History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.
The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.
Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery's powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee. Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified. Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince...the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.
David Jaher's extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation's most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street , the first book to capture their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other’s orbit, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless Is there life after death?
David Jaher received a BA from Brandeis University and an MFA from New York University, where he was the recipient of the Johnson Fellowship. His first book, The Witch of Lime Street, was an NPR “Best Book of 2015,” which called the work “utterly spellbinding.” His debut was a starred Publishers Weekly Book of the Week, an Amazon Book of the Month, and is currently (2023) an Amazon Editor's choice for Best History. The Witch of Lime Street has received praise in many newspapers and publications, including The New York Review of Books, which called it a “stunning and brilliantly written account of the battle between the Great Houdini and the blonde Witch of of Lime Street,” as well as The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, Library Journal, and Booklist. This American Life featured the author and book in their 2023 episode, “Séance Fiction.”
David Jaher is currently completing Cry Havoc!—his second work of American history for Crown/Random House.
The narrative suffers from two issues. One is the classic "I have done my research and now YOU WILL ALL PAY" syndrome that crops up in nonfiction, where the reader is a captive audience for the author and their years' worth of detail-laden research, and pages are devoted to side characters and incidents that don't really advance the plot, but the author by-god found out about them. The second is a careful determination to be objective. Like, really objective. And when you are writing about the spiritualism craze of the 1920s and bunches of educated men really truly believing that there were psychic medium ladies extruding ectoplasm out of their vaginas...a little sniggering in-between the lines is allowed.
That said, it's a super in-depth look at spiritualism as a nascent religion, a detailed look at the efforts made to prove and to disprove the flood of mediums and psychics promising truth and comfort from the Summerland, and a lot of fun glimpses of Harry Houdini, who was apparently kind of a dick, but a smart and charismatic one. If you like the 1920s, religion/spiritualism, Houdini, or Arthur Conan Doyle, you'll probably enjoy this.
While the 1920’s are well known for flappers, jazz, and speakeasies, I wasn’t as aware that séances were so popular in both America and Europe, but it makes sense. Lots of people had lost loved ones to the double tragedies of WWI and the worldwide flu epidemic that followed, and modern spoken-word transmission wonders like the telephone and wireless radio made communication across distant planes of existence seem possible, even likely. So likely, the venerable Scientific American magazine held a contest offering a lot of money to any medium who could convince an investigative committee that their powers of summoning the dead were real. But though scientists were open-minded about the possibilities of contact with those now residing in the great beyond, the subject remained highly controversial because many religious people were horrified by the spiritualism craze.
Author David Jaher tells this intriguing history with such immersive detail that I actually started to feel a little creeped-out while reading about the dead rising in my dimly lit bedroom, an effect that was enhanced when the book’s cover literally glowed in the dark after I finally turned off the light (an unsettling but potent design choice). But along with its interesting historical insights, my favorite parts of the book involved its compelling portraits of the living, not the conversations of the dearly departed--though I did love picturing Summerland, reputed home of those who have passed on, where one no-longer-living young man claimed he could enjoy a celestial strain of whiskey and astral cigars.
I knew Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had some mystical interests, but I had no idea how consumed he became. He made several extensive tours of America promoting the “new religion” of spiritualism, the only religion, he believed, that could be proved true by science. Henry Houdini also plays a large role in the spiritualism controversies reported in this book. He hoped communication with the dead was possible because he longed to have contact with his beloved mother, but unfortunately the master magician could see through all the mediums’ very amazing tricks and slights of hand. Houdini became one of the judges of the Scientific American contest, and he made it his mission to debunk all spiritualist frauds, a relentless activity that put him at odds with his equally but oppositely obsessed friend Doyle.
The medium the book spends the most time with is the “witch” of the title, charming Mina Crandon who was known as “Margery”. She was the best hope of those running the Scientific American contest, because she was educated and never took money for exhibiting her powers, factors which made her seem more credible than the other mediums they tested, but there ended up being a lot of twists and turns to her story.
Jaher’s book is a fascinating and well told slice of history. Based on how vivid and readable the book is I was unsurprised to learn he’s a screenwriter. The fact that he’s also a professional astrologer did make my eyebrows raise just a bit.
I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.
The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher is a 2015 Crown publication.
I stumbled across this book while browsing through my Overdrive Library offerings and was immediately drawn to it because I’ve looked for a book like this one that delved into the Spiritualist craze which was so popular beginning around 1916 and throughout much of the 1920’s.
Sir Conan Doyle was a devout spiritualist and did much to bring it into the mainstream, as did Houdini, until Houdini became quite the skeptic, denouncing the fake mediums and psychics who employed trickery during séances in order to make it appear they had made contact with the dead.
This non-fiction accounting of that period and one of the most famous mediums of the period, ‘Margery’, dubbed ‘The Witch of Lime Street.’
The book goes into incredible detail, starting off with a history of the spiritualist movement and methodically leading the reader up to the controversial debate regarding Margery’s authenticity.
Obviously, the author must have done exhaustive research here and many of the stories told were interesting, and puzzling too, since so many well educated and apparently quite successful people were lured into the spiritualist movement and truly believed the ability to contact the other side, among other things. I was almost like a craze of some kind. Naturally, the popularity of Spiritualism waned, in large part due to the evidence of fraud, but also due to the changing financial climate and like many other wildly popular trends it just ran out steam.
But, it was a fascinating phenomenon as the book indicates, with very famous people involved, but the book was bogged down from a bit too much minutia, and was a rather dry read. Parts of it were very absorbing, but I admit I got pretty bored with it more often than not.
Overall, I appreciate the effort that went to the book and did find it informative, but it just didn’t hold my undivided attention the way that it should have.
Phew! That was a slog. Still, I'll start with what was best about this one: the cover. The jacket art for The Witch of Lime Street may not look like much by the harsh light of day – a conventional, “society matron” sort of book you might think – but at night, when the lights are out, the jacket glows a wonderfully lurid lime green! Actually, I hadn't initially realized it was glow-in-the-dark and was quite startled when, on my first night with the book, a powerful green glow was emanating from my nightstand. My husband, who doesn't ordinarily concern himself with books aside appreciating their value as household insulation, found my new bedside light pretty amusing!
As for the content, I can best express it by saying that this would have been twice as good if it has been half as long. Aside from a weakness for exclamation marks, Jaher's writing is unexceptional, but, evidently, having done his research into the seances and demonstrations which the Crandons held, he is determined to share Every Detail with his readers. After the first hundred or so pages of the book, which are fairly interesting, giving a brief background of the post-WWI & Spanish flu Spiritualism fad and of the Scientific American contest, and also an introduction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini and their differing takes on spiritualism, the book bogs down in Excruciatingly complete accounts of what feels like every séance Mina Crandon ever gave. Despite the author's claim that Mina changed her program regularly, they sounded incredibly repetitious to me – rapping sounds, hair pulling, objects being flung about, and Mina's dead brother making unpleasant remarks and reciting his appallingly bad poetry/songs. Oh, and the ectoplasm. Ewww. I learned much more than I needed to know about the many and various things which Mina stored “within her person” and brought out to dramatic effect during her shows.
I was taken aback by the extent to which antisemitism and class prejudice played parts in the assessment of Mina's legitimacy, and also by the way in which Mina was able to put her extraordinary “friendliness” with her (male) investigators to her advantage without, apparently, negatively affecting her standing as a respectable “society matron,” which, of course, also impressed her evaluators. She got to have her cake and eat it too, as it were. The seances seem often to have been essentially sordid “grope-fests,” with red lights flashing and Moaning Mina. No one, really, comes off looking attractive out of this, even Doyle and Houdini, who are probably the most sympathetic characters.
The title correctly indicates that the subject here is Mina and the efforts to prove or disprove her gifts as a medium, but I wish it had included a little more on the spiritualist movement at this point in history. The fact that the Scientific American magazine was offering a prize for a “real” medium, and that Harvard University and other scientific groups were investigating psychic phenomena were interesting topics – I'd have liked to see more on them and less on the Crandon's sleazy carryings-on. Related to the historical aspect, though, I found it odd that Jaher opens with the story of the archers/angels of Mons, but never clearly points out that the story came from a work of fiction written by Arthur Machen, and that Machen tried unsuccessfully to clear up the misunderstanding that grew up around it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_...). Machen's story is cited in the bibliography, so perhaps Jaher assumes that the accidental “hoax” is such common knowledge that clarification is unnecessary. Still, it seems to me that the popular misunderstanding says a lot about the eagerness of many people at the time to believe in the claims of Spiritualism, and that a little elaboration would have been relevant. Jaher's focus is Mina Crandon, though, so I may be trying to drag him off topic here.
Anyway, this isn't awful, but it would have been better had many of the repetitious scenes and descriptions been cut. 2 ½ stars, rounded up to 3.
In his book The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher paints a picture of a lesser-known aspect of the Roaring Twenties: its obsession with the occult. Many families lost loved ones in the Great War’s trenches. A growing number of them, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, took solace in Spiritualism, which taught that death was not an end but a new beginning. This interest brought the concept of seances into the public eye. Even Scientific American did a series on occultism, eventually hosting a contest to find a true spirit medium. Their intent was—using scientific means—to either debunk spiritualism as a widespread hoax or to ground it in fact. Unlike Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Harry Houdini was not convinced. A master of smoke and mirrors, Houdini became Scientific American’s go-to fraud spotter. He easily exposed countless charlatans, until he finally met his match: Mina "Margery" Crandon, the eponymous Witch of Lime Street.
So many of the things I find fascinating intersected in this book: the Roaring Twenties, Spiritualism, science, mystery—and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Please. I was all over it. But ultimately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations. What it came down to was not the subject matter—that was just plain cool—but the way it was related to the reader. To me, the author seemed disinterested. Sure, there is a battle for the fate of our souls going on (the question: is there scientific evidence to support the existence of an afterlife?), but it seems like Jaher has no skin in the game. He doesn’t care if Houdini outsmarts the Crandons; so ultimately, neither does the reader.
Jaher’s reportage-like tone comes in part from his attention to detail—too much detail, actually. He has tried to fit too much research into the story, so that this reads like an overview of occultism in the 1920s instead of what would be more compelling: the lives of the characters involved, specifically Mina Crandon and Harry Houdini. If Jaher had fleshed out his narrative with dips into their psyches, using their thoughts from personal correspondence and diaries, the story would have had a greater depth, and it would have been more meaningful. He could have even told the story closer to their perspectives by using more free indirect discourse. (Jaher makes a few attempts at this, like on page 241, but the brunt of the narrative does not make use of this close of a perspective, and it suffers for that lack.) If Jaher had told the story from a narrative perspective closer to the characters, he would have elevated the story from the level of a textbook and grounded it in the realm of biography, drastically improving the story without changing any of the important details, because what really matters here is not the whats but the whos. The people in The Witch of Lime Street had the potential to be more compelling than the events. Their beliefs were at stake, their views of the world, their very existence. But Jaher just didn’t make it happen.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t like parts of the story. Many of the descriptions were interesting, and I commend Jaher’s thorough research and attention to detail. If the 1920s and occultism interest you, definitely read this book. But if those aren’t your bag, I’d say skip it.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
In the early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage....mediums raising tables, channeling the spirits of the dead, strange rappings, ectoplasm, etc. There were thousands of mediums across the country who were fleecing those who were desperate to contact dead relatives. When the famed author of the immortal Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became an outspoken believer and lecturer in spiritualism it came to the attention of scientists, doctors, psychologists and other men of science, mostly non-believers, who began to study this phenomena. The famed illusionist and escape artist, Harry Houdini, who had initially been attracted to spiritualism, joined in the studies and experiments when he discovered that he could emulate the same effects used by mediums through trickery. He, like the modern day illusionist James Randi, sought the expose the mediums as fakes.
The professional magazine Scientific American decided to create a committee of learned men including Houdini to "test" mediums under strict conditions to prove or disprove their claims. Each subject was exposed as a trickster until one woman, a society lady from Boston who took no money to channel spirits came to their attention. She becomes the subject of this book and her story and the tests surrounding her authenticity as a true medium are simply fascinating.
The only weakness of this book is the lack of explanation as to how some of the effects were accomplished but it is not enough to distract the reader from this informative and delightful book. Recommended.
I knew nothing about this time in American History but since I've always been fascinated by Houdini, I picked this up. Well written with a balance of viewpoints, The Witch of Lime Street is a must read.
This is a fascinating archetypically “American” story. Several of the characters have, through dint of sheer will, recreated themselves in the image they desired; something still doable in the early 20th century. Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, decides to master the impossible and along the way prove all “spiritualists”, necromancers and their ilk - fake. He is especially pissed off by the serious attention paid to “the witch of Lime Street” who is a beautiful Boston socialite married to a Harvard surgeon, thus not your typical fortune teller - who, it appears, is never really shown to be deceptive. But she may be her own creation as well.
It is a historically wonderful story with lots of unlikely personalities bumping up against a radically changing world. One major player in all of this was Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who lost his son, a brother and several other relatives in WWI and sunk, understandably into depression.
The rise in spiritualism in the 20’s was, perhaps, a response to the massacres, the waste, malevolence and absolute idiocy of the first world war. This was what Sir A. C. Doyle felt led to the rise in spiritualism, and coincided with the decline of a church not designed for modern people. “How else could ten million young men have marched out to slaughter? Did any moral force stop that war? No, Christianity is dead,” he declared.
i remember (in LA in the 70s) finding his book “proving” the existence of fairies (via photographs taken in gardens in the UK) and being absolutely delighted. To look at the photos now, they are so obviously doctored with fairy cut-outs stuck in little girls’ hands, one is torn between tears and giggles. But his belief in something beyond this bit of time, and his openness to spirits, probably saved him. A C Doyle seems the most content of the raging egos alive in this epic time.
i thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a Goodreads giveaway win. Don't forget to check out the cover in the dark!
Well, well, a book about seances and Spiritualism, Houdini and assorted 'experts' from various fields of science (many with Harvard and similar backgrounds) and a medium named Mina (or Margery) Crandon.
First off, what I thought most compelling was to imagine what my family thought of all this. Oh, how I wished my grandmother was still around! My grandmother had a high school education, but was always so aware of what was going on around her in the world. Very well-read woman for someone from the 'lower' working class. I would have loved to have said omg tell me what your impressions were of Houdini and Mina Crandon! You were in your early twenties at the time, so...
(One of my grandmother's brothers also married a woman who claimed to be a medium, was a Spiritualist minister in a nearby town and told MY mother I'd be born a boy, and stillborn. Wrong, Aunt Trudie!)
Anyhow, what we've got here is a long-running feud between Houdini, determined to unmask and expose clairvoyants, mediums, etc., wherever he could find them - and a husband and wife team equally determined to prove that the wife, Mrs. Mina Crandon, was a bonafide medium who was able to channel her dead brother, Walter.
What makes the book interesting is that there is no black and white here. Even as Houdini, and those who thought like him - the skeptics - tried to disprove Mina's claims, they all had moments when they wanted her to be real, to be a true medium. Houdini himself, even as he's uncovering her tricks, is often disappointed. He was very close to his mother and wanted very much to be able to speak to her after she passed away. However, he was a not a man to deny the facts.
And the facts are fascinating. Though not every one of Mina's 'tricks' is covered here; she was ultimately labeled a fraud and died a lonely, nearly forgotten woman. However, at her peak, she was a lively, attractive, flirtatious, and perhaps sexually-promiscuous younger woman. Men seemed smitten with her and often held her hands and legs during seances; they also were allowed to search her body prior to seances. (Think about that. This is the early 1920's.)
The book was a bit jumpy in places. One chapter would jump in location and time to another without much of a transition to assist the reader (It could have used a little better editing in that regard.) But overall, a nice introduction to a woman who did battle with Houdini - and lost.
The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher was a bit of a disappointment. The subtitle is Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World and quite a big deal is made about the fact that "Margery," the so-called "Witch of Lime Street" and famed medium has to prove herself to Houdini. It's presented as a duel between the two. But--Houdini disappears for a large portion of the book.
The beginning alternates between giving us the background on Houdini and how his escape artist abilities lead him to become intrigued with, investigate, and ultimately debunk the mediums and spiritualists he comes in contact with AND giving the history of the spiritualist movement--including the involvement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, most of the book focuses on a controversial contest that was sponsored by the Scientific American and which offered a large cash prize to the first medium declared genuine by a five-man committee which would include Houdini among its members. But most of the mediums feared Houdini's involvement, so the committee had him continue his escape artist tours and told him they would only call him in if they found a very promising candidate.
There were many failures before Margery came along as Doyle's best hope for authentication. She appeared to be a very powerful medium and produced many dazzling effects--but, again, Houdini wasn't there for most of the tests and she didn't really want to be tested by him. He finally comes along at the end and her powers are thrown into question--enough so that she doesn't win the prize.
The book is well-researched and offers a wealth of information on the spiritualist movement in a highly entertaining manner. But the advertised "duel" between Houdini and Margery is not nearly as dramatic as anticipated and falls rather flat. ★★★
~Fun Fact: The cover glows in the dark with ghostly green and white for the words and images.
First posted on my blog My Reader's Block. Please request permission before reposting. Thanks.
I really wanted to like this book. The subject matter seemed right up my alley.
However I just could not get past the authors writing style. I'm not sure that it's badly written so much, as writing style really grated on me. I found myself rereading sections over again to try to figure out what point the author was making, or what the point had to do with the story he was telling.
The author seemed to switch between 'novelized' telling of the story, and a historical telling of what happened. I would have preferred he stick to one or the other. Every time the book jumped from the what I assume is a more accurate historical telling, to the novelization voice, I started wondering how much he was making up, in order to put the reader 'into' the events.
Occasionally, the author would fall into what I call "stream of consciousness' writing - changing the point of his writing quickly from sentence to sentence, and sometimes even within a sentence. When he did this, it was very jarring for me, and made it hard for me to follow.
Again, I really wanted to like this book, and it may be a good read for others. It was just not for me. Life is too short to struggle through a book you are reading for 'entertainment'.
Now off to find a better bio about Houdini, Doyle, and rise/fall spiritualism.
The 1920s were a fascinating time but below the extravagant surface there was still a lot of sorrow and grievance from amongst other things the first world war and the Spanish flu pandemic. Even though I hadn't heard of it before, I find it not surprising that in this particular atmosphere Spiritualism was at it highest. Together with the ever emerging science which had already proved thing that were thought to be impossible just decades before, this lead to the Scientific American holding a contest to find a real, scientifically proven, medium.
A very interesting story of which, I'll admit, I'd never heard of. I picked the book up mostly for the historical figures that were mentioned in the blurb, sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini, who would eventually turn against each other on this subject. However, the book focusses mostly on the Scientific American contest and the examination of the most promising candidate, the so-called Witch of Lime Street.
And while it was an enjoyable read, I felt it was too long. At almost 500 pages, it was too long for the story it told. The first half was very good, but with every new examination of Margery, which all seemed quite a lot like the last one, it was harder to keep my interest fully with the book. Overall however, I found the book very interesting and would recommend it to those interested in the 1920s or the Spiritualism craze of that time.
Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
3.5 stars Wow, who would have thought Houdini would have had time to practice all of his tricks with all the time he was spending trying to show that Margery was not a medium?
I had never heard about any of this. That there was a contest set up by a science magazine to find a "real" medium and the monies that were spent to discover one. How Houdini would denounce every one that they brought forward. Then how when they brought forth Margery how he went on a one man crusade to denounce her abilities.
It was pretty strange. Also the fact that Sir Arthur Canon Doyle got involved. He gave up writing Sherlock and got involved in this crap.
Anyways, on to the book. I thought the book was interesting. However, I also thought the book was VERY long. It was easy read, but not so easy to keep up with all the names. There were a lot of them and if you were to quiz me on them, I'd flunk. Parts of the book were very interesting, parts of it were not and parts of it were just kinda gross. I had to keep reading though to find out, was she a hoax? It always bothered me though that she mostly did the same thing over and over and her brother was the only one that showed up. I didn't like the way Houdini was treating her, but when I looked at his pictures, he looked like a little weasel anyway.
Anyway, if your into seances and the spiritual world and history itself, this is definitley something I had never heard of and will definitely give you one up in the trivia games.
Thanks Crown Publishing and Net Galley for this free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
I would give this book a 3.5. I was a goodreads first reads winner of "The Witch Of Lime Street;Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World" This is pretty unique book. I have never read a book that had to do with Seances. The world has just gone through World War one.and the Spanish flu. So man people lost loved ones. They yearned for a way to contact them. In the 1920s.Seances,and Quija boards were very popular. As a result many so called psychics came to be claiming they can contact the dead. Of course most were fakes and con artists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent time with psychics trying to contact relatives he has lost. Harry Houdini who was for awhile friends with Arthur Conan Doyle was also interested in trying to find a reputable psychic. Houdini meets "Margery" the Witch of lime street. she has made her mark as a psychic and has convinced many she can contact the dead. when Houdini gets together for a Seance with Margery, he is not convinced she is for real and sets out to expose her. This is a very long book over 400 pages. It spends a lot of time writing about psychics, the occult world. it is halfway through this book before it even addresses Houdini and margery. pretty interesting in parts. drags in other parts. It takes the readers back to a place in the 1920s that I have not heard a lot about. Pretty good for the most part. this is an advanced readers copy. the book is due to come out in October.considering the topic, a good month.
For millennia, religion, spiritualists, and ghost hunters have maintained that contact with the dead was possible. Lots of money was easily made by all of these groups by fleecing people into believing there might be something beyond the grave (religious groups are still raking it in.) Magicians, knowing how easy it is to fool people, have none of it. This book details the interaction between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a believer, Houdini, definitely not, and Margery Crandon, a very clever purported spiritualist.
The early 20th century was beset with occult fever. Possibly related to the huge number of dead from the "War to End All Wars," numerous psychics and mediums (mediae?) popped up playing on the need of comfort for the bereaved, some "gauzy borderland" where the dead and living might mingle. In an effort to bring some science to the craze, the Scientific American offered a prize of $2500 (the equivalent of about $37,000 today) to anyone able to show and prove physical manifestations emanating from the dead.
Crandon looked to be the easy winner of the prize until Houdini entered the fray and insisted all her conjuring, voices, and sounds were fake. The group fo scientists the magazine had assembled to test her claims had been bamboozled, some by her (she had a sexual presence that was powerful), others by their failure to understand how they were being manipulated. When she began producing "ectoplasm" from, her "nether" regions, I have to say, it got really goofy.
I listened to this book as an audiobook. It's well-read and quite fascinating as a mirror on the 20's, 30's, with a peak into the lives of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini. Some of the minute detail of the seances got a bit mind-blowing but not so much that I wouldn't recommend the book.
Although I believe all Spiritualists are basically flim flam artists, I get a kick out of reading this stuff for the same reason I like anything involving circus freaks, medicine shows etc. While I was aware that Spiritualism was huge after the Civil War, I didn't realize just how much of a fad it was in the 1920s. In retrospect it makes perfect sense because almost everyone knew someone young who had died, either in "The Great War" or the Spanish Flu epidemic.
While I had heard vaguely about some sort of feud between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I did not really know anything about "Margery" (aka Mina Crandon). Along with her husband, a prominent Boston doctor, the so-called Witch of Lime Street and her dead brother Walter managed to convince a lot of respectable scientists that she could really talk to the dead. This was no obscure experiment. It was apparently given worldwide coverage. While I mostly enjoyed the story, the only thing that made the book drag in spots was the detailed description of each séance. It got very repetitive because Walter's parlor tricks were largely the same (ie. ringing a bell or lifting a table in the air). Houdini's repeated attempts to prove she was a fraud did not stick. It seems as if the story was so good that even serious journalists and scientists wanted to milk it for a while. While all this was happening, some other sinister things are hinted at such as rumors that several prospective adoptive children from England were rejected by the Crandons and sent back to England, never to arrive.
Since I am reviewing an advanced reading copy, I wonder if the final version will include some of the "Spirit Photographs" that were mentioned in the book. One, which was part of a talk on Spiritualism given by Doyle, supposedly depicted ghosts of dead soldiers at an Armistice Day commemoration in England which caused hysteria wherever it was shown. I also wanted to see the mad paintings and drawings done by Doyle's father who ended up in an insane asylum [I am Googling as we speak].
The one quote that struck me from the book was essentially that "the more rapidly technology advances, the more people will turn to Spiritualism." If that's true, we are due for a resurgence. It could explain the popularity of the Jon Edwards TV show right after 9/11.
Advanced Reading Copy Review Due to be published October 2015
This is the full story, as much as it can be told, of Harry Houdini's war against fake mediums and spiritualists and the one woman who fought back against his accusations. Any one familiar with Houdini's story knows of his mission later in life to expose the charlatans who claimed to be able to speak to the dead and allow them to manifest themselves in our world by moving things, knocking on wood and other parlor tricks. Lesser known is his involvement as a judge in a Scientific American contest to award any true medium with a $2,500 prize. "The Witch of Lime Street" details his interactions with that committee, his personal relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a devout Spiritualist)and his efforts to disprove the authenticity of Mina "Margery" Crandon. Best of all, the book evokes the time of Spiritualism in America when so many people who had lost loved ones due to WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic turned to psychics and mediums in their grief.
Author David Jaher certainly did his research. Reports from the Scientific American committee give us explicit details about what exactly went on in psychics' drawing rooms to hoodwink the public. We also get rare glimpses into the personal lives of the major players via their journals and letters. Overall, the story moves along well, though the descriptions of seances get a bit repetitive. The stand-out character for me is Margery's deceased brother Walter who is her spirit contact on "the other side". Walter is quite the personality for a dead man; cracking jokes, making rude comments, acting playful one moment and threatening the next. Is he Margery's alter-ego released under hypnosis, a ventriloquist's effect or the real deal? No spoiler here, you'll have to read the book and draw your own conclusion.
Eerily enough, the day I finished this book I was watching an episode of "Mysteries at the Museum" and a segment about this very story was featured. Cue the spooky music...
The negatives: The author really should have thought long and hard about his target audience. If his intent was to sell this to academics who want every tiny detail [although they prefer it annotated, footnoted, cross referenced and with a bibliography exceeding 3 pages] he did pretty good. If his intent was to sell this to the general public the book should have been half as long with only ‘facts’ shared that supported and advanced the story. The plot suffered; trying to keep track of it was kind of like trying to find vegetables in a wildly overgrown garden – hidden gems surrounded by masses of weeds and useless debris.
The positives: It is a well told slice of history that I knew relatively little about. I knew spiritualism was big in the Victorian era but didn’t know that it had such a big resurgence in the 20s. I suppose that was due to so many people dying in both the influenza epidemic and WWI.
Comments: Both Doyle and Houdini were fanatics in the truest sense of the word. Both were only looking for the stuff that supported their own points of view. Negative proof would have to be fairly huge to get their attention.
The author did a good job presenting both sides, allowing the reader to make their own decisions. For the many spiritualism offers hope – and many people are willing to suspend belief to get that hope. The naysayers on the other hand don’t offer anything – just facts and science and logic that many prefer not to hear. Pretty much those who believe will continue to believe [although the specific spiritualist may be debunked they are sure the next one will be better] and those who do not will continue to believe there’s some kind of trickery involved. There will probably never be definitive proof either way – which makes it very fertile ground for the con artists among us.
World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919 carried many souls from this earth. But could those left behind actually still communicate with them? It is this question that is at the heart of The Witch of Lime Street David Jaher presents the background of the time, and those who championed each side, including Sir Author Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. The two sides debated mightily with perhaps the culmination being offered by Scientific American magazine: $2500 to any medium who could physically produce proof of life after death and another $2500 for a genuine example of spiritual photography. The panel of experts included MIT physicists, respected judges and Harvard psychologists. And Harry Houdini, a man bereft from loss, but soured by the frauds and schemers bilking other bereaved out of masses amounts of money. But also a man who was an expert on illusion, and who vehemently unmasked charlatans. The panel dismissed many applicants: frauds, delusional, mentally ill. And then came Margery (aka Mrs Crandon, or The Witch of Lime Street.)
The author did good job presenting both sides, allowing the reader to act as their own judge. The book reads well, though the pace dropped for me a midstream. However, if this period of time is of interest, and the phenomenon of clairvoyance and interacting with the sprits of the dead intrigues, this presents a good picture of a time in history when these pastimes were prominent.
Many thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and to the publisher for sending me this copy.
What a fascinating book! Jaher delves into the spiritualism craze of the 1920s--considered by some as a "new science" deserving of study alongside the atom--and frames it along an epic battle of wits and sleight of hand between the famed Houdini and Margery, a doctor's wife from the Boston elite who began to channel her dead brother Walter. The aftermath of the Great War left many families desperate to connect with the dead, and always--always--there are grifters ready to pray on that desperation. Jaher is not as judgmental as that in his writing. He portrays events through prime sources (the bibliography at the back is great) and lets the readers decide.
Not everyone involved in spiritualism was looking to make a buck off of the fad, either. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regarded spiritualism as his religion in his last years of life, and journeyed around the world multiple times as an apostle for his cause; eventually, the differences in faith between Doyle and Houdini broke their friendship.
I love this book. I've been reading a lot about the 1920s, and this angle on the era is such an intriguing one. I took many notes for my research needs and am seeking out books cited in Jaher's bibliography as well.
What happens when a master magician decrees that contacting the spirit world through a medium is paramount to fraud whilst also delighting in fooling and tricking people with sleight of hand and misdirection. A lot of the time Harry comes off as a paranoid psycho as he starts to surrender his own life in order to ruin someone else's and while the book raises many question it does not overly side with either participant.
What a story. I knew some of the bare bones: Houdini's deep attachment to his mother, and the failed attempts to hear from her after her death; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's extraordinary credulity for mediums and fairies. I did not know about the magazine Scientific American's contest attempting to find a medium with verifiable ability, or about Margery the Medium's quest to win it.
How disappointed Houdini would be that, ninety years later, we as a culture are still every bit as credulous as Doyle was we were then. I was shocked when a coworker began telling excited stories about the medium she saw to get in touch with her son who died at ten years old. Correction: the medium she paid a fair amount of money to see. I did some rough calculations based on this young man's schedule, and figured he must be pulling in five digits a month, all for a chance – just the chance, mind you, and a vanishingly small chance in the larger venues – to have him talk to your loved ones in the great beyond. At $35-$60 a head, depending on whether dinner is included with the show.
Me, I'm with Hamlet, Horatio – dreamt of in your philosophy, and all that. I try to keep an open mind. But I listened to the story of this woman's experience – experienceS, as she went several times and sent family members – and then listened as each story was told again, and then again, and … they changed. One anecdote made the hair stand up on my arms the first time I heard it. Thinking about it more rationally, away from the eager longing belief of my coworker, I recognized all the ways a con man could have produced it. I've seen James Randi; I've seen The Mentalist. Then when the story changed in a retelling – where the medium originally spoke of "flowers", now it was remembered as the much more specific "roses" – my heart sank. This is how belief is perpetuated. Now, if people can afford to go and are comforted, then perhaps the money is well spent, and far be it from me to play Houdini and try to bust the conman (even if I could). I could never bring myself to pop that fragile bubble of hope, or whatever it is. But if the young medium – he's not yet thirty – is what I can't but think, a complete and total fraud fleecing grieving people out of horrifying amounts of money… there's a very special place in hell.
(Oh my God, he has his own line of spiritual jewelry. Houdini, we need you.)
Mina (pronounced MY-na, I discovered online) Crandon, who went under the name Margery the Medium to (ineffectually) protect her identity in the media, was a society woman (though not originally) who, almost abruptly, began channeling a spirit medium, first for friends, and later for publicity. (Which is of course interesting in light of that whole using-another-name-to-protect-identity thing.) And then when Scientific American threw open a contest offering a cash prize for the first medium to be authenticated by a panel of scientists, she put herself forward. Repeatedly. Before long it became something of a personal feud between Mina and Houdini, he going above and beyond to debunk her and she going to actually alarming lengths to foil him.
It's all very outré – some of the methods used by Mina and other spiritualists raised my eyebrows, or made me queasy (or both). The lengths people went to in order to fleece people are almost unthinkable. I wish there were more people – now even more than then – willing to go to slightly mad lengths in order to stop them.
I learned more than I wanted to know about fraudulent spiritualists, and in a way as much as I want to know about Houdini's methods – for now I'm content to let some of it continue to be amazing rather than have it explained away. I would, however, like to know just how Houdini kept his hair dry during the water chamber trick…
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.
Harry Houdini, arguably the world’s best magician, performed feats that made people believe he could dissolve his body – get out of perilous situations – and then put his body back together again. He also performed feats of “mentalism” causing people to believe he could converse with the dead. In actual fact he could do neither. He knew what he accomplished was done through misdirection and trickery, but the public in the 1920’s wanted mystics, spiritualists and mediums.
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of one of the most logical minds in literary fiction, was one of those people who desperately wanted to believe that people could commune with the dead so he could once again speak with his dead son.
Each had their own view on the subject and each had their following of fans and believers. As much as Houdini wanted to believe so he could have a final conversation with his deceased mother, he knew it was bunk and was determined to stop people from having their emotions and grief toyed with and their wallets lightened in the process. Houdini was fighting an uphill battle. The 1920’s were an age when spiritualism became not only a psuedo-religion but was also considered a science. The likes of Harvard University set up a “parapsychology” department. “Scientific American”, a well-respected scientific publication offered a reward for anyone proving they were the real deal in mediumship.
Enter “Margery”, the so called “Witch of Lime Street”, claiming she could not only communicate with the other side but could bring back the spirit of her dead brother, Howard. Through ceaseless séances and spiritualist sittings Howard continued to materialize and perform the “tricks” the researchers had contrived to prove he was real. Most of those who sat in on the séances Margery held were believers … Houdini went to his grave unconvinced … but what a battle it was.
Mr. Jaher tackled a complicated and interesting subject in this book. It was very well researched and provided an in-depth look into the spiritualism craze that was sweeping the world during the early 20th century. In my opinion he made no attempt to sway the reader into believing or not and in fact at the end of the book he recounts Margery’s final séances and offers no definitive conclusions so the reader can make his/her own decision.
As well researched as the book was, or possibly because of that very fact, the book seemed to be lengthy and very repetitive. Margery’s “performances” and the research around them went on for years, often several times a week and Mr. Jaher recounted as many of them as he could. I very much enjoyed the first and the last 25% percent of this book; the 50% in the middle could have been trimmed significantly had Mr. Jaher only included those séances in which something new happened. That being said I did enjoy the book and I learned a few things I had not known before … a few of which I could have lived happily without knowing, such as ways and means of hiding “ectoplasm” to make it appear when needed. Those mediums, if nothing else, were certainly creative!
I received an ARC of this book and read it as an ebook. I want to check out a physical copy of the book to see if there are pictures of all the well-known names that were dropped throughout this book as well as possibly some of the various testing devices they used such as the “bell box”. (There are a few photographs on Mr. Jaher’s website) The book certainly made me curious so, despite the repetition I mentioned, I am still awarding it 4 stars.
* I received this book at no charge from Crown Publishing via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review *
This is an excellent and engaging look at the Spiritualism movement in the 1920s (on both sides of the Atlantic), the believers who advocated a new religion based on communication with the dead, the mediums who fueled seance fever, and the skeptics who sought to analyze the phenomenon and debunk the charlatans. David Jaher focuses his attention on a controversial contest sponsored by Scientific American, which offered a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic after passing rigorous scientific investigation conducted by its impressive committee of five judges.
In the end, this contest led to something of a public showdown between some of the most colorful and fascinating personalities of the period: "Margery," the "Witch of Lime Street" (a.k.a. Mina Crandon), thought by many to offer the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified; her vocal supporter, renowned author and Spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle; and the magician, escape artist, and unmasker of fraud mediums, Harry Houdini.
Well worth reading for anyone interested in intellectual history in general, the history of science and/or the history of Spiritualism in particular, the 1920s, and/or the personal and professional stories of Arthur Conan Doyle or Harry Houdini.
During the 1920s, after so many lives were lost during World War I and a deadly flu epidemic, people were eager to stay in touch with their departed loved ones. And so the age Spiritualism and Mysticism was born. While some people embraced the practice of séances, mediums and other forms of divination, others were eager to debunk the charlatans who preyed upon unsuspecting participants.
David Jaher goes into painstaking detail to provide the background story to the legendary showdown between believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and staunch skeptic Harry Houdini. At the center of the controversy is the so-called Witch of Lime Street, Margery Crandon.
I found this book to be tediously dry and a laborious read. It’s a long book to begin with, but the boring presentation of facts made for an even longer read. I did learn quite a few things I hadn’t already known about one of my favorite writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I felt more like I was reading through an encyclopedia of sorts. Maybe it was just me, but I found The Witch of Lime Street a difficult read.
Stumbling on another book, out of many, which I 'did' read, marked read and rated and it's back off the "read" shelf??!! There are 'so' many like this I'm wondering if Goodreads did a major reset while I was gone months ago and now I'm stumbling on a chasing books I 'know' I read, reviewed and at least rated?! Anyone else have this issue going on. I can't even begin to say how many books/reviews/ratings this has happened to for me. Very upsetting. Not doing another review because it's been since last year that I read it, but I loved it. Just upset at another book off the "read" shelf?!
Many thanks to Crown Publishing and apologies for this non-review!
An interesting tale, well written and researched, but I'm not sure it merited 412 pages in the telling. The poetry that prefaced each (brief) chapter was almost entirely extraneous, for starters. Too bad an editor couldn't have pared down this somewhat repetitive account.
Scientific American was offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee. It's astounding to think that a century ago, scientists were looking for scientific proof of ghosts.
Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini started out as friends, but as Doyle increasingly embraced the sprit world and Houdini sought to reveal the fraud of mediumship, their friendship became increasingly strained until it broke off altogether.
This story follows the efforts of the Scientific American committee to demonstrate the proof of ghosts, or the lack thereof. The committee easily proved many applicants to be frauds until they discovered Boston's Margery, the nation's most credible spirit medium.
When I read The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, I was dismayed by the researcher's obsession with checking Alma's orifices for any secret items she may be hiding on her person to support her claims of mediumship. In this regard, this book was no different. The investigators seemed to exploit Margery this way but it also seemed like she encouraged them to explore her sexually. It made me uncomfortable to read about it. I was amazed at how many "men of science" seemed to fall for Margery and her feminine whiles. .
I enjoyed this book. It really read like fiction more than nonfiction and it's amazing to look back at this time and know that these events really happened. I would have liked to have learned more about Margery's motives but with her tendency toward subterfuge, it's somewhat difficult to discover why she was willing to take such a big risk with publicity.