What happens after we die is the great question that everyone has an answer to because everyone wonders about it and anyone’s answer is as good as anyone else’s. Many religions are built to varying degrees on the comfort that something does happen after death, and the something is going to be fun and happy. Religions come and go. In the years after World War I, spiritualism had a great following. Getting in touch with the spirits on the other side was something like tuning a radio to the right station, a metaphor from an engineering gadget that had been brought forth by practical science. Indeed, finding those spirits was likened to a scientific endeavor; Thomas Edison proposed to construct a valve that would amplify the transmissions from what the spiritualists called “Summerland.” Another scientific endeavor would be simply to investigate the mediums who said they were talking to, or manifesting actions from, spirit sources. _Scientific American_ set up a panel to investigate mediums, and got some impressive results. _The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World_ (Crown Publishers) is about the most impressive results. It is written by David Jaher, and this is his first book. It is a surprise to read about him that he has been a professional astrologer, and in his acknowledgement pages, he thanks someone without whose help “I would still be reading natal charts, rather than writing books, for a living.” Jaher indeed believes in psychic phenomena, but even readers who are more skeptical will have no difficulty in enjoying his engrossing story of a scientific foray into the spirit world.
_Scientific American_ was ready in 1923 to put up money as a reward for real psychic displays, $2,500. Scientists can be fooled by magicians, but magicians are less likely to be fooled, and so Houdini was part of the investigating committee, which found a lot of frauds. Then the committee discovered the spooky effects wrought by Mina Crandon. (For the investigation she was given the pseudonym Margery, but her identity became public in the middle of things.) She was a vivacious blonde, married to an older man who was a respected surgeon in Boston. Her effects were astounding, with galloping tables and objects flying through the air, all while Margery’s limbs were being held or restrained. Houdini had respect for a fine display of magic, but not one in which the performer claimed to be aided by the spirit world. He found that Margery had the slickest ruses he had seen, and while a particular séance impressed all the other attendees, he pronounced it, “All fraud – every bit of it.” He could reproduce all the effects himself, he said, without any supernatural assistance. And he did so, in his stage shows, as part of his debunking crusade. The truth is, though, that he may have met his match in Margery. Although he did expose her methods, at the last session he attended, he said he could duplicate what he had seen, but he never did. Margery and her promoter husband thought this was a victory.
The prize, however, was not awarded. There was infighting among members of the committee, but no agreement overall that Margery’s effects were supernatural. Never fulfilled were the hopes of people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that science would verify visitations from the other side and that spiritualism would be the religion to overtake all other beliefs. The world moved on from the dizziness of the Jazz Age to the grimness of the Great Depression, and the fad for séances waned. So did the newspaper publicity; Boston and national papers were wild about Margery and then fashions changed and she was forgotten. _Scientific American_ no longer has a prize to give a genuine psychic, but spiritualists have not been able to claim the analogous prize maintained by Randi. The Margery vs Houdini duel was a sensation in its time, and has been brought back here in full, in a funny, dramatic retelling fair to both sides, and to their considerable egos and those of the rest of the investigators.