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Friday, December 23, 2016

The Witch of Lime Street

Harry Houdini was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century, not least of which was his prodigious skill in magic and escape artistry. He was also a debunker of spiritualists, which was a fad, if you can call it that, following World War I, when so many young men died that their loved ones were eager to contact them. The Witch of Lime Street, by David Jaher, covers this period, especially a woman who may have been Houdini's match.

"The papers had begun to complain of a plague of Theosophists, demonists, table rappers, and Tibetan sages. Having seen these actors thrive in his dime-museum days, Houdini recognized them returning like vultures after the carnage," Jaher writes. Spiritualist periods had happened before, notably the Fox sisters in the 1840s, who were exposed as frauds. But spiritualism had many backers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who had lost a son in the war (Doyle would also get in an embarrassing mess when he fell for a hoax of fairies being photographed).

The august publication, The Scientific American, held a contest that would give a prize to anyone who could prove they were genuinely in touch with the spirits. Many, with Houdini's help (he was one of the judges) were exposed. But a Mina Crandon of Boston, who went in the papers by the pseudonym Margery, was a tough nut to crack.

Doyle's father was a painter of ghosts and fairies. "Turning away from his father, Sir Arthur rejected his mysticism. He became an agnostic doctor and then the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who personified deductive thinking. Yet just after Charles died alone in the asylum, Sir Arthur killed off Holmes and joined the Society for Psychical Research. Ultimately, for both father and son, it was the invisible world that beckoned."

While Doyle and Houdini considered themselves friends, they were at opposite ends. Doyle believed spiritualism was a religion; Houdini thought it all a fraud.

Mina Crandon was the wife of a wealthy doctor. She held seances (but not for a fee) and contacted her dead brother Walter, who is a full-born character in this narrative. By turns sarcastic and threatening, he blew whistles, rang bells, and made objects move around the room. Houdini did his best to encumber "Margery" by having her hands held, a woman would inspect her every body cavity before the seance, and luminous paint was put on her feet. But she always seemed to contact Walter. Houdini claimed he could do the same tricks by magic, and eventually Margery did not win the prize and lost many of her supporters. But she was never caught in the act.

The whole thing seems silly now. I once went to a seance that was clearly a show, not for real, and still it was a weird, frightening experience. Many went through hundreds of seances with Margery. At some time I had to wonder what was later mentioned by Jaher: "yet there was one crude ghost-busting tactic he dared not attempt. As Time magazine would report, 'none of those present employed the obvious investigatory stratagem of seizing the ghostly arm and calling for lights.'” Why did these things have to be done in the dark, and why didn't they randomly use flashlights with her?

The book itself is serviceable. It gets bogged down in details and though not particularly long took me forever to get through. I would recommend it for Houdini or spiritualism buffs, but not for the casual reader.

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