Harry Houdini is still famous as a magician and an escape artist. The last few years of his life, though, he devoted large chunks of time to exposing and debunking fake “spiritualist mediums.” In The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher takes a look at Houdini’s most famous spiritualist case: his two-year battle with the “Boston Back Bay Medium” who used the alias Margery.
Most people date the spiritualist movement in the USA from the 1840s, with the Fox sisters of Palmyra, New York. When the sisters were present, spectral rappings were heard, for which no source could be discovered until decades later when one of the sister ‘fessed up; (she could crack her toes the way some people crack their knuckles). In the interwar period of the twentieth century, spiritualism enjoyed a resurgence, and a powerful one, in both the USA and Britain. Jaher has chosen a particular situation from 1923 – 1925 to explore this phenomenon and study the personalities of two of the time’s most famous celebrities: Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle was a spiritualist missionary, who was making regular trips to the USA to lecture on it. His wife, Jean, practiced automatic writing. At least part of the impetus for Doyle’s championship of communication “from the other side” was rooted in his deep grief for the loss of his son, Kingsley, who died of influenza just after the end of the first world war. Doyle had always been a seeker, though; before he embraced spiritualism, he promoted the story of a British man who said he had photographic proof that fairies existed. Audiences awarded Doyle automatic authority on the subject of spiritualism, I think, largely because they confused him with the hyper-rational, logical, observant character he created, Sherlock Holmes.
Houdini always said that he wanted to believe in spiritualism because he hoped his mother would speak to him again, but he was first and foremost a showman. He knew how the tricks were done and unmasking the fakes raised his profile. There also seemed to be a genuine anger and contempt for those who preyed on the grieving by offering false hope.
Against this backdrop, the magazine Scientific American (yes, that Scientific American) offered a $2,500 cash award to any medium whose performance could stand up to scientific scrutiny. They created a panel of judges and the fifth judge was Harry Houdini.
Jaher takes his time in the first third of The Witch of Lime Street to describe the social and spiritual (and I’m using that word now in the sense of theological, not “spirits”) landscape; and sharing the stories of a few of the mediums Scientific American interviewed. Needless to say, they did not win the cash prize. He weaves these accounts in with the story of Roy and Mina Crandon. Roy Crandon was a prosperous Back Bay surgeon; young, petite, blond and vivacious Mina was his third wife. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, except maybe that it was a fad, the Crandons hosted a dinner party that ended in a séance. To everyone’s surprise, Mina’s most of all, the party uncovered Mina’s spiritualistic abilities.
Eventually, Mina came to the attention of Scientific American. To maintain her privacy and status, she used the pseudonym Margery. Several of the judges attended séances at the Lime Street house regularly. They were charmed by Margery and won over by her “spirit control,” her dead brother Walter. Houdini was a tougher audience, and soon the battle of wills was on, as Houdini argued not only with the Crandons, but with other judges, one of whom completely jettisoned any pretense at objectivity to become Margery’s champion. From the sidelines, usually in the form of letters, Doyle was a cheerleader, lifting up Margery and blasting Houdini and other debunkers.
Jaher may have chosen a side in this high-profile battle of wills (or it may just seem that way from the distance of time) but he is fair about his subjects. Mina was, by all accounts, genuinely charming, and part of Houdini’s squabbles with the Scientific American panel sprang from his own immense ego and hunger for publicity. Houdini is quoted as saying once that Margery’s history as “a secretary and cello player” prepared her to be a fake medium, and Jaher lets that line lie on the page looking just as silly as it is.
When it comes to the séances themselves, Jaher details the events in all their strangeness and doesn’t need to make a lot of editorial comments. When he does include an editorial, it is usually from the historical record. What emerges, quite apart from the stated debate, is a detailed picture of an event that is brow-furrowingly-weird to us now. The mediums often performed in “cabinets,” that had drapes in the front. (Here’s an article on spirit cabinets.) Some cabinets had arm holes, and members of the circle would hold the medium’s arms through these holes, proving that the medium couldn’t be moving things. This seems less effective when the person holding Margery’s right arm was nearly always her husband. Séances had to take place in the dark or under “red light” because direct light upset the spirits. Spirits would blow on trumpets, rap on tabletops, move tables and jingle tambourines. It’s easy to see this all as a weird party game or a session of stage magic, rather than genuine spiritual seeking.
There is an undertone of squicky sexuality to the séances. At first I thought it was just me and I was being prudish, but later Jaher cites several people at the time, who found the behavior at séances to have a definite current of sexuality. I’d say “sexual exploitation,” but frankly, it’s a little hard to tell who was being exploited. Margery would often disrobe in private so that one or two séance-goers could search her body to make sure she wasn’t hiding anything. Often the searchers were women but at least occasionally they were men. Men sat on either side of her while she was in her cabinet, their feet on her feet, their hands holding hers. When she was not in the cabinet, they would lean up against her, allegedly to make sure she wasn’t using her head and torso to move things. And more than once, in the euphemistic language of the period, “Her lap was explored,” since many believed female mediums extruded a substance called ectoplasm from their vaginas. (Houdini was much more blunt and just used the word “vagina.”) Margery often wore a robe and stockings only, apparently, when she was channeling, and was frequently heard “groaning and sighing” while tambourines or bells were chiming. Uh-huh. You be the judge.
One writer editorialized that he didn’t see what a medium had to perform in a cabinet “like a fitting room at Filene’s” (a Boston department store), and that is a good question. Walter, the spirit Margery usually manifested, often demolished the cabinet at the end of the session. It isn’t clear why, except that this was probably an exciting moment for the séance sitters. After one such dismantling, the observer took pains to note that the screws holding the boxes together had been unscrewed (rather than the wood being broken). They were convinced that this showed somehow that a spirit had done it; it just makes me think that whoever assembled the box (either the Crandons or someone who worked for them) didn’t screw them in tightly.
Jaher expertly captures the shifting tone of the media battle in The Witch of Lime Street. At first, the local newspapers extolled “Margery,” but as is always the case, eventually they turned on her and began the background investigation they could have done two years earlier. The Crandons’ personal history was revealed as somewhat unsavory. Their champions decried this as religious persecution; skeptics saw it as the price of notoriety. I don’t think this is a spoiler: Scientific American never awarded the $2,500 prize, although a couple of enamored gentlemen from the panel said publicly that they thought Margery was sincere in her belief that she was channeling spirits.
Jaher also refuses to look away at the broad swathe of anti-Semitism and classism that ran through this celebrity battle. First, the spirit Walter insulted Houdini by using Jewish slurs; soon Margery’s champions followed suit, going to far as to say that a Jew did not have the right to contradict white men. When Margery’s working-class background was uncovered, though, many of her supporters deserted her as if she had taken them in, not by being a fake medium, but by somehow being a fake “society wife.”
Houdini’s opinions on spiritualists, and Margery, did not change in his lifetime. He died in 1925. Mina Crandon outlived Houdini and her husband and died in 1941, insisting all of her life that her abilities were genuine.
In The Witch of Lime Street Jaher not only captures in-depth portraits of Houdini, Crandon and Doyle; he opens a window into a turbulent time period. The combination of national grief with the losses suffered in World War I, combined with scientific and technological discoveries that tickled the imagination, led, for many, to the belief that the spirit of dead person could be contacted by a medium the same way a person a thousand miles away could be contacted by a telephone. Like Fox Mulder in The X-Files, many people, even Harry Houdini, wanted to believe. Jaher brings all these aspects together in one well-researched and lively book.