“Lives of the Conjurers”
By Michael Solomon
Illustrated by Steve Solomon
Top Hat Press
This summer, I’ve been blogging and telling the story of a case that has fascinated me most of my life. I am writing the strange tale of “Margery” the medium as a stage play. I even finished a rewrite of the two-act script earlier this month and sent it to a friend.
And then, once again, everything came to a halt and changed just a bit.
As I hinted at the end of my last post, I’ve learned one important thing about Houdini. The more you know, the more there is to know. I suppose that’s true of history in general, but especially histories of professional tricksters.
I discovered that years ago, when I first tried to tell the “Margery” story as a one-act play. My college library had far more material–books, magazine articles, and news reports of the time–than I could begin to digest. Thomas Tietze had recently released a new book on the case: “Margery” (Harper & Row, 1973). I read that, too.
And it became clear that to tell the story properly, I’d have to go well beyond the Scientific American seances. I would have to explain Spiritualism, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and his friendship with Houdini, and … and … and….
No one knows the minutiae of Houdiniana better than John Cox. I recently started following his “Wild About Harry” blog and its archives about Margery and Spiritualism. And just as I was preparing my next installment on writing my magnum opus, this post arrived in an email from “Wild About Harry.”
Another darned book about the Margery case. Stop the presses!
I have to admit a soft spot for someone who calls himself an “amateur professor.” After all, I was once an adjunct myself. Professor Solomon, according to his biography, is a magician and best known as a finder of lost objects–a findologist. He’s also a humorist and video poet.
Oh, and he wears a cool hat. Some of my favorite writers wear cool hats.
He wrote the book on finding things you’ve misplaced. He has also written books about Japan, Coney Island, flying saucers, and this series on magicians, mystics, and mediums.
Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent mediums takes up a volume unto itself, as it should. Entire books have been written about the “Margery” case alone. The problem is where the story starts, and where it stops.
Solomon (the book’s copyright is by Michael Solomon, although there are several Prof. Michael Solomons out there) starts with Houdini and Doyle. They met in 1920 during Houdini’s European tour, delayed by World War I. They bonded over their mutual interest in psychic phenomena.
Doyle was a true believer, Houdini a serious skeptic. Yet they shared a common interest and each hoped to bring the other to see the light. Doyle introduced Houdini to some of Europe’s finest mediums.
Houdini sat with them and concluded they were frauds.
Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, also urged the Scientific American to take its psychic research seriously. But when the magazine offered a prize for a genuine medium, he called it a mistake. The prize money would bring out the charlatans and scam artists, he said.
Nevertheless, Doyle referred some of the world’s top psychics to the committee. Houdini was a member. The committee concluded those were frauds, too.
Then there was Margery.
Changing the rules
This case was different. The medium was a socialite, the wife of a prominent surgeon. She wanted anonymity. She said they would donate the prize money to psychic research. And instead of testing at the magazine’s lab in New York, they wanted the committee to come to Boston.
Some of the investigators even stayed at the medium’s house, where they were charmed by their hostess. Houdini was on tour, and wasn’t brought in until well after key other members were convinced. He was furious.
The Margery investigation takes up the central third of Solomon’s book. He does tell her end story, but the focus of this book is on Houdini. The remaining chapters cover his crusade during the last two years of his life, and–of course–after his death. The biographical material is insightful and includes some stories I had not heard before.
Although the author quotes at length from original sources, it is hard to determine how much is original research. There is no index and no bibliography. Footnotes are generally used for adding detail rather than attribution. Perhaps this is what distinguishes an amateur professor from a pro prof. (Full disclosure: I write this way, too.)
But then, this is not an academic work. It’s not a history or a biography, exactly. Professor Solomon is an entertainer, a storyteller. This is the story of one man and his crusade. It’s told in a relaxed, friendly tone with detail to irony.
And then it abruptly changes gear.
Telling the story
Toward the end of the book, the storyteller adds some context of his own. He gives background on the Jewish conception of the afterlife (Houdini was Jewish). In an appendix, he introduces “An Experiment With Time,” a book from the period that looks at dream interpretation, deja vu, and the fabric of time.
But the storyteller’s most diverting diversion is a bit of fiction. After his chapter about the death of Conan Doyle comes “The Adventure of the Empty Chair.” This short story, described as “an account by Dr. John H. Watson, M.D.,” is unique. In this previously unknown report by Watson, Holmes deduces a secret of his own existence, reveals the reason the Catholic church was so opposed Spiritualism, and foils a demonic plot. And yes, he hints at the secret of psychic phenomena: It is a Rorschach test. As with ink blots, you see what you expect to see.
I’d never thought of it that way. This simple explanation answers many questions about why people on both sides were so adamant about being right.
Professor Solomon has taught an important lesson, one that I’ll use in my own work. And “An Experiment With Time” may come in useful on another project.
I’ve learned something from the Professor. And for that I thank him.
Next: Setting the stage for Margery and her world.