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Myth, Mystery, and Margery: When Scientific American Put Psychics to the Test

Michelle E. Ainsworth reviews the book: The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by David Jaher.

The Which of Lime Street (modified detail of cover)

According to the séance record, the table pushed [a sitter] out of the den, through the dark corridor, and into the … bedroom… Were four respected physicians and their wives collectively hallucinating? (123)

Can the dead talk to the living? With worldwide press coverage and challenges for the future of psychical research? In 1924, Scientific American magazine, which often exposed charlatans, offered a contest for testable séance phenomena. Several candidates were dismissed before the magazine’s judges found a Boston medium they nicknamed Margery. In her séances, the table moved mysteriously, the Victrola started and stopped without explanation, the medium’s dead brother apparently the cause. Scoffers became converts. Historical context (from the Old Golds brand cigarettes nervously smoked by one of the investigators, to the pop-hit song lyric “we have no bananas today”), dramatic tests, and ensuing controversy are engagingly told by David Jaher in The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World. The prose brings the past to life, while being weak on precise dates. The book seemed at first reading to be highly credulous, despite including details which, taken together, indicate consistent fraud by Margery.

Jaher divides his book into nine major sections and innumerable unnumbered subsections. The first quarter of the book sets the post WWI stage, discussing the US tours by two British spiritualist advocates, scientist Sir Oliver Lodge and writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and background material on magician Harry Houdini. They clash, as Doyle sees religion where Houdini sees fraud. Scientific American magazine regularly ran articles on spiritualism, and a 1920 prize for the best short essay explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity had boosted the magazine’s circulation. These strands met in a November 1922 editorial meeting to discuss a séance contest suggested, ironically, by Doyle (72), who arranged sittings in England, at different times, for Houdini, the Scientific American editor, and Mina Crandon. (Doyle also corresponded with the editor and with Mina’s husband throughout the subsequent investigation). Jaher reproduces the contest announcement in facsimile (82), but does not tell precisely when or where it appeared.

Jaher then spends perhaps too much time detailing the early attempts at winning the prestige of an endorsement (and a $2500 prize) by the magazine’s committee of judges (a psychologist, a parapsychologist, a physicist, a writer, and Houdini). The Scientific American offices were outfitted with testing equipment, some of it hidden, including a camera (designed to flash via electricity, not magnesium), a concealed microphone, a galvanometer, and hidden electrical contacts in the medium’s chair which would reveal if she (or he) had secretly stood up (104). The latter is how the first serious contestant, Valiante, was exposed in May of 1923 (119). In October, the second, the Reverend Jesse Stuart, was literally caught with cards up her sleeve (141, 147). The third serious contestant was Nino Pecorarro, but when Houdini was granted permission to tie him with rope, Pecorarro’s ghosts were also restrained.

Meanwhile, Jaher introduces us to the Boston woman, Mina Crandon, “Margery”, who became the final, most famous, and most controversial contestant, who soon, and justifiably, becomes the focus of the book. In contrast to most test mediums, Mina, (and her surgeon husband), were articulate, upper class, and never charged or accepted gifts for her séances, all of which added to her credibility. Mina and her husband alleged surprise at the slow discovery of her mediumship in the spring of 1923. By the summer of 1923 she was giving séances for friends, and by November members of the Scientific American committee had initial sittings with her.

Margery’s fame is her first importance: a German newspaper exclaimed that spiritualism was on trial with her (241), the tests were covered in The New York Times, in Hearst newspapers (242), Boston newspapers. Articles on her appeared in the best selling magazines The Atlantic, Colliers, Time, and Life. Sitters from around the world came to her Boston home (279, 400), and she did séances for scientist Charles Richet in Paris and the SPR in England. Even Bell Labs tested her (405).

By and through the first half of 1924, Scientific American committee members had up to a hundred (a number I had difficulty finding) sittings with Margery, and investigators were mostly flummoxed, at least at first, by Margery’s phenomena. In darkness, red light, or full light, the table moved, a clock stopped to a time chosen by a sitter, mysterious lights floated in the air, and more. Skeptic Houdini’s attendance at sittings was decisive, deducing fraud in his first sitting in July and stopping all phenomena in the final, and controversial, August sitting.

In February 1925, the Scientific American committee concluded that “Margery” had committed fraud (323), though Jaher is surprisingly unclear about whether this was announced as a statement in a newspaper or in Scientific American magazine. Fraud was also the conclusion of subsequent investigations by a Harvard committee a year later, by the American Society for Psychical Research, and, unofficially, of parapsychologist JB Rhine (394). Significantly, a split on views about her fractured the American Society for Psychical Research (326–327) and probably caused the shift in parapsychological testing from the séance to the laboratory (396).

Frustratingly, Jaher never sums up the case, nor the evidence for Margery’s fraud: Margery admitted that in one instance, information supposedly revealed by her dead brother had been previously confided to her by a living person, and conspiratorially requested that this breach be kept secret (233–234), a Harvard investigator confessed to helping her cheat in another séance, and late in her life Margery apparently asked psychic Eileen Garrett for help in fraud (404). There were accusations of bribery, and alcohol was often served at her séances. Investigators often stayed at her house. Jaher concludes that at least two of them were sexual with her (246, 341) and she apparently tried to seduce several others. One of the most consistent red flags: the crucial control of her right hand to limit cheating was “customarily” given to her husband (259).

The setting is also circumstantial evidence. With characteristic ego, Houdini had exposed some of the Scientific American office’s secret testing equipment (119, 141). So Margery’s test séances were held elsewhere, mostly in her “architecturally complex” (160) home. Jaher’s bibliography includes books by Proskauer and Rinn that detail the use of trapdoors or fake furniture by fraudulent mediums. This was never proven in the Margery case.

Perhaps coincidentally, several examples of physical evidence of fraud by Margery are from her (second) Harvard investigation, which mostly did not take place in her home. Later, her “ectoplasm” upon close examination, appeared to be made of animal tissue (324). The revelation of the fingerprint cost her more credibility: in 1934 an investigator revealed that the fingerprint that Margery’s “dead brother” had been leaving in séances was that of her dentist (404). Mina died in 1941 of cirrhosis of the liver, a shadow of her former ebullient self.

Despite the evidence, Jaher mostly seems credulous. Perhaps using the word “allegedly” in describing Mina’s séances would have made the prose too cumbersome? Sentences such as “sitters… were communicating with a disembodied mind”(125) and “Sometimes Margery channeled an intruder that blocked [her dead brother’s] normally clear signal” (279) are also perhaps a fair statement of the sitters perceptions. At other times Jaher’s credulity will strike skeptics more strongly, as when he states that two of the ladies at a séance were not “possible confederates” simply because of their social standing (210), or when he states, without evidence, that Mina couldn’t whistle (127). Although Jaher’s book includes an index, I could not find the word “fraud” or its synonyms there.

Jaher is rarely clear in providing dates in text. I deduced some of them with difficulty, but other crucial ones are not stated. Nor are there citations. He does list books (including an unpublished biography of Margery), archives (especially correspondence) and acknowledges persons consulted. Jaher points out that full footnotes would have made the book too long, but his refusal to mention a source on even many of the most significant or controversial points in the text is frustrating.

The serious researcher will therefore need outside material. Many of the descriptions and quotations from Margery’s séances so vividly recreated are also used in The Secret Life of Houdini (Atria, 2006), which Jaher does list, but he does not mention its companion volume, The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare: Sources, Notes, and Additional Material (Magic Words, 2007) which gives the citations to that crucial material. Surprisingly, Jaher also does not list Massimo Polidoro’s Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle (Prometheus, 2001), which discusses the Margery case with greater skepticism than Jaher offers.

Jaher’s title, The Witch of Lime Street, comes from the Colliers article, a quote from Margery (328). David Jaher’s book also contains additional melodrama of betrayal and countercharges, not all of it related to the supernatural, and the book reads like a suspense novel. Supporters of psychic phenomena may see enough conflicting motives and unexplained individual phenomena to find The Witch of Lime Street inconclusive. Thus the perhaps apocryphal quotation from Mina’s deathbed, “Why don’t you guess, you’ll all be guessing…for the rest of your lives.” (410). END

About the Author

Michelle E. Ainsworth holds an MA in history. She enjoys learning about intellectual history, and is currently researching the cultural history of stage magic in the United States. She is a member of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. She blogs at humanistchick.blogspot.com.

3 Comments

  1. Brant Huddleston says:

    Wouldn’t it be good to have a more rigorous test today using state-of-the-art technology? I suspect we would still find a lot of fraud. As for me, I’ve only had one experience with a medium, which I describe in my post “I’ll Have My Medium…Rare!”

    http://dancetodeathafterlife.com/ill-have-my-medium-rare/

  2. Bob Pease says:

    Stunningly thin material this week.

    I would not bother with this book as RANDI has
    covered much better in “Flim Flam”
    So did Martin Gardner Decades ago in “Fads and fallicies in the name of Science”

    IMO Spookism and “New Age” poppycock in general is pap for
    the American public.

    Main problem…. Philosophically gutted public is easy prey for despots.

    Dr. Latero Sidethink , Hp.D

  3. Phillip Gold says:

    An indication of Jaher’s credulity might be revealed by the books blurb which describes him as a former professional astrologer, whatever that means.

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