The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World - David Jaher

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.





The 1920s ushered in a time of emotionally wounded people looking for any answer that would ease the ache. One such answer that caught on like wildfire? Spiritualism. A topic that some find laughable now, but back in the day its practitioners saw the movement as a religion as legit as Christianity, Buddhism, etc. What non-believers scoffed at was the obsession followers of Spiritualism had for trying to make contact with deceased loved ones ... almost at any cost. People would get themselves in absolute fervors over any kind of message claiming to be from the other side. Much of this was spurred by the losses felt from the families of those killed during World War 1 and an epidemic of Spanish Influenza that raced across the U.S. during the Nineteen-teens. One such very vocal, very recognizable advocate for Spiritualism was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes detective series. Doyle himself had lost a son, brother and brother-in-law during the years of WW1. That and Doyle, with that woodland fairies debacle, got himself a bit of a rep for being very much taken with otherworldly ideas. 


Doyle was a miracle monger, he {Houdini} said, who packaged his wonders with conviction and erudite words. Nevertheless, the magician believed that his own feats paled next to the novelist's enduring fame. "Doyle is a historical character and his word goes far," he admitted to Bess {Houdini's wife}, "in fact, further than mine."


Jumping on the popularity of the movement, Scientific American Magazine put forth a contest: they would pay out $5,000 (a little over $35,000 in today's money) to anyone who could come forth with physical, scientifically measurable proof of paranormal activity, evidence of afterlife, etc. Guess who was on the panel of judges -- the magician Harry Houdini, a well-known skeptic of psychic mediums. Shortly after the death of his father, Houdini took his mother to see a medium to try to make contact with his father's spirit. Houdini was not impressed with the results, found the medium's readings too formulaic. He tried a few other times with other mediums (including doing a seance with Arthur Conan Doyle's wife, an automatic writing session, the results of which later put an irreparable rift between Doyle & Houdini until Houdini's dying day). The older Houdini got, the longer he worked as a showman, the more he was convinced mediums were nothing more than skilled sleight-of-hand artists and he set out to prove it. 


Through the Scientific American contest, Houdini came to know Mina (aka Margery) Crandon, the wife of Le Roi Crandon, a respected Boston surgeon and Harvard professor. Mrs. Crandon began giving seances in her home on Lime Street, getting messages from her deceased brother, Walter. She developed quite the following but was never able to successfully convince Houdini. He still said he could debunk everything she doing as literal parlor tricks.


The Witch Of Lime Street not only looks at Houdini's systematic process of outing all these various mediums, -- the descriptions of the contest entrants sounded like American Idol try-out episodes! -- much of the focus being on Mrs. Crandon (since she was the front-runner for winning the prize money), but also the friendship between Houdini and Doyle and how they struggled to make peace with their differences in beliefs. There's fascinating history here but it's also tragic in a way, when you think of all the people who, at the bottom of it all, got caught up in Spiritualism because they desperately wanted to reconnect with loved ones or maybe make peace with an unexpected parting. It's that underlying feeling of unresolved grieving that got to me. 


Though I liked the historical subject, my issue with the writing here is that it felt a little too repetitive in parts, making the reading tedious after awhile. Just chapter after chapter after chapter of mediums proven as fakes. Other instances of longwindedness: Houdini is featured on the cover but the reader must go through 20 pages of history between Doyle and Oliver Lodge before Houdini makes his first appearance in the book. Also, regarding the other cover star -- Margery Crandon -- it takes a good while to get to her story as well. Little bits are brought up here and there early on, but the meat of her part of the story doesn't come in until 181 pages in! It left me feeling like this was something of a bookish click-bait! I felt like some of that could have been edited down a bit to make the history as a whole flow a little nicer in the reading of it. 


I struggled with some of the writing being really dry or Jaher jumping from topic to topic with transitions that were either really roughly executed or not at all. Still, I learned much more of the history behind this story I had previously only known a small bit about, and it definitely peaked my interest to pick up more books by and about the key players. 




FTC Disclaimer: & Crown Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.