Saturday, December 12, 2015

Science at the seance

"Doesn't he know the scientists are the easiest to fool?"
Stanley (Colin Firth) in Magic in the Moonlight

"It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer."
Harry Houdini

Nearly a century later, it seems amazing that Scientific American once conducted a serious study of mediums and seances and, furthermore, came close to declaring one particular medium the real deal. David Jaher tells about it in a new book, The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World.

The medium in question was known as Margery, although her real name was Mina Crandon, the wife of a Boston doctor. Other contenders for the cash prize the magazine offered to anyone found to be a true medium were quickly exposed as frauds, but Margery stood up to all the tests the scientists and journalists could throw at her. Enter Harry Houdini, the magician and escape artist, who sat in on some of the seances. He didn't believe Margery for a minute, mainly because he knew how to duplicate most of the effects from her seances, things like floating tables and ringing bells, and he demonstrated them in some of his shows.

Thanks, in part, to Houdini's skepticism, Margery never received the Scientific American prize, yet her career as a spiritualist didn't suffer much. She continued to have faithful supporters, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although the tests revealed much chicanery in her act, not every amazing feat she performed could be explained, not even by Houdini. Some argued she was a true medium who employed tricks to add theatrics to her performance.

As for the word "seduction" in the subtitle, Margery was an attractive woman who, even in the presence of her husband, used her sex appeal to seduce many of the men who came to expose her. Houdini himself was one of her targets.

I happened to watch the Woody Allen movie Magic in the Moonlight a day or two after finishing The Witch of Lime Street. The film, set at about the same period of history, is about a famous magician determined to prove an amazing medium is a fraud. He is very nearly fooled, at least in part because she is an attractive woman and he wants to believe. Houdini, according to Jaher, wanted to believe, too. He wanted very much to speak with his late mother again. Yet he never fell for Margery's charms or her tricks.

In a book full of amazing detail, Jaher describes a period of history following the Great War, when there was a great desire to communicate with sons and lovers lost in that war. Spiritualists thrived during the 1920s. Houdini, the flimflammer, did as much as anyone to expose the flimflam.

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