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The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by David Jaher

Publication Details: 
Crown Publishing Group. ISBN-13: 978-0307451064
Publish date: 
October, 2015

During the early 1920s many of those who were suffering a sense of loss after the upheavals of the preceding decade became receptive to the consolations of Spiritualism, temporarily reversing its gradual pre-war decline.  David Jaher’s fascinating study explores one particular facet of this rekindled enthusiasm, the mediumship of Mina Crandon, known as ‘Margery’, and the enquiry into physical mediumship conducted by the Scientific American magazine which saw Margery intensively investigated.  As Jaher’s subtitle indicates, the magician, escapologist and larger-than-life personality Harry Houdini played a key role in the story.

The Scientific American announced a competition at the end of 1922 as the result of a challenge issued by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that it examine psychical phenomena in a rigorous manner.  The idea was not taken up by the magazine for purely altruistic reasons: its publisher, Orson Munn, had been spending freely on his personal life and needed to boost circulation.  The project had been preceded by well-attended tours of the US by Sir Oliver Lodge and, with even greater fanfare, Conan Doyle, which showed that there was public interest in evidence for survival of bodily death.  The offer of a prize built on a culture of competitions in the inter-war period (notably dance marathons) and was sure to generate publicity and sales.

The arrangement was that a medium who could demonstrate genuine physical mediumship in front of a committee nominated by the magazine would receive a $2,500 prize (mental mediumship and other psychic abilities were excluded).  Another prize to the same value was to be awarded for production of a ‘psychic photograph under test conditions’.  Initially it seemed a straightforward mission: put together a panel of experts, have them test mediums, winnow out the fraudulent and deluded, and see if anybody could pass stringent tests to provide incontrovertible evidence that their productions were truly paranormal.  If that should occur, the successful individual would get the money.  The reality, as one might imagine, proved far from straightforward.

The judges were William McDougall, president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and head of the psychology department at Harvard;  Walter Franklin Prince, the ASPR’s research officer, and later founder of the Boston Society for Psychical Research, an independent splinter organisation of the ASPR; Hereward Carrington, previously an ASPR investigator and prolific author on psychical subjects, Daniel Frost Comstock, physicist, engineer and Technicolor pioneer; and Harry Houdini, naturally a much bigger draw than the others, but potentially a loose cannon among his staid colleagues.  They were assisted by Scientific American associate editor James Malcolm Bird as secretary, with responsibility for day-to-day arrangements.

Canadian-born Mina Crandon was the wife of prosperous Boston, Mass., surgeon and instructor at Harvard Le Roi Crandon, whom Jaher paints as a rather sinister character despite his urbane surface polish.  Propelled by her husband’s interest in mediumship after he met Lodge, Mina had attended séances as a sitter, tried her hand as medium, and during 1923 found she had a talent for it, with her late brother Walter Stinson, who died in a railway accident in 1911, acting as her control.  Walter was an outgoing, blunt kind of chap who said what was on his mind, a contrast to the ethereal didacticism which might be expected in the séance room.  In early 1924 the Crandons agreed to participate in Scientific American tests, but stipulated that these would have to take place in Boston rather than the magazine’s offices in New York.  To safeguard her identity Mina adopted the pseudonym ‘Margery’ (leading to her occasionally being referred to incorrectly by writers as ‘Margery Crandon’).

To begin with the contest had gone well, if slowly, the panel easily identifying the frauds who presented themselves in an attempt to win the money.  But when it came to Margery, the situation was more complicated.  Margery was not like the previous candidates.  There were class issues arising from her social background, and her physical allure was a barrier to complete objectivity.  She was blonde, younger than her husband by 17 years, and confident around men.  Sitters were wined and dined at their elegant Lime Street home on Boston’s Beacon Hill before séances, and a cordial atmosphere was established.  The Scientific American investigators were invited to stay at the house rather than at an hotel, creating a sense of obligation.  If what she did in the séance room was fraudulent it was done with a subtlety that had been beyond her rivals for the prize and the committee, minus Houdini, were impressed enough with the wide range of physical phenomena she produced to continue testing her.

These phenomena mostly took place in the dark, and as well as two-way communication with Walter, Margery was noted for the production of ectoplasm, rather disgusting-looking tuberous forms possibly consisting of animals’ internal parts. Other elements in her repertoire included dramatic table levitations, materialisation of limbs, raps, breezes, scents, trance writing in a variety of languages, apports, music, luminous shapes, and ringing a bell in a box out of reach.  There was allegedly the production of Walter Stinson’s thumbprint in wax, later the cause a fierce controversy that generated its own literature to which Jaher fails to do full justice.  Even without the thumbprints, by any standard it was an astonishing array of phenomena, undermined somewhat by Le Roi’s presence next to Margery at sessions.  As might be expected, once he had had the opportunity to observe Margery in action himself, Houdini had strong reservations.

Houdini’s charisma means that he is the natural focus whenever he appears and Jaher sketches in enough of his background to assist the reader in understanding his motivations and methods.  He was on a mission to debunk phoney mediums, and he did not spare Margery.  Utilising his skills in deception, he went to extraordinary lengths to exert total control over her, including commissioning the construction of a large box for her to sit in.  Nothing happened when she was so confined – except the cabinet was destroyed.

Despite Houdini’s scepticism, for a time it looked like she might take the money, and she was more intensively scrutinised and for far longer by the Scientific American group than any other medium who came to them.  Houdini’s influence rolled back the panel’s inclination to award the prize to her and the competition descended into chaos as the judges tried to make up their minds.  Bird was forced to resign as secretary after his objectivity became compromised and Houdini denounced him as an accomplice of Margery.  Finally only Carrington was firmly behind her genuineness, while Houdini used his stage shows to demonstrate what he considered to be Margery’s modus operandi, though this was largely based on supposition.  In February 1925 the Scientific American decided against awarding the prize to Mina Crandon, essentially on the grounds that even if they had not caught her cheating, she could have, and she could not prove to their satisfaction that she hadn’t.

Into this evidential morass stepped McDougall along with Eric Dingwall, the SPR’s research officer, who conducted their own investigation into Margery’s mediumship.  Houdini however dismissed this effort as fatally flawed by what he saw as Dingwall’s financial dependence on the Crandons.  Le Roi in turn found Dingwall to be much more reasonable in his approach than Houdini had been, though Dingwall, after initial enthusiasm for Margery’s results, eventually proved to be ambivalent, expressing doubts about their validity.  Further investigations similarly failed to support the genuineness of Margery’s phenomena.  Following the cessation of academic interest, Jaher treats Le Roi’s death and Mina’s decline into alcoholism briefly, and the book’s closing pages capture the sadness of her later years.

Having reviewed Margery’s career, the reader will still be asking why Margery would have wanted to put herself through all that effort simply for the kudos of winning a magazine competition.  The number of séances she undertook must have been exhausting, though perhaps they acted like a drug, making stimulating what was otherwise a mundane existence, acting as a creative outlet for someone whose horizons were limited to being an ornament of her husband.  A possibility is that she did it to please Le Roi (’the king’) and retain his affections in an asymmetric relationship, but if so it was a high-risk strategy that could have backfired had she been caught unambiguously cheating.  The couple do not seem to have needed the magazine’s money and offered to donate it should they win.  On the contrary, the venture must have cost them quite a lot in hospitality; the Crandons opened their home to the investigators and never charged sitters.

Certainly Mina met people and travelled, including to London where she was tested by the SPR and at the British College of Psychic Science.  She did not have to be a medium to do either of these though.  She could have met interesting people say as a salon hostess or patroness of the arts, and relaxed foreign travel the Crandons could presumably have afforded.  Mina obtained publicity, but as much notoriety.  There was never a hint from the sitters that the Crandons approached the séances in a cynical manner for some extraneous motive.  Margery carried on with her mediumship after the end of the Scientific American competition, and even after Le Roi had died, when she had nothing to gain.

It is possible that Mina liked the thrill of control, particularly of men.  There seems to have been a lot of sexual energy generated by the Crandons, both of whom were experienced – this was his third and her second marriage – and a possibility Jaher doesn’t raise is that Le Roi was interested in candaulism which dovetailed with Mina’s fondness for exhibitionism.  Her detractors were able to attack Mina by using her attractiveness and uninhibitedness against her, insinuating that she employed these attributes to corrupt the judges in order to produce a positive verdict.  It is unfortunate that Jaher does not include examples of the fairly explicit photographs of a déshabillé Margery producing ‘ectoplasm’ from her vagina, as these are important to an understanding of her mediumship, but perhaps they were deemed a little rich for the intended readership of his book.

There is also the question of where she learned her techniques.  Other contestants were usually caught cheating fairly easily, but Margery kept the majority of the Scientific American team in a state of uncertainty for an extended period, and they effectively gave up the effort rather than reach a firm verdict.  There was sophistication to her mediumship which set her apart from her peers and it is intriguing that she was able to put together an act without being caught as she refined it, even if the members of the committee were distracted by her sexuality.  When Nandor  Fodor attempted to get to the bottom of her mediumship shortly before her death she dismissed his enquiry with ‘Why don’t you guess?  You’ll all be guessing … for the rest of your lives.’

The book is very well researched; Jaher has marshalled a large amount of information into a well-paced engrossing read, presenting a complex story with elegance and humanity.  It is nicely packaged, but I do have a peeve concerning the index: as so often with American books which include both the SPR and the ASPR, the former has been incorrectly indexed under ‘B’ as the ‘British Society for Psychical Research (SPR)’.  Anybody looking for its correct name under ‘S’ will be surprised to find it absent.

One comes away from The Witch of Lime Street with a firm understanding of why Margery’s mediumship retains its fascination to this day.  What one does not really gain, because of the focus on the Scientific American and Margery and Houdini’s duel, is a sense of her place within the history of psychical research more broadly: how severely she damaged the American SPR, being responsible for the schism that led Prince to form the independent Boston SPR in protest at what he saw as a lack of objectivity in the ASPR’s championing of Margery, a split lasting sixteen years; and most importantly an understanding of her role in the development of parapsychology, a statistics-based academic discipline which J. B. Rhine (who attended a Margery séance and left unimpressed, considering her to have behaved fraudulently) undertook in a more controlled laboratory environment.  Here he was able to conduct experiments that were designed to minimise the risk of fraud and produce reliable results.

Within his scope, however, Jaher has found enormous dramatic potential in the interplay between Margery and her investigators, notably of course Houdini, and it is not surprising that the film rights have been optioned by STX Entertainment, with Andres Muschietti down to direct and Jaher himself providing the screenplay.  The book will appeal to both specialists and the interested general reader, and will help to increase interest in this enigmatic figure still further.