The magician is famous for his thrilling escapes. But the feat he should be known for is breaking into a seance.
On July 23, 1924, Boston was suffering from a brutal heat wave. The evening temperature hovered in the high 80s when the famed magician Harry Houdini trudged up to the fourth floor séance room at 10 Lime Street. With him were O.D. Munn, editor of Scientific American, and an esteemed panel of scientists. They had come to witness the psychic feats of the nation’s most credible spirit medium, a pretty 36-year-old flapper with blue eyes and a bob.
Her name was Mina Crandon. Followers called her “Margery”; detractors knew her as the Blonde Witch of Lime Street. And she was renowned for conjuring the voice of her dead brother, Walter, whose spirit rapped out messages, tipped tables, and even sounded trumpets. Even by ghost standards, Walter was unfriendly, answering questions and quoting scripture in a gruff disembodied voice. Margery, by contrast, was charming and attractive—at least when she wasn’t showing off her most convincing psychic talent: extruding a slithery, viscous substance called “ectoplasm” from her orifices. Photos show this otherworldly substance flowing from her nose and ears, but mostly it emerged from beneath a sheer kimono like a string of entrails—an “ectomorphic hand” that Walter used to carry out his commands.
Today we remember the era’s jazz, speakeasies, and glitz, but the ’20s were also the zenith of America’s obsession with the spirit world. Reeling from losing an estimated 15 million people in the Great War and 21 million more to the Spanish-flu pandemic, people were searching for ways to connect with the dead. Spirit guides emerged to help the bereaved, usually for hefty fees. And as reputable magazines and newspapers increased their coverage of paranormal phenomena, mediums became rock stars. Margery herself had become a messiah to hundreds of thousands of Americans.
In the summer of 1924, Margery occupied the red-hot center in the raging national debate over Spiritualism, an 80-year-old religious movement that centered around the possibility of communicating with the dead. The most famous of its 14 million believers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and a man of impeccable reputation. Witnessing a séance in his London home, he became convinced of Margery’s supernatural powers. Her refusal to be compensated for her miracles only added to her credibility. It wasn’t long before Doyle had recommended her to the editors of Scientific American, which was offering a $2,500 prize to the first medium who could verifiably demonstrate to its six-man investigative committee a “visual psychic manifestation.”
This was no fly-by-night group of spook hunters. Scientific American’s J. Malcolm Bird chaired the committee, which included psychologist William McDougall of Harvard, former MIT physicist Daniel Comstock, and two members of the Society of Psychical Research, Hereward Carrington and Walter Prince. Bird and Carrington had already examined Margery more than 20 times and were ready to hand over the money. The New York Times reported the development with a straight face: "'Margery' Passes All Psychic Tests Scientists Find No Trickery in Scores of Séances with Boston Medium."