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 spiritualist, but he announced his intention to work on a mechanism to communicate with people who had crossed over.
The era’s most influential skeptic? Harry Houdini. Born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Houdini is now known as an escape artist, but he began his career as a magician and a medium. To make a living in hard times, he worked as “the celebrated Psychometric Clairvoyant,” with the power to communicate with “the Other Side.” While he proved a pretty convincing psychic, he discovered that he had a unique talent, even a kind of genius: escaping the apparently inescapable. Jaher writes:
They locked him in a dreaded Siberian prison van, bottled him in a milk can, and entombed him in a block of ice in Holland. They shackled him to a spinning windmill, the chassis of an automobile, the muzzle of a loaded cannon. They put him in a padlocked US mailbag, roped him to the twentieth-story girder of an unfinished skyscraper, sealed him in a giant envelope, and boxed him in a crate nailed tight and dropped in New York Harbor. He emerged triumphant and smiling.
Houdini’s talent had a lot to do with his extraordinary physical abilities. He was extremely strong, and he trained himself to use his toes the way most people use their fingers. But he also had a Sherlock Holmes–like capacity to engage in detective work. Caught in a trap, he had an ability to see, almost at a glance, the multiple steps that would enable him to find his way out.
As Houdini’s fame grew, he maintained a skeptical but keen interest in spirit communication, intensified by his devastation at the death of his beloved mother (the love of his life). He and Doyle were good friends, and they had many discussions of the topic, with Houdini acknowledging his desire to be convinced that Doyle was right. But every medium he encountered was a fraud, and he became the world’s leading expert “on the tricks of phony psychics,” debunking some of the hardest cases. Edison, for example, believed that one famous “mentalist,” named Bert Reiss, was in fact clairvoyant. Houdini easily demonstrated that he was a fake.
In the 1920s, as now, Scientific American was a highly respected publication, dedicated to the dissemination of research findings. In 1922, Doyle challenged the magazine and its editor-in-chief, Orson Munn, to undertake a serious investigation of psychic phenomena. James Malcolm Bird, an editor there (and previously a mathematics professor at Columbia University), was intrigued. In November the magazine established a highly publicized contest, with a prize of $5,000 for anyone who could produce “conclusive” evidence of “manifestations” of psychic powers—as, for example, making objects fly around the room. The magazine soberly announced that as of yet, it was “unable to reach a definite conclusion as to the validity of psychic claims.”
Five judges were chosen. The most eminent was William McDougall, chairman of the Harvard Psychology Department and president of the American Society for Psychical Research. (William James had been his predecessor in both positions.) Daniel Frost Comstock, a respected physicist and engineer, had taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and later introduced Technicolor to film). Walter Franklin Prince, a Ph.D. from Yale, had explored a number of purportedly supernatural events; he had always been able to offer natural explanations. Hereward Carrington, a prolific writer and onetime magician, specialized in exposing fakes. Rounding out the committee, the magazine added Houdini, author of a forthcoming book on unmasking psychics. The contest captured the public’s imagination. The New York Times called it “the Acid Test of Spiritualism.”
All of the initial candidates failed that test; the committee saw through them. In the meantime, a woman named Mina Crandon was getting attention in Boston. Her husband—wealthy, handsome, and significantly older—was a prominent Harvard-trained gynecologist, married twice before. In the early 1920s, Dr. Crandon attended one of Sir Oliver Lodge’s lectures on spiritualism, and the two spoke at length that night. Crandon was intrigued: “I couldn’t understand it. It did not fit into any pattern I had previously known about scientists.” He became obsessed. According to a friend, “he had taken to the psychical research movement like a Jew to Marxism.”
His wife was witty, warm, and fun-loving. One friend, speaking for many, described her as a “very very beautiful girl” and “probably the most utterly charming woman I have ever known.” Mrs. Crandon initially disparaged her husband’s interest in spiritualism, joking that as a gynecologist, “naturally he was interested in exploring the netherworld.” Nonetheless, she thought that “a séance sounded like great fun,” and so she decided on a lark to attend one. The medium, a local minister, claimed to contact the spirit of Mina’s brother, Walter, who had died in a tragic railroad accident at the age of twenty-eight. The minister also told her that “she had rare powers and soon all would know it.”
Not long thereafter, the Crandons hosted an unusual party at their home on Lime Street. The purpose of the party? To find a ghost. Mrs. Crandon found it all absurd: “They were all so solemn about it that I couldn’t help laughing.” But as the participants linked hands in a circle on a table, it started to vibrate, eventually crashing to the floor. To see which member of the circle was a medium, each took turns leaving the room. When Mrs. Crandon departed, the vibrations stopped; her friends applauded when she reentered. With the same group and a few others, the Crandons continued their experiments. Everyone who was there attested to some remarkable events, including rapping noises and movements of the table. Six days later, Mrs. Crandon appeared to be possessed by the spirit of her brother Walter, who spoke in “a guttural voice unrecognizable as her own,” and who was funny and immensely lively, even delightful (and engagingly coarse and profane).
As her fame began to spread in Boston, members of the Harvard community tried to debunk her. An acquaintance of Dr. Crandon, a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Roback, suspected “spirit humbug,” but could find no explanation for what he observed. He enlisted McDougall to help solve the mystery. Attending Mina’s séances, both psychologists were baffled. Another visitor at the time said that he “was present many times when Walter’s voice was as clear as that of any person in the circle,” and also “close to my ear, whispering some very personal comment about me or my family.”
In December, Crandon and his wife traveled to Paris and London to demonstrate her abilities. She was a sensation. In London, she performed in front of several investigators, appearing to make a table rise and float. The Crandons became friendly with Doyle, who swore to “the truth and range of her powers.” Lodge told colleagues that when they visited the United States, there were just two things that they must see: Niagara Falls and Mrs. Crandon.
Intrigued by the publicity, Bird, the Scientific American editor, decided to visit the Crandons in Boston. He was immediately struck by her apparent sincerity, her elegance, and her keen sense of humor, which he described as “wicked.” He was also amazed by what he saw in the séances, which included flashes of light, raps, whistles, and cool breezes. He told Orson Munn that “there had been a war between the Crandons and the Harvard scientists.” Munn asked: Who won? The medium won, Bird answered. He invited her to enter the magazine’s contest.
Accepting the challenge, she performed repeatedly in front of Bird and various committee members, moving objects, producing noises in various places, and channeling Walter. In the spring and summer of 1924, Bird himself visited Lime Street nearly sixty times. He was convinced that Mrs. Crandon was genuine. Comstock, who attended fifty-six séances, could find nothing amiss. McDougall tried for months to discover fraud, and he repeatedly accused her of fakery to her face. But he lacked any evidence of tricks, and “she responded to his incredulity with wit.” Carrington initially found the reports far-fetched, but after over forty visits, he could not explain what he saw.
It looked as if McDougall, Comstock, and Carrington would endorse her. Though skeptical by nature, Prince also seemed moved. In the July 1924 issue of Scientific American, Bird wrote about her, protecting her privacy with the name “Margery.” He said that “the initial probability of genuineness [is] much greater than in any previous case which the Committee has handled.” Bird’s article was widely discussed. A headline in The New York Times read, “Margery Passes All Psychic Tests.” The Boston Herald exclaimed, “Four of Five Men Chosen to Bestow Award Sure She Is 100 P.C. Genuine.”
Reading all this, Houdini, who had not had an opportunity to see the famous Margery in action, exploded. Traveling immediately to New York, he asked Bird if she was going to receive the prize. Bird replied, “Most decidedly.” Houdini insisted that it would be unfair to give her the award unless he had had his own opportunity to investigate her claims. Bird agreed, and Dr. Crandon was not pleased. Writing to Doyle before the meeting, he said, “My deep regret is that this low-minded Jew has any claim on the word American”; he described the coming encounter as “war to the finish.”
Mrs. Crandon’s reaction was far more positive. Houdini had been a star since she was a child, and she was proud to receive him. She found him polite, curious, dignified, even enchanting. On the night of his arrival, she put on one of her standard performances, apparently impressing everyone with a table that suddenly fell over, a bell box that seemed to ring of its own accord, a moving cabinet, and a slowed and stopped Victrola. As Bird drove Munn and Houdini back to their hotel, Munn asked Houdini what he thought. He replied immediately: “All fraud—every bit of it.”
Notwithstanding that judgment, he and Mrs. Crandon remained on excellent terms. He appeared to be charmed by her beauty. Jaher singles out a photograph taken the next day, which Mrs. Crandon had asked Houdini to keep private. As Jaher remarks, Houdini was generally formal with women, but in this picture, he is leaning very close; the two look like lovers. “He holds her hand and smiles at her affectionately—while she has turned to him as if expecting a kiss.” In the aftermath of his visit, they enjoyed a warm correspondence. “I am glad to be able to say I know ‘The Great Houdini,’” she wrote him.
Observing her closely on several occasions, Houdini began to figure out, and to specify, exactly how she produced some of her most impressive effects. With evident admiration, he reported, Mrs. Crandon had produced “the ‘slickest’ ruse I have ever detected, and it has converted all skeptics.” He added, “It has taken my thirty years of experience to detect her in her various moves.” In November 1924 he wrote a lengthy pamphlet, complete with highly detailed drawings of the séances, with which he specified exactly how Mrs. Crandon was able, in the dark, to maneuver her legs, head, feet, arms, shoulders, and head to produce the various effects. For example, he showed how she surreptitiously maneuvered her leg to tap the top of the bell box (thus producing a ring), and how she was able to bend her head under the table to push it up and over. “As she is unusually strong and has an athletic body,” he wrote, “she can press her wrists so firmly on the arms of the chair that she can move her body and sway it at will.” Embarking on a kind of no-holds-barred campaign against her, he insisted that Mrs. Crandon is “a shrewd, cunning woman” and “resourceful to the extreme.” In his own public performances, he was able to replicate many (though far from all) of her effects.
Mrs. Crandon’s numerous defenders were unconvinced. They portrayed Houdini as implacably close-minded, himself a cheat. Doyle denounced Houdini as prejudiced and dishonest; the denunciation destroyed their friendship. (Even years later, Doyle proclaimed that the incident “was never an exposure of Margery, but it was a very real exposure of Houdini.”) From Scientific American, the official verdict came on February 12, 1925: Houdini was correct. Prince and McDougall captured the consensus with these words: “We have observed no phenomena of which we can assert that they could not have been produced by normal means.” The sole dissenter, Carrington, stated that he had been “convinced that genuine phenomena have occurred here.”
For Margery, however, that was hardly the end. Bird promptly rose to her defense, saying Houdini had made up his mind in advance and characterizing him as a liar and an ignoramus. (Jaher suggests that Houdini was jealous of Margery’s spectacular success.) She continued to hold séances, joking that 150 years before, she would have been executed as a witch, but “now they send committees of professors from Harvard to study me. That represents some progress, doesn’t it?” Even Houdini was unable to explain some of her new feats, conceding that “the lady is subtle.” Life magazine said that she was “almost as hard to bury as the League of Nations.”
But as the months and years went by, her act seemed less and less credible. A new group of Harvard researchers undertook a six-month investigation and found strong evidence of trickery. In 1930, the ever-loyal Bird, who worked very hard to discredit the Harvard study, confessed that to fool Houdini, Margery had solicited his help in producing some of her effects. While continuing to believe that she was genuine, Bird conceded that when put “in a situation where she thought she might have to choose between fraud and a blank séance,” she “was willing to choose fraud.” Most damningly, researchers exposed one of her most bizarre effects, in which “Walter” seemed to make his own fingerprint appear on wax. The print turned out to be identical to that of Mrs. Crandon’s dentist.
As it happens, a lot was going on at 10 Lime Street in the mid-1920s. Late in her life, Mrs. Crandon spoke fondly of her affair with Carrington, her only loyalist on the committee. (Perhaps he enjoyed attesting that “genuine phenomena have occurred here.”) Bird also claimed to have had a romance, though that might have been his imagination; she described him as “disgusting.” Both McDougall and Prince reported that she attempted to seduce them. Houdini said the same, adding, “When I walked into the seance room and saw that beautiful blonde, her applesauce meant nothing to me. I have been through apple orchards.” But all the while, she spoke of him with admiration: “I respect Houdini more than any of the bunch. He has both feet on the ground all the time.” And she expressed genuine sorrow at his death, singling out his virility, his determination, and his courage.
One of Jaher’s great achievements is to build real suspense in a tale whose conclusion is foreordained. But a deep mystery remains: What led Mrs. Crandon to do what she did? Here’s a guess. Jaher suggests that by 1923, her marriage was troubled. Dr. Crandon was depressive, intensely hardworking, and obsessed by spiritualism. Playful, resourceful, and competitive, his wife was initially willing to have some fun with the topic. But as she learned, she was also exceptionally talented, full of charisma, a natural magician—and her talent could be put to use in precisely the matters that most interested her husband. As she became well known, things began to get out of hand. What started as a kind of game, essentially with friends, turned into international news. And when that happened, she enlisted her husband, Carrington, Bird, and undoubtedly others as accomplices. Importantly, her role as Margery also created a kind of marital glue. She was stuck in it.
There is another mystery. How could so many people believe that Margery was genuine? Were they irrational? Not necessarily. At the time, a lot of people thought that it might be possible to contact the dead. True, many people were skeptical—but how likely was it that a young Boston housewife, without any training or financial motives, would have the desire, and the extraordinary skill and strength, to do what Mrs. Crandon did? To equal and in some ways surpass Houdini himself? To find a way to move tables and other objects, to make rapping noises, to ring bells in closed boxes, and to produce an apparently male voice, altogether different from her own, and displaying a wholly distinct personality? As improbable as contact with “the other side” might have seemed, the complexity, sophistication, and evident credibility of the performance might have made fraud appear less probable still.
Jaher’s story is captivating and unforgettable, but it can easily be dismissed as a historical curiosity of an era when highly educated citizens of a barely recognizable United States were willing to believe in crazy things. But any such dismissal would be a big mistake. According to a recent poll, 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, or think that the spirits of dead people can sometimes come back. Throughout the world, people continue to believe in magic, miracles, psychics, and spirits, and a lot of them are highly educated. Many people scoff at science, or at least distrust the scientific consensus. They do not believe the experts and their supposed evidence. They believe the people they trust (the behavioral phenomenon of “social proof”). They think what they like to think (the behavioral phenomenon of “motivated reasoning”). They like to see a little magic, or perhaps a lot. They are moved by their own Margerys, who may have an extraordinary talent, the defining skill of magicians, which is to direct their audience’s attention exactly and only where they want it. (The most effective marketers have the same skill; so do the best politicians.)
Consider a little tale from one of Margery’s investigators, the Princeton psychologist Henry McComas, who described her supernatural feats to Houdini with great wonder, insisting that he saw every one of them with his own eyes. McComas reported that for the rest of his life, he would not forget the scorn with which Houdini greeted those words. “You say, you saw. Why you didn’t see anything. What do you see now?” At that point, Houdini slapped a half-dollar between his palms, and it promptly disappeared.
His great adversary never confessed. In her very last days, a researcher suggested to a failing Mrs. Crandon, widowed for two years, that she would die happier if she finally did so, and let the world know about her methods. To his surprise, her old twinkle of merriment returned to her eyes. She laughed softly and offered her answer: “Why don’t you guess?”