She Was Houdini’s Greatest Challenge

Harry Houdini, about to be padlocked into a packing case and lowered into New York Harbor, 1914
Granger Collection
Harry Houdini, about to be padlocked into a packing case and lowered into New York Harbor, 1914

What is the greatest competition in American history? In boxing, you might single out Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier, or perhaps Jack Dempsey against Gene Tunney. In chess, it has to be Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky. In politics, it might be John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon, or perhaps Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglas. But for sheer human drama, there is a strong argument that all of these were topped by the pitched battle, both personal and intellectual, between Harry Houdini, the great debunker of self-proclaimed psychics, and Mina Crandon, the most successful psychic of the twentieth century. Featured repeatedly on the front pages of the nation’s leading newspapers, Crandon was Houdini’s hardest case and his greatest nemesis. And as it happens, the two were intensely attracted to each other.

David Jaher’s stunning and brilliantly written account of the battle between the Great Houdini and the blond Witch of Lime Street illuminates a lost period in American history. Improbably, it also offers significant lessons about the formation of people’s beliefs and the sources of social divisions—scientific, political, or otherwise. Jaher helps to explain how and why the most highly educated people can diverge on fundamental matters, even when the evidence is altogether clear.

In the 1920s, some of the world’s greatest thinkers were convinced that people could speak to the dead. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the canonical detective, who could always see through fakery and artifice. Having lost a son to influenza at the very end of the Great War, Doyle was also a “convinced Spiritualist” who thought death “rather an unnecessary thing.” In his popular 1918 book, The New Revelation, he argued vigorously on behalf of spiritualism. His dedication: “To all the brave men and women, humble or learned, who have the moral courage during seventy years to face ridicule or worldly disadvantage in order to testify to an all-important truth.” Between 1919 and 1930, Doyle wrote twelve more books on the same subject.

One of Doyle’s allies was the eminent British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who did important work on the discharge of electricity, X rays, and radio signals. Lodge contended that he was in touch with Raymond, his dead son; he wrote a book about their communication and the science that explained it. President of the British Society for Psychical Research (originally led by Cambridge’s Henry Sidgwick, probably the greatest philosopher of the time), Lodge sought to make a serious study of the subject. Charles Richet, a professor at the Collège de France who had won the Nobel Prize in physiology, coined the term “ectoplasm” for the matter from which ghostly apparitions formed. Thomas Edison was no…

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