Standing before the audience gathered around him on the Lincoln Road mall, he looked like someone from another century. "Would you care to see some stealing, lying, and cheating -- and magical effects?" he asked of some passersby. Dressed in an oversize top hat, a purple and tan vest, and baggy brown pants, the lithe, dark-haired magician had his carpetbag of tricks next to him as he launched into his patter. Lawrence Lemon, as he called himself, was just one of the entertainers hired to perform at this summer's Buskers Festival '94 on the mall, but there was something eerily entrancing about his conjurer's art that held the crowd of about twenty spellbound.
He was, in fact, good enough to win the job of host of a forthcoming syndicated TV series on magic, and here on Lincoln Road he was singling out a particularly self-assured man in a light blue jacket and handing him a box of playing cards. Lemon instructed him, "Very carefully take the cards out of the box and open those cards in front of me." The man complied, warily fanning open the cards while keeping the pictures and numbers hidden from the magician. "Notice one card in the deck," Lemon said with an amused air. "Will you remember the card you see?" he added, and when the man nodded in agreement, Lemon's voice took on a high-pitched verve, as he exclaimed, "Wonderful!"
Real, unexplained magic was about to begin, but as things turned out, it was not nearly as strange as the life of the man who performed it. He was a survivor of experiences so bizarre that they made his off-stage life today as a medium for dead spirits seem almost normal, even placid.
Lemon told the fellow to give him back the deck. Then the magician put it in his rear pocket. A moment later he reached into his carpetbag and took out a wallet. He flipped open the billfold, displaying the back of a playing card stuck neatly in a slit on the wallet's left side. Like some medicine-show barker, he said, "I know what you might not be thinking: It would be absolutely impossible for the card that you had noticed in that open deck to be the same card that is here inside my wallet." Lemon handed the audience member back the deck, asking him in an odd English accent to announce out loud the card he noticed earlier.
"Ten of diamonds," the man said. Up to that point he had done nothing to indicate his choice; he simply had looked at the deck of cards and silently picked one in his mind. The man's assurance waned after he was asked to look through the deck again to find his card A and discovered it missing.
"Well, that's because the ten of diamonds has jumped to my wallet!" Lemon announced with a grand flourish. He opened the wallet, pulled the card out, and turned it around to display...the ten of diamonds. The audience burst into surprised applause.
That night on the mall, Lemon did that trick four times, always with a different audience member -- and a different card. Other tricks he unveiled were, quite simply, astonishing, a form of magic known as "closeup" that requires great dexterity and sleight-of-hand skills. A card marked up with a felt-tip pen by one onlooker somehow surfaced again inside a container gripped tightly by another spectator; Lemon gave out coins and dollar bills, which seemingly changed form inside the closed palms of dumbfounded gawkers; colored handkerchiefs appeared out of nowhere. All the while Lemon kept up his monologue, shifting into different voices every now and then to brighten his act.
Different voices -- and personalities -- often have lived within Lawrence Furman, as he's really called. He was haunted so much by them in his youth that he was put into a mental hospital for months at a time. And these days, at age 45, he is building a growing following "channeling" the purported spirits of a wizard and extraterrestrials, an ancient healer, and even Mary, the mother of Jesus, among others, before small groups of believers from all over Dade.
On a recent Sunday evening, Furman sat in an overstuffed armchair in the well-appointed living room of Marcy Roban, a new-age-style healer who had invited a few friends and fellow seekers to her townhouse in Kendall to hear the entities speak. Furman led the eight people in the room -- mostly professionals ranging in age from their late 20s to over 40 -- in prayer and then drifted into a trance state as they chanted "Om" seven times. He was ready for whatever would come through him.
He breathed deeply, grunted a few times, and as his body shuddered, an English-accented voice -- similar to one he uses in his magic act -- suddenly began to speak; it was the voice, Furman and his listeners believed, of Merlin, the wizard from Arthurian legend. "Thank you for bridging the gap between your world and the world that I come from, and providing a way for me to enter," Furman -- or was it Merlin? -- said. He talked rapidly and forcefully, without the occasional hesitations of Furman's normal speech, but nothing he said either could prove or disprove the phenomenon of channeling. For this group, though, no proof was necessary.
The talk ranged over a variety of traditional mystical subjects: astral travel during dreams, death as a doorway to another life, the guides and beings that are here to help us. "All these energies are here to work with you," the voice said. "You do not have to traverse the difficulties of life by yourself."
Blanca Mejia, a young real estate broker, was especially eager to contact those helpful invisible spirits. She listened intently to the channeling. At the end of "Merlin's" lecture, she asked, "How do I fine-tune my connections with my guides?"
"You are a star seed," Furman-as-Merlin said, referring to her supposed link to space beings. "They're trying to communicate with you in your dreams." He gave some advice on recording her dreams as a first step toward making contact.
"Hold on a minute," he added, "I may take my leave and someone else may come in to speak to you." With that he shifted his body for a moment and emitted two weird, high-pitched wails. Then he began speaking in a soft, high, singsongy voice, extending his arms toward Mejia and moving them up and down in a peculiar, slow-motion way. "We...are...your...friend," the new voice said in a creepy, drawn-out manner. "You...are...one...of...us." Before leaving the "being" told her, "We...will...talk...to...you ...in...your...dreams." Mejia breathed it all in with closed eyes, a slight smile on her face.
Furman changed voices again, and the English-accented "Merlin" asked, "Well, how are you feeling?
"Great," she responded.
"Merlin" told John, a first-timer to a Furman channeling session, about yet another being A an unwelcome one drawn to John because of his drinking. After giving some advice on "boogie busting," or spirit de-possession, "Merlin" declared, "I shall now take my leave." Furman nodded for a while in his chair, groaning, and then opened his eyes.
"Happy landing!" Marcy Roban said as Furman looked around the room, disoriented.
"Hi," he finally said.
As the small group looked on with something approaching awe, Furman explained how he felt during parts of the trance session. "When that E.T. came in, it was like a line came down and lifted me up. I was totally electrified."
His audience seemed equally dazzled. Mejia said, "The energy was so intense. I felt the vibrations, closed my eyes, and sucked it in. The light was really bright." John also was impressed. He'd never seen Furman before, and the psychic picked up on his concerns about drinking. They and the others had paid $15 for the privilege of hearing him -- and his "entities."
Furman's renown in the world of local metaphysicial devotees has grown to the point that he now has a mailing list of 350 and a core group of nearly 100 people who periodically visit for small weekly readings in his North Miami home. For individual sessions he charges $70; group sessions at his home cost $10 for return visitors, while first-timers pay nothing. His clients and devotees are eager to testify to his psychic abilities, no matter how skeptically the mainstream world may view this sort of thing.
"He told me things about my life that there was no way he could know," says North Miami Beach attorney Charles Serfaty of his early visits with Furman. That includes details of Serfaty's breakup with his girlfriend and facts about his siblings.
Avid testimonials, of course, don't prove that what Furman does is genuine, but they underscore the sincerity of those who attend his sessions. At the same time, Furman has so far avoided the trappings of a cult. No one worships him, and living in a rented house with his wife, Allorah, he hasn't gotten rich from either magic or spiritualism. "I don't set myself up as an authority," he points out. "I help people gain access to more parts of themselves."
Lawrence Furman has had plenty of experience learning about the different parts of himself, too. In fact he's supposedly had so many different beings coursing through his body that he once made a list just to keep track of them.
Furman's immersion in channeling began with a search for a new direction in his life during a trip to Hawaii two summers ago. He went with his then-girlfriend and roommate, Lori (now his wife, Allorah) Creevay, and a friend, Tom Villard. Furman certainly found a new direction: By the end of the weeklong vacation, he and Allorah claim, he had channeled numerous entities in a nearly nonstop marathon, including a few dead literary titans. They talk about it all in the same matter-of-fact way the rest of us might describe a trip to Aventura Mall. (This and other odd stories that follow are merely their view of the supposed psychic events in their lives, uncluttered by such journalistic phrases as "alleged entities," "they claimed," and so on; these tales can be read with such cautionary words in mind.)
The parade of supernatural visitors began unexpectedly. Near a waterfall amid huge boulders in a remote section of the island of Kauai, Furman sat down to pray for a revelation about what his next step in life should be. He was losing interest in the theater group he was then touring with, and his studies with a prominent local psychic, Paul McClain, were luring him deeper into mysticism. As he meditated he felt a female angelic presence that quickly entered A and left -- his body. When he opened his eyes, he saw, in the real world, Creevay walking naked out of the water toward him, looking like a blond goddess. As he moved to embrace her, he felt yet another feminine being move through him, and it was in that being's voice, the voice of "Nonah," that he began speaking to Creevay. At first she thought he was kidding her, an actor having a bit of improvisational fun.
She felt differently when she realized that Nonah was the same entity that McClain had channeled in a private reading for her more than a year earlier. Much of that reading Creevay hadn't described to Furman, so when his strange new voice began relating details about their past lives together in Atlantis -- details that dovetailed with the earlier reading -- she believed she was hearing the truth. (One tidbit: Furman was a centaur in Atlantis and died tragically.)
More "visitors" arrived in the early morning hours back at the house they were staying in. Creevay had awakened Furman to proclaim her love for him, declaring, "We're supposed to be together!" Furman beamed happily in his sleepy state, then began channeling some of her former lovers. There were, for starters, Dickens and Longfellow, who began reciting sad poems to her. "Longfellow was just, like, totally forlorn," she says now. "The feeling I had was...get over it."
By the end of the trip, Furman had voiced at least fifteen different spirits. He channeled, among others, several fairies, a leprechaun, some Native American shamans, the wizard Merlin, Philos (archivist of every soul's incarnations), an E.T. or two, and Sophocles. Perhaps the weirdest of all the visitations came from the spirit of their cat, Mewster. Creevay's brother Timmy was cat-sitting for them back in South Beach, and when she wondered aloud how the cat was doing, Furman suddenly began arching his back and talking in a soft, feline voice.
"Is Timmy taking good care of you?" Creevay asked the cat's spirit.
"No, Timmy's not here," the catlike voice said, and when Creevay checked her watch, she realized that back in Miami Beach it was the time that her brother was away at work.
Things were starting to get a bit crowded inside Furman. With so much going on then, he says, "I felt a little concern about how do I control this." Later he learned techniques for mastering the influx so he wouldn't turn into a 24-hour stop-and-shop for wandering spirits.
After he returned to Miami, he began practicing his new craft with a small group of friends he knew from McClain's classes. At first he charged nothing, but as his confidence in his abilities slowly increased, he decided he should start getting paid. "I don't believe in giving away things of value for free," he says. Plus, he notes, "I started running out of money."
He professes little concern about convincing anyone that his spirit communication is genuine. "If people don't believe me, they don't have to come," he says of his psychic readings. "I don't feel I need to prove that channeling is true."
This sort of indifference to concrete proof is just one of the reasons that Furman's fellow magicians are so dubious about psychic claims. The Amazing (James) Randi, a Fort Lauderdale-based magician who is the nation's leading debunker of psychics, says of channeling, "There's no evidence for it whatsoever. People [mediums] can play any role they want." The skepticism is so great that the charter of one of two national magician organizations, the Society of American Magicians (SAM), has for years barred membership to anyone claiming occult or supernatural powers, Randi notes. Furman doesn't contend he uses psychic powers to create his effects, yet he bridges in his own life the seemingly opposing worlds of stage magic and the supernatural. Magicians, who spend countless hours practicing to create illusions, find themselves competing for the public's attention with those who claim to perform such things naturally. Psychics and skilled illusionists, though, share in common the ability to inspire awe and wonder.
Here in Miami a group of mostly amateur magicians gather each month to sharpen their skills at a local SAM meeting, and those familiar with Furman's work say they admire him as an entertainer A but they're dismissive of his psychic pursuits. "When I first heard about it, I laughed," says Andrea Friedman, manager of a magic shop on Biscayne Boulevard. Although Furman's magician friends believe he is earnest, they steer clear of his channeling work.
Furman himself is aware how strange his psychic experiences may seem. "Some will feel it's insane," he admits. Still, he adds, after he began channeling, "I didn't feel like I was nuts. It felt too good and wonderful."
Furman doesn't talk about madness lightly. He knows what it is to go crazy.
On the outside everything seemed normal at first in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He was an extroverted, athletic boy. Still, even as a child his interior life was already quite unusual: He underwent regular bouts of out-of-body experiences underneath the covers in his bed. Those were ecstatic experiences, though, unlike the ragings of the interior voices he began hearing in his teens. One day, after his parents had divorced, he felt another personality take control of him, lead him to the family medicine chest, and find a razor blade. His older sister and mother came home from work to find the fourteen-year-old Furman underneath the bathroom sink with his wrists slit.
"There was blood all over," his mother, Ruth Furman, recalls. "Not a word came from him, he was like a zombie. I almost passed out."
Furman felt something altogether different inside him as his uncle and mother drove him -- after consulting a psychiatrist -- to a nearby state mental hospital. He saw unreal beings floating by in another dimension, heard voices popping in and out of his head. Once at the hospital, no one told him he was being committed. After he found out, he tried to escape, at which time five orderlies jumped him and carried him away down the hallway.
"He was crying and screaming, 'Mom, why are you doing this to me?'" his mother remembers. "It just broke my heart."
Eventually he was transferred to a fancier private hospital. On his first night there, he was placed in a room next to a patient who was receiving shock treatment, and something went terribly wrong. As Furman lay scared in bed with the curtain closed around him, he heard a wild commotion nearby as the middle-age patient went into convulsions. Suddenly the man broke out of his restraints, lunged through the curtain, and fell on top of Furman.
"His tongue was hanging out, his eyes were rolling around, and he was bouncing on top of my chest," Furman recalls. Lawrence screamed, but his body was so immobilized by fear and shock that no sound emerged. It was an inward scream that no one ever heard, and the terror of that night drove him further into himself.
His horror at life inside the hospital only mounted. He stayed for months each time he was admitted, but even all the Thorazine and other antipsychotic medications could not quiet his fear of what was being done to him, particularly the 30 or so shock treatments he underwent over the years. After each he awoke wracked with pain. "I felt they were killing me piece by piece," he says.
When Furman turned eighteen, hospital authorities determined he was ready to be released, and he moved to Cincinnati to take up the semblance of a normal life. He enrolled briefly at a university there, meeting girls and doing odd jobs. But Lawrence Furman had visions inside him that made normal life almost impossible.
The breaking point came after he decided to enlist in the army, seeking to realize his vague ambitions to be a doctor by receiving training as a medic. After completing basic training, he went to an armory in Chicago, expecting to get his medic instruction there. When he arrived the commanding officer bluntly told him he wasn't going to receive the training, and ripped up his papers with sadistic glee. Furman went berserk. He isn't sure what happened next A he believes he may have tried to throw someone out a window. However, when he awoke he found himself in a straitjacket, face down in the rear of a paddy wagon, being brutally clubbed on the head and legs by an MP. He prayed to God for help. Then something truly magical happened.
He felt himself leaving his body and flying into the comforting arms of an angel. In his mind he was crying over the horrible scene below, longing for the help of his parents, yet he felt no physical pain. "Learn to call on me," the angel whispered to him. (It was that same angelic presence, which called itself Clarisse, that he encountered years later during his meditation in Hawaii.) "My safety," he realized at that moment, "isn't in this world."
With a sudden snap, almost like a stretched rubber band hitting a book, he returned to the real world and felt the pain all over his body. Later he was flown, handcuffed, to a military prison hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He spent many long weeks inside, writing desperate letters to his mother asking for help in getting released. She reports receiving letters that were so heavily censored she had no idea that anything was wrong -- or even where he really was.
He was the lowest of the low in the army's hierarchy, a barefoot mental patient with PRISONER stenciled across his pajama uniform, a sitting duck for any soldier who wanted to scare the wacko by pulling a gun on him for fun. He prayed to God for help in getting out of there, and one day he got it.
It all started when he decided he was just going to walk out of the place and get some apple pie, one of his favorite dishes. Early one morning, when everyone was going to the mess hall for breakfast, he slipped out of line and left the building. He ended up standing next to one of two chainlink fences topped by barbed wire. He started climbing. In between the two fences was a narrow path reserved for the dogs that usually patrolled the perimeter. By pushing off the first fence, he was able to leap the small distance to the second one, and began climbing down. This was 1969, in the middle of Texas during the political frenzy over the Vietnam War, and here he was, shoeless, in his prisoner pajamas. "If anyone had seen me they would have shot me," he says. "I just started walking."
After a long while, he came to a road where he spotted a diner. He foraged for a few coins outside on the ground, then walked up the wooden steps and into the restaurant, where he furtively took a few more coins from the table of some departing customers. He now had a dollar or so to his name. Then he sat down, his PRISONER emblem covered by the back of the seat, and told the waitress, "Give me a piece of apple pie." She didn't notice anything amiss, so she brought him his pie and a glass of water.
"Every bit exploded with flavor. I never savored a piece of food so much in my whole life," he recalls. "That piece of pie meant more to me than anything." Then he realized he had to get back, or he might be shot by any trigger-happy cop he encountered.
On his return he went back to the same spot in the fence where he had earlier escaped. But now the guards knew that someone was trying to penetrate the compound; sirens wailed as he started climbing the outside fence to get back in. He looked down the path between the two fences and saw it coming: a vicious dog, teeth bared, running toward him. As he tried to maneuver his way from one fence to another, the dog leaped upward, teeth snapping, eager to bite him. For a moment he was paralyzed with fear. Then, adrenaline pumping, he hurled himself over the inside fence and hit the corrugated roof of a workman's shed, rolled off, and landed on the ground. Two MPs pulled up in a jeep, their M16 rifles drawn, and began chasing him. He went to the side of the shed, while they mistakenly went inside looking for him. Breathing hard, he rounded the corner of the shed and spotted, yes, the mess hall. By now it was early evening, time for dinner, and the inmates were filing inside. He rushed to join them, and, holding his breath out of fear, he merged with the crowd. The military cops never discovered who had escaped. "I made it," he remembers, one of the first glimmers of hope he had known for many years.
Ultimately the army agreed to release him -- if he'd sign papers absolving it of any liability for what happened to him. In September 1969 he returned home with what was officially recorded as an honorable, physical-disability discharge, a young man broken and defeated by his confinement. Not long afterward he suffered a nervous breakdown and went back into the mental hospital. One day, though, he heard a strong inner voice tell him, "You've got to get out of here now, or you'll be here for the rest of your life." He summoned the strength to ask to leave, and, with a small amount of money he inherited from a relative, traveled across the country with a family friend to San Francisco, still Oz for hippies in the early 1970s.
The years since then have been a journey upward into health and different kinds of magic: the magic of recovery, spiritual awakening, and the illusions that dazzle audiences. On the West Coast, he joined communes, visited alternative healers, and followed a guru. Upon returning to San Francisco, he met Garrance Lightinheart in a commune, and they put together a traveling variety and magic show. The recovering mental patient discovered his own resilience by learning to become a juggler, a magician's stooge, and acrobat. "Doing this brought me a great sense of healing," he says.
By the mid-1980s, he moved to Miami, where his friend Lightinheart had launched a career as a full-time magician. One day Lightinheart needed someone to take his place as a magician at North Miami's Jockey Club, and gave Furman, then working as an actor in commercials, a three-day crash course in closeup magic. He was nervous at first, but the coin and card tricks he learned went over perfectly.
"I felt a kind of grace take over me," he notes now, and that grace seems to have continued since then. He met and married an attractive actress, Allorah, and beat out a few dozen competitors to be the host of It's a Magical World, a show geared to preteens that's scheduled for broadcast in 150 cities later this month (not including Miami). After so much time locked up in institutions, he now lives in a pleasant home with a pool in back, doing the kind of work he feels he was meant to do.
"I want to be the local shaman," he says, and for many in Miami, he is. The transformation of Lawrence Furman is a kind of magic in itself.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.