pushing his classes, which aren’t free. Nice gig. Did I mention that this was a donation? Someone please educate me if that means he has to declare it on his taxes or not."[4]

After promising to continue reporting on John's online activities under the Operation Lemon Meringue name, Gerbic concluded:

The articles I’m writing give all the instructions someone can use to mine social media and websites like Intelius, Ancestry, and Legacy for hits. I suspect that it takes a special kind of person who can make grieving people cry by just reading their social media posts back to them. There must not be mirrors in Thomas John’s home.[4]

2021 Spirit communication event for children[edit]

In early 2021, John announced plans to hold a "Virtual Spirit Circle for Children" on April 19th. The cost is advertised as $400 and is advertised as "a very special event for children who have lost a loved one... The age requirement is between the age of 5-12 years old. Children who are very sensitive and open to the spiritual world are very encourage to attend. The event will open up where Thomas will practice a few mediumship exercises with the children. Then each child will receive messages from their loved one on the other side."[46][47]

Upon learning of this event, the host of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, neurologist Steven Novella decried its exploitative and dangerous nature in Science-Based Medicine writing that, {{Quote|text=...it is disturbing when self-proclaimed psychic mediums insert themselves into the grieving process, especially when children are involved. Alleged medium Thomas John, for example, is planning a Zoom group “spirit circle” for children who have lost loved ones. Grieving children are a doubly vulnerable population, and such an event can only be described as exploitative. There is also tremendous potential for harm.[10]

Felony fraud conviction and other legal problems[edit]

In 2009, John was arrested and pleaded guilty to felony fraud for posting fake apartment ads on Craigslist and stealing the security deposits from renters.[11] On June 30, 2009 John was arrested and charged with two offenses, of theft and theft by deception. It was alleged that he advertised and collected rent on properties that he did not own. He was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to probation on July 2, 2009.[48][11]

The New York Daily News article reported that John was being sued by a California-based public relations firm, ZTPR, because he hadn't paid his bill. John had hired ZTPR to repair his public relations image after the Daily News uncovered and reported on his fraud conviction. According to court papers, ZTPR "completed all the services of helping him build and exaggerate in the press his public profile as a believable psychic medium". Slattery reported that John "told the paper he's worked out a settlement with ZTPR, but... ZTPR president Zack Teperman said the matter was still being reviewed by the company's lawyers." [11]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Never Argue with a Dead Person: True and Unbelievable Stories from the Other Side" [49]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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