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Edgar Cayce: Sleeping Psychic Diagnostician

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Advertisement for a lecture to be held by Edgar Cayce in the 1930s.

Edgar Cayce, his wife Gertrude and their secretary, arrested as fortune tellers, were told, 'You must not pretend to tell fortunes, because you can't.'

Things looked dark, but Mr Edgar Cayce knows the use of language. He told the court: 'I am no fortune teller; I'm a psychic diagnostician.'

Instantly he, his wife, Gertrude, and their secretary were set free to diagnose psychically to their hearts' content.
– A very snarky Arthur Brisbane, 'This Week', column in The Independent (Elizabeth City, North Carolina), 27 November, 1931.

The Virginia Beach newspaper reports the dismissal of the case against Dr [sic] Edgar Cayce in New York, visited by several local citizens last year. The court found they were not pretending to tell fortunes as charged and held that it should not interfere with the belief, practices or usage of an incorporated eccles[i]astical governing body or duly licensed teachers thereof. It was shown that Dr Cayce had been head of an Association of Psychic Research in Virginia for several years.
– A more respectful editor in 'Up and Down the Avenue with the Editor', Roanoke Rapids Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), 17 December, 1931.

Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) was one of the 20th Century's most famous psychics. He was best known for his apparent ability to diagnose medical problems while in a self-induced hypnotic trance. When awake, Cayce knew absolutely nothing about medicine; asleep, he rattled off the names of body parts like a trained anatomist.

A number of doctors had attended the 'readings' and been impressed – although they usually ended up arguing about his suggested treatments. Medical doctors a hundred years ago were either allopaths (what we think of as 'standard' medicine because they won the argument), homeopaths ('like cures like'), or osteopaths (doctors who take a good look at the bones and joints). They were uncomfortable with Cayce's subconscious, which happily mixed all three approaches. On the other hand, they couldn't deny that his subconscious knew its stuff. Over the years, thousands of satisfied patients testified to the often life-saving accuracy of this 'psychic diagnostician.' He'd even located medicines that were out of circulation – and provided the recipes.

Cayce did this all while lying on his sofa, twice a day, on a schedule. His assistants, who were friends or members of his family, asked him questions according to a script. A stenographer took down the 'readings' and made two copies: one for the patient and one for his records. The Association for Research and Enlightenment, founded by Cayce and his friends in 1931, has over 30,000 'readings' on record.

Edgar Cayce didn't ask for money, although people were free to donate. Most of the time, he earned his living as a portrait photographer. He was only arrested twice: both times, a police sting operation was involved, and both times, the judge let him go. He didn't fit the profile of a professional fortune-teller or fraudulent medium. He was a Sunday School teacher. He was modest in his claims and humble about his ninth-grade education.

Obviously, opinions are going to differ as to how authentic Cayce's psychism was. After all, many people don't believe psychic abilities exist at all. Others are ready to accept their existence but are concerned about the possible misuse of these 'powers.' Some of those may worry that the forces behind these gifts may be malevolent. This last question worried Edgar Cayce, too, because he was a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a very respectable institution based on the Stone-Campbell Movement of the early American frontier1. So what did Cayce think he was doing? And how did this all get started?

Spelling by Osmosis?

Edgar Cayce grew up in remote, rural Christian County, Kentucky in the last quarter of the 19th Century. A dreamy child, he played with children no one else could see. He read his Bible assiduously, but he was no shining light at school, where his mind wandered. This upset his uncle, who was the schoolteacher. It upset his father, who expected great things from his only son.

One evening when Edgar was about 13, his father had had enough. He demanded that the boy learn his spelling lesson – or else. The exasperated tobacco farmer struck the boy so hard he fell off his chair.

Cayce claimed that at this point, he heard a voice in his head saying, 'If you can sleep a little, we can help you.' When his father left the room, he laid his head on the spelling book and fell asleep.

When his father came back, Edgar Cayce knew his spelling words. He also knew the contents of every page in the spelling book. He took to sleeping with various textbooks under his pillow, and soon he could see the pages in his mind's eye. Somehow, he had developed an eidetic memory.

This talent stood him in good stead when he got older. He once memorised the entire catalogue of a bookstore where he wanted a job. The owners and customers were impressed.

How to Become a Psychic Diagnostician: Get Hit with a Baseball

Cayce's first trance diagnosis was given in 1892, when he was 15. Cayce himself was the patient. He'd been hit on the base of the spine with a baseball during a game. He started behaving erratically, standing in the road to flag down wagons, attempting to plant the coffee beans his mother was cooking, laughing, giggling, and making faces and odd remarks. The family put him to bed, and he fell asleep.

Then he began to speak seriously. He told his family that he was in shock, but that he would recover if a certain poultice were applied to the back of his head. The parents followed instructions – the next day, their son was right as rain.

How to Become a Psychic Diagnostician: Hypnotise Yourself

While working in the bustling metropolis of Hopkinsville (population 7,000 or so), Cayce went with his friends to see Hart the Laugh King perform. Hart was a hypnotist of the kind popular then and now: he'd put audience members in a trance and get them to do tricks. People found this amusing.

He couldn't hypnotise Edgar Cayce. Hart decided Cayce was a challenge, and offered to hypnotise him therapeutically – Cayce was suffering from debilitating hoarseness that interfered with his ability to earn a living as a photographer and insurance salesman. He couldn't speak above a whisper. If Hart succeeded in restoring the patient's voice, he wanted $200. If not, the attempt was cost-free. Cayce's friends, who were doctors with whom he shared a boardinghouse, urged him to try as a medical experiment. He agreed.

Post-hypnotic suggestion wasn't working. Frustrated, Hart contacted his friend Dr John D Quackenbos of Columbia University. Dr Quackenbos tried to hypnotise Cayce, without success. Finally, he suggested the subject go into a 'deep sleep, a very, very deep sleep.'

Cayce slept, and couldn't be wakened for 24 hours. It scared them all half to death. Quackenbos gave up and went back to New York.

A local friend, AC Layne, was studying to be an osteopath by correspondence school. He was eager to be part of the experiment, so they let him assist. Edgar Cayce decided he should try hypnotising himself. He lay down on his family's horsehair sofa – not a particularly comfortable bed – and put himself to sleep.

Then, speaking normally, he told Layne what suggestion to give him. With everyone watching, Layne said the words Cayce had given him. The onlookers stared in amazement as Cayce's throat turned bright red. When he woke, he could speak normally. Hypnotherapy had been accomplished.

The Dangers of Being a Sleeping Prophet

Over the years, Edgar Cayce proceeded to offer medical advice to people from the US and around the world. He didn't have to meet them or know their names, but he asked that they give him an address so that he could find 'the body' in his trance. Most people seemed to be happy with his diagnoses.

His main problem was that Cayce had no idea what he was saying while he was asleep. He was just as surprised as everyone else when he read the transcripts. He also had no control over what he was asked – it was necessary for him to be able to trust the person doing the questioning. For this reason, he was happiest when his father or wife asked the questions. Unfortunately, at various times various business partners took advantage of his unconscious state to launch inquiries about gambling, or the search for buried treasure, to the detriment of his medical pursuits.

During the 1920s, Cayce let himself be talked into using his gift to drill for oil in Texas. He hoped to earn enough money to build a hospital. Unfortunately again, the partners in this enterprise had less than noble intentions: They wanted the money for themselves. The 'readings' warned that these impure motives would come to no good. Mysterious acts of sabotage prevented successful oil drilling until their leases on the land lapsed.

In the early 1930s, Cayce and his friends and family built a hospital in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They were tired of doctors' refusals to try the treatments suggested in the 'readings.' They also started a university. Again, they met with disappointment: their backer, Morton Blumenthal, lost his money during the Great Depression. They had to close both institutions. But the Association for Research and Enlightenment, founded at that time, continued to grow.

Blumenthal and the Association for Research and Enlightenment added a dimension to Cayce's work that startled and troubled him. He had grown up in a very particular Protestant tradition with a specific understanding of the Bible. That understanding did not include references to Lost Atlantis or reincarnation and karma. But when these seekers began asking Cayce pointed questions about the Akashic Records, the answers he gave agreed with their world view, and not his. He was astounded to find out that he, too, had been reincarnated. He began giving 'Life Readings' in addition to health advice. These 'Life Readings' were intended to help people in their decision-making and improve their karma. One suspects that Barton W Stone, the founder of Cayce's childhood church, would not have approved at all.

Legacy

Edgar Cayce's name is often invoked today by followers of 'New Age' disciplines and students of the paranormal, usually to say, 'There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' They believe, because they want to. Sceptics continue to disbelieve, because they want to. They find flaws in the 'readings' and their methodologies and point out Cayce's failures. The sceptics find 'weird' medical advice – the believers find the advice to be 'remarkable insights' ignored by a close-minded medical academy. Believing Christians continue to be wary and sceptical, because they worry that Cayce might not have been dealing with the right kinds of spirits. As usual, different observers draw different conclusions based on their own premises and standards of evidence for these things.

Students of paranormal phenomena and their history point out that Cayce's trance diagnoses were not new: 'somnambulistic' diagnosis of illness at a distance was a feature of the first French experiments in Mesmerism a century before Cayce. Is it just a common fad because people want to believe in it, or is there something to the idea that altered states of consciousness could permit access to uncommon knowledge under the right circumstances? The jury's still out on that, perhaps waiting for the research team that could develop a properly controlled experiment. Until then we are left with anecdotal evidence such as the story of Edgar Cayce, the unmystical mystic on the horsehair sofa.

1Barton W Stone and Alexander Campbell were influential preachers on the frontier during the Second Great Awakening. Their movement branched off from the Presbyterians. The theological arguments about what was wrong with the Westminster Confession and how, exactly, to interpret the idea of the Trinity are extremely involved and likely to interest only a few people. In case you are interested, the manifesto is online - happy reading.

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