In pursuit of ‘The Witch of Lime Street’

In pursuit of ‘The Witch of Lime Street’

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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

The story of Harry Houdini and Mina Crandon, “Margery” the medium, fascinates even today. Its mystery, drama, larger-than-life characters, conflict, comedy, irony, and the just-plain-weirdness are worth telling and retelling.

This tale has haunted me since I first read of it almost 50 years ago. The problem was: How to tell it?

The fun part–the hijinks of the seance room–would work best on stage or screen. To tell the whole story, though, would require a book.

There were already many books on Margery. Houdini wrote an exposé. Margery, her husband and a friend responded with a defense. The lead investigator wrote a 512-page treatise. About the only important person in the case who didn’t write about Margery was the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead he went on a lecture tour.

All had perspective. None had objectivity, or the hindsight of history. No one had access to any personal correspondence or notes other than their own. No one knew how the story would end.

Over the years, the Margery investigation wound up as chapters in books about Houdini or psychic phenomena. But that was only part of the story. The rest involved Spiritualism, its resurgence after World War I, and Doyle’s conversion to the religion soon after. It included Houdini’s own showmanship, his mastery of deception, and his grief for his mother. It centered on a social-climbing young woman trying to please her wealthy husband, a somewhat creepy surgeon.

Historically, the story was set in the Roaring 20’s, during Prohibition, when deception was an art. Modern science was in its infancy. Newspapers and magazines were in their competitive heyday. Contests were all the rage. People actually wrote letters to one another, and kept them.

The Witch of Lime Street:

Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World

By David Jaher

To tell the whole story of the Margery mediumship would require voluminous research: newspaper coverage, personal correspondence and university archives, museum collections, stories told and retold by friends and family. I would never have the time or the scholarship to pull off a project like this one.

Fortunately, someone finally did. David Jaher’s “The Witch of LIme Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World” is an insightful, witty, and ironic look at a story that uncovers previously unknown details of the story.

According to the About the Author page, Jaher is a graduate of Brandeis University with a MFA in film production from New York University, where he received a fellowship for directing. His biography at Penguin Random House says he is a screenwriter and is writing his next work on American history.

I hope that screenwriter Jaher is working on a script for “The Witch of Lime Street,” which IMDB lists as “in development.”

A screenplay could capture the scope of the book, which goes far beyond the seance room. For example, the book starts with Doyle at the close of World War I. From there, it examines Doyle’s first introduction to Spiritualism and his personal losses that made that belief so urgent. Then Jaher examines Houdini’s history. Sideshow freak. Phony medium. Escape artist. Grief-stricken son. Houdini forged relationships with just about every luminary of his time, but he bonded with Doyle over their polar-opposite interests in Spiritualism.

The two men represented the prevailing schools of psychic research of their time: believers and debunkers. Scientists, scholars, psychologists, and publishers such as Scientific American magazine set out to find The Truth. And that made great fodder for controversy–the kind that drives readership. When Doyle challenged Scientific American to get serious about psychic research, the magazine offered two $2,500 prizes for anyone who could prove genuine psychic phenomena.

The rest is history.

Cast of hundreds

Jaher takes his readers through the Scientific American’s disappointing tests of candidates for the prizes before focusing on the most promising one: a society woman from Boston who wanted neither the publicity nor the prize money. By then, the Crandons had a wide circle of friends and followers.

The magazine had a committee of more than a dozen regulars and alternates. Add to that the researchers: Harvard. M.I.T. The London-based Society for Psychical Research. The American Society for Psychical Research. The Boston Society for Psychical Research. The list goes on, and Jaher does a good job of keeping track of them all.

The Scientific American committee sat with Margery about 100 times, of which Houdini participated in only a handful. J. Malcolm Bird of the Scientific American, and later the ASPR, chronicled most of them in detail in his 1925 book. Jaher hits the highlights, and then does what neither Bird nor Houdini could do: He gives the epilogue. We learn how each of the characters met their end.

The author poses as many explanations for the phenomena, and their motivation, as any contemporary investigator ever did. But in the end, there are no answers except perhaps Houdini’s: Margery was a magician and an escape artist. Like any successful magician, she never performed the same effects twice for the same audience under the same conditions. Readers who are disappointed at not finding out The Truth will just have to enjoy the mystery. That’s what illusionists are all about.

About the audiobook

I also enjoyed listening to the Random House Audio book on Audible. Narrator Simon Vance’s distinctive voice seems remarkably appropriate for a story that starts out with Conan Doyle (Vance has also narrated “The Complete Sherlock Holmes:The Heirloom Collection” among many others.) His inflections and bring out the irony and turns of phrase that make this an enjoyable listen.

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