Title: The Witch of Lime Street
Rating: 3 Stars
This is a well told story of a battle between one of the world’s most famous magicians, Harry Houdini, and one of the most accomplished mediums, Margery.
After the advent of WWI, in which so many millions of young men died, there was a rise in spiritualism. To a large extent, this was led by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who himself lost a number of relatives in WWI and lost a son immediately after WWI from the Spanish Influenza.
Like many others, he sought solace in his loss by trying to make contact with his loved ones beyond the grave. Because he was Doyle, the writer of the ever so logical Sherlock Holmes, his word was much respected and spiritualism became ascendant.
In the meantime, Harry Houdini was becoming a famous magician and escape artist. His beloved mother died. In his grief, he sought out mediums. To his trained eye, he quickly realized that everyone that he went to was fake. Infuriated at those who were, from his point of view, cheating grieving parents, relatives, and spouses, it became one of his major life missions to expose these charlatans.
One of the editors of The Scientific American proposed a contest. He identified a committee of five experts in the psychic field, including Harry Houdini. If someone could conclusively demonstrate psychic phenomena to the satisfaction of the committee, they would win a cash prize.
There were a couple of entrants that were quickly dismissed.
However, there was another possible medium that held great promise. First of all, she was not a professional medium. In fact, she was the wife of a prominent doctor. The doctor himself was an upper class Boston Brahman. She spoke and acted with great elegance and wit. She did not need money and never asked for it. She did not seek attention. She would seem to have no reason to fake it.
Not only that, but she seemed like the real thing. She had a brother, Walter, who died young. She could consistently go into a trance and channel him. While she was being held down, the spirit of Walter would blow trumpets, move about the room, move the table, destroy furniture, play a gramophone, and ultimately, would produce what appeared to be ectoplastic spirit hands.
The bulk of the story is between Margery and Houdini. He becomes absolutely convinced that she’s faking it. He devises additional controls to prevent her from performing. Occasionally he does succeed in stopping her but sometimes she can still make Walter come out and do his tricks despite Houdini’s contrivances.
Although she never does confess, ultimately The Scientific American refuses to give her the prize money since they cannot conclusively prove that her performance is supernatural. Other organizations (eg Harvard University) perform similar tests and they all conclude that she’s faking it.
The story is well told but feels incomplete. There are two major missing pieces.
If she is faking it, why is she faking it? If she didn’t want fame or money, why let scientists come in and test her / probe her / question her relentlessly? What did she gain? One theory is that she herself did not actually come from Boston high society. She actually married into it when she married the wealthy doctor (Dr Roy Crandon). Margery was actually Crandon’s third wife and his first two marriages did not end well.
Crandon himself first got into spirituality with a passion. Could it be that Margery pretended to have this power as a way to keep her husband satisfied? She seemed to have a fun-loving side. Was this her way to amuse herself? And then as she got deeper and deeper into it she just had to keep it going? No one seems to know.
The other major piece is that if she was faking, how was she faking it? To be a medium requires great strength and great dexterity. For instance, to have a trumpet move through the air, apparently this is done by balancing the trumpet on your head and then flinging it using your neck. To move a table while your hands and legs are bound, you duck down with your head and you push the table and lift it with your head. For the ectoplastic hand, it was theorized that Crandon got odd animal parts from the butcher (eg intestines) and then would surgically craft this into something resembling a hand and then Margery would store it in her vagina and pull it out at an opportune time. Wow!
It was also theorized that, with her feminine charms, she would seduce some of the male members of the circle and would coerce them into helping her by moving things around in the dark.
That’s kind of the theory. However, the book is very inconclusive on both of these questions. I totally get that these questions, with the passage of time, could very well be unanswerable.
The problem is that answering those two questions is kind of the point of the book. If you can’t answer those questions, then I was left feeling pretty unsatisfied.