Houdini v. The Blond Witch of Lime Street: A Historical Lesson in Skepticism

In the century-long history of serious psychic research, the "Margery" episode is probably one of the most interesting. No other medium since D. D. Home, not even Eusapia Palladino, had been able to attract as much interest and controversy as Mina Stinson, also known as Margery, the "Blond Witch of Lime Street." Like Home, Mina Stinson (her birth name) didn't ask for money for her demonstrations but, unlike her predecessor, she refused even donations or jewels. No ignorant peasant coming from a country town like Eusapia, she was instead the wife of a respected and wealthy Boston physician, Dr. Le Roy Goddard Crandon. By all accounts Stinson was a brilliant, quick witted, and, in her early thirties, blue-eyed and with long-brown hair, a very attractive woman. Margery was the last famous case of physical mediumship to be presented as proof of the reality of the powers of mind over matter, or psychokinesis, until the arrival 50 years later of Uri Geller. With her ended the era of the great mediums that began with Daniel Home .

Life at Lime Street

The events that interest us began in the spring of 1923, at number 10 Lime Street, a four-story brick house in the stylish neighborhood of Bacon Hill in Boston. Margery's husband, Dr. Le Roy Goddard Crandon, was a dour and aristocratic man, with many hobbies and interests beyond medicine, ranging from a passion for the sea to the study of the writings of Abraham Lincoln. It was inevitable that this nimble mind would turn to a subject that interested everybody in the 1920s-psychic research. His interest was sparked by a meeting he had with Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), a physicist of great renown who, after the death of his son Raymond during the war, had announced he believed in human survival after death and in the possibility of communicating with the dead. Lodge had suggested a book to Crandon, _The Physical Structures of the Goligher Circle_ by Dr. Crawford. After reading the story of Kathleen Goligher and her family, strange thoughts crept into the doctor's mind. Was it really possible, wondered Crandon, that the "psychic cantilevers" that Crawford talked about existed? And if so, how could these "pseudopods" have the strength to lift even a table? Crandon decided to try to find out for himself and in a few weeks had a table built to the exact specifications of the one that had been used in the Goligher case. On May 27 Crandon sat around the table with his wife and a few friends on the top floor of the house in Lime Street. The chamber was darkened and following Crandon's instructions, the sitters joined hands and waited. Suddenly, the table moved slightly. Then it moved again and tilted up on two legs. Someone suggested they try to find out which one of them might be the medium, so one at a time each sitter left the room. Since the table continued to rock and stopped only when Mina, the doctor's wife, departed, there was no doubt: she was the medium.

Mina the Medium

Mina (1888-1941) had originally been married to the owner of a small grocery store, Earl P. Rand, and had always been a vivacious, active woman. As a teenager she had played in various professional bands and orchestras, had worked as a secretary, loved sports, and was active in various social action church groups. The marriage with Crandon required that she give up her dynamic lifestyle, in those days not suitable for a physician's wife. The new experience of the seance of May 27 provided a pleasant change from the confined life of leisure of a wealthy woman. For the whole summer the Crandons held private seances in their home. The doctor became more and more excited every time he discovered his wife had a new "power." Her abilities seemed limitless and he only had to read about some new mystery and "Psyche"-as he had begun to fondly call her-would duplicate it at the next seance. Raps and flashes of light were among the earliest phenomena to appear in the darkness of her seances and, along with more traditional effects like the movement of the table, Mina appeared to be able to stop a watch simply by concentrating on it, or to produce dollar bills and live pigeons, things that seemed to be taken directly from the repertoire of a magician. Soon there was a new turn. Mina had conducted her seances awake and fully conscious of what was happening around her when her husband suggested that she try to fall into a trance. The request met with immediate success and various "entities" started to communicate through the medium. One of these began to appear more frequently and came to dominate. Dr. Crandon and the others agreed that this visitor had to be Walter, Mina's brother. Walter Stinson had died 12 years earlier, at the age of 28, crushed by a railroad boxcar. Walter's voice, which became Mina's spirit control for 18 years, not surprisingly was the same as Mina's, only a little more hoarse. His language was scurrilous and he had a ready wit and irritable manners, a personality quite foreign to the kind and polite lady medium. In August of 1923 Dr. Crandon wrote an enthusiastic letter to Conan Doyle, telling him about his wife's wonderful abilities. Before he even met her, Doyle immediately declared that he was convinced the phenomena was genuine. Deeply impressed, Conan Doyle told J. Malcolm Bird, the Secretary of the Scientific American committee for the investigation of spiritualism, about her.

Scientific American Investigates

In November, 1923, Bird paid a visit to the Crandons and met an undoubtedly interesting couple: a somber doctor and a spirited and fascinating woman. Mina's charm clearly effected him, so much so that many would later question the reliability of his observations. Bird had already given the same impression when he commented with particular kindness on the demonstrations of a medium about whom others had serious doubts. On that occasion, Walter Franklin Prince, reviewing Bird's book, _My Psychic Adventures_, wrote:

Mr. Bird, if he wishes to achieve the authority in psychical research which I invoke for him, must hereafter avoid falling in love with the medium. (Prince, 1923)

Before leaving Boston, Bird invited Mina to enter the contest announced by Scientific American. She agreed and specified that if she won the prize would go to psychic research. She even insisted in paying all the expenses that might arise from the investigation, including those for the committee's stay in Boston. The only condition that she imposed was that the committee should come to her instead of her going to them. The Crandons would lend their house to the investigators. An article about the medium, written by Bird, appeared in the July, 1924 issue of Scientific American. To protect Mina's privacy, Bird rebaptized her "Margery"; "Walter" was called "Chester," and Dr. Crandon "F. H.". The readers of Scientific American learned that at last a potential winner of the prize had arrived: "With 'Margery'", Bird wrote, "(...) the initial probability of genuineness are much greater than in any previous case which the Committe has handled. (Bird, 1924, p. 29). The committee then moved to Boston; Bird and Hereward Carrington (a famous psychic investigator), and occasionally the other members of the Committee, gladly agreed to be guests of the Crandons during the investigation. William McDougall, psychologist at Harvard, living in Boston, remained at his home while W. F. Prince, chief research officer of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), preferred to stay at a hotel. Harry Houdini, the only member of the committee who was not informed about the investigation, had to rely on the newspapers to find out what was happening, and what he read piqued his skeptical interest, to say the least: "Margery, the Boston Medium, Passes all Psychic Tests"; "Scientists Find No Trickery in a Score of Seances"; "Versatile Spook Puzzles Investigators By Variety of His Demonstrations." The surprise was even greater when, opening the July issue of Scientific American, Houdini learned that the investigators of Margery's claims where his colleagues on the committee. Houdini was furious: why hadn't he been informed? Bird explained to Houdini in a letter:

Our original idea was not to bother you with it unless, and until it got to a stage where there seemed serious prospects that it was either genuine, or a type of fraud which our other Committeemen could not deal with... Mr. Munn feels that the case has taken a turn which makes it desirable for us to discuss it with you. (Houdini, 1924, P. 4)

Houdini arrived at the New York's offices and asked Bird directly: "Do you believe that this medium is genuine?" "Why, yes", answered Bird, "she is genuine. She does resort to trickery at times, but I believe she is fifty or sixty per cent genuine." "Then you mean that this medium will be entitled to get the Scientific American prize?," Houdini responded. "Most decidedly," Bird confessed. Houdini pulled no punches:

Mr. Bird, you have nothing to lose but your position and very likely you can readily get another if you are wrong, but if I am wrong it will mean the loss of reputation and as I have been selected to be one of the Committee I do not think it will be fair for you to give this medium the award unless I am permitted to go up to Boston and investigate her claims, and from what you tell me I am certain that this medium is either the most wonderful in the world or else a very clever deceiver. If she is a fraudulent medium I will guarantee to expose her and if she is genuine I will come back and be one of her most strenuous supporters. (Ibid., p. 5)

The Wizard and the Witch

Houdini and Munn arrived in Boston on July 22 and took rooms at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Houdini was shocked at hearing that Bird and Carrington had accepted the Crandon's hospitality. How unbiased could their judgment be if they were guests of the party that they were asked to investigate? But the accommodations, as later became known, were not the only blandishment offered to the members of the committee. Carrington, for example, had borrowed some money from Dr. Crandon, and Bird had even received a blank check for his expenses. An even more dangerous influence, however, threatened the integrity of the investigators: the attractions of Mina, who wore only a filmy dressing gown and silk stockings during the seances. She obviously enchanted Bird and only many years later was it known that she and Carrington had often slept together. "It is not possible to stop at one's house (sic)", Houdini explained, "break bread with _him_ frequently, then investigate _him_ and render an impartial verdict". (Ibid., p. 5)

On July 23, 1924 Houdini participated for the first time in a seance with the medium. A feat that had baffled the members of the committee involved the use of a wooden box with an electric switch that when pressed would ring a bell placed inside the box. In the previous sittings the box had been put on the floor between Margery's feet, and the bell had rung even while the medium's hands and feet were supposedly being held. For control there was a member of the committee on the left and her husband presumably doing the same on the right. With the medium so "immobilized," the sitters reasoned the one responsible for the phenomena could only be Walter the spirit-guide. When Houdini arrived he sat on the medium's left and the box was placed between his feet. His hand held that of the medium while his ankle would control her leg. Houdini picks up the story from there:

All that day I had worn a silk rubber bandage around that leg just below the knee. By night the part of the leg below the bandage had become swollen and painfully tender, thus giving me a much keener sense of feeling and making it easier to notice the slightest sliding of Mrs. Crandon's ankle or flexing her muscles. (Ibid., p. 6)

The precaution appeared to be crucial when, after pulling her skirts well up above her knees, Margery asked for darkness. In fact, continued Houdini in his account of the seance, I could distinctly feel her ankle slowly and spasmodically sliding as it pressed against mine while she gained space to raise her foot off the floor and touch the top of the box. To the ordinary sense of touch the contact would seem the same while this was being done. At times she would say: "Just press hard against my ankle so you can see that my ankle is there," and as she pressed I could feel her gain another half inch. When she had finally maneuvered her foot around to a point where she could get at the top of the box the bell ringing began and I positively felt the tendons of her leg flex and tighten as she repeatedly touched the ringing apparatus. (Ibid., p. 7)

When the bell stopped ringing, Houdini felt the leg of the medium slowly sliding back to the original position on the floor. Bird sat at her right with one hand free to "explore" and the other on top of those of both the medium and Dr. Crandon. Suddenly, Walter asked for an illuminated plaque to be placed on the lid of the box that held the bell. Bird got up to get it and at that moment Walter called for control. Margery placed her free hand in Houdini's and immediately the cabinet was violently thrown backward. The medium then gave Houdini her right foot and said: "You have now both hands and both feet." Then Walter called out: "The megaphone is in the air. Have Houdini tell me where to throw it." "Toward me", replied the magician and it instantly fell at Houdini's feet. Notwithstanding the clever work of misdirection created by the medium, Houdini had been able to understand what had really happened in the darkness. When Bird had left the room to search for the luminous plaque, Margery was left with her right hand and foot free. This had allowed her to tilt the corner of the cabinet enough to get her free foot under it; then, picking up the megaphone she placed it on her head, dunce-cap fashion. She was then able to throw the cabinet using her right foot which she would later give to Houdini. While it would appear that Margery was under complete control by Houdini, simply jerking her head would cause the megaphone to fall at his feet. After the seance, Houdini commented: "This is the _slickest_ ruse I have ever detected." (Ibid., p. 8) Houdini had seen through deceptions after just one seance, while the other members of the Committe hadn't, even after thirty. Bird resented this air of superiority and was close to Dr. Crandon in his dislike of the man. Crandon, as well as Bird, had also shown racial hate for Houdini, when in a letter to Doyle had expressed his regret that "this low-minded Jew has any claim on the word American
(Silverman, 1996, p. 325).

The Second Seance

The following night, Margery agreed to hold the seance in the hotel suite in which Dr. Comstock stayed. This time, the group sat around a table, with Houdini to the left of the medium. Walter ordered everyone to move back from the table so that he might gather the necessary force to lift it. "This," commented Houdini, "was simply another ruse on the medium's part, for when all the rest moved back she moved back also and this gave her room enough to bend her head and push the table up and over." (Houdini, op. cit., p. 9). Houdini could confirm his theory when, after letting go of Munn's hand, he began groping around under the table until he felt the medium's head. The magician whispered to Munn that he could denounce and expose her at once but the editor proposed to wait and the seance continued. It was then time for the bell-box. Again it was placed between Houdini's feet, again Margery put her ankle against that of the magician and again, in the darkness, Houdini, who had rolled up his trouser leg like the night before, felt her stretching her foot to ring the bell. The buckle of Houdini's garter, however, had caught the medium's stocking, preventing her from reaching the box. "You have garters on, haven't you?", she asked. "Yes", replied Houdini. "Well, the buckle hurts me." After taking the garter off, Houdini felt the woman's leg stretching again and the bell ringing each time her muscles extended. The seance over, Crandon left the room and the committee discussed what had happened. Houdini told the others about his discovery and gave a practical demonstration. The committee, however, decided to wait until they were back in New York before issuing a press release. Meanwhile, it was necessary that the Crandons be left in the dark about Houdini's discoveries. Munn and Houdini left for New York and Bird remained as a guest with the Crandons for three more days. Later it became known that he had told Mina and her husband what Houdini had discovered and what the committee intended to do. From that moment on Margery would be on guard. Arriving in New York, Munn spiked an article by Bird for Scientific American, already in print, in which he praised Margery's abilities. He couldn't stop newspapers from reporting Bird's declarations. Some headlines that appeared in the newspapers of the day read: "Boston Medium Baffles Experts"; "Baffles Scientists With Revelations, Psychic Power of Margery Established"; "Experts Vainly Seek Trickery in Spiritualist Demonstration"; and then one that had the magician boiling with rage: "Houdini the Magician Stumped."

Houdini's Wrong Step

When the committee met a month later there clearly was open war between Houdini, who wanted to expose the medium once and for all, and Margery, who wanted to make Houdini look the fool. It was then that Houdini made his worst move, introducing in the experimental setting a ridiculous constraint to control the medium. It was a big wooden box inside which the medium would sit leaving only her head and hands sticking out. The main problem with such an extreme form of control is that it gave the medium the opportunity to complain that the cabinet prevented the materialization of the "pseudopods" needed to perform the phenomena and gave her an alibi for a possible absence of the same. There was also another drawback: if the cabinet wasn't really fraud-proof as Houdini believed it to be, and Margery could find a way to do some tricks, it could become proof of a true paranormal demonstration. If the fraud were later discovered, Houdini would have appeared incompetent. On August 25, in the apartment of Dr. Comstock, Margery was "boxed" and the lights turned out. The box with the bell, placed on a table in front of the cabinet, rang but, when the lights were turned on, the lid on the cabinet appeared to have been forced open. Houdini suggested that, with the lid open, Margery could have rung the bell by projecting her head forward. The medium denied any responsibility claiming that Walter had forced open the cabinet-box. The cabinet had proved its uselessness but Houdini wanted to try again. He had the lid sealed with steel strips and locks and prepared for the next night. That evening began with the dramatic entrance of Bird who demanded to know why he had been left out of the seances. Houdini answered coldly, "I object to Mr. Bird being in the seance room because he has betrayed the Committee and hindered their work. He has not kept to himself things told him in strictest confidence as he should as Secretary to the Committee." (Ibid., p. 15) Bird at first denied but then admitted that Margery, worried, had convinced him to tell her the facts. Having said so, he resigned from the committee and left. There and then Prince was elected as the new Secretary. The seance began with Margery confined in the cabinet-box and Houdini and Prince at her sides holding her hands. Houdini particularly insisted that Prince never let go of the medium's hand until the seance was over. This provoked Margery to ask Houdini what he had on his mind. "Do you really want to know?", asked Houdini. "Yes", said the medium. "Well I will tell you. In case you have smuggled anything in to the cabinet-box you can not now conceal it as both your hands are secured and as far as they are concerned you are helpless". "Do you want to search me?", she asked. "No, never mind, let it go", said Houdini. "I am not a physician." Soon after Walter appeared in the circle saying: "Houdini, you are very clever indeed but it won't work. I suppose it was an accident those things were left in the cabinet?" 'What was left in the cabinet?", asked the magician. "Pure accident was it? You were not here but your assistant was." Walter went on and then stated that a ruler would be found in the cabinet box under a pillow at the medium's feet and accused Houdini of having had his assistant put it there to throw suspicion on his sister. Then he finished with a violent outburst in which he exclaimed: "Houdini, you God damned son of a bitch, get the hell out of here and never come back. If you don't I will!" A search of the cabinet revealed the presence of a collapsible carpenter rule. But the question remained: who put it there? Houdini claimed that it was Margery. By sticking the rule through the neck opening, the magician explained, she could have easily rung the bell. Also, the medium had suggested that the arm holes in the sides of the cabinet be boarded up which would allow her to move her hands freely and uncontrolled inside the cabinet. Margery rejected the accusations and accused Houdini, suggesting that his assistent Jim Collins had hidden the ruler to discredit her. However, Collins was interrogated that same night, in Houdini's absence, and took an oath that he did not place any ruler inside the cabinet, that he had never seen that ruler, and that his ruler was in his pocket. According to writer William Lindsay Gresham, Collins had hid the ruler: "I chucked it in the box myself. The Boss told me to do it. E wanted to fix her good". (Gresham, 1961, p. 219). Milbourne Christopher, magician and magic historian, expressed doubt about this incident in _Houdini the Untold Story_:
The source of this story, though not given by Gresham, was Fred Keating, a magician who had been a guest of the Crandons in their house on Lime Street at the time Carrington was investigating the medium. Keating, however, was not unbiased. Several days before Gresham spoke to him, Keating had seen an unpublished manuscript in this author's collection in which Houdini, while praising Keating as a magician, had commented in unflattering terms on Keating's abilities as an investigator of psychic phenomena. In this writer's opinion, the story of Collins' admission is sheer fiction. (Christopher, 1969, p. 198). The incident remains doubtful to this day. It could have been revealing if at the time a laboratory could have examined the ruler found inside the box for fingerprints or other useful traces. Evidently the Scientific American committee was not that scientific after all.

The Last Seance

A last seance was planned for August 27. That afternoon Munn, Prince, Dr. Crandon, Mina and Houdini dined together outside Boston. The medium, upon hearing that Houdini was about to denounce her from the stage at Keith's Theatre in Boston protested that she didn't want her twelve-year-old son to read that his mother was a fraud. Then don't be a fraud, Houdini told her. To which she said that if he misrepresented the facts some of her friends would come up on stage and give him a good beating. Houdini replied that he was not going to misrepresent her. Dr. Comstock had invented a device to immobilize the medium for the committee's last seance. It was a low box into which Margery and one investigator, sitting one in front of the other, would put their feet. A board, connected to the box, would have been locked on top of the knees, preventing withdrawal of the feet. The sides of the box remained open allowing any possible "psychic structure" to operate. Her hands were held by the investigator and the box with the bell was placed outside the control-box, all was ready for the the seance to begin. While waiting for something to happen, Dr. Crandon remarked: "Some day, Houdini, you will see the light and if it were to occur this evening, I would gladly give ten thousand dollars to charity". "It may happen", replied Houdini, "but I doubt it". "Yes sir", Dr. Crandon repeated, "if you were converted this evening I would willingly give $10,000 to some charity." (Ibid., pp. 21-2). It was an uneventful seance, that is, nothing happened: Houdini was not converted and Dr. Crandon kept his $10,000 which Houdini had interpreted as an attempted bribe. Dr. Comstock's device, obviously better than the one used by Houdini, had shown that when the medium was immobilized and controlled by an investigator (rather than by her husband) the phenomena disappeared. As usually happens in such cases: when controls are 0 phenomena are 100, when control are 100 phenomena are 0. Margery didn't win the Scientific American prize. In the eyes of the public, the doubt cast over her honesty by the committee investigation was not enough to destroy her. Malcolm Bird resigned from Scientific American after Houdini anounced on a radio program: "I publicly denounce here Malcolm Bird as being an accomplice of Margery!" After resigning, Bird spent his time promoting Margery.

Different Opinions

Houdini, convinced that he had indisputably debunked Margery, wrote in one of his pamphlets:
I charge Mrs. Crandon with practicing her feats daily like a professional conjuror. Also that because of her training as a secretary, her long experience as a professional musician, and her athletic build she is not simple and guileless but a shrewd, cunning woman, resourceful in the extreme, and taking advantage of every opportunity to produce a "manifestation. (Ibid., p. 23)
Carrington, the first to defend her, charged Houdini with being interested only in publicity and declared: "The reason I didn't go to Boston when he [Houdini] held his sittings with 'Margery' was that I knew he distrusted me and I knew that anything he could not explain he would bring to my presence there.
(_Boston Herald_, January 26, 1925). Finally, it comes as no surprise that one of the most strenuous defenders of the medium was Conan Doyle:
[T]his self-sacrificing couple bore with exemplary patience all the irritations arising from the incursions of these fractious and unreasonable people, while even the gross insult which was inflicted upon them by one member of the committee did not prevent them from continuing the sittings. Personally, I think that they erred upon the side of virtue, and that from the moment Houdini uttered the word "fraud" the committee should have been compelled either to disown him or cease their visits. (Doyle, 1930)
According to Conan Doyle, the only honest and trustworthy members of the committee were Carrington and Bird. Regarding Bird, Conan Doyle said that he had a "better brain than Houdini's" because after 50 seances "he was completely convinced of the genuinity of the phenomena." (Ibid., p. 18) In the past, Conan Doyle had expressed his opinion on how to form an "impartial" committee: "What I wanted was five good clear-headed men who would stick to it without prejudice at all-like the Dialectical Society of London, who unanimously endorsed the phenomena." (_Progressive Thinker_, April 18, 1925) Conan Doyle's curious definition of the term "open mind" connected it with the phrase "believe in the phenomena and endorse it." Houdini didn't have an "open mind" as Conan Doyle intended it and he also expressed his surprise that a committee consisting of gentleman should have permitted an attack on the reputation of a lady, and allowed a man "with entirely different standards to make this outrageous attack". The official report of the committee took six months to be completed. Committee members had been sworn to reveal nothing about the sittings until the publication of the report, while Bird and Dr. Crandon, not restricted by such burden, kept on telling journalists what Houdini considered to be "black lies". While Houdini's irritation, and the public curiosity for the Committee verdict, mounted a preliminary report was published in October in Scientific American. It only reported the singular members views but, at least, freed them from their vow of confidentiality. Houdini, then, published at his own cost a pamphlet entitled _Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium "Margery"_ and started a tour where he completely exposed Margery's act.

Margery's Suspicious Looking Ectoplasm

In 1924, while the discussions continued, Margery had begun to produce ectoplasm during her seances. Like another famous medium, Eva C., her substance also was said to pour out from her bodily orifices. This is a supposition, of course, since she like Eva used to perform in the dark. Meanwhile, Margery's fame had arrived in Europe and she was particularly well known in England. Conan Doyle, who had already met the Crandons, had expressed the wish to participate in new sittings with the medium, but the meeting never took place and the newspapers reported: "Margery Fears Fog May Block London Seances". The American Society for Psychical Research was also interested in the case and if the medium wouldn't come to the Society, the Society would go to the medium. This happened through English researcher Eric J. Dingwall who was duly impressed when, during a seance in the red light of an electric torch turned on and off by Dr. Crandon following the orders of Walter, things that looked like materialized hands rested on Margery's lap. Excited, he wrote to psychic researcher Von Shrenck-Notzing:
It is the most beautiful case of teleplastic telekinetics with which I am acquainted. One can freely touch the teleplasm. The materialized hands are joined by cords to the medium's body; they seize objects and move these. The teleplastic masses are visible and tangible upon the table, in excellent red light I hold the medium's hands; I see angers and feel them in good light. The control is irreproachable. (Dingwall, 1928).
The enthusiasm, however, died quickly and Dingwall began to have doubts. He realized that he had never been able to actually see the ectoplasm pouring out of the medium's body. The faint light was not as good as he had earlier enthusiastically described, the hands were partially or completely formed and were static rather than moving. Dingwall remembered that when he was allowed to hold the materialized substance, the medium at once began to turn in her chair and the mass was pulled out of my hand. It seemed simply an elastic bag and crumpled up as it was pulled away. I tried to follow it when it fell into the medium's lap, but she resisted strenuously, throwing her left leg on to the table and forcing my hand away from it with her own. Another crucial test had failed completely. (Ibid.) The substance was clearly lifeless. At one point, as the materializing ectoplasm was spotlighted, Margery actually put her hand down with Dingwall's hand still controlling it, and threw the mass upon the table. But what was this substance made from? The pictures taken by Dingwall show a very doubtful ectoplasm. The mass had the appearance of animal tissue and an examination of the enlargements of the photographs displayed certain ring markings that "strongly resembled the cartilaginous rings found in the mammalia trachea. This discovery led to the theory that the 'hands' had been faked from some animal lung material, the tissue cut and joined, and that part of the trachea had been used for the same purpose". (Ibid.) Further examinations of the pictures by biologists at Harvard led to the same conclusion-the ectoplasm "undoubtedly was composed of the lung tissue of some animal." (Tietze, 1973). In addition to going to any butcher and obtaining material, Dr. Crandon wouldn't have any difficulty in obtaining the needed substances since he worked at Boston Hospital. In his report, Dingwall preferred not to draw any conclusion, but suggested that the medium could hide the faked ectoplasm in her bodily cavities and could expel it afterward by way of muscular contraction. In the meantime, the Scientific American Committee had at last issued its official verdict on Febraury, 11 1925. We have observed phenomena, the report stated, the method of production of which we cannot in every case claim to have discovered. But we have observed no phenomena of which we can assert that they could not have been produced by normal means. Hardly what Houdini would have liked. In any case, this meant that Margery didn't win the prize.

The Harvard Investigation

Though refused entrance to any more seances with Margery, Houdini had been able to infiltrate a friend journalist, Stewart Griscom, who kept him updated on the latest developments; this allowed the magician to continuosly update his stage exposé to the amazement of Margery's followers. Houdini's attacks received support from an investigation conducted in the late spring of 1925 by a group of psychologists from Harvard University. In the results, published in the _Atlantic Monthly_ (November 1925), it was revealed that Margery had been observed performing various kind of subterfuges. She took off a luminous band placed on her ankle to track her movement and with her free foot managed to float a luminous disk; the Harvard group also established she had been able to use her right foot to ring a bell and to touch sitters. Finally, Margery fell into a trap. One experimenter sitting at one side offered to free her hand: she immediately accepted and used it to take some fake ectoplasm out of her lap and put it on the table.

Suspicions and More Suspicions

One investigator after another remained unsatisfied by Margery's seances and after Dingwall and the Harvard group it was time for Joseph Banks Rhine, professor at Duke University, Carolina, who in 1935 would start the study of parapsychology in a scientific laboratory. Invited by the ever enthusiastic Bird, Rhine arrived in Lime Street on July 1 1926 and the Crandons greeted him with the usual hospitality. From the start Rhine and his wife knew that it would have been impossible to test the facts as they would have liked to. For example, they couldn't examine the substance with the lights turned on and Rhine was prevented by Crandon from examining the various instruments that filled the seance room that were supposed to document and measure this or that phenomena. , Still the professor was able to notice that the ropes of a device that was supposed to hold the medium had been removed, allowing complete freedom of movement. When Rhine saw Margery's foot kicking a megaphone during a seance to give the impression that it was levitating the crudity of the deception was clear. If he had been able to detect all these things in one seance, wondered Rhine, why didn't Bird with three years of experience have any suspicions? Could he be a confederate of the medium? Bird denied the accusations saying that they were Rhine's "personal opinions," but the professor wondered what could have led men like Bird or Carrington to play the medium's game, and observed: It is evidently of very great advantage to a medium, especially if fraudulent, to be personally attractive; it aids in the "fly-catching business." Our report would be incomplete without mention of the fact that this "business" reached the point of actual kissing and embracing at our sitting, in the case of one of the medium's more ardent admirers. Could this man be expected to detect trickery in her? (Rhine, J. B and Rhine, L. E., 1927) This could partially explain the motives of Bird and colleagues, but what about Dr. Crandon? If he was a confederate too he certainly couldn't be motivated by the desire of a love affair with the medium since she already was his wife. Rhine offered the following motive:
(Crandon) gradually found out she was deceiving him, but had already begun to enjoy the notoriety it gave him the groups of admiring society it brought to his home to hear him lecture and to be entertained, the interest and fame aroused in this country and Europe, etc. This was especially appreciated by him in view of decided loss of position and prestige suffered in recent years. (Ibid.)
The publication of Rhine's report in the Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology (the ASPR, whose new chief research officer was now Bird, had refused it because of its skeptical nature) caused the inevitable protests by Margery's supporters. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bought space in the Boston newspapers and inserted an ungentlemanly black-bordered notice stating simply: "J. B. Rhine is an Ass."

Malcolm Bird Sings

What had happened to Bird? After 1931 his name disappeared from the list of contributors of the ASPR. He vanished and nothing was ever heard of him. Hypotheses about his fate ranged from personal jealousy inside the Society to his accepting a tempting work offer, but only recently with the discovery of some unpublished documents, some new facts regarding the relationship between Bird and Margery were made public. Prince, in whose files the documents were found, hinted of it in 1933 in an article he wrote for Scientific American:
About two years ago (...) he (Bird) sent in to his employers a long paper claiming the discovery of an act of fraud and reconstructing his view of the case to admit a factor of fraud from the beginning. This paper has not been printed and very few of the believers in Europe or America know of its existence. (Prince, 1933).
Here are some extracts from this report/confession by Bird to the Board of Trustees of the ASPR (May 1930):
Since May 1924 when I first concluded that the case was one of valid mediumship, my observations have never been directed in any large sense toward the detection of fraud, and even less toward its demonstration. As I went along with my seances, here and there I made, as a matter of routine, observations that some particular episode was normal in its causation. All that the present report aims to do is to acquaint the Board with the date upon which is based in my own mind, the statement which I have made whenever occasion has arisen to make it: that the Margery phenomena are not one hundred per cent supernormal. It is not now possible for me to state positively whether the episode occurred in July or in August, 1924 ... The occasion was one of Houdini's visits to Boston for the purpose of sitting.... She sought a private interview with me and tried to get me to agree, in the event that phenomena did not occur, that I would ring the bell-box myself, or produce something else that might pass as activity by Walter. This proposal was clearly the result of Margery's wrought-up state of mind. Nevertheless it seems to me of paramount importance, in that it shows her, fully conscious and fully normal, in a situation where she thought she might have to choose between fraud and a blank seance; and she was willing to choose fraud. (Tietze, op. cit., p. 137).

Margery's Wrong Step

Around 1926 Margery added a new effect to her repertoire; maybe one too many, as we shall see. Walter claimed that his ethereal body was such an exact replica of the one he had while alive that to prove his presence he could even create a fingerprint of his thumb in wax. Mina paid a visit to her dentist, Dr. Frederick Caldwell, to ask for a suggestion in carring out the experiment. The doctor suggested the use of dental wax which would make a detailed print. He softened a piece of wax in boiling water and pressed his thumbs in to show the practicality of his proposal. Mina took Caldwell's sample and asked for a few pieces of wax. That evening at a seance she tried the experiment. She put some wax in a small basin and after the seance two prints were found. Margery claimed they were those of Walter. Dr. Crandon insisted on having an expert of his acquaintance to authenticate the prints. This shadowy figure, most probably a confederate, was named John Fife and claimed to be Chief of Police, at Charlestown Navy Yard, and a recognized expert on fingerprints. W. F. Prince, who after the Scientific American investigations had continued to collect a file of private information regarding personal investigations on Margery's case, found out that the Boston Police Department had never heard of Fife. Crandon, however, claimed that the man had found thumb prints on Walters' razor that perfectly matched those left in the wax by the "spirit." The success of this novelty led Dr. Crandon to employ on his own expense a Margery supporter, E. E. Dudley, to catalog every fingerprint left by Walter during the seances. Around 1931 Dudley began on his own initiative to collect the fingerprints of every person who attended a sitting with Margery. This way he could disprove the claims of those who said that the prints did not belong to Walter but to a live confederate. Dudley was ending his weekly visits to collect the fingerprints of those who had participated in seances from 1923 to 1924 when he examined the prints of Dr. Caldwell, Crandon's dentist. Once at home to compare the prints with those of Walter he made a bewildering discovery. He carefully examined both sets of prints to be sure, but there was no mistake: the thumbprints that Margery claimed had belonged to Walter were identical in every respect to Dr. Caldwell's! Dudley counted no less than 24 absolute correspondences. Clearly, the medium had used the wax samples on which Dr. Caldwell had pressed his thumbs to show Mina the procedure and had obtained imprint moulds. It was easy in the dark to press the moulds in the wax and obtain the effect that an entity foreign to the circle of sitters was the author. Dudley informed the ASPR about his discovery but W. H. Button, then president of the ASPR, replied that he wasn't interested in publishing the news. The image of the Society was by then too connected with that of the medium since often they had defended her and had hidden unpleasant information about her. Prince, who had left the ASPR for this reason and had founded the Boston Society for Psychical Research (BSPR), had had enough. He accepted the Dudley revelation and an article was published in the Society Journal (Vol. XVIII, October, 1932). The scandal that followed had disastrous effects. It was no mere case of somebody claiming to see the medium use her foot to move a table; this time the proof of fraud was damning and definitive.

A Woman in Decline

The supporters left Margery one after another, and the woman, older and heavier, began to look for consolation in alcohol. The seances, meanwhile, continued and Crandon tried for some time to keep alive the interest in her "Psyche" by resorting to any stratagem he might think of. At one of these sittings, for example, Margery tried to repeat the famous experiment of linking two wooden rings attempted 50 years before by prof. Zollner with medium Henry Slade. "Success!", rejoiced Dr. Crandon: Margery had been able to link two rings made of different woods. At last a definitive proof, something solid that defied physics, matter through matter. Since it is not difficult to finish the wood along the split in such a way to render invisible to the eye, it was claimed that only the X-rays could establish the truth. The rings were then sent to Sir Oliver Lodge in England for independent testing. When Lodge opened the parcel sent by the Crandons, however, he found that one of the rings had gone to pieces, probably during the trip. What could have been the only solid existing proof of the reality of the supernatural, the "Rosetta Stone" of spiritualism hadn't even been well packed. What a pity! In 1939 Dr. Crandon died and Mina, an inveterate alcoholic, went into a state of deep depression. At one of her last seances she even tried to jump off the roof of the house. In Prince files at the ASPR still lays a collection of documents and reports unpublished, written by the Harvard scientists and by various psychic researchers, from which emerges an interesting theory to explain the Margery seances (Silverman, op. cit., pp. 380-381).
The seances were a sort of marital charade. Margery's audience being not Houdini or the Scientific American group or the other investigators but her husband, whom she helped to delude himself in order to save their collapsing marriage. They were too different one another, and Crandon got quickly bored by her after marriage; however, he also had a strong fear of death. In trying to keep him by his side, Margery hit on the idea of manifesting spirits for him and it worked. He now felt like a new Galileo for the half a million followers of Margery, and demanded always new phenomena . He came to force her wife for new demonstrations with «downright brutality».
The opinion of the various experts was that Margery would have liked to give up seances and confess to fraud, except for knowing that it would end her marriage. Houdini's spy, Griscom, had even revealed to the magician that once, when he was alone with the medium, she disclosed to him her admiration for Houdini for not being taken in by her, and for not being afraid to say where he stands. I respect Houdini, she said to Griscom, more than any of the bunch. He has both feet on the ground all the time (Ibid., p. 383). Margery's story ends with a tale that sounds folkloric but duly suits the mysterious character that the medium had built for herself. Sitting beside Margery's bed in the last days of her life, psychic researcher Nandon Fodor suggested to her that she would depart happier should she dictate a confession to him and reveal the methods she had used to obtain her phenomena. Mina muttered something indiscernible. Fodor asked to repeat. "Sure", she said, "I said you could go to hell. All you 'psychic researchers' can go to hell." Then, something very like the old familiar twinkle of merriment in her eyes she looked at him and chuckled softly: "Why don't you guess?" she said, and chuckled again. "You'all be guessing... for the rest of your lives." (Tietze, op. cit. p. 184-5)


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  • Silverman, K. 1996. _Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss_. New York: Harper Collins. Silverman, K.
  • 1996. _Notes to Houdini!!!_. New York: Kaufman and Greenberg. Tietze, T. R.
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