October enters as a liminal month. A few remaining hours of lingering summer but more shortening days of winter’s encroaching wolf. A time of harvest and celebration. Lengthening nights bearing strange noises. It was a couple of Octobers ago that I noticed The Witch of Lime Street either on Amazon or some bookstore shelf. I knew I’d read it this time of year, but I had to find the time to appreciate it appropriately. David Jaher’s debut book, subtitled Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, spins a story appropriate to this time of year. The story of Mina Crandon, aka Margery, is as misty as the ghost she apparently conjured during the roaring ‘20s. The story is all the more remarkable in that the medium who’d attracted so much attention has been all but forgotten now that mediums and psychics tout their wares “for entertainment purposes only.” No one wants a fraud misdemeanor on his or her record, just in case.
Margery emerged during a contest set up by Scientific American that offered $2500 for any medium whose effects could not be explained by science. A board of experts, including Harry Houdini, was established and the contestants tried their best. Unlike most mediums Margery was from a secure household, being the wife of a surgeon. In other words, she didn’t need the money. Some of the feats she performed, according to the records scoured by Jaher, are truly amazing. So amazing that she had nearly convinced the prize committee that she deserved the prize. Houdini, however, led the opposition. During the course of all this she had, at points, convinced Harvard faculty that she was genuine, and submitted herself to controlled conditions. Some very intelligent men, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed she was authentic. Never actually caught in trickery, evidence suggests that she faked some manifestations, but many educated observers nevertheless believed in her powers.
This engaging account has as many twists and turns as a corn maze, and features several prominent players. Houdini and Doyle clearly top the charts, but for those who’ve read about the history of parapsychology there will be some familiar names throughout. The one who is least known is Margery herself. Being an historian, Jaher can’t proclaim his own verdict on the medium’s claims. His account, however, is even and provocative. Based on the many records that were available on the subject before seances became artifacts of a more gullible age, this book will leave you scratching your head. Then, you may wonder, were those my fingers or those of someone else doing the scratching?