Oh there is a great medium named Marge,/Who will give you a show without charge,/There is no need to pay,/Excepting to say:/ “You’re the wonderf’lest medium at large.”… Pussyfoot, a pseudonymous psychic investigator
Wednesday night, author David Jaher took the podium at The New-York Historical Society as part of its splendid seasonal program Summer of Magic. His copiously researched book, The Witch of Lime Street, illuminates a post World War I, jazz age period between the death of Teddy Roosevelt and Lindbergh flying over the Atlantic when the occult and spiritualism were rampant. Though scientific discoveries seemed to rule, twenty million dead brought deep fascination with whether the soul survived in some way.
One of the first adherents to contacting the dead who caught public fancy was chemist/physicist Sir Oliver Lodge whose book about communication with his son after passing, Jaher tells us, was more popular in the trenches than the Bible. Lodge toured the U.S. lecture circuit seeding interest.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Benington – Public Domain
Next, Arthur Conan Doyle, author of “Sherlock Holmes,” crossed the pond filling venues such as Carnegie Hall. Every male member of his family that fought had lost his life as a soldier. Beginning with a psychic nanny who put him in touch with his son who communicated from a ‘place’ he called Summerland, the author availed himself of numerous mediumistic experiences writing several books on the subject.
Because of his association with the pragmatic and logical Holmes, Conan Doyle was taken seriously. One of the great speakers of his time, his talks featured spirit slides featuring ectoplasm (a supernatural viscous substance that is supposed to exude from the body of a medium during a spiritualistic trance and form the material for the manifestation of spirits). “If they saw this emission or a ghost captured on camera, people thought it was real.”
Houdini demonstrates how to make a fraudulent spirit photograph – Public Domain
Here’s where Harry Houdini comes in. About this time, the world renown magician/escape artist made a film called The Man From Beyond in which he read verses from one of Conan Doyle’s books. Having lost his beloved mother just before WWI, he wanted very much to get in touch with her. Houdini became friends with Conan Doyle during his pursuit, but mediums proved to be charlatans and he became embittered. Once a medicine show spiritualist himself, the performer quickly discerned how effects were achieved. His book Miracle Mongers and Their Methods expressed a very different point of view than his friend’s.
Scientific American magazine was Jaher tells us, “a big deal at the time. The public needed to know what was real and what was quackery.” Conan Doyle is credited with convincing its publisher to actually take a stand on spiritualism, rather than just post opposite views without editorial opinion.
Committee Members with Margery Crandon and, at right, Houdini – Public Domain
It was decided that a committee of respected researchers would test mediums in hopes of finding unequivocal proof. The publication offered a purse worth more than The Nobel Prize to anyone who could prove contact with the dead and manifest physical phenomena. At that time, music, voices, noise, floating objects, and the rise or travel of the séance table were common. Tested practitioners were tied up so these things could not be engineered in the dark. Houdini was brought in at the end of any seemingly viable examination.
Jaher offers the impressive credentials of those involved. The book goes into specific character detail and, finally, possible (plausible) collusion in support of the most famous of these psychics, Mina/Margery Crandon of Lime Street, Boston.
Margery in a spirit box with Houdini – Public Domain
Mina, called Margery to protect Beacon Hill privacy, was young, attractive, well married to a respected doctor. (Suspicions about the doctor having nothing to do with his wife’s practice came to light later.) If she won, money would be donated to psychic research. These facts alone separated her from the herd. It was the first time someone was not easily disqualified. Séances were conducted at the Crandon’s well appointed townhouse often after a lavish dinner. (Some tests were later conducted elsewhere.)
Margery’s brother Walter spoke through her, convincingly coarse and like his living self. The medium worked both at table and later in a spirit box – privacy being required to manifest ectoplasm. In her case, this was not the least because the gooey stuff (think Nickelodeon slime) often came out of her vagina. Pre-séance examinations by testers occurred in the nude. Jaher delicately leaves this part out of the lecture, but book details offer a provocative tale.
Margery in a spirit box with Houdini – Public Domain
The rest of both volume and talk both note Houdini’s “attempt to ‘witchify’ Margery ascribing an almost mythic sexuality.” It’s a battle between male and female much like that, we’re astutely told, of Morgan le Fey who stole King Arthur’s sword making him impotent or King Saul who faced The Witch of Endor in his efforts to rid the land of necromancers. (Houdini’s father was a rabbi.) It also personified opposition between a lower class, immigrant, Jew (often disdained), and someone from the social register were observantly informed.
Despite not only repeated, unsuccessful efforts to unmask Margery and Houdini’s duplicating much of what made her famous on performance stages, nothing was ever proved against the medium who continued to offer her services.
A wing ding of a tale. A bit densely written, but captivating. I found myself missing more photographs.
Margery with a face fill of ectoplasm – Public Domain
Jaher proves as articulate in person as he is in writing, albeit considerably more brief. Less time spend with the committee’s pedigree and more on Margery and Houdini would’ve benefited those unfamiliar with the book.
The Historical Society’s 45 minute format should really extend to an hour and/or include questions to which the entire audience could be privy rather than requiring private inquiries after each talk. The Summer of Magic series is a wonderful way for laypeople to explore the subject in an entertaining fashion. To read Alix’s piece on the accompanying exhibition from David Copperfield’s iconic collection, click here.
For Summer of Magic events click here.
Opening Courtesy of Crown Publishers