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Image: (L) Wolf Messing, Polish psychic (colourised), (R) Joseph Stalin during the Tehran Conference

Stalin's Wizard: The mystical life of Wolf Messing

It’s said that a good magician never reveals their secrets, a statement none truer than when applied to Polish entertainer Wolf Messing. The life of the self-proclaimed psychic is best described as all smoke and mirrors; deciphering fact from fiction is an impossible task.

Legends and myths have become an inseparable part of the Messing story. With that in mind, let us dive into the colourful world of a man said to have entranced everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Josef Stalin.

Early Life

Little of Messing’s life can be categorised as hard fact and even details surrounding his birth are murky at best. Some sources say he was born in 1874, others in 1899. His place of birth seems a little more certain - Góra Kalwaria, a Jewish village situated near Warsaw, Poland.

His mother is believed to have died when he was young whilst his father, Chaim Messing, remarried and had two more children. Not much else is known about Wolf’s early life.

Train to Berlin

The next chapter in his story is told by the first of many anecdotes that are attributed to his life. It is said that he left home at an early age, perhaps even running away, and caught a train to Berlin. The first signs of his special telepathic abilities were noted during this journey. Unable to afford a ticket, the young Messing had snuck onto the train and hidden under a seat in the hope the ticket inspector wouldn’t see him.

The plan failed but the quick-thinking Messing grabbed an old piece of newspaper and tried his luck by handing it to the inspector and declaring it to be his ticket. ‘You’re an odd duck, you know?’, the inspector is believed to have said. ‘Why are you hiding when you have a ticket?' At that moment, Messing realised he had incredible powers of persuasion over people.

The circus calls

Life in Berlin was tough for the young Messing who scraped by as best he could. Poor and malnourished, his health took a turn for the worse. However, a chance encounter at the doctor's led him to a circus that would change his life forever.

The Busch Circus gave Messing an opportunity to showcase his telepathic abilities and it wasn't long before audiences were mesmerised by his act. He'd apparently read the minds of those in attendance and then carry out simple tasks that they'd telepathically communicated to him. 'People's thoughts come to me as pictures,' he once claimed.

To many, his act was more than trickery, it was genuine magic and clairvoyance.

Mind-reading powers

Messing later described his abilities as grounded in hard science. ‘… It's not mind-reading, it's, like the reading of muscles ... When humans think hard about something, the brain cells transmit impulses to all muscles of the body. Their movements, invisible to the eye, I can easily feel.’

A lot of the time Messing held the person whose mind he was attempting to read, apparently detecting the subtle muscle movements they gave off as their brains ticked over. He claimed this gift worked both ways as he could broadcast mental suggestions to alter the perceptions of any intended target, hence the train conductor believing his scrap of paper was a ticket.

Einstein and Freud

Messing travelled far and wide with the circus as it toured the globe. One stop in Vienna, Austria, brought the young performer into contact with two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century – Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Or so we’re led to believe.

The encounter was said to have occurred in 1913 or 1915, however, it’s generally accepted that Einstein and Freud didn’t first meet each other until 1927. For the sake of a good story, let us throw caution to the wind and indulge ourselves.

Legend states that Einstein and Freud were so captivated by Messing's abilities that they decided to test him. Freud gave a mental command to Messing, 'Go to the bathroom cupboard and pick up some tweezers. Return to Albert Einstein, pull out from his luxuriant moustache three hairs.’ Messing duly obliged leaving Freud and Einstein gobsmacked.

Eastward bound

During the course of his life, everyone who was anyone in the 20th century seemed to visit Messing, from Mahatma Gandhi to Marilyn Monroe. Even Adolf Hitler was said to have been afraid of Messing’s powers, placing a bounty on the head of the mystic after he’d predicted in 1937 that ‘If Hitler goes to war against the East, his death awaits him’.

The prediction apparently cost Messing his freedom as he was forced to flee and head eastwards. One tale speaks of capture by the Gestapo but Messing was able to use his powers of persuasion to convince the guards to lock themselves up instead. They duly handed him the keys and he made his escape.

Stalin’s wizard

By the time Messing arrived in the Soviet Union, his legend was already well-established. Josef Stalin, the premier of the Soviet state, got wind of Messing's arrival and ordered he be brought to him. The stories then tell of two challenges that Stalin set Messing to test the authenticity of his talents.

The first was to come to Stalin's dacha (country house) uninvited and get past security to reach the Soviet leader. Messing supposedly achieved this task without breaking a sweat, convincing Stalin's guards that he was none other than Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief.

The second task can be described as none other than a bank robbery with Messing being required to withdraw 100,000 roubles from the state bank. He did as was asked, presenting the cashier with a blank piece of paper. The cashier then willingly handed the money over.

Just how much of these anecdotes are true remains to be believed but it is understood that Stalin and Messing did meet on several occasions. Did that lead to Messing becoming Stalin's personal magician? Unlikely.

The leader had no need for a court wizard and even if curiosities led him to keep Messing around, Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia would surely have prevented him from being friends with a supposed mind reader.

Later life

There are conflicting accounts about Messing’s activity during WW2. Some say he continued thrilling audiences in theatres across the USSR, whilst others say he was sent to a notorious prison in Uzbekistan.

Either way, his later life was a sad and lonely one after the passing of his wife in 1960. Messing died in November 1974 and of course, there's a legend declaring that he predicted his own demise.

The truth about Wolf Messing will most likely never be known, leaving the exact nature of his extraordinary capabilities and remarkable achievements as unquantifiable mysteries.