Harry Houdini and the Witch of Beacon Hill

Harry Houdini and the Witch of Beacon Hill

Second in a series. You’ll probably want to start here.

A typical college internship introduces the student to a company and a career, and The Reader’s Digest hired at least two Dartmouth interns after their internships from Dartmouth. Good for them; the magazine was a great place to work and the leading magazine publisher in the 1970s. If you wanted to launch a career in the publishing world, there was no better place.

For me, the only problem was that the place of my internship was New York City. No matter what Mayor John Lindsay said, New York wasn’t Fun City in the ’70s. The daily commute took its toll on my mental health. The Pleasantville campus might have lived up to its name, but would have meant hourlong (at best) drives during rush hour over the then-hellish Tappan Zee Bridge (since rebuilt). No, thank you.

Nevertheless, my experience at RD left me with a better understanding of magazine publishing, a lifelong interest in Harry Houdini, and one fascinating story that wanted to be told and retold. Here is, as one might say, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. Later I’ll tell you what I’ve done with it–and what I haven’t done it until now.

Beyond the grave

Houdini would be a particularly timely topic in 1976, the 50th anniversary of his death (naturally enough, on Halloween). The author and the RD editors got in on the wave early. This article would appear in mid-winter, but the story arrived on my desk just about 50 years to the month after the actual events.

Magician, escape artist, showman, the artist known as Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss in Budapest in 1874) was also the world’s first preeminent ghost-buster. The practice of mediums communicating with souls of the dead had started with simple parlor tricks by two sisters from Hydesville, N.Y. in the 1840s. With so many families devastated by losses in the Civil War and World War I, by the 20th century it had grown from a game to a cult to a cult religion called Spiritualism. Among its many adherents was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed for his logical detective, Sherlock Holmes. Like many fathers and mothers of his generation, Doyle had lost his son in the first World War.

Houdini’s interest in communicating beyond the grave was driven by his own grief. His mother had passed away while he was on tour in Europe, and he never forgave himself. He desperately wanted to speak to her, to say goodbye, to seek forgiveness. He went from medium to medium, but found none who could give him results that he could not reproduce himeself.

Houdini and Doyle (no, not the TV series)

The cover of this modern reprint of Houdini’s “A Magician Among the Spirits” features a photo of the magician and his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Houdini and Doyle, who were both prone to mixing with other celebrities of their time, eventually crossed paths and became friends despite their strong differences over Spiritualism. They exchanged many letters on the subject, each in his own echo chamber. Doyle was convinced that Houdini had supernormal powers that allowed him to do his magic. Houdini was baffled by how the logical creator of Sherlock Holmes could be blinded by his faith in fraudulent mediums. He even devoted a chapter to Doyle in his 1924 book, “A Magician Among the Spirits.”

Their friendship came to a breaking point during a seance Doyle’s wife conducted for Houdini in Atlantic City. She used a process called “automatic writing” to channel a message from Houdini’s mother during a trance. She filled the pad with a hand-drawn cross and with effusively flowing English pouring out Mrs. Weiss’s love for her son.

Houdini, unconvinced, responded that the family was Jewish and his mother spoke only Hungarian and Yiddish. That secured his reputation as a fraud-buster but severed his relationship with the Doyles.

(Don’t put any stock in the short-lived but droll Fox television series. True, the two were contemporaries and, for a time, close friends. They didn’t do any sleuthing together.)

The Witch of Beacon Hill

Like Spiritualism itself, Houdini’s big case started as a parlor game. In the middle of the Roaring ’20s, a cluster of bored Boston socialites decided to put on a seance and see what happened. The idea probably came from Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a noted Boston surgeon who was developing an interest in psychic phenomena. It was enthusiastically supported by his wife, Mina.

The table tipped and floated. One by one, the sitters left the room but the phenomena continued.

Then it was Mina Crandon’s turn. She was new to Boston society, through her second marriage to Dr. Crandon. They had met when she was a patient. In her former life, she was mother to a young son by her first husband, a grocer. She was eager to fit into her new husband’s world.

When Mrs. Crandon left the room, the phenomena stopped. She returned to the applause of the group; obviously she was a medium. Among friends, who could have considered that she might be a fraud?

Their circle of friends expanded, and so did the phenomena she was able to produce. Soon it became clear that she was channeling her dead brother, Walter. He was witty and lively, if you can say that of a ghost, and he entertained their circle of academics.

Researchers from both Harvard, where Dr. Crandon had connections, and M.I.T. were investigating psychic phenomena at the time. Psychic researchers and Spiritualists alike took notice. So did the newspapers, who started calling her the Witch of Beacon Hill. To protect the family’s privacy, researchers and reporters dubbed Mrs. Crandon with the pseudonym “Margery.”

Clash of the Titans

Margery was riding the crest of a wave of excitement about the scientific study of psychic phenomena. In 1924, Scientific American magazine offered a cash prize for anyone who could prove genuine phenomena to its committee, which included Houdini. Doyle had heard of and sat with Margery and recommended her for the prize. Other committee members included Harvard and M.I.T. scientists and psychologists, who likely had heard of the case through their own connections.

The committee’s secretary, Scientific American staffer J. Malcolm Bird, wrote a series of articles about its investigations. After different committee members sat with Margery for dozens of seances, Bird was probably the one who tipped off Houdini that it looked like Margery was genuine.

Houdini, who had not sat with Margery, found his reputation as a ghost-buster on the line. His recently published “A Magician Among the Spirits” had devoted an entire chapter to Doyle’s credulity. Their friendship was already shattered. If the committee were to award the prize for genuine phenomena, his years of exposing frauds would be eclipsed. He had to either prevent her from creating phenomena, or catch her committing fraud. Even if he caught her red-handed, many believers would argue that it didn’t prove that all the other phenomena were faked.

Houdini was in a bind. But as an escape artist, he knew how to get out.

The Margie Box

Houdini demonstrates his “Margie Box,” a device designed to prevent the medium from producing phenomena. (Library of Congress.)

In his sittings with Margery, Houdini had a few tricks up his sleeve, or his pants leg. He bound his leg with a tight bandage to sensitize it when he controlled the medium by holding one side of her hands and feet. (The other side was usually controlled by Crandon or Bird.) By arrangement with other committee members, he broke the hand-holding circle to explore the table and underneath it. He came up with explanations for just about every phenomenon she manifested.

But he couldn’t prove, exactly, that she had actually used them.

At an impasse, Houdini convinced his other committee members–and the Crandons–to allow his assistant to build a fraud-proof box to control the medium. It was roughly the size and shape of a narrow crate for an upright piano. The medium, or in this photo Houdini himself, sat inside with hands extended through holes in the side. The feet were inside the box, along with any potential props. Houdini said that even he couldn’t produce phenomena when controlled in this way.

No spoilers

So what did happen? Spoiler alert: As you’ll see in the headlines below, the Scientific American did not hand Margery the prize, nor was it ever awarded.

Still, Margery kept on doing seances and Houdini kept on debunking fraudulent mediums. He even testified before Congress about the danger of frauds. (Some of his collection is in the Library of Congress today.)

When Houdini died the following year–1926, on Halloween–Spiritualists the world over rejoiced and said Walter had predicted his demise. Houdini had promised his wife that if anyone could communicate from beyond the grave, he would contact her with a secret code. She conducted annual seances on Halloween for a decade before giving up, saying 10 years was long enough to wait for any man.

The real drama, though, took place in those hot days in the summer of 1925. That’s when the characters, the conflict, and the eternal question of faith vs. science all came to a head. That was the story I wanted to tell.

But how?

To be continued…

The battle between Doyle and Houdini spilled over into the newspapers as the committee closed in on the Margery case.
This article from the Boston Herald prints a lengthy statement written to the Herald by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, vigorously defending the medium known as “Margery” against accusations of fraud, and particularly attacking Houdini for attempting to undermine her by what Conan Doyle implies were unethical means. (Library of Congress.)
Her supporters on the committee, J. Malcolm Bird and Hereward Carrington, are both thought to have been infatuated with the medium and Carrington may have owed Dr. Crandon some money.

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