There’s a lot of things that divide us as a human race, but if there’s one thing that we all have in common, it’s a desire to know what comes next. There’s something that each and every one of us wants an answer to: Will life get not-so-miserable? Are the loved ones we lost still watching over us? Are they ok? Will we be ok?
With that in mind, it’s at least understandable that someone like Sylvia Browne could amass such a devoted following. The idea that some people are born with a gift that allows them to glimpse into the future — and other places of the present — is hugely alluring. And when Browne kicked off her career in 1973, that’s exactly what she claimed to do. For decades, she held personal and public readings, made predictions, and specialized in telling distraught parents whether or not their missing children were alive and going to be found. Was she usually right?
That’s … debatable, to say the least. She was a staple on shows like "Larry King Live" and "The Montel Williams Show." And according to her publisher, Simon & Schuster, she had a shocking 22 books hit The New York Times Best Seller list. The desire to know is a strong one, so what’s the deal with this famous psychic?
Sylvia Browne’s claims of a psychic pedigree
Most people might have become familiar with Sylvia Browne during one of her many, many talk show appearances or after hearing her claims that she helped save some missing children. But according to her, she knew she was psychic long before she hit the small screen.
Browne always claimed (via her publisher, Simon & Schuster) that she was just 3 years old when her psychic gifts revealed themselves, and one of her first predictions was that her parents would have another daughter. She also claimed to have announced her grandfather’s death and later told Larry King that she had always been able to look at someone and see his or her death, per CNN. Terrifying? Maybe, but she added: "The only thing, I think, that saved my sanity was that there are so many — well, we can track our lineage back to 300 years — of psychics."
According to The New York Times, Browne was a Kansas City, Missouri native who was born Sylvia Shoemaker in 1936. By 1986, she had founded the Society of Novus Spiritus, and there were some lofty goals here. She said of the organization: "’I am starting a new, world religion’ … Novus Spiritus carries love, peace, staying on track, and the answers to what we thought were mysteries."
It’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not
Here’s the thing about Sylvia Browne: It’s hard to tell what’s the truth and what’s part of her carefully cultivated image. That’s made even more difficult by the fact that she was such a prolific writer. Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, credits her with writing over 46 books. Twenty-two made the New York Times Bestseller list, and that’s not too shabby. In all of those pages, there’s not that much that she hasn’t covered — except the validity of it all is highly debated.
It’s no secret that people have gone a long way to debunk her claims of having psychic ability. After Browne’s death in 2013, Skeptical Inquirer did some digging to see just how many of her personal claims weren’t entirely true. They found all kinds of interesting things, including a release Browne herself was behind in 2007. That’s the year her ex-husband went public with the accusation that she lied about getting a higher education degree from college. The claim surfaced during an interview with Robert Lancaster, a skeptic who was behind the website StopSylvia.com. Browne disputed her ex’s accusation and sent Lancaster a transcript from her college, St. Teresa’s College, which is now called Avila University.
The transcript did prove that her ex-husband’s accusations were false, but she sent it off a little too quickly: It also proved that she never graduated, and her own claims about her education were also false.
There’s little to no evidence for some of Sylvia Browne’s biggest claims
When Sylvia Browne died in 2013, her obituary in The New York Times talked about her frequent television appearances, and her alleged specialty: finding missing children. It was the fame this brought her that led to the success of her over-the-phone psychic consultancy, where callers would fork over an impressive $700 for a 30-minute reading.
Browne often talked about how she consulted with the FBI on missing persons cases, worked on high-profile investigations like the Ted Bundy case, and also gave information to the FBI after the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. These claims were repeated so many times that anyone with even a passing familiarity with Browne has undoubtedly heard them, but Skeptical Inquirer was, well, skeptical. After her death, they filed a Freedom of Information Act for her FBI records, and what they found was undoubtedly something Browne counted on never going public.
There were no records of her working on Bundy’s case, no records of her participation in the World Trade Center investigation, and they concluded there was "no evidence … that Browne was involved with the agency." She did, however, charge $400 to consult with the Thibodaux Police Department, and they solved the murder around 10 years later — with no help from her contributions.
Sylvia Browne claimed to have worked with an FBI conspiracy theorist
In 2007, Anderson Cooper did some checking on Sylvia Browne in the aftermath of one of her predictions going horribly wrong. Cooper interviewed an FBI agent named Ted Gunderson, who confirmed that yes, he had worked with Browne quite a bit. And here’s where things get complicated. When Skeptical Inquirer received her FBI files, not only was there no mention of her working with the agency in any capacity but there was no mention of Gunderson’s name anywhere in the documents. The magazine does say that it’s entirely possible that Browne and Gunderson worked together after his retirement from the FBI, which is coincidentally when he started to get famous in conspiracy theory circles.
Gunderson, says the Los Angeles Times, was a private investigator in 1986 when he accused General Telephone of wiretapping him. This was also about the same time he was hired by the parents of children attending the McMartin Preschool to confirm the existence of secret tunnels beneath the building. He did, and he was a vocal supporter of the idea that those tunnels were being used for satanic rituals. The "satanic panic" was in full swing, and Gunderson was right there.
Gunderson was also behind the theory that Sonny Bono had died not in an unfortunate skiing accident, but in an "evil plot that was carried out to almost perfection by ruthless assassins," says NME; Browne’s input is unclear.
Sylvia Browne’s predictions were wrong a shocking amount of the time
Sylvia Browne did a ton of personal readings and predictions, so it’s impossible to fact-check her completely. But when it comes to her public predictions, well, Skeptical Inquirer says it’s pretty impressive just how wrong she was. Constantly.
In 2010, researchers compiled all the public predictions Browne made regarding criminal cases. It amounted to 115 deaths and missing persons, and she was "mostly correct" in the outcomes of exactly 0 cases. Browne tended to give "details" on things like the appearance of perpetrators, locations of bodies, and whether or not missing children were still alive, and she’s been found to have been wrong so many times that flipping a coin may have been more accurate.
Browne was wrong about a lot of other things, too. According to the HuffPost, she explained away her wrong predictions by saying — repeatedly — "Only God is right all the time," but her critics say she’s not even right some of the time. She made predictions for each upcoming year, so let’s check 2012 with help from MLive. In addition to vague things like "more earthquakes and natural disasters," she also predicted a cure for multiple sclerosis, and that President Barack Obama wouldn’t win re-election.
On a side note here, her beliefs on just how these things came to fruition were fascinating. For example, in regards to the cure, she claimed her spirit guide, Francine, confirmed it was being researched by divine teams working around-the-clock up in heaven.
The devastating results of a failed prediction
While some of Sylvia Browne’s predictions were definitely wrong, there are a few that stand out as having particularly devastating consequences — like the case of 17-year-old Amanda Berry. Berry went missing in April of 2003, and the following year, her desperate mother appeared on "The Montel Williams Show" to consult with Browne. Browne told her, "She’s not alive, honey." When mother Louwana Miller asked if she was ever going to see her daughter again, she answered, "Yeah, in heaven on the other side."
The Atlantic says Miller later confirmed that she believed — 98% — that Browne was right, and a year later, died of heart failure (via ABC News). Meanwhile, her daughter was very much alive, and in 2013, she escaped after 10 years of captivity and called 911. She later talked about how she had seen the episode: "I just broke down crying because I couldn’t believe she said that. And then my mom broke down crying, so that hurt even worse. … For her to get sick and I couldn’t be there with her … I couldn’t help her when she was sick."
Several years after her mother’s appearance, Berry gave birth to her captor’s daughter. The three abductees eventually saw Ariel Castro sentenced to 1,000 years in prison. Today, they have become activists dedicated to helping missing and exploited children.
This was Sylvia Browne’s response to another failed prediction
In 2002, Sylvia Browne gave another devastating — and incredibly wrong — answer to parents who asked her what had happened to their missing child. In 2002, 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck disappeared while riding his bike, and Browne told his parents — again, on "The Montel Williams Show" — that they would find him buried beneath two boulders.
Fortunately, not everyone believed her. When a boy named Ben Ownby went missing in 2007, journalist Michelle McNamara — who would be later credited for helping to identify the Golden State Killer — connected Hornbeck and Ownby based on physical similarities and their ages when abducted. Sure enough, it was McNamara who was right (via Esquire): When Ownby was found by law enforcement four days after his disappearance, they were shocked to find Hornbeck was still there, too.
Hornbeck’s father later told CNN, "Hearing [Browne’s prediction] was one of the hardest things we ever had to hear," and that stuck with The Guardian’s Jon Ronson. So, the same year — 2007 — he booked himself on a Browne-led cruise and got an interview. When he asked her what happened, she claimed that she had focused on three missing children. Two were dead, and "I think what I did was I got my wires crossed. There was a blonde and two boys who are dead. I think I picked the wrong kid." Still, her ex-husband, Gary Dufresne, condemned her, saying: "… the damage she does to unsuspecting people in crisis situations is just atrocious."
The FBI did, in fact, have files on Sylvia Browne
In 2004, Skeptical Inquirer uncovered a court case that went back to the late 1980s, when Sylvia Browne and her ex-husband were accused of grand theft and investment fraud.
Here are the basics: Browne had gotten involved in a gold mining venture and sold securities in it. That netted them $20,000, and instead of putting it back into the business, the courts claimed it had gone into their own accounts. When the gold mining endeavor went bankrupt, the pair went to court. They eventually pleaded no contest — Browne testified that she’d had a psychic hunch that the gold mine was going to be worth it — and ended up doing 200 hours of community service. When the episode came up in her books, it was without mention of any conviction and with a lot of finger-pointing at ex-husband Kenzil Dalzell Brown.
That wasn’t the only time Browne got the attention of law enforcement. When Skeptical Inquirer got her FBI files after her death, they learned that she had been investigated in the mid-1980s. The alleged crime? Providing falsified financial documents in loan applications. The investigation into the incidents stopped for a lack of evidence.
There’s a movement to debunk these psychics
In 2019, The New York Times did a massive piece on the sting operations set up to expose popular psychics as frauds. At the heart of the organization — Guerrilla Skeptics — is Susan Gerbic, and at the time, she and her organization was taking aim at a group they called "grief vampires."
Sylvia Browne fit their definition of psychics who focused on telling customers about their loved ones who have passed on, and in 2009, Gerbic and a colleague went to one of her shows. There, Gerbic’s associate was called up to ask a question, and instead of asking, he pretended to be possessed by the spirit of Lynda McClelland. Browne’s horribly wrong prediction about the fate of McClelland was part of the reason she needed this sort of comeback tour. After telling McClelland’s daughters that she was alive and well in Florida, her remains were discovered in Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later reported that she had been strangled by her son-in-law, who had then recruited some friends to help bury her.
What, exactly, was the group hoping to achieve? Gerbic said that their actions — which included going to Browne’s shows and handing out cards with the names of the subjects of her failed predictions — were meant to raise awareness and let people know that she wasn’t an infallible as so many would want to believe.
Sylvia Browne accepted the $1 million paranormal challenge
James Randi (pictured above) is one of those fascinating figures who made a living doing something that most people are shocked to learn is actually a career. The New York Times says that while he was a wildly popular magician who went by the stage name the Amazing Randi, he was also dedicated to exposing frauds.
Audiences know magic shows are trickery, but that’s not the case with psychics. He explained: "People who are stealing money from the public, cheating them, and misinforming them — that’s the kind of thing I’ve been fighting all my life." A founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Randi put his money where his mouth was and offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could prove paranormal abilities in a scientific setting. And yes, CNN says Sylvia Browne accepted his challenge in 2001 when they were both on "Larry King Live."
There was a ton of debate about just how the challenge would be set up; Randi and his team tested hundreds of people and geared the tests toward their specifically claimed talents. Still, Browne was finally happy with Randi’s suggestions on how to test her abilities. But the challenge, says Global News, never happened. Browne put off participating in the scientific test of her psychic abilities for years, until finally saying in 2007 that she had "nothing to prove." Randi retired from the foundation in 2015, and the prize is still unclaimed.
No, Sylvia Browne didn’t predict coronavirus
When events happen on a global scale, it’s natural to look for signs that mankind collectively missed. It would have been nice if we had a heads up about things like COVID-19, so when one of Sylvia Browne’s old predictions popped up in 2020, it had believers convinced that she’d predicted coronavirus.
In her book "End of Day: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World," Browne wrote (via CNN): "In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack ten years later, and then disappear completely."
Book sales went through the roof — partially thanks to some of the Kardashians — but when experts talked to The Independent, they said it wasn’t exactly as prophetic as it seemed. Representatives from the Center for Inquiry explained that not only is COVID-19 not a "pneumonia-like illness," but most of the predictions dealt with the future and couldn’t be confirmed. They also noted that other media that reportedly predicted the outbreak included a Dean Koontz book and episodes of The Simpsons, so … do with that what you will.
Sylvia Browne was wrong about her own death
When the Skeptical Inquirer looked at Sylvia Browne’s failed gold mining venture, they noted that she mentioned it — minus the community service and court case — in her 1998 book "Adventures of a Psychic." There, she claimed that when it came to psychic predictions, "I am not psychic about myself." Still, she gave it a go in 2003 during one of her many guest appearances on Larry King’s show. That’s when she predicted her own death, saying that she was going to die at the ripe old age of 88 (via Global News).
She was off by 11 years. According to The Guardian, Browne’s death was reported in November of 2013, and no more details were released — aside from the fact that she had been hospitalized in California when she passed at 77 years old. The publication also said that she had spoken often about her beliefs about what happened next, quoting her as saying: "So, you just don’t float around. You can go to the Hall of Messengers, where you can talk to Jesus … You can go to the Hall of Reconnection, where you can connect with someone you love."