Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

A replay on Channel 10 (TMC in France) of Columbo’s 1989 return to the television screen showed Columbo Goes to the Guillotine . This 90-minute episode features a crooked psychic, a crooked magician, and a crooked director of a scientific institute hell-bent on gaining government sponsorship for a phoney research programme on the paranormal. Columbo not only figures out the chicanery involved but literally risks his head in a magician’s guillotine. What a come-back!

The plot of this episode is based on an actual research programme that took place at the Stanford Research Institute during the 1970s and 80s. The research concerned the process of ‘remote viewing’. In Columbo Goes to the Guillotine we are shown three remote viewing experiments. Closely following the original SRI study with Pat Price – a retired policeman, as it happens – the Hoover Tower is chosen as the first target site. Let’s overlook the inconvenient detail that Columbo worked in LA and the Hoover Tower is in Stanford, some 320 miles away. As we discovered, the SRI experiments were full of loopholes. I quote here from Christo Roberts’ account:

Equally entertaining and notable for its debunking of the paranormal is the first episode of season eight titled Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. It concerns a so-called “psychic”, Elliot Blake, who claimed to be able to demonstrate the reality of what is known as “remote viewing” to members of the American military establishment. They wanted him, they said, to read the thoughts and actions of their enemies. To ensure that Blake did not cheat during the trials, the army hired a renowned magician and sceptic known as Max the Magnificent to monitor the process.  Three persons called transmitters were each issued with a book containing a portion of the map of the city on each page, a rubber band around the book, a pen, an eye shield and a camera. Before they drove off, the transmitters put on the shields over their eyes, opened the book at random and, using the pen, marked the page with a dot. They then put the rubber band around the book at the page and removed the eye shield before driving to the spot that they had selected. When they arrived, they were required to identify the most prominent landmark, take a photograph of it and transmit a mental picture to Blake.

To everybody’s astonishment, Blake obtained a 100% success rate in all three cases when he produced his drawings of what had been transmitted to him. However, it subsequently transpired that Blake and Max knew each other well since both of them had served prison sentences in the same jail. When they were incarcerated, they taught each other how to swindle others. But at some stage, Max double-crossed Blake and left him behind when he escaped. Blake, however, learned of this treachery and although Max had assisted him to commit fraud during the remote viewing experiment, killed him by decapitating him with a magician’s guillotine.

If Blake thought that his secret was safe, he was mistaken. Columbo not only solved the murder, but he also discovered how the remote viewing trick was done. Unknown to the transmitters, they had all been issued with a magician’s map book. Each book contained a large number of pages, but they were all copies and designed to lead the transmitter to a specific landmark. The three books accordingly each had a small portion of the map repeated on each page with the landmark already marked with a dot. To prevent the transmitters from discovering the trickery, they were required to wear their eye shields and keep their books sealed with the rubber bands. The pens with which they had been issued were fake – they were unable to make a mark on a page.

The particular episode, which dates from the 1980s was topical at the time. During the 1970s a paper was published in the prestigious science journal Nature by two parapsychologists, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, who claimed that they had been able to perform remote viewing experiments under more or less the same circumstances as the one described in the Columbo episode. Their claims were investigated by two professors of psychology from the University of Otago in New Zealand, David Marks and Richard Kammann. At first, they tried to replicate the experiments. When they were unsuccessful, they requested Targ and Puthoff to hand over the records of what was said. Targ and Puthoff, however, refused. Fortunately, Marks and Kammann eventually managed to obtain transcripts from the independent judges. An examination of these records later revealed that extensive cueing had taken place, rendering the whole experiment useless as proof of extrasensory perception (ESP). (Marks and Kammann The Psychology of the Psychic (1980) P.12-41). 

Columbo, the Paranormal and Science

As a Columbo fan, it’s good to know that the detective work Richard Kammann and I did in the 1970s about a flawed ESP project filtered into the story behind this Columbo episode.

Published by dfmarks

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